New societal deviant

Rereading Grendel: Devil’s Legacy, by Matt Wagner, the Pander Brothers, Jay Geldhof and Rich Rankin.

Grendel, the comic as opposed to the character, did a lot of things first – or, if not first, close enough – that others would follow. Owning your own costumed character a decade before the Image mob. Creating a legacy character, where the name and iconography survives but the heart of the story is different. Genderswapping the lead character. Using different teams of artists for each story in a continuous monthly comic. Creating a regular series of mini-series, collecting each arc and calling it a graphic novel. Using full, painted colour in a monthly comic. Working with other creators to build a universe around your comic.

All that stuff. So it is the faintest of praise, the micro-anxiety of influence, to say that Devil’s Legacy might well have inspired the Marvel 2099 line of 1993. I remember thinking that 2099 was a neat idea, commercially; new iterations of top-selling characters in a science-fictional universe. And that’s what Matt Wagner did with Grendel, launching a regular series that took it from a character to a concept, from a single tragedy to a whole saga. Zooming ahead 51 years from the death of Hunter Rose, distant but notorious history, to his granddaughter and biographer, Christine Spar in 2026.

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But Wagner, here, isn’t interested in science fiction. Later in the series there are a few of the Big Ideas characteristic of sci-fi. Here, however, there are flying cars, a flying telephone, and that’s it. And the cars behave exactly like our gravity-bound cars, just not on the roads, and the telephones are landlines on which characters are constantly just missing each other. Blogger Mike Sterling, rereading Grendel, estimated it to be set around now based on the first-page mention of Donahue, a talk-show host I’d never heard of when first reading this but who was apparently well-known in 80s America. There’s no in-story reason not to think that. (I’m taking my dates from the timeline in Grendel Cycle.) This vision of the future’s so backward that print media is still a thing. But Wagner wasn’t interested in the future. He was interested in Grendel.

To be down with the kids, I’m going to draw a comparison between Christine Spar and Walter White, antihero of Breaking Bad. (No spoiler warning needed if you’ve watched the first season, and not much even if you haven’t.) In the first episode of that first season, in what presumably was the pilot, events move unholy fast. Walt’s diagnosed with lung cancer, finds out his wife’s pregnant, finds out about crystal meth, connects with a dealer, buys an RV, cooks some meth and kills the men who were going to kill him for it. But the rest of the season then painfully backtracks, explaining itself, retreading every step to convince us that the setup that was rushed through is plausible and having the opposite effect. The first issue of Devil’s Legacy, which was also #1 of the 40-issue Grendel series, moves at similar speed to that breakneck pilot: Christine starts a new job, goes to an evening of Kabuki theatre, has an unsettling encounter with its star, has her son kidnapped, works out who did it, sets up an alibi, breaks into a museum and dresses as Grendel for the first time. That’s a lot to cover in 25 mainly first-person pages that introduce a new protagonist and a whole future. And it’s not all convincing; grief is relegated to captions, Chris finds serial killings that have eluded the police with no effort at all, and it’s never explained how she’s able to swing around on ropes and incapacitate guards like a pro with no previous. Anson, her child, is never more than a MacGuffin and her deceased husband Peter gets a scattered few mentions.

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The narrative works, though, precisely because Wagner doesn’t backtrack. We don’t get any attempt to justify Chris’s frankly left-field decision that dressing as her crimelord grandfather is the only way to get her son back. Instead we move on, move forward, at such pace that only 25 years after I first read this comic am I spotting all the plot holes. Next issue Chris is in San Francisco following her son’s killer, playing private eye and trailing them around, actively taking on the role of Grendel and breaking into hotel rooms. By the end of #3 she’s had her first fight with him, killed a man and realised she’s set herself against a vampire. The mundane concerns of character and motivation are way, way back along the highway, the inconsistencies a receding dot.

Devil’s Legacy is a story of two halves. The first half is all Christine Spar, chasing her son’s killer across a continent, finding the level of his depravity, finding what he truly is. And destroying him. It’s a crime procedural written for TV that leaves out all the boring bits, reduces them to voiceover, and jumps from action sequence to action sequence. It comes complete with a soap-operatic focus on the heroine’s personal life, the heavily-scored sections interwoven with the action to save on budget. In the galloping first issue we take the time to meet Regina, Chris’s best friend and an echo character there to hold a mirror up to the protagonist. In the second issue we meet Brian Li Sung, the love interest who ends up personally threatened by the villain because that’s the purpose of love interests in heroic narratives. The flowering of their relationship is well-written, well-handled, but from a plot viewpoint both he and Ginny are just colour. (The panel that appears when Chris and Brian are first having sex – a phone off the hook, a glass of melting ice – gave me flashbacks to Dallas and Dynasty.) And while the comic doesn’t quite fail the Bechdel test – Chris and Ginny talk about her recent behaviour in #10 without conversation centring on a man – it comes close. Plus even in a story about vampires and werewolves, several steps into the fantastic, the wrinkle that a Kabuki troupe is a front for a transAmerican slaving ring manages to hit a resounding bum note. It’s all rather cheesy, really.

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What saves it is the narration. Devil’s Legacy is mainly, with exceptions for Argent and Chris’s supporting cast, a first-person story; we follow Chris, floating camera over her shoulder, experiencing what she experiences and learning what she learns. The captions cheat, sliding between purported diary entries and live reaction: nobody writes “Shit. Near miss. Window sill. And the fork’s cold,” as a reported account of an event. But it’s not a problem. Everything’s reported in the clipped diary style I always think of as Moon Is Harsh Mistress after the Heinlein novel written the same way, though in a California mystery like this the resonance is with the private eye. That gives it immediacy, and in calmer moments the opportunity to expand on thoughts, the pacing of the story dictating the style of narration so when events slow down the diary justifies getting reflective. That’s for when the story needs depth shading into the action, but it’s clipped moment-to-moment commentary for the faster-moving sections, a majority of the comic. As well as explaining – because most of the time action in a comic does need explaining, it’s why Stan Lee’s and Chris Claremont’s dialogue hooked in so many – it keeps us locked on Chris, on how this is for her. It makes a plot unexceptional but for the unusual level of violence new. A murderous super-vampire slaver could be an Iron Fist villain. By keeping that first-person focus throughout action moments are character moments, and the development of the plot is the development of Christine Spar into Grendel.

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Because, since eliding the spell-breaking question of why exactly Chris suited up as Grendel, this has been entirely a character piece. It’s the story of how one person becomes another. Matt Wagner, in the introduction to the first Comico issue, says the series gives him the “opportunity to examine aggression” and Chris’s story, over these 12 issues, is about aggression. Though Devil By The Deed, the biography she wrote, painted a nuanced portrait of Grendel and Hunter Rose, she asks only one thing of herself as Grendel; to be a weapon against her enemies. The fork and the anonymity of the assassin are all. The megalomania of Rose, his obsessive redefinition of reality with himself at its centre which is surely central to Grendel, is left on the shelf in this book and, it turns out, for a few hundred years. Instead we go back to roots we’ve barely seen and the basic, seductive power of being the person in the room with the blades and the skill and will to use them. The first chapter, hurried as it is, gives us Chris’s motivation to become that person. The rest of the book is about the transition, from killing to taste it to killing a monster she’s lured into a trap to killing for sport to killing as a reason for being, killing as life. It’s a story, through the captions, well told. The narrative voice sharpens, develops an impatient edge as the narrator begins to perceive only villains and fools, even love becoming something that can be used or cut down, in the end only one more justification for violence.

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Compare Chris from #3, still a neophyte, barely Grendel at all: “Stepping out of his building was like swimming naked in winter. Immediately, I was a body of goose flesh. It took nearly all day to stretch the tension out of me.” And here, from the penultimate chapter: “I was on fire in myself. And I remember sinking. I remember thinking all that as very appropriate. Sinking as far as I could go. ‘Til I was nothing but fury. And then rising up from it all. And God help anyone on my grave.” The first is a person feeling emotions, rocked by circumstances, and even though the narration hardens up when she’s acting as Grendel it’s still human. By the close, humanity has been burned away. There’s no divide between emotion and purpose, between thought and action, between Chris and Grendel.

One of the peculiarities of Wagner’s Grendel is that he’s rarely the artist. In a case of commercial reality meeting the desire to creatively stretch and synthesising something new, when a regular series was proposed he realised that he couldn’t possibly draw it all and began to work on the possibilities. For Wagner, an amazingly accomplished artist even back then, to relinquish control and work with different artists through all the different incarnations of Grendel was the key to the whole project, to the experimentation that became its lifeblood. The purist view of comics is that every writer should be an artist, that the Fordist approach designed to meet news distributor deadlines should be abandoned in favour of a paper-and-ink auteur theory. I can see where it’s coming from, and at the end of the market where comics are literature it’s the prevailing view. But here, for Wagner, it was an opportunity to produce something utterly different from his other lifelong creator-owned project, Mage.

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But for the hypothetical Grendel reader picking up the first issue of Devil’s Legacy after Devil By The Deed, expecting the measured, design-led, luminous stageset of Wagner’s work, to see the wild scribbling of the Pander Brothers must have been quite a shock. Both Kirbyesque, in the elevation of motion, movement, action above anything else that’s on the page, and anti-Kirby in that his blocky figures and clean lines of movement are at the other end of the spectrum from the electric, thrashing, uncoiled lines here. Aged 18 and 20 when they began drawing Devil’s Legacy, the rawness of the Panders’ work is tamed only slightly by Geldhof’s inking, the weight-amassing zigzags that make everything cooler, jazzier, sexier. I love those squiggles. They’re kind of my platonic ideal of a shape in art, the thing I doodle, and nobody does them better than Geldhof. It’s noticeable that, in the third issue when Rich Rankin inks, there isn’t the same consistency in the faces and the figures suggesting he perhaps did more than simply inking. The people look like they’re sketched by a fashion designer: form the first consideration, the communication of a feeling second, and accuracy a distant third. (And of course the Panders’ next project was their own comic, Fashion In Action, which sums their work up in three words.) The art is all about energy; unleashing it and capturing it in the bottles of the main grotesques of this tale, in Tujuro and Argent and Grendel.

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There is, however, something undeniably 80s about it all. Those sharp-shouldered fashion silhouettes, the cool apartment lifestyle, the Kendo and Tai Chi and casual sex. The emphasis on fashion, on being well-dressed: the only slovenly character is policeman Dominic Riley, and he’s executed for it. Chris steals the Grendel outfit and it fits perfectly, but replaces Hunter’s calf-highs with a pair of white pirate boots with a slinky kitten heel. And then the colours: hot pink, teal blue, lime green, all emblematic of a decade that insisted on brightness, boldness, being noticed.

(An apposite time to mention colours; everything from Devil’s Legacy to Devil’s Reign was recoloured when it was republished. I’ve ended up with both versions of most of them. It is, therefore, difficult to talk about colouring without rigorously fact-checking my memory, and I didn’t get into blogging for the rigorous fact-checking. Therefore I probably won’t bring it up much. The main difference between the Comico and Dark Horse colouring is that the latter is a degree or two more sombre, less lurid and less enthused with the possibilities of painted art and bright white paper.)

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Most, a percentage I’d guess at about 60-70 per cent, of the comic is action. Devil’s Legacy was published in 1986 and 1987, the very era when comics were not just for kids, but they still didn’t trust themselves to get through a whole issue without a fight. Comics were action, in a sense, back then, even if they were independent and direct market and all those other hallmarks of maturity. Action was what comics did. And there’s still a cartoon feel to it all, not just because of the Pander Bros’ tendency toward it but because we see an endless reel of violence without consequences except for Chris’s corruption. Murders, explosions, all briskly moved through to the next thing.

The first half of the story is Tujuro, a Chinese vampire because Wagner felt the Western kind clapped-out and as with Argent wanted to broaden his series with exotics. Chris follows him, stalks him, finds out how to kill him and narrowly fails to do so. But while doing that, while using the iconic and actual power of Grendel to her own ends, she’s accumulating a retinue of enemies. The crippled Argent and cyber-eyed Wiggins in New York, increasingly unhinged cop Dominic Riley in San Francisco, and once Tujuro is dispatched the second half of the story begins, a circle closing. Christine’s abandonment of the Grendel persona lasts one chapter before she’s back in black, killing Riley and closing her accounts before doing what the suit wanted all along and finishing Argent. The wolf appears for the first time in the final panels of the first issue, a full stop to the compressed story of becoming Grendel, and takes his first active role in the final issue, a full stop to Christine Spar’s time as Grendel and to her life. Taken in isolation that’s an odd ending, because Argent is never properly introduced and kills Chris without us ever essentially knowing what his problem is. But I read this before, I think, I read Devil By The Deed and I had no issue with it. Argent was given enough build-up, had enough of that frustrated menace, that it made sense emotionally even if there were gaps unexplained.

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It’s probably clear, from what I’ve written, that Grendel is as goth as fuck. The black outfit, the white streak in the hair, the Kabuki vampire, the crippled wold brooding over the death of his nemesis while overlooking New York’s Dakota building, home of John Lennon and Rosemary’s Baby. It’s an overwrought melodrama where true love and buckets of blood go hand in hand, and the further it goes into the Grand Guignol the more successful it is. The last issue, excluding the farcical stuff with Ginny and Brian, is easily the best. The higher the stakes, the more sturm-und-drang, the more confident, the more Grendel.

Grendel_V2_12-07What I haven’t said is that I don’t like it that much. It’s not like I hate it, and it certainly isn’t the series’ lowest point. But I like Grendel when it experiments. I was hooked in by two amazingly daring pieces of comics storytelling, bought this and pretended, in that teenage way when you’ve spent precious cash and lie to yourself, that I wasn’t disappointed. I was, though. It’s such a straight tale, so unadorned. And not, ultimately, compelling. As a reader you like Chris, and her corruption in the name of destroying her enemies is a journey you’re happy to make, but what surrounds it is too often not strong enough. Certainly in 12 issues, the longest single book of the Grendel saga, less happens – less ground is covered, less interest is engaged – than in any book following. If I’d read Devil’s Legacy first I may not have read any more Grendel. It remains a key part of the whole story, an unskippable chapter. What comes before and what comes after, both in publication and in the fictional chronology, is exponentially more vital.

Grendel: Devil’s Legacy, by Matt Wagner, the Pander Brothers, Jay Geldhof and Rich Rankin is reprinted in Grendel Omnibus v2. 

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Comments
3 Responses to “New societal deviant”
  1. Daniel K says:

    Reading this I realize that one big difference made by reading chronologically, i.e. doing all the Hunter stuff first, is that because Wagner foregrounds the idea of Grendel as an entity hopping from host to host in Behold the Devil, and suggests demons are involved, the giant plot holes in the Spar story become easier to swallow. I was disturbed by the perfunctory way Spar decides to put on the suit, the feeble reminders of her missing kid etc., but then I started to wonder if she wasn’t being driven by the entity, hence all that stuff was actually much less relevant. Thus Wagner has given readers a tool to retroactively rationalize the weaknesses of the material he produced when he was learning on the job.

  2. Niall says:

    I suppose I’m not too far off from Daniel K, here – issue 8, its cover gracing the top of this article, was my introduction to Grendel, and I read full steam ahead from there, acquiring the previous issues after the Brian Li Sung arc completed. By then, the possibility that Grendel could be a persistent, malevolent will, manifest in at least some people throughout history, was established, cf Brian’s unreliable journal entries (“Ha! I like this host,” “It knows/He knows,” etc) and some replies Wagner had written in the letters page, probably to Malcolm Bourne (or T.M. Maple… if there isn’t a book about those guys, and the golden age of comic books’ back pages in general, then there should be) describing Grendel as both a continuation of Beowulf’s adversary and… a persistent, malevolent will, or something to that effect (where Mister K sees a convenient retcon, I, so impressionable at twelve or thirteen, saw Genius ;). We often say “Speak of the devil,” but rarely complete the sentiment: “…and he appears;” Spar’s swift transformation into Grendel seemed the most likely outcome, and Spar herself the most likely “host.” Conveniently, the Catalans have their own aphorism that’s quite apt here, by the way: “Speak of the wolf…”

  3. Niall says:

    I thought I’d break my replies into two prolix (“too prolix”) parts, rather than subject you to an essay. It occurs that we (mostly) witness Christine’s transformation into a hell-bent, surprisingly effective Grendel-faced vigilante through her own journals; the events are inherently unreliable in their descriptions, colored by vanity and monomania. The images we view are what Herzog would call an ecstatic truth. It’d be interesting to see a second “Devil’s Legacy” story arc with an omniscient perspective, like a catalogue of Christine Spar’s mistakes. Imagine issue nine (I think) retold not as Spar playing cat to Riley’s mouse, but blowing every attempt with mounting frustration and anger for 28 pages. Perhaps Spar’s story would be nearly as sordid and doomed as Brian’s. I’ve sometimes wondered if Grendel is meant to be seen more as a parasite or a virus – Beowulf’s quarry as patient zero – feeding off the weak, vain and damaged; I’m not sure I’d enjoy seeing a haggard and desperate Hunter Rose presented in this light (it sounds a little too post-Dark Knight Returns “gritty”), but I think there’s a lot of room for it in the overall storyline.

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