Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Grendel: The Devil Inside
by Matt Wagner (writer) & Bernie Mireault (artist)
In Junior High, my grandmother moved out of her house in the suburbs of New Jersey to stay with my family in upstate New York. My grandfather had recently passed away and the first inklings of my grandmother's Alzheimer's was apparent enough, though we had yet to attach a name to her condition, for the family to know that she wouldn't be able to live all alone in the house she had shared with my grandfather for forty-plus years. The house on Hope Street was sold, and she moved in with my family in Syracuse, New York. Though the mental disintegration of my grandmother was painful, I have many fond memories from that period. My grandmother and I often went out on the weekends, first to lunch and then the mall. It was through my grandmother's bewilderment at the pop culture of an adolescent suburban boy that I was able to expose myself to the sort of "objectionable" items my parents wouldn't let me take in – namely Japanese anime & manga, Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian," and the Wu-Tang Clan. I often had to assure my grandmother that "yes, my parents let me watch/listen to/read this."
A rather bland sports and hobby shop at the shopping mall had a good number of long boxes of comic books for a dollar each. It was leafing through these bins on Saturday afternoons that I first discovered many of the outré series produced on the fringes of the superhero market during the small publishing comic boom of the eighties. I collected sizable runs of "American Flagg!," "Elementals," the First Comics editions of "Lone Wolf & Cub" and, perhaps most importantly, large chunks of the forty-issue Grendel ongoing series published by Comico.
(To be fair, I also collected my fair share of duds, like the Alan Grant run on "The Demon" and "Arak, Son of Thunder.)
While a series like "Elementals" has its fair share of naiveté in hindsight, "Grendel" by creator Matt Wagner and a slew of talented artists, including the
Pander Bros. and a pre-"Long Halloween" & "Heroes" Time Sale, retains a degree of sophistication and maturity uncommon to American comics to this day. Matt Wagner's saga charts the progression of Grendel from an inversion of the Batman template into a Hegelian social construct that eventually gains preeminence as the driving ideology to a post-Christian world in a Nuclear War ravaged far future. Throughout the series, Grendel assumes various host identities, from Hunter Rose's dandy-cum-criminal mastermind to Christine Spar, his adopted granddaughter, who must battle a vampire kabuki master (who later resurfaces in the far future as the pope of a desiccated Christian empire!) to a cultural meme. It's a complicated series, and at one point it even included an apocalyptic sub-plot that hinged upon the acquisition of bananas.
"Grendel: The Devil Inside" contains neither the scope, nor the breadth of longer Grendel story-arcs such as "Devil's Legacy" or "God & Devil," but it ranks as one of the strongest segments in the larger series, a sustained work that stands in my mind as one of the best of the medium, along with Bryan Talbot's "Luther Arkwright," and Jordorowsky & Moebius' "Incal" saga. It's the sort of subtle, dark psychological drama done without the self-awareness and reservation so prevalent in comics post-"mainstream acceptance."
The story follows Brian Li Sung, a formerly successful stage manager who has struck hard times ever since the death of his lover, Christine Spar, the previous Grendel. The story relies upon an awareness of the previous storyline, despite the difference in tone and approach between "Devil's Legacy" and this collection. While "Devil's Legacy" was violent and extroverted, "The Devil Inside" is, as the title indicates, introverted. When there is violence, it surges forward suddenly and with a real ugliness. Li Sung's struggles between managing a horrendous off-off-Broadway production and fending off (unsuccessfully) the same vengeful force that consumed Spar.
This internal struggle is indicated through a Mephistophelean commentary running along the bottom of most pages, as well as through journal entries written by Li Sung. The prose of tends to run a little purple, a criticism I often have of comic book writer's attempts at prose, see Dave Sim or even Alan Moore for further evidence. Still, this is a clever device and propels the story along admirably. Artist Bernie Mireault also integrates both the "Grendel" commentary and Li Sung's into the artwork itself. Li Sung's journals are shown as ripped pages from a spiral notebook. There's a wonderful wordless panel early on in the graphic novel in which Li Sung is sitting down at his desk and we see the blank spiral notebook that he fills as the story progresses. The art is full of nuance and fun details such as this throughout.
Bernie Mireault utilizes a rhythm between density and expansiveness rarely seen in this day and age, where the American mainstream has been, to my mind, adversely affected by the manga-esqe decompression popularized by Warren Ellis (what he calls, or at least used to call, "widescreen comics"). Multiple small, wordless panels create a dense, but smooth pacing offset by text and dialogue heavy passages. Mireault also envisioned an effective, believable near-future. Check out the R.E.M "Not Dead Yet" tour poster plastered on an alley-wall. Occasionally a floating police-craft is visible, and the detective foil of the comic has a cybernetic eye, but these touches are woven seamlessly into a story that relies more on the grime of mid-eighties' New York than on sci-fi gadgetry.
"The Devil Inside" is also wonderfully ambiguous, right up until the end. Most reviews I read of the graphic novel take for granted that "Grendel" is indeed parasitically manifest in the story, though the text is actually ambivalent regarding the reality of "Grendel" as some sentient psychic vampire. A degree of dramatic mystery is maintained. The decisive confrontation between Brian & Wiggins isn't quite as clear-cut as most reviewers indicate. I don't necessarily believe Brian makes a conscious decision to stall as an opposition to the "Grendel" force, that hesitation may also be a result of his poor physical in relation to former Grendels such as Hunter Rose and Christine Spar. The final pages are also fine examples of visual storytelling. Perhaps due to his own experience as an artist, Wagner perfectly understands how to write wordless passages. Look at the panel in which Li Sung, after missing Wiggins with his bow and arrow, places a hand on his forehead. This establishes a nice narrative "beat" while also conveying Li Sung's emotional reaction, despite the fact that Brian is wearing a Grendel mask that obscures his facial features.
Other comics, indeed, even other entries in the Grendel saga, may be more high concept and "epic," but don't let the small scale of "The Devil Inside" fool you, this is a progressive, mature graphic novel utilizing a sophistication of intent, voice and execution which many comics may be accredited, but few actually possess. If you want an example of what the medium is capable of, this is it. I'm just glad my grandmother didn't find out the comic she bought me had some bare boobs and curse words in it.