GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Grendel Archives
This is a book we never expected to see: a collection of the very earliest adventures of Matt Wagner’s dark signature character Grendel, the stories that were reworked into Devil by the Deed more than twenty years ago. It’s the very earliest published work of Wagner’s, and – while he was quite good for a tyro – he still was very new to the field, and had a lot to learn.
Grendel Archives collects the Grendel story from Comico’s Primer #2 from 1982 and the first three issues of the subsequent first series of Grendel comics. (Those issues are all very expensive these days, so, if nothing else, Grendel Archives makes them available at a reasonable price to all of us who have discovered Wagner in the years since.) Grendel is not quite the seemingly omnipresent, omnicompetent near-future crimelord of Devil by the Deed and the more recent short stories; he’s mostly an assassin-for-hire in this story. Deadly, yes. Uncannily skilled and talented, of course. (This is comics, after all.) But he’s not yet the lord and master of all he surveys that he later became. He’s cockier and not quite as self-assured. He even, in the Primer story, corrects one victim who calls him merely Grendel: “That’s The Evil Grendel!”
Wagner stopped this series after issue #3; I don’t know, personally, whether it was by his choice or due to low sales. He launched his other signature series, Mage: The Hero Discovered, soon afterward, and the Grendel story, in a radically reconfigured form, appeared as a series of back-up stories during the second half of that first series of Mage’s run, and was then collected as Devil by the Deed. The reworked version of this story was Wagner’s first major success; Mage had some good parts and bad parts, though it got stronger as it went along, but Devil by the Deed was all of a piece and is still one of the high points of mid-80s comics.
Wagner has youthful exuberance and energy on his side in the Grendel Archives stories, but he doesn’t always have everything else working quite right. (The dialogue is frequently clumsy, the poetic narration of the Primer story is more than a bit too much, and the drawing is not always up to what Wagner wants it to be.) On the other hand, he was already extremely ambitious, and successful at those ambitions quite a lot of the time: the first issue of Grendel clearly starts (to readers of Devil by the Deed) in the middle of Grendel and Argent’s final battle, and then the story flashes back to several levels of past time. By the end of issue #3, the structure still isn’t clear – we haven’t made it back to that climactic battle yet, nor referenced it since the beginning of issue #2 – but Wagner clearly has the structure of a multi-issue story worked out.
The art also is occasionally quite good; I was particularly impressed by the second issue’s flashback origin sequence for Argent, the giant wolf-creature who is Grendel’s nemesis. Wagner did have occasional problems with faces and feet – the former aren’t as variable as they should be, and the latter are sometimes of cartoonish proportions – but, in general, the art is more than acceptable for a black and white book from 1982. (That may be damning with faint praise, I know, but the art is more workmanlike than inspired at this early point in his career.)
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end so much as stop – as issue #3 closes, a major character has disappeared, and this storyline clearly was going to run at least three more issues. (I’d estimate five to seven, myself – to end at either issue 8 or 10.) On the other hand, this is, essentially, the same plotline as Devil by the Deed, so anyone who knows Grendel at all will know what happens next. What’s interesting in Grendel Archives is not the thrill of reading a new story, it’s seeing what a familiar story looked like in conventional form, before Wagner radically condensed it into the text-heavy back-up story in Mage.
Grendel Archives is a book for completionists and big-time Wagner fans; anyone who hasn’t already read Devil by the Deed a few times has no use for this book. But Wagner does provide a snazzy new cover and a thoughtful (if short) introduction, and the whole package only costs a fraction of what a NM copy of Primer alone would set you back. So, if you’re already a fan of Matt Wagner’s work, and Grendel in particular, you will want to have this.
Dark Horse Books, 2007, $14.95