Sunday, May 17, 2009

Grendel: God and the Devil

Written by Matt Wagner, Penciled by John K. Snyder III, Jay Geldhof, Bernie Mireault, Tim Sale

The Grendel Cycle, originating with 1986’s “Devil by the Deed” and continuing into the present with last year’s “Behold the Devil,” consists of a series of oscillations, revolutions of genre and form, rotating around a distinct visual hub - the iconic Grendel mask. Matt Wagner, creator, writer and occasional artist for the series, refuses any easy aesthetic consistencies between storylines, as he tirelessly shifts tone and direction to fit each individual movement of this centuries-spanning epic. The very nature of Grendel is one of fluctuation, though the constancy of image, such as the mask and the staff, remains to cohere the series’ myriad elements. Due to the series’ peculiar nature, it stands as a peculiar borderland between what I would argue are the two dominant terrains of the contemporary medium. The Grendel series, as well as Wagner’s work on a whole, illuminates the faults in the generally accepted mainstream binary currently in place. To further understand the significance of the Grendel cycle as a whole, and the graphic novel “God and the Devil” in particular, let us first look at the state of the medium in the contemporary moment.

People pay attention to comic books nowadays. But wait, what people really pay attention to is a certain idea of comics – one that I would argue is predominantly shaped by economic factors. Now, of course comics have always existed as a market fueled by profit, but in recent years we have seen the fruition of a mainstream economic thrust in the comic book market. A similar bid for both critical and economic appeal was attempted, disastrously, in the early 90s. For many decades, comics have enjoyed both a privilege and a popularity overseas widely divergent from the support (or lack thereof) seen in the American market. It isn’t uncommon for businessmen in Japan to be seen reading manga on the subway – a trend which has, significantly, just visibly hit our shores with the hype build-up for the Zack Snyder’s unfortunate ‘Watchmen’ adaptation. In the month before the above-mentioned movie was released, it was difficult to get on the subway with seeing someone reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s superhero epic. But what is new here in the States has been accepted abroad for decades. A 2004 joint Parisian exhibition of the work of Japanese creator, Hiyao Miyazaki, and French comic artist, Moebius, indicates the integration of sequential art within the European conception of high culture. But how has the mainstreaming of the form affected American comics?

As comic books finally and definitively become ‘graphic novels,’ we find the American medium torn between two distinct traditions. An excellent mapping of the contemporary identity of the graphic novel can be found at any local Barnes & Noble. Look at the shelves! This division is not, as it has been traditionally been defined, one between a mainstream dominated by superhero-based juvenilia and a nascent underground of autobiographical and art-based ‘comix.’ Instead, in 2009, we find a diversity of work shoehorned into two mainstreams, both servicing specific demographics. Superheroics continue to dominate the first of these mainstreams, though one shouldn’t ignore the popularity and growing importance within this tradition of licensed properties, ranging from titles based on video games to, perhaps more significantly, action-adventure titles that basically serve as glorified storyboards to be farmed for future film development deals. On the next shelf in your local Barnes & Noble, one can find another mainstream. This is the NPR/ New Yorker-friendly ‘graphic novel’ - a neutered animal pandering to a less fannish, but not necessarily more adventurous demographic. Daniel Clowes and Gary Panter are just as prone to fostering hollow copycats as Jack Kirby and Alan Moore have proved to be.

But what about those books that fall between the cracks? What about those books that have failed to find their way into an easily digestible canon of tradition? The mainstreaming of the graphic novel has necessarily coincided with the history, by which I mean the capacity, of the medium. Comics as a medium are, unfortunately, all too-often pigeonholed into an either/or situation. This ignores the maturation of the American medium in the seventies and eighties as a subterranean market. The 1980s saw the small press boom of the marketplace. This was precipitated by such divergent factors as the success of self-publishers such Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim, in addition to the explosive popularity of both the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tim Burton’s Batman in theatres. When this boom finally deflated, due to both over-saturation and crass mismanagement on the part of publishers, the American market regressed into the niche markets seen today – a superhero genre fueled predominantly by nostalgia and an aggressively reactionary ‘independent’ market.

Amidst all this, the 1980s remain a fascinating period in the development of the American medium. The economic viability of small publishers led to a diversity of possibilities. Books like Matt Wagner’s Grendel cycle represent not only a path not taken, but also a path that still might be explored. The series as a whole stands as a triumph of formal experimentation – a fascinating borderland within a field that has since been mapped and sequestered for the sake of marketability. Grendel is a genre comic, but exactly what genre that is remains elusive. The back of the trade collection ‘God and the Devil’ is categorized as ‘Science Fiction/ Horror,’ while the earlier ‘Devil by the Deed’ is ‘Crime.’ Who is Grendel, though? I mean, what is Grendel?

The original series follows Hunter Rose, a fabulously wealthy genius who masterminds a criminal empire before being slaughtered by Argent, a lycanthropic shaman employed by the police. But even at this earlier juncture of the series, Wagner is subverting the genre expectations. Hunter Rose is an inversion of Batman. While Bruce Wayne uses his finance and genius to fight crime, Hunter Rose uses his to take over the criminal underworld. And while Batman is born out of the passions of revenge, Grendel gestates from sheer boredom. The series doesn’t end with Hunter Rose’s death, instead Wagner follows a number of future Grendels, all lured into the mask through fear, hatred and passion. Aside from the perverse Harlequin mask linked all the successive Grendels, the other connective factor is epistolary.

‘Grendel – God and the Devil,’ holds together its dystopic vision of a 26th century plagued by church-dominated conglomerates and bloody inquisitions through selected entries from two journals – that of Orion Assante, the head of an investigation into papal corruption, and that of Eppy Thatcher, a drug-addict who assumes the mask of Grendel to enact a series of absurd and bloody acts of terror against the church. The two are established as obvious polarities, even in terms of font, where Orion’s crisp and confidant letters are offset by Thatcher’s off-balance journal scrawl. In fact, the very patterns of Orion’s life form a series of contained geometries, while Thatcher is nothing but a tatter of non-Euclidian angles and swirls. Assante falls into tight triangles like his incestuous affair with his two sisters, as well as his tactical base, triangulated between himself and his advisors, Fadi and Shelly. Thatcher, on the other hand, is best defined by the cartoonish swirls that artists Jay Geldhof and John K. Snyder III fill his eyes with after Eppy injects Grendel, a popular street drug which bestows its users with psychotic rage and superhuman strength.

The Grendel mask materializes of its own fruition in the space between characters, the gap between Orion’s ideals and his own emotional. In the introductory issue, Cardinal Emmett’s stain glass window reconfigures itself into the ghoulish visage of Grendel as the defrocked Cardinal injects himself with a lethal dose of the Grendel drug. In the series proper, we see two very different visions of the mask, each appropriate to the character through whom Grendel is working. Eppy Thatcher slams his fists into his desk until the blood gushes from his broken knuckles and pools into the Grendel image. ‘God and the Devil’ culminates in a fiery assault on Pope Innocent XLII’s Sun-Gun. As Vatican Ouest smolders to the ground, a victorious Orion Assante jets away in a fighter plane and wonders “How did [Innocent XLII] ever get that far? Are we so hollow that we need to be filled? By anything that’s available? Or is that the way it’s always been? Only the image ever changes. These vessels are fragile, translucent, and weak.” The beams of the cockpit cast a shadow of the Grendel mask on Assante’s face. It is not so much Assante speaking, in the final sentence, as it is the Grendel spirit itself, much like the conclusion of ‘the Devil Inside,’ when Brian Li Sung’s diaries are overcome by the madness of the Grendel spirit.

This persistent fluctuation of constancies is not only a reflection of the nature of Grendel, but also of the superhero genre which Grendel subverts. Matt Wagner subverts his audience’s expectations for the genre. While Eppy Thatcher dresses in the distinctive garb of Grendel, it is Orion Assante, clothed only in his street clothes, who materializes as the dominant Grendel of the series. A costume does not indicate who the main character is in ‘God and the Devil.’ With this series, we find Matt Wagner expanding the nature of Grendel outward from a single individual into a larger context. No longer a person, but a mutable concept.

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