The wolf and the man
Rereading Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner and Rich Rankin.
One of comics’ accessibility problems is that it’s best not to begin at the beginning. If you’re reading Cerebus, begin with High Society; if you’re reading Fantastic Four, best to skip Doctor Doom as Blackbeard. As a medium in which work is most frequently published serially, where the artist creating it develops alongside his creation, those first steps are often shaky. Even when the creators involved are practised professionals it takes a while to get the tone right: the first issue of Preacher feels, once you’ve read the rest, like a pilot episode where the key roles are played by different actors.
Matt Wagner, with Grendel, got to do what nobody in comics gets to do. He got to start again. The first few issues vanished into collectors’ long boxes and the Mylar closed over them without a ripple, this curious black-and-white comic that wasn’t about funny animals sinking without trace. Wagner began Mage instead, his magical autobiography that I’ve read only a few issues of. And in Mage, once he’d got his story going in a naturalistic, flowing style, he returned to Grendel.
In Book Three of Miracleman, Alan Moore used the framing device of Miracleman pondering the legends of his transformed world from atop Olympus. It had two advantages: it allowed him to tell a story previously planned to be many pages longer much more quickly, and it allowed him to gloss over those parts which tonally clashed with the sophistication of the finished work. By treating the story you’re telling as history, by narrating the fantastic from the dry future where it’s no longer remarkable, you make it easier to swallow. And perhaps Moore got the idea from here, from Wagner’s conceit of presenting what had originally been a breathless adventure tale and never conceals its debt to the pulps as a biography, as the still and immovable past. Or perhaps both creators were looking to justify, to set in a frame that gave them distance, the exuberance and the naivety of their youthful work.
I’ve never seen any of the issues of Mage that Devil By The Deed ran as backup in, so I can’t talk with authority about exactly how it was presented. I have the second printing of the Comico graphic novel because when it comes to Grendel I’m an OG. It originally ran in eight issues and is 48 pages long so it seems likely it ran in six-page chunks. Not a huge amount to play with, especially not for something envisaged as a saga by its author. So Grendel became compressed, squeezed, crushed into a diamond.
Presented entirely in text, in a mechanical typeface rather than hand-lettering when that wasn’t easy to do, Devil by the Deed dumps most of the conventions of the comics page. No speech balloons, no captions, no sound effects. Only occasionally does it even quote speech, and there’s only one page with a genuine dialogue. But it isn’t like the text-with-pictures stories about your favourite comics characters in British annuals; the text and the images are integrated, interacting even while remaining static. They float over the artwork, delivering a piece of plot here or an insight there, the scholarly perspective of a researcher and historian leavened by the feeling of author for subject, the displacement of emotion from biological mother to adoptive grandfather. It’s a narrative voice that seems unearthed, never forced, able to narrate events both dispassionately and from the heart.
And in art, too, Wagner abandons convention. There are no panels, no white gutters where the readers’ imagination closes the gaps. Instead every page is a single composition, a montage, an Art Deco mural with gold leaf on backlit stained glass. It’s beautiful, though if you’re at all familiar with the book that’s a wholly redundant statement. All the rough spots of the previous issues, the just-missed faces and strained perspectives, are gone. The rigour of the narrative, that detachment, carries over into the artwork. Wagner seems at once a master craftsman and to be at a distance from the pages, exquisitely carrying out his brief without being so crass as to invest his soul in it. In the early issues I noted his skill in thinking of the whole page, in bringing design to comics. Design is everything here. Circles, triangles, arches, runs of long verticals, strips of images next to central, thematic pictures, and always everywhere those coloured oblongs laid atop on another, floating on the surface of the narrative like static, like cherry blossom on water. It’s like nothing seem before or since. There’ve always been text-with-pictures comics from that one issue of Howard the Duck to Morrison’s Clown At Midnight issue of Batman to Gaiman and Vess’s Stardust to half of Reads in Cerebus. They’re usually seen as a shift backwards, a lapse into a form that isn’t entirely comics. But no others have this focus on design, the layering of lacquer which takes all the kinetic immediacy out of Wagner’s fluid lines to replace it with timelessness, eternity.
All the movement is gone. Apart from a couple of points, notably in the pages covering what would probably have been #4 of the series, there’s no panel-to-panel storytelling. The montage, a convention of comics usually used in origin recaps, is everything. And it brings an incredible economy to the story: the three previous issues are told in four pages, the second admittedly weighted with the largest block of text in the book. It races through the lives of Hunter Rose and Stacey Palumbo, the adoption of the latter by the former, the ruination of her relationship with Argent, the Seaboard Massacre, and Stacey’s orchestrated betrayal of both her nightmare father figures. And it does it all in such a stately tone, with such deliberate pace, that you don’t realise it hasn’t paused for breath.
Examining that story, it’s deeply strange. First, I reluctantly point out that Hunter is a textbook Mary Sue: a child prodigy, a champion fencer, an unrepentant orphan, a bestselling author of novels the content of which is never explored, the white streak in his hair a substitute for violet eyes. He doesn’t remain one, perhaps because Wagner was opening writing a authorial substitute concurrently in Mage, but it’s where he comes from. A master assassin at 18, dead shortly before his 23rd birthday according to the Grendel Cycle timeline. The adolescent who can do anything, the lithe fighter without any scars, invited to every party while disdainful of his fellow guests, he’s an outsider’s wish fulfilment. Second, there’s the whole Stacey thing.
Hunter, under his birth name Eddie, disposes of his sexuality before it’s even formed. He loses his virginity and becomes a man, becomes Hunter, under the tutelage of Jocasta Rose in a foreign land. She dies soon after and he returns home and is never involved with a woman again. The whole story sounds, on examination, like an overelaborate excuse for staying in the closet, a girlfriend-in-Canada written by someone who tends towards the gothic baroque. And to never go near a woman again, to be an extremely eligible but lifelong bachelor, isn’t something that results from a love affair, no matter how wonderfully tragic, except in fiction. The only companion, apart from Stacey, that a hunter has any time for is Larry. And he is depicted as classically homosexual: louche, witty, bitchy, a hub for gossip, hanging around the edge of parties drawing theatrically on cigarettes. There is an alternate reading of Hunter’s life where they’re a couple, though it wouldn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
But then there’s Stacey. Hunter’s “sudden (but intense)” “growing affection” for “this tiny waif” is the only relationship he has as an adult. And, to state the obvious, boys in their late teens don’t usually form friendships with seven-year-old girls. Adults don’t, unless they’re related, often have intense friendships with children. So it’s problematic from the start. And to then dispose of her father, to adopt her, to romanticise that adoption before it happens and to keep her in a golden cage thereafter is deviant behaviour. To then ensure that her other father figure becomes distant from her takes us into abuser territory. If you were sexually abused by a much older woman when still a child, and have sworn off women thereafter, that pretty much puts the seal on it. Paedophilia isn’t a possible reading; it’s the only reading in which Hunter’s motivations make sense.
It isn’t, of course, like that. Wagner very probably, in his efforts to make his story and his characters, do so much else that was counter to the norm of comics 30 years ago, didn’t notice the rerouted sexual undercurrents in his inversion of pulp. Stacey’s function is to serve as Hunter’s innocence, captured in a bottle, and his prize in the war with Argent. But innocence can’t be laid down in a cellar like wine and Stacey is corrupted by her cohabitation with Hunter and Grendel, three father figures murdered by the same demon until she resolves to kill it herself. She’s Hunter’s fatal flaw, the one blemish in his otherwise absolute damnation that kills him in the end. Devil By The Deed is the story of a doomed love triangle that leaves one dead, one crippled, one institutionalised. Stacey’s role is to be the femme fatale.
It’s the classic comics transposition: sex is replaced by violence. And with that switch, Hunter absolutely fits the role of abuser. He takes in Stacey to thrill at her innocence, to hold it up against the cherished and nurtured corruption at his core. He takes risks, recording the Seaboard Massacre messages at home and keeping his safe there, because, unconsciously, he wants to be caught. He wants to ruin that innocence. And he does; before Stacey is ten, she is a murderer, a nanny very probably killed directly and her competing fathers sent by her to slaughter each other. She grasps and uses violence as a solution, seduced by it as her mentors were, and it’s to her credit that it destroys her, that she’s only a passive carrier of the Grendel virus.
There’s actually very little of Devil By The Deed that isn’t the love triangle. We’re told of Grendel’s assassinations, the swathe he cuts through the New York underworld on his way to the top. We’re told of Argent’s inverse beserks through Grendel’s operations. But we see none of it, partly because of the montage format of the book and partly because it’s mere background to the tragedy, exposition like Ross’s speech to Malcolm in Macbeth. It’s the opposite of the normal procedure in comics, the eternal present of successive sequential adventures. All that detail’s left to be filled in by subsequent stories, a rich, fertile seam that Wagner returns to for the next 25 years. Every gap in this structure, the yawning voids between the beams of plot, is filled eventually. But the biography format, the solid fascination and determination of the narrative voice, the sheer Art Deco decadent gorgeousness of every tableau, means that those gaps are never obvious. The anomalous plot rolls on so smoothly and beautifully that the reader gratefully accepts it at face value, not asking the awkward questions about Hunter’s motivations.
Devil By The Deed has been published in three district editions, with different colours each time. The original almost-A4 Comico version is airbrushed in a fantastically 80s palette, hot pink and deep mauve and cool teal the keynotes on almost every page. The next edition was published and recoloured by Dark Horse, as was the rest of the 40-issue Comico series following that company’s bankruptcy and Wagner’s hard-fought rescue of his work from the receivers. Longtime Grendel associate Bernie Mireault and Kathryn Delaney are the colourists, making the floating boxes thematically red and turning everything else down a notch, with muted colours and frequent use of monochrome. For me it’s the best version, a balance between the pioneering excess of the original and devotion to the story. The version currently in favour, released in 2007 for Grendel’s 25th anniversary and reprinted in the omnibus, is black, white and red as the majority of subsequent stories have been. But the art wasn’t designed to be monochromatic. It was meant to be lush, excessive, as richly chromatic as it was in design. To reduce it to greyscale and a single colour is a reduction.
Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, works I keep referencing because they’re the keystones of this era, invented the ending. They broke new ground by declaring that stories in comics could end. Grendel, and Matt Wagner, beat them to it. Hunter Rose lives and dies in 48 pages, his ending not a capstone on his legend but an integral part right from its inception. We have to remember context: 48 pages was a graphic novel back then, painted colour was an improbability, and Hunter had already had one failed shot. This was his moment, his only chance, so a saga which could conceivably have filled hundreds of pages was stripped back, compressed, and drew power from those restrictions. There’s still nothing like it, even today; and it was just the start.
Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner and Rich Rankin is reprinted in Grendel Omnibus v1.