Matt Wagner created a world for “Grendel” that is brutal, violent, tragic and sad. It’s also home to some of the best comic book stories ever created. “Grendel Omnibus Volume 1: Hunter Rose” is as close to perfect a collection as you can get, in my humble opinion. It deserves a 10 out of 10.
Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the creation of Hunter Rose, this is a comprehensive collection of all the iconic arch-criminal’s tales, presented as chronologically as possible. (After the death of this character, the various “Grendel” comic books focused on other characters who subsequently adopted the name and identity … it’s a little hard to explain.)
It begins with “Grendel: Devil by the Deed,” which is a great summary of biopic of the title character, and then moves on to more than 40 other stories, all penned by Wagner and illustrated by various other artists. It ends with the fantastic “Grendel: Behold the Devil,” illustrated by Wagner.
These comics are as difficult to describe as they are amazingly good. On the surface, this is a noir crime-story collection, about a masked mastermind who overruns the East Coast mobs. He’s pursued by the “Argent the Wolf,” the closest this series comes to presenting a hero.
But the “Grendel” identity (both here and in Wagner’s later incarnations) is really more of an abstract force, like aggression or amorality. When you look at both Hunter Rose and his successors, you do realize that Wagner seems to be tackling nothing less than the nature of evil. (This becomes more evident in Wagner’s later “Grendel” personas.) If you enjoy these comics (as I obviously have), that’s fine. But if you empathize with the main character (I’m not even sure he’s a protagonist), you ought to worry.
He isn’t an antihero, or even a sympathetic villain like Dr. Doom or Venom. He’s evil. He murders countless people, both innocent and guilty – all merely to provide his supergenius mind with “challenge,” to achieve “focus,” and to gain “dominance and subjugation” over every human being he encounters.
Nor are we often presented with many other “good” major characters. Argent, the ostensible hero, brutally slaughters even low-level criminals, with the tacit approval of a desperate and morally shaky New York City Police Department. Both Grendel and other characters opine that he isn’t much better than the villain.
Does Wagner succeed in creating a three-dimensional character? That’s hard to say. He really seems more archetypal when compared with a more complex, fully realized characters in comics (as Bruce Wayne often is, in the hands of the right writer). Wagner does explain his transformation and motivations, but to me they seem incomplete. Still, Hunter Rose damned compelling and fascinating to follow. Wagner has a beautiful command of the English language, and I do think that Hunter Rose is the most eloquently voiced comic book character I’ve ever read.
Wagner’s (varying) style is also a little hard to describe. When I first started reading his stuff way back in the 1990’s, I tried to explain to other comic fans that his stories were “experimental.” These books were rarely similar to what you would read from DC or Marvel, or even Dark Horse. They’re written, structured and drawn in a variety of ways – often, for example, using lots if text that makes the books “prose-heavy.” You sort of have to read the books to “get it.” If you’re a serious comic book fan, it’s worth checking out Wagner’s work just to see the different kind of things he can do with the medium.
The art is unique and beautiful. I know very little about art in general, but I do think there’s an art deco influence, and Wagner’s illustrations actually kind of remind me of Walt Disney’s classic work.
All in all, this is a fantastic collection. I strongly recommend it.