Tell him it’s the “Forks of Fate”

Rereading Grendel: Devil Tales by Matt Wagner.

You can compare comics to most other art forms. They can be movies on paper, they can be visual poetry, they can be fine art or illustration or design, they can be literature. My personal view is that they are, as Will Eisner argued, part of the literary world and the graphic novel branch of comics now reflects that. But because of the way they’ve evolved, because of their serial format and the teams of people required to keep them coming out on schedule, they often have a whole lot in common with TV.

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Franchises are more important than creators. Stories are open-ended, with a balance struck between longer arcs and one-shot adventures. The emphasis is on fast-moving thrills with plot holes bounced over, the mechanics of plot that absorb readers and reward rewatching movies diminished to talky bits in between the good stuff. And, of course, both comics and TV present Manichean universes of goodies and baddies and nothing inbetween, shades of gray a luxury for narratives that don’t have to keep in mind that each chapter may be somebody’s first.

Devil’s Legacy’s first half was a crime plot with every trope of bad crime TV. The lone protagonist effortlessly achieving everything necessary to take down the baddies. A slavery ring led by a vampire which police were powerless to detect taken down by one woman powered by the motivation of personal loss. And the methods used were classic Rockford Files; sneaking into hotel rooms, slipping folded notes to chatty clerks, following cars, planting bugs which the bad guys obligingly dictate their evil plans into. The police, conscious that their role in the drama is to harry not help, didn’t bother investigating anything around Tujuro’s troupe even when they got blown up, preferring to breathe down Christine’s neck and arrive at the Dakota just as the climactic battle was over. It didn’t really hurt the narrative; crime was the backdrop to the war between symbols, between giants. But it was, for all the comic’s other innovations, used lazily like wallpaper, just like in any comic before or since.

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Devil Tales, the four issues of Hunter Rose drawn by Matt Wagner interrupting – with a narrative framework of Wiggins cashing in – the march forward of time and Grendels, had a different relationship to TV. Devil Tracks, the first of the two storylines is visually taken from TV: cheap, unilluminating, boring. Which requires explanation of context, because back then in 1988 TV was very different to the medium today. It was small, physically small, a little screen with poor-quality images not able to show much action. It was cheap because there were hours to fill and little money to be made after the novelty of the initial showing. It was static, lagging behind film and still within touching distance of the stage plays on camera that film had only recently broken free from.

What does this mean, on the limitless imaginative canvas of the comics page? It means boxes. Watchmen was 3×3, a nine-panel grid. The Dark Knight Returns was 4×4, a 16-panel grid. Matt Wagner took it to the next level: 5×5, giving 25 panels a page. Each panel about an inch square and so, like that fuzzy NTSC CRT TV on your kitchen counter, able to show very little; able to show only one thing clearly. The visual appeal of the comics page reduced to a Windows desktop, to rows of icons. And the text of comics, which never quite escapes the visual and becomes the flat prose of a novel’s page, is kicked out of the panels entirely. So there’s no room for captions in different typefaces, for the pointing finger of dialogue balloons, for thoughts. There’s only text, accompanying each panel, and only the context of the panel to tell you who’s speaking and who to or if these are even spoken words. Matt Wagner, returning to the series and character he’d created for the first time in this regular series, decided essentially to cripple himself, to do a Harrison Bergeron with his artistic talents and hand everything over to the writer.

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There’s one thing that 25-panels-a-page does give you, though: time. Density. The antithesis of those Bendis Avengers books that thin the story with splash pages like water thinning broth. Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright used multiple panels to convey every aspect of a single moment; the two issues of Devil Tracks are the opposite, nineteen pages (excepting the three pages of framing sequence) conveying months of investigation, 20 different characters even if some are only cameos, and a complex, sprawling plot.

And it is a plot, one worthy of the name. I burned Matt Wagner’s crime writing earlier only to praise him now. This is proper detective fiction, the depth of a solid police procedural and none of the sensationalism. Polk isn’t a Philip Marlowe; he doesn’t have the charisma or the quips. He’s a cipher, perhaps even to himself, but never the alcoholic maverick stereotype. He’s a dogged policeman who finds himself involved in something he cannot ignore, corruption above him a thread pulled that leads to a mess of threads, a tangle. Sure, there’s a strip club in a wonderful sequence that shows exactly what you can do with dedicated economy of line, and at the end of the first chapter there’s even a little breaking and entering, but the clichés are avoided. There’s no cheesy motivational shorthand here, no “my sister was killed by a dirty cop” cop-out. Polk does it because it’s his job. He collects information, the evidence of wrongdoing stacking up until it becomes clear that all there is is evidence with no substance, and there are no clear answers. There’s no moment where the villainess is caught injecting the poison into the apple. We never find out how ill Ed Wiesburg actually is, or if it’s genuine. It’s real, and the tiny panels and the slow progression and the stoic, unchanging face of our protagonist make it more real.

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The limitations of the tiny panels give the story a documentary quality. Every panel is a crop, the choice made of where to focus and everything else left out. If we’re seeing Polk’s facial expression, reading his reactions, then Wagner needs to be damn sure we know what else is going on because he can’t show it and can hardly tell it. We see backs, hands, midriffs, faces cut off by the tops or the sides of panels. When Polk tells fellow cop Pynchon what he’s discovered – and Pynchon does not want to know, fuck justice when he’s trying to do his job – the most emotional, dramatic moments are done with three panels of their gesticulating hands. And that frame comes back, like there’s a fixed camera there. Apart from the jump-cuts in moments of action, where we have to see the sequence of events, there’s a feeling that visually we’re not getting the best possible perspective but the best footage that’s available. The figurative art, the necessary return to cartooning to fit the space, the adoption of style with the clarity and economy of the laminated in-the-event-of-a-crash sheet in an airplane seatback, makes the story more realistic, more universal. Polk’s barely a character; he’s everycop.

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Though the 5×5 grid isn’t always rigidly adhered to. Every two or three pages there’s an exception: the sequence in the toilet where Polk overhears the bribe uses two panels (and here’s a disadvantage of the visual structure – I still don’t quite get how Polk avoided being seen), a stakeout montage uses three panels, a conversation is overlaid with a mosaic portrait of Polk. The two-hander conversations frequently use a pair of panels together. And then there are the other times that the grid is ignored; the appearances of the title character. The first mention of Grendel – haltingly approached, the informant afraid to even speak the name – happens around the flowing lines of his figure, serene in white space with full bleed, impossible to cage in panels. That’s effective. But it pales in comparison to the beautiful, elegant device in the second half of Devil Tracks, a single panel of white-on-grey in the dead centre of the page displaying the Grendel emblem, growing each page until it’s the entire background. It begins, as Polk explains the plot to Pynchon, as a silent, unconscious beat in their conversation. On the next page, when they both realise that Grendel isn’t a side issue but the central point of the plot, it’s bigger. And bigger, as the cops argue, and bigger, as Argent is called in just yellow eyes and red text, and bigger, as the climax approaches, filling the whole page. Like a drum getting louder, an oppressive swelling of discord, and never interrupting the storytelling. This, this incredible six-page moment, has been with me for more than 20 years. The boom BOOM BOOM of the monster coming closer, the relentless and oppressive build of tension even when Polk’s fishing around for clothes, the juxtaposition of storytelling and symbols. This is something only comics can do.

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Grendel shatters the grid, of course. He disdains it and refuses to work within it. From his splashy, showy entrance, the jolting end to the building tension, the story and the page is divided. He and Argent battle in white space and lightly sketched tabletops while Polk, facing down the Minotaur whose thread he’s followed through the labyrinth, meets his end in a scattering of interrupted, tiny panels, still adhering to the grid which the big players have shattered. Hunter Rose plays, in this performance of good cops and bad motives, the deus ex machina both literally and symbolically.

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The second story of Devil Tales, Devil Eyes, shares the same framing structure and is, again, a story that only glancingly features Grendel. And again, it’s a story told through rigid technique: this time vertical panels down two-thirds of the page, a first-person lettered narrative below them and Wiggins’s story notes scrawled above. The white space, though just as carefully used, is above and below while Tommy Nuncio’s story is compressed into vivid blocks, seams of sleaze. The art style is just as cartoony but on the expressionist side rather than Polk’s woodcuts, the protagonist a creature of criminal nightlife portrayed with the freewheeling lines of a Tex Avery storyboard. Tommy is the focal point and the only realised person in the narrative, his appearance and his world changing to suit his perceptions. The interjections, pages from Devil By The Deed tracking the action away from Tommy’s substrate, are in the classic Wagnerian clean, design-led style.

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It’s a perfectly good story but doesn’t have the same power or impact for me as its predecessor. It feels, in the totality of the character’s history, like the kind of thing Black, White and Red would do in eight pages; a footnote to Hunter Rose’s story followed to its end where the full stop is, as always, Grendel. The story is contained, like many of the BW&R stories, within the containment circle of Spar’s biography. The style works, the layout and the oppressive height and scratchy darkness of the panels progress interestingly, the storytelling decision to once again excise all the apparatus of comics to outside the art is successful. And again, Grendel comes from outside the panels, outside the story, appearing first in a full-page bleed to a Tommy who’s never been cartoonier and tracking him as a rendered, three-dimensional figure chasing a degrading sketch.

Grendel_Classics_2-11The problem is that I, the reader, don’t care about Tommy. I didn’t care about Polk either but I cared about his plot, I wanted to see the conspiracy he discovered exposed. Watching Tommy run through his repertoire of tricks is amusing enough, seeing him out on the town and hiding out and losing it, but there’s no connection. Perhaps that’s partly the art; making Tommy a stretch-and-squash cartoon means that I’m no more able to worry about him than I would about Wile E Coyote. And there’s the distancing effect of Wiggins’s constant presence and his open contempt for his protagonist, a rat running a maze to make its writer money.

Wiggins, the star of two framing sequences where Wagner breaks out a gorgeous Letraset-heavy art style never used before or since to my knowledge, isn’t just here as the old crypt-keeper. Casting him as the mythologiser of Hunter Rose makes him the tool of the devil and sets him up for the next chapter. Still, though the saga is incrementally moved on, that doesn’t seem to be the motive for these four issues. Why did Wagner return to the comic and why did he draw it himself? To try a couple of formal experiments with his art and his storytelling? To further set Grendel outside the narrative, larger than these little lives? To create a pause before the great leap forward of the next sequence? Or, prosaically, because he didn’t yet have an artist lined up, or because he needed an artist’s page rate to make rent that month?

The first chapter of Devil Tracks, Grendel #17 with its thriller-slick cover, was my second issue of the comic. There’ll be more about my first issue, #21, next blog. The two had no characters in common and neither made much narrative sense on their own. But their commonality was the commitment to pushing against boundaries, to experimenting with the comics page and how it could contain and shape narratives in ways that no other art form could match. I was hooked. And I’ve rarely been let down.

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Grendel: Devil Tales by Matt Wagner is published in Grendel Omnibus v2.

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Comments
One Response to “Tell him it’s the “Forks of Fate””
  1. I always felt the second of these tales was a real homage to Harvey Kurtzman

    Some of Wagner’s very best work here, and as usual you summed up why very eloquently.

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