Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Matt Wagner, and the issue is Grendel: Behold the Devil #2, which was published by Dark Horse and is cover dated December 2007. Enjoy!
As far as I can tell, Behold the Devil is the last time Wagner did interior artwork, and if it’s not, it’s certainly the last time he did a long-form story and not a few pages. He sticks to writing and cover art these days, which is fine – he’s a good writer – but I do wish he’d draw a little more often. This “final” Grendel story, however, is a pretty good example of Wagner’s synthesis of his more abstract style and some of the more detailed work he had done in the past. Let’s see what’s what!
I cut the edges off of this scan, so you don’t see Grendel’s hand or the other side of the door on the left and the dude’s hand or the curtains on the right. Sorry about that, but what I wanted to show is in the middle, so we don’t lose too much. You’ll notice a lot of the typical tics of Wagner’s art in this scene – the blocky shapes, the precise lines – along with some more tricks he’s picked up along the way. While the inking is typically strong and solid, Wagner uses more lines to define his figures – not to excess, but certainly more than he used to. At the same time, he’s toned down the details a bit in the backgrounds, so that the entire scene looks more coherent. He still uses large patches of black, but notice that the black bleeds into hatching lines on Grendel more than we’ve seen in the past, while he uses slightly more blacks to highlight the facial features of the gangsters shooting at him. Even with the thicker lines, Wagner is still very economical – he outlines a lot, from the shattered glass to the neck ties, and refuses to add any definition to many things. However, you can see the scruffy blacks in the corner of the room, on the painting in the center, and along the wall by the window. I don’t know how he achieved this look – it looks like charcoal – but it’s part of his new subtlety – it adds just enough texture to the background so that the simplicity of the design doesn’t overwhelm the page. Notice, too, the use of shadows – the gangsters’ shadows are “normal” while the border of the page shows a jagged, harsh shadow encircling Grendel and keeping him as the center of attention. It’s a stylistic choice, not a “realistic” one, but because Wagner uses shadows “correctly” in other parts of the drawing, it feels more organic than it would otherwise.
One story in this mini-series is that a reporter, Lucas Ottoman, is writing an exposé on Grendel, so he’s interviewing people who might have seen him (this, as you might expect, does not work out too well for ol’ Lucas). Here he interviews Shareen, a maid who saw Grendel one night. Wagner uses the “talking head” trope quite well, and this once again shows us his development as an artist. He uses very few lines for Shareen’s clothing, and those he does use are simple and bold. He still gets most of his character expression out of the eyes and mouth, but notice that he adds just a few worry lines across Shareen’s forehead, and that creates a bit more nuance than his earlier, more exaggerated expressions. We still see vestiges of that, but because he’s added just a few lines to the equation, Shareen becomes more “human” than some of his earlier characters. He still uses precise lines for her hair and the cigarette smoke (Wagner has drawn the same cigarette for 30 years), but notice that by adding a few lines to the puff in Panel 4 and by not linking the lines in Panels 8 and 9, he makes the smoke a bit less solid. The fact that Shareen is never in the same position is a nice touch, too, because it shows how nervous she is. Wagner uses these nine-panel grids throughout the series, and they always work effectively.
Wagner has mixed pictures with big blocks of text at least since the reworked “Devil by the Deed” in 1985/6, and he does it here, blending in excerpts from Hunter Rose’s journal and Christine Spar’s biography of Rose with set piece drawings throughout this series. Tom Orzechowski lettered this, and he gives us an elegant cursive that fits Hunter Rose’s personality very well. Meanwhile, Wagner’s drawing is an excellent example of his mature style. In the foreground, Stacy’s dress is precisely cross-hatched with delicate lines, and the folds in her dress are clearly delineated. Rose’s suit, meanwhile, has razor-sharp edges, and Wagner uses that airbrushing of the blacks around his shoulders to add some nuance, even though the border of his body are still thick and bold. In the background, we see the people at the party, and Wagner uses bold lines to outline them and slightly thinner lines for details. But the details remain simplistic, and this is part of the way Rose sees the world – he’s so far above the “common people” that they are starkly simple to him, while only Stacy retains any interest to him. This is a nice vision of Rose’s world, and Wagner pulls it off very well.
This is a gorgeous drawing that shows some of the ways Wagner has evolved over the years. Lucas and Elizabeth, his lover (who’s also a police detective investigating Grendel’s murders) hang out and talk about Grendel. Wagner’s lines are bold, and he doesn’t overuse them. Liz’s hair is precisely inked, a bit tousled after sex, but still not fussy, while the folds in the sheets are just solid curves. He doesn’t put many creases on their bodies, either – a bit on Lucas’s gut because he’s sitting up, but nothing otherwise. But the charcoal shading on Liz is stunning, as her back is turned away from the light source and so remains in semi-darkness, while Lucas is rimmed in shadow but is lit slightly better. It’s a nicely designed page, too – the light streaks coming through the blinds converge on Lucas, as does Liz’s gaze. Lucas’s head becomes the vanishing point, to a degree, and the entire panel is balanced nicely.
I love this panel, as it shows how well Wagner has brought the two strands of his art style together. The line work is still very solid and not ornate, as we can see from the stocky cars on the left of the panel and how Lucas is constructed from simple rectangles. Wagner, however, uses a lot of different kinds of inking lines, from the thinner ones showing the decay of the neighborhood on the building and bulletin board to the thicker ones defining the cobblestones and the car in the lower right. Wagner, once again, uses the nice brush strokes on the ground to indicate grimy illumination, adding to the feel of the run-down neighborhood. The use of heavy blacks throughout the panel help create the feeling of oppressiveness, and it also helps Lucas stand out, as he remains crisp in a more blurry setting.
The final page of this issue gives us Argent stalking Grendel, and it’s a nice image. Wagner tones down the use of the airbrushing so that we get just a little around the edges, implying the grime of New York. Both Argent and Grendel have changed quite a bit since 1982, haven’t they? Wagner uses harsh ink lines for Argent, and the slashes of gray over his body help imply the fur more than just showing it. Wagner uses light better than he did 25 years earlier, so Grendel isn’t all black, and even though he uses jagged peaks to separate the blacks from the grays, it still feels softer than the ones he uses for Argent. He shows that he can still use a fine line when it comes to Argent, as the outline of the wolf shows his ragged fur, while Grendel’s outline remains sharp. Notice that Wagner still blouses Grendel’s pants out a bit at the boots, but it’s not as obvious as it was in that first story. He can’t get away from it!
So that brings us full circle, and we’re done with Mr. Wagner. Despite finding a style fairly early on and sticking with it for the most part, it’s clear that Wagner continued to refine his work and become better and better. Maybe some day he’ll grace us with interior artwork again! Until then, we can re-read his older stuff.
Tomorrow I think I’ll feature another classic artist, one for whom I don’t have a lot of work but I think enough for a good series. We shall see. I have a lot of artists to choose from, so if I don’t have enough examples, I can always change my mind! You’ll find plenty of classic artists in the archives, remember!