In Grendel’s name

Rereading Devil’s Whisper by James Robinson and D’Israeli. 

There’s a little school of writer-artists on comics, all working in the mainstream in the 1980s, who cheerfully hire out their talents. Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Walt Simonson: all are available as writers, as artists or as both. It comes, my guess, from working in the mainstream and seeing the advantage in the Fordist assembly-line of comics, rather than the auteur end. You won’t see Clowes or Ware drawing something written by anyone else or vice versa and that’s fine; that’s their choice. And the key works by those above, Ronin or Time2 or Thor, see them using both pen and brush. But Simonson didn’t draw his whole Thor run, handing pencilling over to Sal Buscema while he drew X-Factor, just as Miller have Klaus Janson a larger and larger role in Daredevil’s art. Chaykin gave José Luis Garcia-Lopez the pencilling reins on Twilight, his revisionist space-opera. Miller drew Wolverine and wrote Give Me Liberty for Dave Gibbons to draw.

Grendel - Devil's Whisper 02

Matt Wagner has always, as evidenced by Grendel, made working with other artists part of his creative process. He’s also hired himself out as an artist pretty frequently – a Terminator one-shot and the first issue of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up come to mind – and, though rare in the mainstream for primarily being known for his own creations, likes to do work-for-hire. But he doesn’t apply that principle to his own properties. Mage is all Wagner, written and drawn and autobiographical. Grendel uses other artists but they’re hand-picked, not assigned by any editorial team. And while Grendel Tales allowed other writers and artists into the world of Grendel, or more accurately the world of Grendel-Prime, they weren’t working on the core characters. They made comics about Grendels, not Grendel.

There have been a few exceptions. Argent, Stacey Palumbo and Grendel-Prime himself have seen other writers take the reins, and the last two of those are part of Grendel canon, included in the omnibuses. Examining the lives bobbing in the wake of Grendel, the humans living in the shadow of the icon, has always been a key aim of the series. Letting other talents flesh out the lives of the flotsam, giving their stories room, has given us important chapters, missing chords, in the saga.

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And then there’s Devil’s Whisper. An eight-page story in the anthology A1, which rightly enjoyed its reputation for quality before wearing it away with cash-fishing reprints in recent years, it’s uncollected and generally unregarded. Which, given that it stars cyber-eyed cop Wiggins and that he’s a pretty significant figure in the mythos, seems odd if you haven’t read it. It’s by James Robinson, later to write the opening (and longest) Grendel Tale and to write the definitive DC legacy story in Starman, and artist D’Israeli who’d later be back for a Black, White and Red. With a bit of spot colouring it could’ve made it into the Black, White and Red collections. But it didn’t. And it’s obscurity is entirely explained by it not being very good.

A child-killer has taken some hostages. The police are powerless to stop him. Enter our hero, who has a personal reason for hating child-killers: his sister was killed by one, when she was a child. Motivation box given a big bold tick there, and all very necessary because Lord knows most of us are pretty ambivalent about child-killers, and police famously so. There doesn’t appear to be any reason why a child-killer has suddenly become a hostage-taker, nor why a phalanx of C.O.Ps are hiding in a stairwell and letting one guy in a trenchcoat step up to the job. Except, of course, that this is what happens in the action movies and the writing hasn’t thought beyond that. And the action movie template is followed through; Wiggins kicks down the door, doesn’t get shot, downs the killer and delivers a pay-off line before blowing the bad guy away. Redemption through execution, just like in those classic feelgood Christmas movies Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

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What makes this a Grendel story is the Grendel mask: Li Sung’s homemade affair, specifically, rather than Rose’s slick tech. Wiggins knew, in his own words, the “awful chill… that three times was Grendel.” And here, seduced by the reputation and potential of the devil, he puts the mask on. But the magic doesn’t work. He’s just a C.O.P in a mask, and he takes it off before he fires the killing shot. Like a fetishist trying their sexual thing in public and finding it was better in the imagination, he ends up nothing but foolish. Pockets the mask and never mentions it again. The final image, the Grendel-shaped bloodstain on the wall, seems nothing but a flourish. I can’t see that it carries any symbolic weight.

Devil’s Whisper has correspondences with another unreprinted story, Steve Seagle and Ho Che Anderson’s Devil Worship in #40, first of the Grendel Tales. The protagonist of that one goes as far as to get a Grendel tattoo before realising that he’s not Grendel, he never was, and imagining so is grand folly. Both stories feel like something that had to be explored: if anyone can be Grendel, then why can’t anyone be Grendel? You don’t need a magic gem or blood lineage or even any grand level of skill, so who decides who is chosen? Exploring that by examining who isn’t, and what isn’t, Grendel seems worthwhile. But both stories, ultimately, are duds because who wants to read about someone who isn’t Grendel?

James Robinson’s scripting is clumsy and doesn’t realise how many clichés it’s stitched together from. It’s competent enough but adds nothing to the Grendel concept or the character of Wiggins. D’Israeli’s art, though it has ugly moments and some by-numbers storytelling, is already distinctive and seductive, invitingly stylised, demanding its own world. It’s just not in the service of anything much.

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There is a lesson to be learned here, however. While Grendel is a legacy character, handed down from protagonist to protagonist, the torch that’s being passed isn’t anything as simple as a mask, a symbol, a desire for bloodshed. The ideas that make up the devil are complex and not capable of being articulated by one person, or even one iteration of Grendel. It’s a thematic legacy that resists any attempt to boil it down to something simple, by creators or characters. The devil is fractal, and expansive.

Devil’s Whisper by James Robinson and D’Israeli appeared in A1 #4, and has not been reprinted. I’m making it available for download here, but if you’re the copyright holder and object please tweet me and I’ll take it down immediately. 

One Response to “In Grendel’s name”
  1. Eddie says:

    I had a problem with the fact that Wiggins would be allowed to keep Brian’s mask in his pocket. Isn’t that evidence? And the idea that the usually refined and genteel Wiggins would use such crude language such as “dickhead” and “faggot slant”, even in personal narration. “Slant” being a racial slur as well. Issue #20 of the 1986-90 series showed Wiggins disgust at the same kind of language from a cab driver who also threw out the “N-word” for good measure: “He spoke of things lewd and coarse. You thought him such a vulgar bastard.”

    I agree, this didn’t need to be written. One does not need a melodramatic reason to hate child killers. Something like this would have influenced Wiggins’ characterization in the original comics and he would probably have been more sympathetic and caring towards Christine. As presented here, it’s cliche and totally out of character for Wiggins.

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