The target doesn’t actually matter

Rereading Grendel: The Devil Inside by Matt Wagner and Bernie Mireault. 

You piece. Verbs for you. A lot of you guys. I am not weak. Leering. How deep does the darkness run? Like a cancer. Where I got this cloth. Theater ghosts. The mask burned. Knock knock. The guy with the eye. Only my love. Snow. Keep the mask with me. I am the firehouse. Its vicious currents. AIDS! AIDS! Strike this carnal world. I cut chu. Where the terror really lives. He knows. Tense? Red as cold. Heh. The target doesn’t actually matter. My will as glass. Ruthless. He’ll see. Foul up the works. How little I care. Asshole. Forever.

I still give points, metaphorically, for comics that do things only comics can do. Which is difficult to define, because those terms could be expanded to everything comics can do; even The Walking Dead, for example, which is being adeptly translated to television, can run to 115 episodes on an unlimited budget in comics and won’t ever come close to that on screen. But I’m talking about the zoomed-in stuff, the granular panel-to-panel stuff where the sequential art of comics can pull off tricks that art alone, that literature alone, that moving pictures, can’t do. Watchmen’s overlapping narratives, American Flagg!’s stylised violence-as-design, Ice Haven’s palimpsest of comics textures, The Black Dossier’s accretion of primary sources.

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Grendel, in various incarnations, does a lot that couldn’t be done in any other medium. And here, in the three-chapter The Devil Inside that cemented the idea of progress in the series and confirmed we wouldn’t be going back to Hunter Rose, is where that experimentation becomes a core element of the series. The reader-friendly narratives of Devil By The Deed and Devil’s Legacy were forked and shattered and we’re left with fragments. Fragments of dialogue from unknown sources, floating through the streets. Fragments of Brian Li Sung’s diary. Fragments of the alternative diary on the back. Fragments of human encounters, failed connections, staccato dialogue broken into broken sentences. Fragmented images of days, months going by.

Comics can do this. Because there’s a visual through-line, because we can see what Brian’s doing in the pictures, there doesn’t need to be a coherent narrative line in prose. Dialogue and diaries and malevolent marginalia are distinguished by their presentation, by their type, so we can sort through a flood of it unaided. Collecting the fragments in plain text makes them Burroughsian, a torrent which can either confuse or be interpreted, but on the comics page they’re all perfectly clear. Oppressive, foreboding, and alienating, but we know each voice from each.

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The key strand of this distributed narrative is Brian’s diary, his journal in the shadow of Hunter’s journals and Christine’s journals. They were both writers; he’s a stage manager. They were both engaged in grandiose struggles against formidable adversaries. Brian is trying to make a living in an indifferent city, his only struggle getting through the day. So his diary isn’t an account of big events but of the small, the picayune, the quotidian. The fictional convention of a diary narrates information that the narrator knows perfectly well, like Christine Spar did. Brian’s diary is internal, a map of his own mental state. And it’s fragmented. We read the actual lined pages, the looped handwriting, but those pages are torn, incomplete. Even on the first page there’s a gap for the reader to fill. So reading Brian’s thoughts, the best guide we have through this maze, isn’t easy. We have to work, and that work gets harder. By the middle of the second chapter whole pages, chunks of desperate thought, run up against fragments of pages where we’re picking up halfway through and never finding out the conclusion. Frequently the reader can piece sections together, work out what’s in the gaps from the context or put two pages of diary published across three pages of the comic together or work out a word between two torn sheets. But doing that, even if it’s just flicking back and forth to connect one page to the next, changes the way we read. It fucks with the flow, dismantles the narrative and puts assembling it into the reader’s hands, inspires an analytical style of reading where a fistful of loose wires is held up to every page searching for connections. In prose, the equivalent is the unreliable narrator whose misperceptions must be transmitted with a wink. In comics, the presentation itself can be unreliable, occluded.

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And then there’s the other narrator. Surfacing on the third page, surfacing from a slew of white marks and disconnected symbols into words, we don’t know who he is. And we don’t know what he’s about. His first words, “Don’t question me, worm,” floating in crooked white above a field where black is replaced by spattered red on the bleed of the page, don’t bear much relation to the page they’re on. They’re an arrogant but woozy response to unfamiliar circumstances, an unheard attempt to assert authority. Gradually they begin to sync up to Brian’s responses, to react at one remove to his perceptions, and when he encounters the Tujuro mask it seems like maybe they’re his thoughts, a separate track from his writing. They stay roughly in tandem for most of the issue, the violent immediate reaction to the oppressive hostility of New York, the subconscious to the diary’s considered self-consciousness. These are the scratchy, random, red impulses scribbled across Brian’s careful thoughts, the audience is led to believe. But then Brian puts on his mask for the first time, a homemade Hunter standing on the stage where the symbolic casts its heavy shadow across reality, and the voice steps into the moment and Grendel takes over.

Grendel_V2_13-20When it was originally published there was an element of uncertainty to this story that’s impossible to reproduce. Not that I read it at the time; I started with the subsequent issues and, because #13 and #15 were everywhere but #14 was nowhere to be found, this is actually one of the last pieces of the saga I read, years later. By which time Grendel was established as an entity which changed hosts. Readers now, who come at the spiral staircase of the saga through the Grendel omnibuses, will have seen Hunter meet… something before they read about Christine and Brian. So there’s no way to balance on the edge of doubt that The Devil Inside had its readers on back in 1987, wondering if Brian was losing his mind and inventing Grendel, the voice an expression of everything he was trying to repress. We know that this case of possession is real.

Grendel_V2_13-28It’s no surprise, then, when the mystery black, white and red narrator announces “I’m Grendel,” on the last page of the first chapter. It’s still a wonderful shot though, Brian flat against the wall in the foreground, blank sepia the same as the wall, while in the background Regina enters the apartment, an unwelcome intruder from a New York where this psychodrama isn’t going on. She’s ejected from the narrative within pages, nobody necessary except the protagonist and the title character. And, of course, the villain. Oddly – apart from the mask – there’s no mention of Tujuro, still at large somewhere. Instead Wiggins, the cop with the cybernetic lie-detector eye, steps up to be Grendel’s adversary. The two narrators, never far apart in the second chapter, become as one when Wiggins confronts Brian, again with the latter standing on the stage. After that intersection they move in opposite directions, Grendel drawing power from the threat while Brian is weakened, growing in confidence as Brian sinks into despair. Opposite Argent’s lair, the demon’s foe, Grendel slips into the driver’s seat fuelled by hatred, loneliness, loss. When action is needed, when a genuine enemy presents himself, Grendel takes over. Grendel comes alive. And, in a full page of Brian’s notes, he discovers the second narrative written on the back of his journal and articulates what I’ve been saying, but better: “At first, the ramblings are just that — incoherent repetitions from the logs. Quotes of Grendel’s past. But then, suddenly, they are no longer reflex but commentary. The terror is independent.” The host realises, as it smiles from the blackness, he is becoming his disease.

The shift is complete. In the third and final chapter, it’s Brian’s notes that are the commentary and Grendel’s easy, confident voice that guides and controls the narrative. Brian’s become the passenger. And, you know, it’s better for us. It’s better for the reader. Wagner shows us how seductive aggression, and that precious direction Grendel’s always boasting about, is by straightening out the crabbed, kinked narrative, by doing away with the fragments. The chapter opens as the first did, on the babbling Gotham streets with a thousand ugly voices shouting ugly things, silenced and dissipated on the very next page. Grendel’s lackadaisically malignant voice, now secure in its ownership of its host, guides us through while the fatalistic diaries, whole pages now, fuss and fret about what’s going to happen anyway. Brian gets far more, in terms of words, but they’re weightless. The bad guy’s in control, and don’t we like it that way? Isn’t it better?

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I haven’t said anything about the third, unifying narrative: the visual one, the one that’s faithful to events. And what events. Across three issues, Brian goes to work and goes home. He goes to work and goes home. He goes to work and goes home, where he makes a mask. He goes to work, knocks a security guard unconscious, and goes home. Christine did that in her very first issue and it was never mentioned again. Here it’s the beginning of the end. Across the next two chapters he continues to go to work and go home, breaking the monotony with a visit to the park at the end of each chapter. Twice he meets Wiggins, but for no more than than a coercive conversation each time. Compared to the international slaving rings, vampires, battles and explosions of Devil’s Legacy nothing happens. Only two people die.

How did Bernie Mireault work this? When virtually all the action across these three chapters is internal, when the script calls for about sixty commuting scenes, how do you make that narrative compelling? Mireault chose, mostly, to go the other way. He buries it. Brian, our protagonist, is a figure hidden behind cars, behind other people, a face in the crowd given no establishing shots, no spotlight, his face cropped by the panel border, slinking away while others argue right up at the camera. He’s sidelined, occluded, fragmented. Especially on the streets where we search for him, look for that familiar shape, in the crowds.

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There’s also a flatness to the work. Or if not quite a flatness, then a lack of dimension. Everything’s hatched with the same weight, almost like the artist has heard about shading but not about shape. The figures have the quality of a bas-relief, halfway between two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Everyone’s face-on. Cardboard constructions moved around in panel-to-panel stop motion. The rules of Kirby don’t apply. Except, of course, when Grendel takes the stage. The first sequence where Brian wear the mask, where he hopes to conjure Chris but instead summons the demon that took her, is fully three-dimensional. The panel where Brian ties the mask on, a three-quarter shot from slightly above his head, feels so substantial you could touch it. The reader draws back like there’s a trick being played, like the movie’s suddenly gone into colour. All those thin little lines are subsumed by rich, luxurious black, the leading actor on the stage at last. And that’s how we continue, the second chapter again back to Brian being a secondary figure in his own narrative until he lets Grendel become him in the park. And in the third chapter, the one where the devil’s in charge, he gets his first page establishing shot for the first time and clears those crowds with his aggression. He gets the heroic angles. And when the action starts, throughout the Wiggins-hunt that finishes it all, he gets big panels, exciting angles, motion, movement. The art is perfectly harmonised with the inner narratives. It’s all about Grendel. Grendel is the star.

Grendel_V2_15-22In the context of the whole saga, in comparison to the sprawling epics of action and the charismatic leads that characterise Grendel, The Devil Inside is a misfit. It later finds a companion in Devil Child, another short, tragic story of an unwilling host. Why Grendel needs to use Brian as a stepping stone remains unclear; he’s no Hunter, he’s no Christine, and the “pitiable Mr Li Sung,” to quote Wiggins in the next part, doesn’t have what it takes to inspire a legend. The play is staged in the smallest venue possible, a man’s mind, and ended casually by a single word and a single bullet. All Brian does, his sole conscious contribution to the saga of Grendel, is to cause an arrow to miss and it’s questionable whether that has any effect. In the journals of the devil, this is marginalia.

To achieve this effect, however, to depict a life that’s small and a death that’s meaningless, meant the creators had to develop a whole new vocabulary. The epic style of the superhero, the promise of kinetic action in still images, had to be left behind. Even the captions which so fluidly float between contemplation and narration were too immediate. Devices which harry the reader, which break the narrative spell, which put distance and layers between eyes and the page, are thrown the story. In order to not be the story of an anti-hero The Devil Inside had to learn, and teach, how to be its opposite.

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Grendel: The Devil Inside by Matt Wagner and Bernie Mireault is available in Grendel Omnibus v2. 

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