By Matt Wagner, Hannibal King, Tim Sale and Joe Matt
The fifth phase in the development of Matt Wagner’s Grendel concept must have been baffling to a lot of people when it originally started in 1988. Readers used to the adventures of an anti-hero stalking the streets in the most awesome mask in comics were suddenly thrust 400 years in the future, with four issues bridging the gap between the near and far futures.
It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise - Wagner had been taking consistently interesting steps on the Grendel ongoing title for more than a year, killing off Christine Spar, having her successor burn out in days and taking a trip back to the Hunter Rose years with some startling storytelling experimentations.
Even so, Wagner begins #20 with a warning to the gentle reader that the next few issues are going to be a bit of a ride, and they will have to hold on if they want to get to the end.
Wagner’s decision to take that leap into the future made his Grendel concept so much more interesting than a man (or woman) behind a mask. It became a malevolent icon, a cultural being that existed in many forms simultaneously. It would eventually evolve into a symbol for honour, willpower and determination, but that was much further down the line.
In issues 20-23, Wagner has enough to do getting Grendel into the collective subconscious of humanity, and has to deal with the breakdown of civilisation, life in a hard oil-starved world and the return of religious forces as the main political power on the planet.
It’s a lot to get through, and there are also little one-off stories to be told, of a detective who got too close to the Grendel legend, of the head of a multinational corporation inadvertently bringing about total war through his own short-sightedness, of a girl torn between loyalty to her family and the lure of a sexy new future, and of a failed bid for Popedom in a scary and media-saturated future.
But it never feels like a slog, with some terrific art from Hannibal King and Tim Sale, while Joe Matt was there to contribute some appropriately queasy colours. They’re also still fun to read, because Wagner is still playing around with the format of a comic. There are no real conversations in these issues, just one word sentences and rhyming slang and pictograms and an omnipresent narrator that seems to be coming from inside the character’s heads.
There is also a terrific narrative trick, where every issue starts with a specific sound – a thump, a boom, a clang and a click – and people reacting to that noise with horror and despair for some unknown reason, before the story flashes back to show what that sound really means. It’s a trick that works surprisingly well.
It all works so well that the next storyline is all set up and ready to go. Orion Assante and Eppy Thatcher are waiting, and so is Grendel Prime.
Wagner hasn’t done much with his future world in the past decade, focusing instead on the earliest days and the adventures of Hunter Rose. These have been typically meaty and inticing stories, but it’s the future that remains unwritten. There was a brief appearance of the future at the climax of Behold The Devil - which ended up contributing to the death of Hunter Rose because he realised he wasn’t unique – but there has been no continuation of these weird and wonderful Grendel story for quite some time.
Wagner has been his usual busy self in recent years, contributing fine stories for things like the Green Hornet and Zorro, but Grendel remains his most magnificent creation, and any more tales of that evil icon's evolution will always be welcome.