by Matt Derman
...reading comics from the year i was born!
Grendel #4-15 (Comico)
by Matt Wagner, Arnold Pander, Jacob Pander, Bernie Mireault, Jay Geldof, Tom Vincent, Joe Matt, Steve Haynie, Bob Pinaha
Everyone is the hero of their own story. Evil rarely believes itself to be evil, because any action or attitude can be justified if you skew your point of view in the right way. And sometimes, something that begins as legitimately noble or righteous can become tainted over time, soured through cross-mingling with lesser impulses and human weaknesses. Matt Wagner’s 'Grendel' is, among many other things, a pointed examination of this process of transforming a good person into a wicked one. The characters who star in this year of issues begin as normal and well intention-ed, but their inability to cope with external evils and personal loss changes them into delusional crazies just looking for an excuse to murder somebody. Within the comic, the Grendel persona is seen by the public as a menace, a seemingly unstoppable force of terror and chaos that can’t be explained or understood. For the reader, understanding Grendel is actually rather easy, but deciding whether or not to root for the people under the mask is more difficult.
The discovery of Tujiro as a vampire forces Chris to come to terms with the idea that Anson is most likely dead, never to be saved or seen again. In accepting this likelihood, Chris’ goal changes from saving her child to getting revenge in his name, and it is in that shift that we begin to see how being Grendel can turn someone into a darker, more brutal, more bloodthirsty version of themselves. When she should be moving through the typical stages of grief, Chris instead gets stuck on anger. She gradually lets go of her remaining despair and trades it in for an ever-increasing rage, escalating her violence against Tujiro and company until she finally kills the entire group, except for Tujiro himself and his right hand man Niccolo, by blowing up their tour buses. She then forces a confrontation with Tujiro where she has several traps and tricks prepared, determined to use everything in her power to kill him. Sadly, despite her efforts, she is still largely uninformed about his abilities and therefore under-prepared, so he escapes more or less unscathed. Niccolo loses a hand and is brutally beaten in other ways, so it’s not as if Chris’ thirst for vengeance is wholly unquenchable. In the end though, her fury is largely futile, and the victims of her violence are not the real focus of her hate, just his allies and employees. They’re guilty of plenty and arguably deserving of their untimely ends, but their deaths are at best tangentially related to her original mission. Yet she seems to consider the whole affair a victory, and announces to herself and the reader that her time as Grendel has ended, her work complete. In the light of that decision, the question becomes: what itch was being Grendel really scratching for Chris? The desire to avenge her lost son, or a baser compulsion to lash out violently at the world in any way for any reason?
There is no end in sight to the destruction and violence of Grendel, and as a police officer, Riley is basically just doing his job to protect the citizens of his city from a maniacal killer. He clearly crosses a line by attacking Brian, but if this were "Law & Order", Riley would be nothing more than the overly devoted loose cannon cop who’s had it up to here with criminals that get away with it. A few cracks from the butt of his gun are nothing compared to the nightlong torment Chris subjects him to before she takes his life. She puts him through a series of near misses, events that appear to be accidents but are clearly the result of her shadowy machinations, and that always could kill Riley, but instead only ever come close. This understandably puts Riley more and more on edge until Chris finally deigns to confront him face to face, at which point she needlessly maims him by chopping his fingers off before standing above his fallen, terrified form and driving her dual blades straight into his chest. The sadism behind this psychological torture and the brutality and rapidity of the subsequent murder serve as clear markers that Chris’ reasons for becoming Grendel are not so high-minded or defensive as she likes to tell herself. In reality, she rather enjoys the power and opportunity that come with the name and costume, and will continue to find targets for her blood lust under any available pretense for as long as she can survive. Which, it turns out, is not very long with that attitude.
Argent the Wolf was the nemesis of Hunter Rose, and only becomes an enemy of Chris’ when she decides to follow in her sort-of-grandfather’s footsteps. Even then, Argent’s role is fairly detached. He works with the police long-distance to try and find Chris so she can be stopped, and occasionally has her friends somewhat forcibly brought before him for interrogations. But there is no active pursuit of Chris on Argent’s part, nor does he ever represent an immediate threat of any kind. He is determined, callous, and terrifying in his appearance, but like Riley, Argent never does anything strictly evil. Because he and Hunter were foes, it stands to reason that he would have a vested interest in any incarnation of Grendel, but he does not seek to hurt Chris overtly, just to put an end to her madness. And he gets to do it, too, when she selects him, impulsively yet inevitably, to be her next target.
Her whole life becomes a never-ending battle once she begins her Grendel career, but it never grows tiresome for the reader. That is in large part because of the train wreck that is her mental downward spiral, but another key element is the art by Arnold and Jacob Pander. Their style is not what I would have expected to see for a story of this nature, but is somehow entirely fitting all the same. They own it, drawing with a level of confidence and assuredness that makes the exaggerated style and bulky fashion work. The obvious choice would be to go gritty, lots of shadow and gloom in the air. The Pander Bros. do the opposite. Their cast is all caricatures; the action always overwhelms the page. It is "cartoon-ish comic book art" cranked to eleven, but it doesn't clash because there’s still so much clear emotion in the characters. Their facial expressions may be outrageous, but they’re also glaringly obvious and honest, and the narrative similarly wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no question as to whether or not Chris is crazy, or that Tujiro is an evil, heartless beast, or that Riley is growing unhealthily obsessed with his investigation. The artwork actually boldly underlines all of that, while also bringing some levity to the more brutal fights and deaths, so they’re slightly easier to swallow. To play up the raw emotion and subdue the most intense violence is an impressive and unexpected trick to pull, and the Pander Bros. do it splendidly nine straight issues.
Their work is held up by Tom Vincent’s flat, bold colors. More often than not, the backgrounds are blank, made up of one or two bright hues that amp up the feelings of a scene or panel in the same way the line-work does. The same is true of the characters’ clothes, rarely more than a solid color or two, but always flashy and always right for the outfit. And there seem to be an unusually high number of moments that call for melodramatic lighting in this series, which Vincent always nails, highlighting all the right things and capturing the tension and/or catharsis perfectly.
When he becomes Grendel, Brian himself doesn't quite understand the reasons for it at first, but over time he comes to recognize that there is a dissociation of identity/multiple personality situation developing within his broken mind. While the “real” Brian claims no desire to kill, he knows that when he sleeps Grendel takes over with nothing but killing on its agenda. There is a flaccid resistance from Brian’s end, but only in his words and thoughts, never his actions. He does not work to better his life, he does not try to find help or restrain himself. He plays at being terrified of his own brain and body, while tacitly handing control over to his other half.
The art duties change hands at the same time as the Grendel name and all the burden it brings. Brian’s three issues are drawn by Bernie Mireault with colors by Joe Matt, and they are far more in the noir tradition than what came before, a lot of tight panels and shadowy images and faded tones. But of course, this is exactly what the title calls for at this point, for a number of reasons. Brian’s struggle is a bit more pathetic, and his rage doesn't burn as brightly because he’s trying to deny or ignore its existence. Matt’s coloring matches that change, using a far more limited and muted palette than Vincent had. A few blues, some soft reds, and lots of black. Brian’s world lacks the energy and liveliness of Chris’, and so do his few acts as Grendel, so it shows in the visuals.
Mireault is a talented storyteller, building his pages with great care and always using the full space. He has a strong sense of the page as a whole image, a meta-panel, and though his full-page splashes are incredibly rare, there are many examples of multiple smaller panels arranged to create a similarly impressive effect. And though his style is more grounded and grim than the Pander Bros., his characters are no less expressive and consistent, which is all that really counts in this book. The surface-level madness, depression, fixation, and fury is where the heart of these stories lie, narratively and visually.