Thump boom clang click
Rereading Grendel: The Incubation Years by Matt Wagner, Hannibal King, Tim Sale and Joe Matt.
The subtitle of Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics, which you should read now if you haven’t read it already, was The Invisible Art. Referring to the medium of comics which, for all its popularity with TV and movie producers right now, remains largely invisible on the wider cultural landscape. One or two graphic novels, usually autobiographical, listed in literary round-ups; a shelf in libraries as neighbour to the ghetto genres of teen fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. As if putting it with genres will reduce it to a genre.
Within comics, within the invisible art, there are invisible arts. Colouring, for example. It was #coloristappreciationday the other weekend on Twitter, for all those unsung comics colourists who spell it without a U. They deserve the props: good art can be made great with the right colouring, or trashed with the wrong colouring. And they are underappreciated, even right here on this blog where I list the writer, penciller and inker of any given work at the top but don’t list the colourist. In my, and the industry’s, defence they make comics look wonderful but they don’t make comics comics. Their role is important but not key: the Showcase and Essential volumes show that readers value volume over colour. And, of course, they’re a replaceable part. All these Grendels, apart from the first three-quarters of this four-part interregnum, have been recoloured. Miracleman’s getting recoloured and it’s no big deal. Colourists should be appreciated, but they’re demonstrably not essential.
But the true invisible art of comics is lettering. And perhaps it should be invisible; like Elmore Leonard’s he said/she said, it’s there to serve a purpose, not to draw attention to itself. Perhaps the ideal lettering is the lettering the reader doesn’t notice at all, as unobtrusive as the gutters between panels and performing much the same function of invisibly moving the story along. V For Vendetta, in which David Lloyd asked that Alan Moore do without captions, do without thought balloons, do without sound effects and tell the story in dialogue, is perhaps the perfect example of this approach. The balloons don’t even have borders.
Or there’s the other approach. And it’s something comics, thanks to Adam West’s Batman, are famous for: Bam Biff Pow. The onomatopoeic sound effect, drawn on the page. If you go this way, if the lettering is part of the art, then you can do so much more with it. The New York 1980s studio of Frank Miller, Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin took this approach; think of Daredevil, his senses out of control, cowering under huge words that overwhelm him. Or the Kirby-max Thor of Simonson with John Workman’s letters conveying force as much as the figures and their speedlines, from the drumbeat of DOOM in the build to Ragnarok to the page-spanning sound effects in the battle with the Midgard Serpent. Or Ken Bruzenak’s cool, stylised lower-case fonts for American Flagg!, not just depicting but illustrating gunshots, explosions, all the trademarked backdrop of a mediacentric future. And you can’t mention lettering-as-art without Dave Sim, who spent whole pages in Cerebus with all the action in the lettering; the fights between different parts of the aardvark’s consciousness in Guys, the epic climb up the sanctum steps in darkness, the disintegrating thought processes when starving in a tent. Even Sim-haters generally tip him a nod for the lettering, and frequently there’s no line between it and the art.
The previous Grendel storyline, Devil Tales, separated art and lettering almost completely. The “desperation device,” as Eisner called it, of the speech balloon was (apart from the framing sequences) absent. Polk and his interviewees’ dialogue was below the panels, the speaker usually obvious because every dialogue was a duologue. Tommy’s monologue was below the shuttered reel of his closing life, with Wiggins’s scrawled story notes above. Comics’ customary interaction between the words and art, no matter how clumsy, was excised.
The Incubation Years – one of very few Grendel arcs not to have Devil in the title, and I’ve always wondered if that’s meaningful – reverses direction. There is no dialogue, at least to begin with. There are words, but they’re hardly words. Albert Wiggins’s opening remarks, over three pages, are “Grrck!” “Gasp!” and “Eep.” His longest speech, in the whole comic, is “All right! Shuddup! Jesus! Christ. Women. Grumble. Bitch. Gripe. Bitch. Bitch. Hello?” Words, those signifiers of emotions and things, are reduced to nothing but signifier. We’re not meant to think that Albert is literally saying those words, but that he’s saying the equivalent which isn’t being reported to us; he’s grumbling, he’s griping, he’s bitching. Just like Batman’s fist doesn’t actually make the noise Bop when it connects with the chin of a henchman. Hey, words in comics are kind of drawn anyway. Why not, since we can, reduce the distance between them and pictures to the minimum possible?
Meanwhile, in the thought balloons, pictures. And we’ve always done this in comics: a broken heart above a character’s head, dollar signs in their eyes. Wiggins is followed by a swirl of resentful red as he heads to the bourbon, thinks happy faces as he swigs it. He thinks dollar signs, and the dollars turn step by-step into the endlessly mutable symbol of Grendel. And, climatically, the blank white-and-red face of Grendel invades his thoughts. Follows him, a host of bubbles surrounding his head as he flees, looks for sympathy, tries to explain to his wife in the one significant speech in the book: “Resurrecting… Him!” His wife’s unsympathetic response, as the Grendel bubbles gather, dooms her. Grendel doesn’t have to inhabit to kill. It – he, undoubtedly – can nudge, can cluster, can confuse. The essence of the character has always been nonverbal; violence. The symbol has always been there. Now the symbol, the double-fork of the mask that Hunter Rose plucked from nowhere as far as we know, is taking over.
The irony being, of course, that Grendel takes this non-speaking role in the storyline, going hostless, as he speaks to the reader for the first time. And once you’ve read it, after these four issues, that voice echoes back and forth through the saga of Grendel. Wagner is stealing a trick, adapting a voice, from himself; Grendel’s predecessor is Asteroth from the Demon miniseries, another detached, sardonic, omniscient narrator. But Grendel, perhaps a lesser demon, has a greater purpose. Self-aggrandisement and self-promotion on a grand scale, using the crack of his influence in the surface of the world and forcing it open.
In the first chapter Grendel, the narrator in captions and the only one putting sentences together, expresses his thoughts in a font much larger and bolder than any of the other words in the book. It’s such an incredibly effective trick, the voice given gravitas and a higher level of reality by the size of the letters, that I’m surprised it’s not used more often. (The Gods bar issue of Top Ten’s the only other place I recall it.) It doesn’t feel like Grendel’s shouting; more like he’s talking deeper than everyone else, with more reverb, and that his voice is in the foreground. Like he’s the announcer in the trailer and everyone else is trapped in its jump-cuts.
As with the Devil Inside and Devil Tales chapters that precede them, each of the four stories in The Incubation Years begins with a structure, a cage of restrictions that it performs it’s acrobatics within. Each begins where it ends, with a full-page splash of our protagonist at the close of their particular story. Each begins with a sound effect, as detailed in the title of this blogpost: THUMP for Albert Wiggins, BOOM for Charlie, CLANG for Ivy, CLICK for Cardinal Emmett. Each tale focuses on one person and their internal struggle, their increasingly feeble attempts to avoid doing the wrong thing, the devil’s bidding, and their eventual acquiescence. And the final page of each story is back to our protagonist, back to that noise that signals their defeat and the wider death of a victory for Grendel, an irreversible shift in human society toward violence, towards aggression as the keynote for the species. And on each of those final pages Grendel shows his face: for Albert an overlay, for Charlie a crimson shadow, for Ivy red smeared tears, and for Emmett the stain in the glass, the true master he’s been serving.
Matt Wagner always professed himself to be unhappy with these stories. There’s a huge amount of lifting being done, the scene being changed from a hardly-future America to a post-apocalyptic one in which, as we’ll see in the next storyline, the world and society are transformed. In the introduction to the next volume, he felt it necessary to explain what we’d seen: “We saw Grendel go from being a personal vision to a corporate persona to a tribal totem and, eventually, to an archetype. All this happened as the Grendel essence itself witnessed and fed off violence enacted against a lover, against society, against family and, finally, against the self.” That does, broadly, explain what happens: Grendel is amplified through people who aren’t hosts but do his bidding. Wiggins we already know, and his fate is an inverted echo of Brian Li Sung’s: both begin seeing the world from a twisted, red-lensed paranoid’s perspective. Here, wonderfully, we see what Wiggins sees: “L’eyes by Joe Matt,” in the monster of memoir’s most mainstream ever art job. (He colours the Comico series, unmentioned by me, from The Devil Inside on.) Another trick only comics could manage; the slick, bloated Mad magazine caricatures of Wiggins’s inner life, his Grendel filter, alongside their pale reality.
The execution of the first chapter is the closest to wordless. We’re familiar with the character, though, and we’ve been given enough of Wiggins’s arc to easily follow its end. The second chapter, which gives us a new one-shot lead, combines radical storytelling with a new status quo with the biggest shift we’ll see the world make and the result requires thought. Alternatively, it could be called confusing. Readers at the time thought so. “Err, what’s happ’ning?” “What was Grendel #21 about?” “Made me re-read it three times in order to follow the story’s intent,” to quote three correspondents. Perhaps this is the one Wagner was unhappy about reprinting. It was my first issue of Grendel; I honestly have no idea, not even a trace of an inkling, what prompted me to pick it up. Whatever. I loved it.
Fat Charlie, the corporate executive who’s lost control in his job and his life, shuttling between boardroom and toilet unable to get anything moving in either, the black balloons of feeble farts struggling to rise from between his legs. The hollowed-out king of the mirrored skyscraper, a familiar figure from the great American novel: Bob Slocum in Something Happened. In the 80s, when corporate stooges were more often seen as actively evil, the suits in action movies who finance the drug gangs, Charlie’s relationship with the devil was subtle and insidious. Like most of us when confronted with violence, his recoil only hid his attraction to it as a solution, the apparent simplicity of it, the magnetic pull of crossing that line. And, again like ourselves, Charlie’s not making decisions in a vacuum. He’s doing it in a context of violence, of heroes and antiheroes employing it as their first resort. He’s doing it in the context of Grendel.
The context of Grendel is what The Incubation Years is all about. It’s those pages from the previous volume that I liked so much, where the white-on-grey symbol grows from one panel to the whole page but over four issues. Given a leg-up by Wiggins, Grendel has become IP; an exploitable property, one that Omni Broadcasting is built around. And Grendel is everywhere. On every bank of TVs that used to look so future but now look a bit Duran Duran, a bit Highlander, Grendel is there. In every home every night the mediated media stars of Hunter Rose and Christine Spar dance with blades, awarded the immortality of title characters whose adventures will be infinite until the public gets bored. The superhero action, the stuff of comics, is moved literally to the background where Grendel’s avatars cavort in a series of dynamic, disconnected images; the comic’s recent history treated as wallpaper. And over those screens there’s another beautiful device, another step in breaking down the barrier between words and pictures. Clouds of captions, trails of captions, each a single unpunctuated box with the word Grendel in it. Not any part of what anyone’s saying or what anyone’s consciously thinking, but the constant backbeat to all their thoughts, the insistent thread of their unconsciousness that never goes away. It’s wearying, it’s oppressive, it’s branding, it’s all that other stuff that is life in a big business.
The character’s thoughts, however, remain little cartoons, never more effective than when they all think of the President with his head up his ass. And in the next part, though the single-word dialogue has by then bloomed into little sentences, little rhyming couplets, image and word are interchangeable as thoughts. The story of Ivy is one of those post-apocalypse Shakespeare productions that were in vogue in the late 80s and the 90s when this was first published. Romeo & Juliet in the ruins of civilisation with the perpetuation of that civilisation, of its echo, as the prize. Here the dialogue, though expanded to fill in the world, serves a different purpose. Again it’s not literal; not every phrase, thought, exclamation could rhyme. The rhymes, along with the pictograms thoughts, are a mark of translation. We’re being shown or told what’s transpiring, an approximation of what’s happening, but this is the future and there’s no way to report it accurately. There aren’t the words. It’s a smart, sophisticated way of conveying the gulf between the reader and the imagined world without inventing future words and future slang.
Hannibal King’s art changes through three issues. Wiggins’s domestic drama of age and alienation is grainy and slick like it’s shot on digital video, boosted into realism by its proximity to Matt’s caricatures. The reader can almost feel the exertion of Charlie’s chapter, angles and backlighting making the shuttle between boardroom and washroom atmospheric enough to carry the story’s weight. By Ivy’s turn King’s cartooning, the friendly curved black outlines defanging the violence, subliminally telling us how trivial love and family and even death are in this dwindling fragment of the old world. He doesn’t finish his four-issue run, Tim Sale stepping in for the last one, and there are clues to suggest that the reason these chapters were left out of the Dark Horse rerelease and have only just been reprinted were because the original art wasn’t available and perhaps Wagner, or perhaps King, wasn’t happy with it. No interior art appears in the Grendel Primer. King’s one of the few artists who doesn’t return for a Black, White and Red story later. But he does, dealing with a challenging experimental brief, excellent work.
The final chapter, Cardinal Emmett’s fall from grace, is almost conventional in comparison to what preceded it. Still using the same structure, the dialogue is stylised in both content and presentation but can be assumed to be reported speech, artifice stripped away. And while it is about the internal politics of the Catholic Church, not perhaps the most dynamic subject, it hinges on the visual presentation of Emmett and his rival Harvey. Sale’s innovation is to expand everything; every office or laboratory has the dimensions of a cathedral, human figures shrunken to insects, parasites on the empty body of God. Emmett’s vainglorious tilt at becoming Pope, the hubris that gives Grendel form again, is preordained.
Hunter found violence irresistibly attractive, aggression its own end. Christine was seduced by it, driven by her need for revenge. Brian found in it a protection from the encircling forces. The four protagonists of The Incubation Years encounter it differently; not in the overdramatic costumed form of Grendel, not fighting wolves or vampires. They don’t even have to do anything bad themselves. What’s required is their acquiescence. They have to knowingly do wrong, to be complicit in it, to justify it. For the worst of selfish reasons: cash, power, passion, ambition. Wiggins’s rage, his murder, is because it’s already too late, because his decision is made. Charlie isn’t even present when the worst happens, but he doesn’t stop it. He allows it to. Ivy is the most active, her brother’s betrayer, and Emmett is the one who should know better. Who nurtures evil in the foolish hope that, in his hands, it can alchemise to good.
And of course it can’t. And of course we know that. And of course Grendel knows that, his mocking, cajoling narrative voice here – his repugnant, sly gratitude – is the dark opposite of the voice of hope in all of, that interior narrator that says it’ll all be alright. Grendel is the little voice that knows it won’t be, that shows the way down that path of good intentions, that rejoices in every downfall. He’s real, now, in the series. The devil is real.
Grendel: The Incubation Years by Matt Wagner, Hannibal King, Tim Sale and Joe Matt is available in Grendel Omnibus v3.