The cliche is that comics aren’t just for kids. In fact, in the late eighties, it said exactly that on the cover of many comic books, usually alongside a picture of someone wearing implausible clothes hitting someone else in implausible clothes with something along the lines of a car.
Oooh! Critical low blow!
My problem with that “just for kids” tagline was that it was both patronising and snooty, as if kids only deserved a certain standard of entertainment and that what these fine purveyors were offering was certainly above merely that… Which is one thing. But also, let’s be honest, nine times out of ten what they may have been offering may not have been just for kids, but you couldn’t say that they were for adults, either. Arrogance is one thing, under-achieving arrogance is quite another.
I think the not just for kids thing is especially stupid because it writes large those pitifully small ambitions. If you have to argue that you aren’t for kids, then you’re really playing an away game, aren’t you? Imagine “sculpture – not just for kids” or “dancing – not just for kids”… It’s an artform, for Superman’s sake, it has conventions, tropes and cliches like any other, sure, and those aspects may be “childish”, but obviously any art form has embedded in it sufficient flexibility to work around or flat out avoid any of them in order to do whatever it is artists want or need. You don’t *have* to hit someone with a car. Not every dilemma or moral quandary has to be settled with mega-violence…
You wouldn’t necessarily know that these days, though. These days those superhero motifs are as front and centre as ever before, and suddenly seemingly more lucrative and successful than you could imagine. This summer Iron Man is up there against the Man of Steel in cinemas, just screaming that limited narrative vocabulary, while last year a Spider-Man reboot (the fourth film in 11 years) competed with the seventh live action Batman movie in twenty years and an Avengers flick that culminated five separate movies and aims to springboard at least another five…
These films look incredible and are thrilling and well put together by top of their game cast and crews… But they all still boil down to good men solving the world’s problems with their recourse to cars and other people’s heads. Intelligence isn’t really required of these heroes, and neither are women, let’s be honest. I’m an enormous Batman fan, but seriously – did Bruce Wayne even have a mother, according to Nolan, or was she just someone for his father to land on in that alley? And Black Widow? Don’t make me laugh, bitterly. The Avengers, amazing fun that it is, actually features a scene where the goodies are informed that their girlfriends are safely hidden away. No Gurls Allowed. No wonder the beautiful and hilarious Science Bros has caught on.
Wow. For a fan of comics you certainly sound like a dismissive prick.
Yes yes yes… But bear with me here.
A superhero narrative can be tremendously sophisticated and rewarding: Grant Morrison is currently wrapping up a six year Batman epic that has combined psycho sci-fi grand guignol psychedelia with an extended discourse on responsibility, personal limitations and the will to power. It has been a mind-boggling story of massive narrative ambition and thrilling drama and pathos that I will miss more than anyone: my problem is not with superheroes – superheroes are just a trope of the artform, like narrative with cinema or depth perception in fine art… I don’t even have a problem with megaviolence, come to think of it… My problem is when we mistake expensive bombast for the genuine humanity that spawned the artform in the first place.
There has been a lot of talk these days about how film special effects have finally caught up with comic book visuals, as if we used to read old Fantastic Four comics and genuinely believe a Titan in purple was about to eat, literally eat, the earth. That wasn’t what happened – Stan Lee’s breathless narration and Jack Kirby’s clear, everyday surrealism let you buy into the absurdism. Those artists made you a four colour fool, they used their tools to create an immersive environment and they didn’t need millions upon millions of dollars and a degree in photorealism to do it.
What makes comics great as an artform? Simple. Anyone can make one: it’s just your imagination, a pencil and a piece of paper.
Want a simple moral lesson, akin to “with great power comes great responsibility,” “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” or even “you got to be one of the good guys, son, because there are way too many of the bad”? Well, what about “never trust a comic book reader who hasn’t tried making their own story, somehow, at some point…”
Art that inspires you to create more art: that’s The Spirit.
And that, rather than super do-gooders and billion dollar turnovers, is what is interesting and what brings me to Matt Wagner’s immortal Grendel.
Grendel is the “Demon of Society’s Mediocrity”, an assassin turned mob lord who rules by fear, reinforced by his formidable intellect, unstoppable blades and undeniable will. Although no one knows his true identity, he calls himself Hunter Rose, and makes a fortune almost accidentally as a best-selling novelist while perfecting his stranglehold on New York’s underworld. He is basically Batman as a baddie.
Grendel was created by a teenager looking for an alter-ego: he is a supremely and appropriately confident genius with absolutely no self-doubt and a contempt for the banal, the uncivilized and the compromised. In early stories, released back in 1982, Hunter Rose is depicted almost like a puppy dog, all huge eyes and lolloping paws – he is a childlike avatar, published in cheap comics almost as a throwaway idea. You recognise him as soon as you see him because you invented him too…
But Matt Wagner’s genius was that he fell in love with his creation and wouldn’t stop tinkering.
His next incarnation of Grendel was in a short comic series called Devil By The Deed. In it, Wagner tells the whole story of Hunter Rose, from his humble origins as a bored child genius stuck in suburban hell, to teenage fencing champion, to mob lord, to God of Crime to, ultimately, a bloody corpse on a rooftop, dead at the claws of a Native American werewolf named Argent.
By telling Hunter Rose’s whole story, with stylized artwork part naturalistic, part manga, Wagner created something that felt more significant than simply “Part One of Forever…” he kept an enigma to his villain, maintained a sense of mystery that felt contemporary but also classic. While in the UK and the US we were used to pulp heroes, like Batman and his predecessors The Shadow, Doc Savage, even Sherlock Holmes; over in Europe the idea of the pulp villain was more evocative, and it was this allure that Wagner assumed. Fantomas, that impossible French assassin created in 1911, was so popular than he leapt effortlessly from childish pulp to high art – Magritte painted his portrait, with a languid, sophisticated and sociopathic swagger that Grendel has appropriated and homaged time and time again…
Wagner loves his classics – Grendel of course takes his name from the hideous demon destroyed by the ultimate hero Beowulf; but here Grendel is the urbane and sophisticated focus of our attention, whose nemesis is a misshapen beast who works for the police, named Argent the Wolf. Morality is cheerfully inverted and in spite of the fact that Grendel really does have no redeeming qualities (well, he was in love once, does that count?), we root for the Devil and are appalled by Argent, the bestial and vile “super hero”.
Grendel is also interesting because of his sexual identity. He fell in love as a teenager with a much older woman who teaches him to rise above the banal mediocrity of his every example, and to never compromise his talent. She is dying, naturally, and when she shuffles off, so the last vestige of Grendel’s humanity goes with her. It’s an awful comics trope that the hero needs to be motivated by a dead woman, as if the impotent comic book reader can only relate to a woman if she is dead and to be avenged. Awesome writer Gail Simone’s felling Women in Refrigerators is a must-read for those who think that graphic violence in comics equals “not just for kids” maturity, so this is dodgy territory for Grendel fans. The reason I can get behind this little act of sacrifice is that the example she sets Hunter is utterly destructive for everyone. She isn’t a sainted figure to mourn forever, like Spider-Man’s Gwen Stacy or Bruce Wayne’s mum, she totally sets in motion events that culminate in mass slaughter and terror. Plus, she’s basically seducing a child. Ha! This is the Tiamat anti-mother, the Lilith, the Kali… an empowering but destructive mother/lover who changes everything by stripping back assumptions and building something new: “C’mere, you!”
She also inspires the strangest aspect of the Grendel story. While slicing and dicing his way through New York, Hunter Rose happens across a very young girl named Stacy Palumbo. Hunter has just killed Stacy’s sole surviving relative, and decides to adopt her for reasons even he doesn’t truly understand. She becomes his ward, a surrogate daughter who intrigues and stimulates him in a way that isn’t sexual… but really isn’t sexual just because Hunter isn’t really interested in humans that way any more. But he obviously chooses to believe that she is a reflection of his dead lover, so there is absolutely an odd fetish there deepens the character. Again, comics has a long history of the young ward to the hero which would be totally terrifying to see out in the real world, and here Wagner seems to be having tonnes of fun making fun of that cliche…
Stacy is besotted with her Uncle Hunter, until one day she isn’t, and it is this that hastens his doom. Hunter’s final act isn’t a grandiose bout of megalomania, it comes from an affronted little girl with terrifying depths: one more twist of the knife into the back of the superhero of old.
Wagner killed off his hero, which you would think would limit his versatility, but rather set a puzzle that he managed to solve wonderfully.
The ultimate failure of most superhero comics is their endless replaying of the same old narratives. It is always a never-ending battle for truth and justice that the hero faces, a story that has no ending. Occasionally there will be a Death of Superman tale, or something, but these are always retconned back so that the goodie is back punching the baddie next month. Development is to be frowned on, really, ultimately, unfortunately. The good characters try and make a virtue out of their meta-existence as a franchise – Batman is the king of this: his war against crime is neverending because it is impossible to stamp out crime, even if you are Batman. Batman knows this, but his defining characteristic is his ironclad will – he won’t stop, even if he can never truly win. The confines of his existence as a comic book character have been metabolised into his psychology, what should be a weakness has become a strength.
But not just anyone can be Batman.
Grendel goes two other routes. For one, there have been the very occasional flashback mini-series, all framed by the foreknowledge that Hunter Rose is doomed. For the other, in Wagner’s story the Grendel identity has become so potent that it inspires other criminals to take up the mantle, and the identity slowly becomes a virus that first infects the psychotic or grief-stricken and ultimately becomes a pandemic that overtakes the world. In the future, according to Wagner, everyone is either a Grendel or lives in fear of a Grendel… The A-Z of Grendel runs from Assassin to Zenith, and in these mythos this is shown to be a *good* thing.
The ambitious narrative, the constantly changing emphasis, the strange and kinky characters… these are the reasons to read and love Matt Wagner’s Grendel, but they only tell half the story. Comics aren’t just verbal stories, they are graphic stories. I don’t mean that in the pretentious “graphic novel” sense, I mean that at least half their impact comes from the illustrations. There is a grammar and an invention to comic book art that should be the equal to art direction, set dressing, physical performance, lighting and costume in movies. And the art in Grendel is superb. Wagner is a draughtsman, always telling his stories in new ways, from a fight scene depicted in fifty tiny tight panels showing the precise choreography of the battle to elegant art deco frames and splashes that hold you and force you to decode. His faces and bodies look simple, but they all have a pithy characterisation to them, they all look unique. There are grotesques, paunches and chinless freaks among the handsome stereotypes and film noir dames, and above them all Hunter Rose’s handsome perennial sneer shows us what these comic book gods must really think of the likes of us.
All of this from a few doodles and dreams from a teenager with faith in his imagination. “I have no clan, nor any rank. I am unique…” Vivat Grendel!