Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Widening Gyre

Grendel: Black, White, and Red/ Red, White, and Black (Mostly 1998-2002) (Collected in Grendel Omnibus Volume 2 (2013): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by Matt Wagner, Duncan Fegredo, Kelley Jones, Ashley Wood, Michael Zulli, Mike Allred, David Mack, and many others: Writer-artist Matt Wagner would return several times to the first incarnation of his villain-hero Grendel over the decades, early 1980's crime boss and novelist Hunter Rose. This made a lot of sense, as the initial story devoted to Rose was only about 60 pages long.

And yes, these stories are black, white, and red: those are the only 'colours' used, and the effect is mostly smashing. 

Black, White, and Red and Red, White, and Black saw Wagner writing short tales of the early Grendelverse for an astonishing list of artists. Even if one doesn't like the writing, one can find a lot to love here in these often wildly disparate artistic takes on the world of Hunter Rose.

Me, I like the writing fine for the most part, though a couple of Wagner's forays into poetry and doggerel fall pretty flat. Helping things is Wagner's decision to focus most of the individual tales on the supporting cast. A little of Hunter Rose's glib, smug nihilism goes an awfully long way. But Grendel as instead a terrifying secondary character in most of these stories works very well indeed.

I wouldn't recommend reading the two collections in one sitting. Grendel's world is a grim one, albeit often laced through with gallows humour. With the sharp writing and art here, the whole thing is highly recommended. Look for it in-print in the first Grendel omnibus from Dark Horse

Grendel: God and the Devil (1988-89/ Collected 2013 in Grendel Omnibus 3): written by Matt Wagner; illustrated by John K. Snyder III, Jay Geldhof, Joe Matt, and Bernie Mireault: Matt Wagner re-situates the epic Grendel narrative in early 26th-century America in this ambitious work of dystopian science-fantasy. I think it's swell.

Climate change and a limited nuclear exchange have left large stretches of North America uninhabitable, with most of the continent's population now living in the Western states. That's also where the newish North American Vatican, Vatican Ouest, is located -- in New Mexico. The various levels of government in North America have been replaced by corporations which battle for dominance with the Vatican and the Confederacy of Police (C.O.P.).

Wagner and artists John K. Snyder III and Jay Geldhof make this installment of Grendel a dense work of science fiction and political satire. But they also manage to stage fine, sometimes harrowing sequences of action and horror. 

What's changed in the Grendelverse is that now the body-hopping demonic entity finds itself fighting on the side of life itself. The Pope -- who will quickly be revealed to be an old nemesis of Grendel -- has a plan that's not going to do humanity any good. And so the new Grendel and Orion Assante, an ambitious but principled corporate type, find themselves extremely unlikely allies, with the full power of Vatican Ouest against them.

There's action and horror and world-building galore in what was originally published in ten issues of defunct Comico's Grendel back in the late 1980's. It's an interesting case study in how Wagner saw the future back then, or at least the future as a metaphor for the present. His world pits the mercenary  private police of C.O.P. against anyone they're paid to deal with. And the 'commmisioner' of C.O.P., the brutal and pragmatic Pellon Cross, becomes the fourth side of the triangle of Grendel, Orion, and the Pope. 

Oh, and there are animal metaphors galore, including a running joke about an extremely hard-to-kill rat. You'll be reminded of Wagner's Canadian-ness when 1980's Canadian band Jerry Jerry and the Sons of the Rhythm Orchestra make a guest appearance. And you'll laugh at some of Wagner's inspiration for names (his new Grendel is named for Margaret Thatcher, for one). 

This is dense storytelling -- perhaps a bit too dense on some pages for the reduced page size of the Grendel Omnibus series. So dig out your magnifying glass. This is one of the great comic-book narratives of the 1980's and 1990's. It can stand beside Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns without suffering by comparison. Highly recommended.

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