Finally, I have seen the day…
Rereading Grendel: God and the Devil by Matt Wagner, John K Snyder, Jay Geldhof and Bernie Mireault.
Science fiction, the genre of new ideas, has a telling weakness for old ideas. It spans galaxies while locked in colonialism; invents new weapons to fight old Manichean wars. And it’s weakest of all for the aristocrat. The future loves a born-to-ruler. Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy gave us the Lord of Ruin even before that whole planet based on Pride and Prejudice. Dune’s Paul Atreides is the son of a Duke and a Lady. And Iain M Banks, in life a socialist, could rarely resist putting the scion of a great family at the head of his fiction: the three royal protagonists of Matter, The Algebraist’s Fassin Taak, Sharrow from Against A Dark Background, Zakalwe of Use of Weapons…
There are solid narrative reasons for sci-fi to eschew the novel’s 20th-century shift towards the everyman. When you’re trying to describe a whole future, a whole society, then it helps to have a man at the top who can see it all rather than someone trapped at the bottom who can only see the walls around them. The aristocrat has freedom, can travel wherever he pleases and knows how the world is run. And, most importantly, the aristocrat has money. He can afford the starships, huge estates, and technological trainsets the author wants to tell us about. Fluttering in and out of scenes in a cloud of cash, he makes the writer’s job easy.
Orion Assante, the hero of the God and the Devil arc of Grendel, is an aristocrat. He lives in a tower with his two equally aristocratic beautiful sisters. He is a voice that the Board of Systems, the closest thing the continent of North America has to a government, listens to. He’s a Deva Prince, a secret body of great influence which demands that its members have an annual income of three billion dollars. His assistants are experts at espionage and data mining. By the series’ close he’s leading a private army from his underground base in a hollowed-out mountain.
So he’s Bruce Wayne, complete with Dark Knight Returns broom moustache. And, frustrated at the injustice he sees every day, by night he dons the costume of Grendel and sets out to battle it on the streets… except he doesn’t. It wouldn’t make any sense to. He’s a powerful man; why abandon that for something much less effective? He fights his implacable enemy using the mechanisms of the society he’s highly-placed within: a regulatory council, an inquiry to find illegally-held information in vast archives, visibility. He rejects outright murder, however he despises his enemy, until the end.
In Devil’s Legacy, Matt Wagner wasn’t interested in sci-fi. The world was our own with a light coat of anti-gravity. It wasn’t much developed in subsequent volumes. But for God and the Devil Wagner went trad and created a world. Well, a sliver of one: California, Colorado and a few other Western states which are all that survives of America now solar is the only power. It’s a vision derived from cyberpunk, with mega-corporations ignoring national borders much as William Gibson’s zaibatsu did and a limited nuclear war leaving the world restructured and reeling. The powers of the United Californian Systems of America are the seven systems, successors of the TV networks, who control communications and entertainment and all that other good stuff. The meeting of their heads is the aforementioned Board. But in Wagner’s 2512 there’s a power that never got mentioned, as far as I remember, in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy. The Church.
I’ve always felt it to be a failing of fantasy books, Game of Thrones serving as the example of the moment, that they leave out religion. Sure, there’s the occasional bit of tree worship and everyone has a god or gods they swear by in exciting moments, but it’s background stuff. Whereas in the times of kings and knights they romanticise, religion was everything. There was barely a scholar, a noble, or a peasant in the Middle Ages that didn’t submit to the rule of God, whichever one. But fantasy puts it on the back burner and sci-fi, which is – to generalise – written by atheists, finds no room for it at all in its brave new futures. But religion is a human instinct common to every society and in times of adversity it only gets stronger. To have, in the solarcentric post-nuclear 2512 AD of this volume, a Catholic Church wielding huge power, threatening to eclipse the corporations that keep the lights on, is realism.
Fighting crime, in the superhero comic, is fighting individuals. The idiocy of believing that once all the liquor store robbers are locked up, there will be no more liquor store robberies. Failure to recognise that society, the vast motive forces of economic necessity, will create more. Orion Assante, the Bruce Wayne who isn’t dumb, gets this. He understands that, as bad as Innocent XLII is, he’s far from the entirety of the problem. He absolutely opposes plans to assassinate him because he recognises it would achieve nothing, that it would leave a corrupt institution lurching onwards. He fights the institution, not the individual; he fights openly, not secretly. He seeks to limit the Church’s power, not to eradicate it, because he knows it’s built on popular support. The heroism of realism. You can’t stop bad things. In religion, many of the victims of injustices have invited them. But you can place curbs on them, cut down the damage they’re able to do even to those who invite it.
It’s sophisticated, but this isn’t a narrative in shades of grey. The Church, and the Pope, are unequivocally bad. The third page of the first chapter has Innocent, his eyes slits of sadistic contempt, instructing his servants to flog themselves. On the page following, he orders a pregnant teenager to be beaten until she miscarries. And on the next page, after he’s admitted not really believing in her guilt, he promises to procure a boy for his paedophile cardinal to abuse. There were a lot of evil holy men in the Dark Age of comics, but Innocent’s in a class of his own.
He gets a lot of time, too. The God and the Devil arc is comprised of two intertwining miniseries: one of three issues from the first-person perspectives of Grendel and Pellon Cross which I’ll examine separately next blog, and this one of six issues, about Orion. Or that’s how I remembered it. On re-examination, though Orion narrates them all, at least half of his issues follow Innocent. We meet him before we meet Orion and never really leave him, the push-and-pull of their veiled war followed from both sides, each with their support network, each crossing lines.
To return to that structure. Wagner built a fabulous thing here that almost worked out. He writes. John K Snyder draws Orion’s chapters: the first two, four and five, seven and eight, and Orion and Innocent’s pages of the double-sized final. He’s inked, on the first two, by Jay Geldhof, inker of the Pander Brothers on Devil’s Legacy. Snyder’s work is solid, three-dimensional, composed. Geldhof adds style, jazz, those zippy zigzags. The third and sixth chapters, focusing on and narrated by Grendel and Cross, are pencilled by Geldhof in a wilder, cartoonier style and inked by Snyder (and Geldhof himself for the ninth). It’s a fantastic idea, the two artists working together but switching, giving a different perspective but a unity in collaboration. Unfortunately, it couldn’t sustain its symmetry. Unsurprisingly; in the days before digital files it must have been a nightmare to organise. Snyder ended up being inked by Mireault, whose delicate, finicky hatching is a world away from Geldhof’s confident brushstrokes. Geldhof ended up inking himself, losing some of the solidity and grounding of Snyder’s work. Both inked their own work in the final double-length chapter. It’s a beautiful mosaic, an artistic success, but also a reminder than under a monthly deadline things will never be as neat as they should be.
Four protagonists, two art teams on two separate but interlocking miniseries, ten issues. Undoubtedly the most formally complex book of Grendel yet. And we are now post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight, which has two effects: first, Wagner picks up and runs with some of the techniques, the vocabulary, which those books developed and which fans had learned to read. Second, in ambition; comics had changed so much, so quickly since Devil’s Legacy’s conclusion a year before. The bar had been raised around 200 per cent, and Wagner leapt to clear it.
In technique, that meant rotating perspectives, with three first-person narrators and a host of supporting characters. It meant coloured captions and bespoke fonts for each of those narrators. And it used, unlike almost any book before or since, parallel symbolic narratives to show us the subtext, the themes, underlying the plot. Watchmen did it with Black Freighter which, being Moore, was more about the words than the visuals. Wagner uses animals, one per issue, for much the same purpose as the Black Freighter pages, to show us the brutal reality beneath all this talking, all the euphemisms.
There’s no gentle lead-in. The first issue, 26 pages, introduces all of that at once. A recap, a page of our new Grendel’s narration in his only overt uncostumed appearance in the Orion issues, and that leads into the symbolic narrative that underpins the introduction of Innocent, a bird feeding her chicks the prayer balloon Grendel released and killing one. Then there’s Innocent and then Orion, each master of their own scenes, and then there are the Deva Princes, all-black panels with colour-coded dialogues, introduced without explanation and running concurrently. All these voices, all rising at once in a fugue until the climax, the shattering glass and bass drop of Grendel’s arrival.
The complexity rests on a single structural beam: Orion’s narration. Innocent might get equal screen time to Orion but it’s the latter who guides us through. Narration is the unconscious crutch Wagner leans on writing Grendel; the clear path that, in the midst of the artistic innovation, guides the reader through. Or maybe not unconscious. Mage, after all, had no narrative captions and did everything through dialogue. So does much of Wagner’s later, action-oriented, superhero work. Perhaps that’s what he prefers as an artist. As a writer, there’s always a narrator: from Christine Spar telling Hunter’s tale with detached lyricism to Christine Spar’s breathless diary entries to Brian Li Sung’s fragmented and schizophrenic journals to Grendel’s mocking, toying voice. With Orion we’re almost full circle. As in Devil by the Deed, the narrator is a fatalistic voice who knows how the tragedy unfolds, who watches an innocent fall to the corruption of violence. But in this case the narrator is that former innocent, corrupted by the struggle with Innocent, remembering his own fall.
It’s a terrific voice. Orion is consumed by regret, guilt, hatred, and the ruthless resolve, the embracing of violence as a solution, that he invited in to get him through this. There’s a sense of looking at events through glass that slowly darkens, the early days and the simple motivations with which it began gradually shading into the unrecognisable harshness of a world just beyond our view. The near future where Orion as narrator stands, with “the bitter blessing of hindsight… I should’ve seen. I should’ve known.”
It’s this compelling voice that gives Orion – an Arab-American, a fact never mentioned in the narrative as far as I’m recall – his weight on the page. His actions don’t amount to much. He investigates the Church through the regulatory council that becomes the Tower Commission. It works; he’s constantly pushing forward, reining the Church in. But as the end comes, as Easter approaches, as Grendel harries Innocent into the open, he realises it can’t work fast enough. With Christine Spar we saw the corruption of Grendel, the seduction of violence, leading her forward. For Orion, who doesn’t lose everything like a vigilante would until he’s already made his decision to live outside the law, violence is a tool whose dangers are known.
The intrinsic contrast between a vigilante’s ideals and his actions, between the Church’s ideals and its inquisition, are made explicit in the recurring symbolic narratives. None of them are subtle. Opening with a bird killing a prayer balloon and choking her chicks on the rubber remains, there’s also the alligator feasting on human remains, the pig that crushes and shits on her own children, bats catching nightcrawlers, a snake swallowing a dog before falling prey to a killer higher up the food chain, the cats attempting an escape from the zones of demolition. Not subtle, no, but none is overplayed – a few panels interspersed with the ongoing narrative, the underlying themes made concrete. It leaves you wanting to remind other creators that a few pages of conversation could be underpinned by cutting away to a visual every other panel or so, that the readers could work it out.
Innocent is Tujuro, of course. I read this when it was coming out and remember lettercol speculation, the obvious hints picked up and the revelation being accompanied by a certain glow of smugness because I’d worked that out. At distance from it I’m not sure it makes sense. This isn’t like Argent, the nemesis of Grendel completing the arc. Apart from the similar conceit of a vampire hidden in plain sight, an evil which likes all eyes on it, there aren’t many commonalities. Why and how an ex-Kabuki star, oriental and memorable and hunted by the authorities, would infiltrate the church and use it to suck the blood of the world is unexplained. The predeliction for children, never explained, is gone. But we know it’s Tujuro because of that one panel of him as a cat and because this is comics and the villain always returns. As a revelation though it’s hardly a plot twist, not even part of the plot. It isn’t much more than an Easter egg and only important for those watching continuity. Fine with that. Why does it have to be any way else?
Orion compares himself to Christine Spar, “afflicted with a feeling for Grendel”, midway through his journey when his power and his sisters are still with him. By the end he’s having Fadi scan her journals for information on vampires, Tujuro presumably having kept out of sight and kept others from joining him. And, though he resists the pull of aggression that she embraces, Orion’s arc compares to Christine’s. He defeats his enemy at the cost of himself, the price worth paying but nonetheless total. She died. He lives, and he saves the world from an eternal darkness of vampirism, but he becomes Grendel. He enables Grendel.
The final chapter, where Snyder inks himself with chunky blacks, is the end of Orion. His narration, never flowery but always polished, becomes blunt, staccato. He ends with the vampire, with the farcical encounter with Cross where the old normal leaves forever. His last words and first words a phrase that has accompanied me for years: “Finally, I have seen the day… the day when my solution, simply, is to kill these people. Kill them all…” He’s gone Batman and gone past Batman. And though the more ornate, poetic language returns (“I gazed into the death of a sun, and saw only the death of a beast,”) it’s only an overlay, now. It’s not the heart of a man, his language his character and his place in the world, that it used to be. Orion has become a man of the sword.
Which was the point of beginning with an aristocrat all along. Hunter Rose was all aggression, all violence, even to the only one he professed to love. Christine Spar turned to violence too easily, seduced by it even as it destroyed her world. Brian Li Sung fought the seduction and died for it. But Orion, sophisticated Orion who did everything in his considerable power to confront monsters without becoming one; even he eventually found there was no other path. He resisted aggression in the face of evil. He resisted it in the face of persecution, of exile, of personal tragedy. Still, in the endgame, violence was not just effective but absolutely necessary.
And if it’s that’s true for him? For a prince of society, with every means at his disposal? Then how can his opposite, a man at the carbon-crushed bottom of the underclass, possibly go any other way?
Grendel: God and the Devil by Matt Wagner, John K Snyder, Jay Geldhof and Bernie Mireault is available in Grendel Omnibus v3.