Monday, September 11, 2006

Vivat Grendel!

I'm way too disoriented to write a coherent review of Matt Wagner's "Grendel", so here are some points I thought were interesting:

1. Of all the "primary" Grendels, Christine Spar is my favorite. Not just because she was the only woman to don the mask, but because she's arguably the only one whose actions aren't tinged with madness. Hunter Rose was damaged from the start, Brian Li Sung and Eppy Thatcher were completely insane, and even Orion Assante eventually sees himself as being possessed by the devil. We don't know much about Grendel-Prime, but I imagine you'd have to be pretty screwed up to turn yourself into the Toaster of Doom. Christine is ultimately the only protagonist Wagner justifies - her actions are morally ambiguous, but her intentions and motivations are nothing short of heroic. It's that kind of complexity that makes "Grendel" such an enjoyable, rewarding read.

2. I have never seen another comic deal with the themes of legacy, succession, evolution and chronological ellipses as well as "Grendel". It occurs to me that "Miracleman" might have gone that far, had it run its course, but we'll never know. As it stands, I can't help but be impressed by the sheer scale of the Grendel Saga: in fifty-one issues (including "Devil By The Deed", "War Child" and "Devil Quest"), he spans a period of seven hundred and twenty years. And it's the same world, changed to the point where it's almost unrecognizable save for trace hints that recall the past. That's real vision, right there.

3. Wagner could have ended Grendel with "War Child": the bad guys are defeated, proper rule is restored, all's right with the world. In fact, most of the online resources I've found seem to do just that: in summarizing/detailing the stories, "War Child" is often the last entry. But that's not where the chronology ends, with Jupiter I's coronation on a bright and sunny day; it ends with a half-destroyed Grendel-Prime shooting a man for no reason and riding off into the darkness, the Grendel Empire in ruins. I can understand the desire to exclude "Devil's Quest" - it's just a backup story, and if you read it expecting closure or a finale of some kind you'll be sorely disappointed. Hell, you could even make the argument that it's not a complete story, as it serves to lead into some horrid Batman/Grendel crossover I refuse to read on principle. It's not particularly uplifting either, and I don't know that it makes any significant extension of the series' core premise and themes. Except... well, entropy exists in Wagner's worldview. If there's one thing that's consistent for every incarnation of Grendel, it's that things fall apart: personally, socially, psychologically, globally. Pellon Cross starts out as a driven vampire messiah and turns into a bloated, useless mess. America is ruled by corporations, then the Catholic Church, then the Grendel-Khan, each system breaking down in turn to make way for the next. Christine Spar's life crumbles until she has nothing left. It's the very epitome of the Wheel of Fortune, and in that context "Devil Quest" cannot be ignored, because it's the inevitable culmination of everything that came before it. It's not Wagner's best work, broken-up and disorganized as it is, but maybe that was the plan all along: to have the narrative itself in a state of decay mirroring the setting depicted within.

4. Of all the "Grendel Tales" spin-offs, the only one I really liked was "Devil Child", the in-depth look at Stacy Palumbo. The flip-side of this is I think the Hunter Rose minis ("Black White and Red" and "Red White and Black") were a terrible mistake. There was always something suitably enigmatic about the fact that Hunter Rose has no voice: "Devil By The Deed" presents his story as told by Christine, who got it from Stacy and a bunch of other sources, but Hunter himself is silent, inscrutable. This changes both in "Devil Child" and in the Hunter Rose minis, with one major difference: "Devil Child" is narrated by Stacy, and begins after Hunter's death. In other words, she's already going mad, and anything she tells the readers is subject to dispute. This is brilliantly emphasized by writer Diana Schutz when Stacy tells the story of her rape four or five different ways; she herself can't reconcile what really happened, so how can we trust anything she says about Hunter Rose? And unlike Rose himself, I think there was room for another look at Stacy, because her own mysteriousness was meant to affect Christine, not the reader, if that makes any sense. In other words, it's important that we not know too much about Hunter, but it was only important that Christine not know too much about her mother. By contrast, Wagner's direct depictions of Rose in his prime tend to fall short of the figure built up to such mythical proportions in "Devil By The Deed". We even get a lot of repetition, the Jocasta Rose sequence retold two or three times without significant variation or revelation. And all the other Grendel Tales... well, this is disturbing, because despite the many writers who contributed, somehow all the plots involve an instantaneous romance between two unlikely and poorly-fleshed out figures, with Grendel in the distant background. More often than not, the characters simply aren't compelling enough to hold the story.

5. My favorite moment in the series: the end of "The Devil Inside", the moment where two narratives seamlessly merge into one, and Brian's last words mix with those of Grendel. "I am not afraid to die. For I shall live FOREVER." Absolutely chilling.

And that's about it for now. It was an intense reading experience, one I found immensely and uniquely gratifying.