Devilish Anniversary, Part 1: Wagner talks All Things Grendel

Thu, January 11th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Zack Smith, Contributing Writer

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Grendel.

It's a name associated with one of the first evils in recorded myth, the creature faced by the hero Beowulf (or a misunderstood innocent, if you've read John Gardner). In the universe created by writer/artist Matt Wagner, it's more than a name - it's an identity, a state of mind, a way of life.

For the young genius Hunter Rose, it was a rise to power that destroyed countless lives and the innocence of a young girl. For Christine Spar, it was a vengeance that consumed her; for her lover, Brian Li Sung, it was a psychosis that led to his seeing the face of evil itself. And in a far-off, devastated future, it's a cult, an order, a symbol that has helped redefine the face of the world. Oh, and two different versions of Grendel have matched wits with Batman - and more than held their own.

2007 sees the 25th anniversary of the "Grendel" comic, and Wagner (currently working on "Batman and the Mad Monk" at DC) is celebrating in style with the help of Dark Horse Comics. First off is a remastered hardcover of "Devil by the Deed," the legendary graphic novella that helped introduce Hunter Rose to a wide audience. CBR News spoke with Wagner about this landmark in his career.

Looking back at "Devil by the Deed, Wagner says he feels "great" about it. "I'm not someone who sits around gazing at his own work and trying to relive the glories of the past but, admittedly, I am aware of my past as a part of my lifelong journey in the arts," Wagner told CBR News. "And, having built a longer legacy on not only Grendel as a concept in general but also the character of Hunter Rose in particular, I necessarily find myself having to occasionally reread my earlier efforts in an attempt to keep things coherent and cohesive.

"'Devil by the Deed' was a daring thing in its time, not only for me but also for the comics market in general," continued Wagner. "There really weren't many examples of a story wherein the 'villain' was the star of the show, nor were there many narratives that so consciously blurred the line between good and evil. These days, when the ideal of the 'criminal chic' has become so pervasive, it's hard to recall that there was a time when it just wasn't so. I see this as a direct reflection and response to the world in which we live. Look around - it's certainly becoming harder and harder to tell the good guys from the bad, isn't it? 'Devil by the Deed' was a bold and decisive step in my career and, looking at the amount of material it eventually spawned, I'd have to say it was a profound one as well."

The new edition is not only the first time that "Devil by the Deed" has been collected in a popular hardcover format, but it's also been recolored into the black, white and red format that Wagner has used on two Grendel mini-series in recent years. "The biggest difference is, quite obviously, the coloring," Wagner said. "This storyline had already been re-colored twice in its published history and, for this anniversary edition, I certainly wanted to do something to give the material a new level of spit-and-polish - find a way to not just reprint the book, but to re-present it. The obvious solution was to have the book fit into the black-white-and-red motif that had, in the intervening years, become synonymous with Hunter Rose.

"At first, I'll admit, I was a little trepidatious about how this would work out. After all, the first two color jobs had both been very vibrant so I wasn't really sure how this more restrained approach would suit the very stylized art and story-telling on display in DBTD. To achieve this goal, I decided that we needed to stray away from more established comic book colorists and go with a contributor who was more of a designer. I turned to my old friend Chris Pitzer, publisher of Adhouse Books and a longtime Grendel fan. Chris jumped at the opportunity and really seemed to get what I wanted out of this remastering. And yeah, as always with Grendel material, I played art director by suggesting a tweak here and there but, really, Chris knew exactly what was needed for this effort. The results were right on the money, and I now think this is my favorite version of 'Devil by the Deed.'"

This year also sees the "Grendel Archive Edition," which reprints the original Hunter Rose stories that were published in "Comico Primer" and the short-lived original "Grendel" series. "Devil by the Deed" takes that incomplete story and finishes it through a combination of text and prose. "When I first made the decision to move into color comics as opposed to the B&W format that was so prevalent in early '80s indy comics, I basically decided to just leave Grendel behind," Wagner said. "I thought, 'Well, that was a good start, but the public's reaction was only so-so - now, I'm on to bigger and better things.'"

"Grendel" Vol. 1, #1
Wagner moved on to his other legendary series, "Mage," which actually managed to draw attention back to his previous work. "Trouble was, once 'Mage' started to become more of a hit, I began to get a lot of reader feedback from those people who had liked 'Grendel,'" Wagner said. "They wanted to see more of this morally ambiguous title character; they wanted to see the story's end (due to the way those early issues where structured, it was obvious that there was an end in sight). So, I decided to resurrect Hunter and crew and adapted the story to fit as a back-up feature in 'Mage.' This is what led me to the distinctive story-telling style of DBTD, seeing as how I now needed to fit an entire episode's (issue's) worth of story into only four-page segments.

"This also led to a certain distance in the narrative voice and, eventually, I settled on the idea that this was actually a book of historical commentary - Hunter's infamous career told by a journalist from the future. Again, the distance this created only served to make his life, his impact, his villainy seem even grander than the initial B&W issues were ever able to convey. It's now been long enough that I don't remember the actually page-by-page designing but I'm still pretty fond of the results. I haven't done this in a while, but I used to take the original boards and arrange them on the floor in a 6-page-by-6-page grid. The overall effect was like an ancient tapestry, detailing the mythic tale of a bigger-than-life character."

The result was hugely popular, and the collected edition of "Devil By the Deed" boasted an introduction containing high praise from no less than Alan Moore. "At that point, Alan hadn't attained the demi-god status he seems to have been saddled with these days," Wagner said. "He still attended the occasional convention and, in fact, that [our] entire generation of creators was still considered the young upstarts for the most part. Back when the industry awards were still called the 'Kirbys' - I think this must've been '86), 'Dark Knight,' 'Watchmen' and 'Mage' topped the list of nominations. So, we were all just artistic comrades, trying our best to overhaul our most beloved medium into something that we found both viable and resonant. Alan was very kind to contribute his introduction to DBTD and, when I finally met him and spent a night at his house several years later, I made sure to give him the proper thanks.

"Grendel" Vol. 1, #2
The pre-"Devil by the Deed" issues collected in the "Archive Edition" have become collector's items in the back-issue market by hardcore Grendel fans.Wagner understands why fans would want to read the stories, but for years buckled at the thought of putting the incomplete original story back in print. "It should surprise no one who reads my stuff that I'm all about the story," Wagner says. "Thus, the idea of reprinting this earlier, fraction of a tale, which I had later completed in another format, just for the sake of a quick buck was an idea that always rankled me.

"Granted, I understood many readers' desire to see the entire package of all things Grendel and the eventual need for some sort of complete retrospective of my work. But, I still didn't feel right about re-printing this stuff for the reasons I just said. I find too many efforts in the comics field these days are too quickly aggrandized to a stage that they don't quite deserve - most especially in their creators' own minds. For years, I felt that I was still too young of an artist to make these assumptions about either my many efforts or myself. I was waiting for what I deemed a suitably auspicious occasion to deserve dusting off the original issues; I needed to feel they deserved a reprinting. Certainly, I think, the 25th anniversary of the character fits those criteria."

It has long been rumored that Wagner refused to have the issues reprinted because he was embarrassed by them, a rumor he'd like to clear up. "How many times do I have to try and dispel this beast?" Wagner says. "I am not ashamed of the original 'Grendel' series! Do I think the art is creaky and crude? Sure. Do I think the dialogue is often prosaic and trite? Of course. Do I see this as the initial steps in a very viable and visible creative career that has since grown to a satisfying fruition? Absolutely! Am I purposely trying to sound like a frustrated Donald Rumsfeld? You betcha!"

"Seriously, that batch of work is certainly not my magnum opus but it is my first attempts at publishing and, as such, it stands as a distinct testimony to the potential of artistic growth and the utter determination of the creative spirit. My initial reviews in the press were downright savage, but I still persisted because I not only felt an overwhelming urge to express myself in this medium but because I had experienced enough positive feedback from both readers and friends to know that, eventually, I could conquer these skills and become an accomplished artist. I've always maintained that I never set out to become the world's most popular artist. But the mere fact that I had connected with someone - anyone - on a real gut level drove me onward as if I already was. It gave me my first taste of what the creative exchange between artist and audience is like and that was reward enough to compel me forward.

"But to say that, at this stage in my career, I'd be ashamed of my very fledgling efforts would be overwhelming arrogant," continued Wagner. "I mean, c'mon, no one's born at a fully developed stage of maturity. Saying I'm ashamed of this stuff is like I saying I'm ashamed I was ever 13 years old, or 17, or 21- which I'm not. It's like saying that I have never taken any hint of a misstep and have only ever been a self-created, fully realized being.

"Grendel" Vol. 1, #3
"And, boy-oh-boy, that kinda attitude reminds me of nothing so much as the inhuman psychosis of a certain dashing, ego-driven crimelord/assassin…"

And even though "Devil by the Deed" tells the story of Hunter Rose's life and death, Wagner has found himself returning to the character time and time again. "At first, I thought I'd never return to Hunter Rose," Wagner says. "As the concept of Grendel evolved, it seemed that looking back or returning to any of the previous material was the antithesis of what the whole series was about.

"But, of course, I eventually realized that even that concept was too limiting for such a grand narrative scope. I think I needed some distance from Hunter before it was safe for me to return to him and, as I've often said, he's always a tad more evil every time I encounter him. As a younger creator, I was more drawn to Hunter's style and charisma whereas now I'm much more fascinated with his extremely twisted psychology.

"Still, Hunter is a very familiar territory for me. I'll admit that, at first, it was hard to reconsider a character that I'd created in my early twenties now that I was in my mid-forties. But, there again, I try not to limit the way I see things. In reflection, I find the intervening years have given me a much-needed perspective on him."

In Part Two to be published tomorrow, Wagner gives more of his thoughts on Grendel and offers a look at an all-new Hunter Rose story coming later this year.

 
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