Saturday, April 26, 2014

GRENDEL OMNIBUS #1 [2012] by Matt Wagner & Co.

Matt Wagner's GRENDEL was always a bit of a blindspot for me in terms of the long-running major 1980s independents. I started shopping at direct market supplied stores in the late 1980s, just as the original run was wrapping up. Most long-running independent books that were in progress I either tried and liked, so I ending up getting at least the first long run of issues, or tried and dismissed as not for me. I know I read a few issues of GRENDEL, but while it seemed intriguing, it also seemed very hard to jump in the middle, and the early stories weren't readily available. Everything I heard about the series seemed like I would like it, especially the stories of the original incarnation of the character, Hunter Rose (which pre-dated the stories I sampled), but there never seemed to be an easy entry point when I was interested.

A few years ago I did finally get the 1986 collection of the original Hunter Rose story, the prose/comics hybrid "Devil By The Deed" that ran as a back-up in MAGE, as well as the two Grendel/Batman crossovers Wagner did in the 1990s. "Deed" was great, as was the first Batman story, the one which featured Hunter Rose. The other one I didn't quite get, and I think needs more knowledge of later Grendel tales than I have. Still, getting more at that point seemed to involve navigating a hodge-podge of back-issues and often out-of-print collections. Fortunately, that changed with the recent publication of four volumes of GRENDEL OMNIBUS, which seem to collect most of the Grendel stories Wagner wrote and occasionally drew over the years, except those with Batman.

The first volume, subtitled "Hunter Rose", collects "Devil By The Deed" by Wagner and Rich Rankin, now in a black-white-and-red format matching the rest of the contents, two short-story anthology books, "Black, White & Red" (1998) and "Red, White & Black" (2002), written by Wagner and drawn by various artists (plus a few other scattered short stories from various publications), and "Behold The Devil", the 8-issue miniseries by Wagner solo from 2007-2008.

"Devil By The Deed" is still a powerful work. It looks pretty good in this duo-tone format, except that the typeset lettering is way too small in this more compact size (6x9 instead of the 8.5x11 of the 1986 book). It was an fascinating way to begin the story, pretty much starting with the death of your lead, and then going back and telling his life story from a skewed perspective (the conceit of "Deed", for those who don't know, is that the narration is from a book written a generation later by Christine Spar, the child of one of the characters, who becomes a main character in the next story, based primarily on the diary of Hunter Rose plus other research, though the images sometimes show a version of events not evident in the text). There's a lot of story, some of it glossed over quickly, but creating a solid foundation to build on.

That building came with the 45 short stories that take up almost 400 pages in the middle of the book, a few drawn by Wagner but mostly by other artists, exploring various aspects of the life of Hunter Rose. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but mostly high quality, as Wagner is very clearly writing to the strength of each artist, and playing with various storytelling styles to flesh out the original story, looking at how Hunter Rose became the person he is, how he rose to power in his criminal empire and how he ultimately fell, often by exploring the lives (and frequently deaths) of those affected by his actions, including lawyers and literary agents and the other supporting characters. A few times I thought Wagner was explaining a bit too much, robbing the story of the elegant simplicity of some of the passages in "Devil By The Deed" (I didn't really need to know the names and circumstance of death of each of the 23 crime bosses Grendel killed in one night), but for the most part he explains just enough and treats Hunter Rose more as a force of nature in the stories. There's some exceptional art in there, a few stand-outs include Stand Sakai, Michael Zulli, Tim Bradstreet, Paul Chadwick, Jill Thompson and Cliff Chiang.

The final chunk of the book is the most recent major Grendel story that Wagner has done, "Behold The Devil". It's kind of a jarring transition from the tight, compact and efficient storytelling in the previous 400 pages of the book, this time there's a single story that takes almost 200 pages to tell. This is presented as a time covered in Spar's "Devil By The Deed" only by outside evidence, as the period is missing from Hunter Rose's diary. We're privy to much more detail than Spar is, as Wagner follows Grendel during that period, as well as a reporter and a detective who are trying to find him. There's a lot of good stuff in the story, but I found it to be the least satisfying part of the book, as the main purpose of the story in the end seemed to be to place Hunter Rose firmly in the the larger legacy of Grendel, an aspect of the character that is mostly absent from the other stories in the book. My feelings on that aspect might change if and when I learn more about that larger legacy from the later volumes. I haven't decided if I'll continue yet, but right now I'm leaning towards reading the next book at least.

So definitely recommended, a good block of entertaining reading for $25, with frequent moments of excellence.

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