Thursday, May 21, 2009

Grendel: Devil's Reign

Written by Matt Wagner, Penciled by Tim Sale

Matt Wagner introduced the Hunter Rose Grendel in a series of back-up features in his ‘Mage’ comic book. These back-ups, later collected in ‘Devil by the Deed,’ succeed as an ornately paneled integration of text and illustration. Using a sleek, art deco inspired layout, Wagner conjures images of precise stain glass. ‘Devil by the Deed’ manages to straddle that elusive edge between the comic book and the illustrated novel. The Grendel cycle has always playfully flirted with this borderland of text and illustration inherent to the medium. Text, not just as script, but also as an object in and of itself, has played a major role in the series. I’ve mentioned in previous posts the strong epistolary nature of Grendel’s narrative. Either as narrative devices, such as Brian Li Sung’s diary in ‘The Devil Inside,’ or as plot catalysts, such as Hunter Rose and Christine Spar’s journals. text drives forward both personal consequence and history in the Grendel cycle.

‘Devil’s Reign’ collects the concluding issues of the original ongoing ‘Grendel’ series from Comico. This story line sees the culmination of Grendel as a zeitgeist, as this occurs hundreds of years in the future. Orion Assante, the beleaguered protagonist of the previous storyline, ‘God and the Devil,’ here utilizes Grendel’s recognizable image and its accompanying cultural attaché to rally the global populace. By the conclusion of the volume, the world has been united under the banner of Grendel. ‘Devil’s Reign’ is centered around two poles, parallel storylines that comment and compliment upon each other through differences in execution and focus. The first of the two, as previously mentioned, follows Orion Assante as he consolidates political power following the dissolution of papal conglomerates in ‘God and the Devil.’ Wagner frames the global ascent of Assante using the commentary of Crystal Kennedy Martel – another text on which both narrative and plot hinges. Assante’s story is told through extensive excerpts from Crystal Kennedy Martel’s book, accompanied by illustrations from Tim Sale, rendered with thick lines and flat colors. As was the case in ‘Devil by the Deed,’ we must remember we are reading an account of events and not directly observing them. Where Christine Spar, the daughter of Hunter Rose’s ward, Stacy, narrates ‘Devil by the Deed’ Martel, herself the daughter of future Regent Laurel Kennedy, narrates the Assante segment of ‘Devil’s Reign.’

The second narrative of ‘Devil’s Reign,’ titled ‘Tales from the Underground,’ is also told through account, as Wagner and Sale chronicle the imprisonment in VEGAS of the vampiric horde lead by former COP, Pellon Cross. The vampires are corralled into Caesar’s Palace, renamed Grendel’s Palace. Whereas Cross developed into a third narrative voice in ‘God and the Devil,’ severe, exacting and analytical, in ‘Devil’s Reign’ his account is conspicuously missing, as his lieutenants instead narrate the events. This absence is ironic, as Cross, now calling himself the First One, becomes prone to self-aggrandizing monologues throughout ‘Devil’s Reign.’ The contrast between the former discipline of Cross and his new megalomania is telling. Zebra, Cross’ lieutenant who becomes increasingly disenfranchised with ‘the First One,’ comments that ‘He didn’t used to like hearing his own voice so much. Back before he rose. And became the First One.” The volume ends with a blood-besotted Cross cackling as he asks for another drink. His is the last voice, not Orion Assante, not Crystal Kennedy Martel, not even one of Cross’ lieutenant’s. No, ‘Devil’s Reign’ ends with a blank voice, one that signifies nothing other than its own incoherence.

“Grendel: War Child,” the next entry in the cycle, the mini-series, concludes the greater storyline, aside from a few odds and ends published since. ‘Devil’s Reign,’ though, serves as the true climax of the series. It is here that the concept of Grendel has expanded, and diversified, to accommodate a nation, instead of one or two men. Orion Assante may stand as the Grendel-Khan, the great global unifier, but he is only the head of a larger beast. ‘Devil’s Reign’ does not end with its protagonist’s tragic demise. Perhaps the true protagonist of this volume is the world itself, as it falls under the sway of Grendel. The strong personalities that initially drove the series, Hunter Rose and Christine Spar, have not so much been sublimated, but completely forgotten by this point in the series. The symbol of Grendel has manifested a history of its own divorced from biological facts.

Assante travels to VEGAS in order to retrieve Eppy Thatcher, the masked Grendel of ‘God and the Devil,’ in hopes of discovering the depths of the devil’s hold. Orion asks Eppy, who has been horribly disfigured and broken, “…if you still feel moved by the devil’s hand – or, if not, can you remember when the spirit left you?” Eppy can’t. The spirit has moved on. Orion calls out Eppy’s name, and the shrunken thing replies, “S-stop callin’ me that! My name is.. is Ratso now. ‘Cause I live like a rat… in the sewers… where the leeches are – b-big fuckin’ leeches, yeah, boy. ‘s hard livin’, boy – fuckin’ right…” Grendel, then, is an intersection of function and circumstance, it’s a relational contingent that differs according to each situation. Grendel may concentrate around a person, but it is never that person. Wagner’s recent mini-series, ‘Behold the Devil,’ addresses this concept in respect to Hunter Rose, whose mystique is for many fans as strong as that of Grendel itself. Hunter Rose is offered a vision of the multiplicity of Grendel from which he recoils – Grendel cannot be contained within ‘Hunter Rose!’ Wagner’s interest in exploring Grendel from a varieties of identity and narrative are strongly reminiscent of Michael Moorcock’s investigations of the genre hero in his Eternal Champion series.

Hopefully Dark Horse Comics will be continuing its reissues of the Grendel cycle with a new printing of ‘War Child’ in the near future. ‘War Child’ partially represents a retreat from the new global perspective which makes ‘Devil’s Reign’ such an exciting comic book, but it does offers a up-close look at this strange world altered by Grendel and futuristic political machinations. It is a wonderful privilege, though, to have such an idiosyncratic and pivotal chapter in the Grendel cycle back in print. Serious and considered writings on this bizarre and brilliant series are still scant, but with any luck these reissues will warrant a well-deserved reappraisal.

Vivat Grendel.

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