1987 And All That: Grendel #4-15

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Grendel #4-15 (Comico) by Matt Wagner, Arnold Pander, Jacob Pander, Bernie Mireault, Jay Geldof, Tom Vincent, Joe Matt, Steve Haynie, Bob Pinaha

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Evil rarely believes itself to be evil, because any action or attitude can be justified if you skew your point of view in the right way. And sometimes, something that begins as legitimately noble or righteous can become tainted over time, soured through cross-mingling with lesser impulses and human weaknesses. Matt Wagner’s Grendel is, among many other things, a pointed examination of this process of transforming a good person into a wicked one. The characters who star in this year of issues begin as normal and well-intentioned, but their inability to cope with external evils and personal loss changes them into delusional crazies just looking for an excuse to murder somebody. Within the comic, the Grendel persona is seen by the public as a menace, a seemingly unstoppable force of terror and chaos that can’t be explained or understood. For the reader, understanding Grendel is actually rather easy, but deciding whether or not to root for the people under the mask is more difficult.

Christine Spar is the protagonist and narrator for the bulk of these issues. The birth daughter of the adopted daughter of Hunter Rose (the original Grendel from Wagner’s earlier series) as well as his biographer, Chris takes up the moniker and costume initially as an “eye for an eye” type of thing, but it steadily morphs into something more like, “if you so much as poke me in the eye, I’ll gut you and leave your innards in the street.” She becomes Grendel as a drastic means of trying to get back Anson, her kidnapped son. Things get complicated quickly when she learns that Tujiro, the man who took Anson, is secretly a vampire, as well as the head of a large human trafficking ring that disguises itself as a dance company. So at first, Chris is very much the clear-cut hero, since she is a concerned mother on a rescue mission, while her opponents are organized criminals led by a literal monster.

The discovery of Tujiro as a vampire forces Chris to come to terms with the idea that Anson is most likely dead, never to be saved or seen again. In accepting this likelihood, Chris’ goal changes from saving her child to getting revenge in his name, and it is in that shift that we begin to see how being Grendel can turn someone into a darker, more brutal, more bloodthirsty version of themselves. When she should be moving through the typical stages of grief, Chris instead gets stuck on anger. She gradually lets go of her remaining despair and trades it in for an ever-increasing rage, escalating her violence against Tujiro and company until she finally kills the entire group—except for Tujiro himself and his right hand man Niccolo—by blowing up their tour buses. She then forces a confrontation with Tujiro where she has several traps and tricks prepared, determined to use everything in her power to kill him. Sadly, despite her efforts, she is still largely uninformed about his abilities and therefore under-prepared, so he escapes more or less unscathed. Niccolo loses a hand and is brutally beaten in other ways, so it’s not as if Chris’ thirst for vengeance is wholly unquenchable. But in the end, her fury is largely futile, and the victims of her violence are not the real focus of her hate, just his allies and employees. They’re guilty of plenty and arguably deserving of their untimely ends, but their deaths are at best tangentially related to her original mission. Yet she seems to consider the whole affair a victory, and announces to herself and the reader that her time as Grendel has ended, her work complete. In the light of that decision, the question becomes: what itch was being Grendel really scratching for Chris? The desire to avenge her lost son, or a baser compulsion to lash out violently at the world in any way for any reason?

That answer comes into focus in short order. Even once she has struck back against those who took her child, Chris cannot stay out of the mask, and suddenly the solution to all of her problems is to kill anyone she deems an enemy. There is an obvious turning point for her character that begins at the very end of issue #8 and is solidified by the entirety of issue #9, where all 26 pages are devoted to her, as Grendel, mentally torturing homicide detective Dominic Riley before finally, mercilessly killing him. Riley works tirelessly to convict Chris of her crimes as Grendel throughout this run, until he reaches his breaking point and pistol-whips her boyfriend, Brian Li Sung. So in her mind, Chris is defending a man she loves from a wicked and relentless opponent. At one point, she even goes so far as to say this motivation is what separates her from her foes, that they act out of brutality while she is violent only in the name of love and protection. But I think the truer difference between them is that the forces working against Chris do so because they see her as chaotic, dangerous, and unstable, whereas she thinks her actions are the only available response to an impossibly cruel world.

There is no end in sight to the destruction and violence of Grendel, and as a police officer, Riley is basically just doing his job to protect the citizens of his city from a maniacal killer. He clearly crosses a line by attacking Brian, but if this were Law & Order, Riley would be nothing more than the overly devoted loose cannon cop who’s had it up to here with criminals that get away with it. A few cracks from the butt of his gun are nothing compared to the nightlong torment Chris subjects him to before she takes his life. She puts him through a series of near misses, events that appear to be accidents but are clearly the result of her shadowy machinations, and that always could kill Riley, but instead only ever come close. This understandably puts Riley more and more on edge until Chris finally deigns to confront him face to face, at which point she needlessly maims him by chopping his fingers off before standing above his fallen, terrified form and driving her dual blades straight into his chest. The sadism behind this psychological torture and the brutality and rapidity of the subsequent murder serve as clear markers that Chris’ reasons for becoming Grendel are not so high-minded or defensive as she likes to tell herself. In reality, she rather enjoys the power and opportunity that come with the name and costume, and will continue to find targets for her bloodlust under any available pretense for as long as she can survive. Which, it turns out, is not very long with that attitude.

Chris’ insanity and anger progress in logical, understandable ways. The tragedies in her life that drive her to be Grendel are massive enough that her actions border on being forgivable. Her husband died not that long ago, and her son was lost even more recently, so suddenly that she never got a proper farewell. On top of which, she never gets to retrieve his body for any kind of service or burial. The problem is that her coping mechanism is to become a masked, murderous vigilante, a solution that will inherently lead to further problems. The more she participates in the act of violence, the more that act itself becomes the point and the prize, until ultimately Chris bemoans her lost loves only as the feeblest excuse to continue her bloody campaign. Trapped in a cycle of self-pity that can only be assuaged through combat, she digs her heels in and commits herself to this life rather than admitting how damaging it is and/or seeking a healthier form of dealing with her problems. And when she does fully embrace the Grendel role, it leads her directly to her death.

Argent the Wolf was the nemesis of Hunter Rose, and only becomes an enemy of Chris’ when she decides to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps. Even then, Argent’s role is fairly detached. He works with the police long-distance to try and find Chris so she can be stopped, and occasionally has her friends somewhat forcibly brought before him for interrogations. But there is no active pursuit of Chris on Argent’s part, nor does he ever represent an immediate threat of any kind. He is determined, callous, and terrifying in his appearance, but like Riley, Argent never does anything strictly evil. Because he and Hunter were foes, it stands to reason that he would have a vested interest in any incarnation of Grendel, but he does not seek to hurt Chris overtly, just to put an end to her madness. And he gets to do it, too, when she selects him, impulsively yet inevitably, to be her next target.

Chris goes after Argent not due to any specific trigger (like with Tujiro and Riley) but just because she knows he’s out there and that he doesn't like her. He’s an available opponent, plain and simple, and she believes that all of her opponents deserve the worst she can give them. But unlike her previous foes, Argent has dealt with a Grendel before. He knows exactly what Chris is capable of, and is not at all surprised when she breaks into his home to attack him. Expectant and prepared, Argent proves to be more than her match, and in a matter of minutes they have cut each other so savagely and deeply that they both bleed out moments later. It is a fitting end for Argent, insofar as his final act is to succeed at bringing down the current Grendel, which is what he’s wanted all along. For Chris, it is a much more complex finale, as she dies fighting the rival of a man she never knew, using his pseudonym and for reasons that are flimsy at best. Had she lost against Tujiro, at least she would have gone down fighting for her son. And if Riley had bested her, she might even have lived, forced to face up to and pay for her crimes but with at least some small hope of redemption or a return to sanity in her future. But instead, she’s killed in about as needless and pointless a conflict as you could imagine, throwing herself carelessly into battle for its own sake.

Her whole life becomes a never-ending battle once she begins her Grendel career, but it never grows tiresome for the reader. That is in large part because of the train wreck that is her mental downward spiral, but another key element is the art by Arnold and Jacob Pander. Their style is not what I would have expected to see for a story of this nature, but is somehow entirely fitting all the same. They own it, drawing with a level of confidence and assuredness that makes the exaggerated style and bulky fashion work. The obvious choice would be to go gritty, lots of shadow and gloom in the air. The Pander Bros. do the opposite. Their cast is all caricatures; the action always overwhelms the page. It is "cartoon-ish comicbook art" cranked to eleven, but it doesn't clash because there’s still so much clear emotion in the characters. Their facial expressions may be outrageous, but they’re also glaringly obvious and honest, and the narrative similarly wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no question as to whether or not Chris is crazy, or that Tujiro is an evil, heartless beast, or that Riley is growing unhealthily obsessed with his investigation. The artwork boldly underlines all of that, while also bringing some levity to the more brutal fights and deaths, so they’re slightly easier to swallow. To play up the raw emotion and subdue the most intense violence is an impressive and unexpected trick to pull, and the Pander Bros. do it splendidly for nine straight issues.

Their work is held up by Tom Vincent’s flat, bold colors. More often than not, the backgrounds are blank, made up of one or two bright hues that amp up the feelings of a scene or panel in the same way the linework does. The same is true of the characters’ clothes, rarely more than a solid color or two, but always flashy and always right for the outfit. And there seem to be an unusually high number of moments that call for melodramatic lighting in this series, which Vincent always nails, highlighting all the right things and capturing the tension and/or catharsis perfectly.

It is a steady and saddening decline for Chris from genuine hero to lunatic murderer, but the tragedy of her journey is not nearly as dark or dismal as what happens to Brian after she’s gone. Where with her it is a gradual degradation of character in the wake of losing a child, Brian dives headfirst into the most hopeless and unstable parts of himself after losing his (relatively new) lover. Moving permanently to New York from San Francisco so he can stay close to Chris after her death, he also inherits her journals and begins to read them obsessively while hiding them from the rest of the world. This secret, distant, posthumous intimacy does nothing for his recovery, trapping him in depression just like Chris was caught in her anger. And so his psyche fractures, the underlying rage breaking free from the sadness and forcing Brian to carry on the Grendel legacy.

When he becomes Grendel, Brian himself doesn't quite understand the reasons for it at first, but over time he comes to recognize that there is a dissociation of identity/multiple personality situation developing within his broken mind. While the “real” Brian claims no desire to kill, he knows that when he sleeps Grendel takes over with nothing but killing on its agenda. There is a flaccid resistance from Brian’s end, but only in his words and thoughts, never his actions. He does not work to better his life, he does not try to find help or restrain himself. He plays at being terrified of his own brain and body, while tacitly handing control over to his other half.

It gets him killed in a fashion not dissimilar to the way Chris went, trying to eliminate someone who has done nothing wrong and is truly the enemy of his predecessor. During Chris’ tenure as Grendel, Detective Wiggins was another cop on the case, and a sort of assistant to Argent. After Chris and Argent kill one another, Wiggins continues to hound Brian for information, believing (accurately) that Brain knows more about what Chris did and why than he is willing to admit. This does not sit well with the Grendel personality growing inside of Brian, and so it tries to take Wiggins out of the picture, attempting to trap him by committing a somewhat public murder and then returning to the crime scene the next night when he is there investigating. Unlike Brian, though, Wiggins is skilled and perceptive, so he gets the drop on this new Grendel instead of the other way around, and Brian’s time in the role ends as quickly and mindlessly as it began.

Before his breakdown, Brian is just as likable as Chris is in the beginning, and during her story he’s pretty openly disapproving of her activities. He wants to understand them, and eventually arrives at a place where he can accept what she does if not entirely comprehend or condone it. But he is a decent man who never asks to be pulled into this conflict, and for as long as Chris is alive he wants nothing more than to see the whole thing come to an end. Losing her causes him to quite rapidly lose himself as well, his heart and mind trying so desperately to reclaim a woman he barely knew and never entirely agreed with that he actually transforms himself into the same legendary criminal persona she used.

The art duties change hands at the same time as the Grendel name and all the burden it brings. Brian’s three issues are drawn by Bernie Mireault with colors by Joe Matt, and they are far more in the noir tradition than what came before, a lot of tight panels and shadowy images and faded tones. But that's exactly what the title calls for at this point, for a number of reasons. Brian’s struggle is a bit more pathetic, and his rage doesn't burn as brightly because he’s trying to deny or ignore its existence. Matt’s coloring matches that change, using a far more limited and muted palette than Vincent had: a few blues, some soft reds, and lots of black. Brian’s world lacks the energy and liveliness of Chris’, and so do his few acts as Grendel, so it shows in the visuals.

Mireault is a talented storyteller, building his pages with great care and always using the full space. He has a strong sense of the page as a whole image, a meta-panel, and though his full-page splashes are incredibly rare, there are many examples of multiple smaller panels arranged to create a similarly impressive effect. Though his style is more grounded and grim than the Pander Bros., his characters are no less expressive and consistent, which is what really counts in this book. The surface-level madness, depression, fixation, and fury is where the heart of these stories lie, narratively and visually.

Matt Wagner has been quoted as saying that Grendel is about the nature of aggression, and that theme is obviously a significant part of both Chris and Brian’s tales. They both get a bit swept up in the empowerment violence can bring, Chris when it becomes her entire purpose in life, and Brian when he literally loses control of his own brain because of an overwhelming underlying desire to involve himself in all this madness. But it is not just aggression that ties these two together, because the Grendel name is not so much an outlet for aggression as it is a flawed and backwards method of handling loss. It feeds on grief and self-pity and then turns them into the thrill of murder. Being Grendel, in these issues anyway, is not just about being pissed off. It’s about choosing to be pissed off instead of moving on, succumbing to loss and letting it define who you are. Both of the protagonists are stuck longing for dead loved ones, and they both lean into that longing whenever they have a chance to push back against it. That is why Grendel takes over their lives, because they leave the door wide open, unable or maybe just unwilling to admit how damaged they are. They push away the few people who want to help them, actively butt heads with law enforcement, and go into high-risk situations with little to no planning or preparation. These are not merely examples of extreme aggression, nor are they just a demonstration of the cyclical nature of violence begetting violence, though both of those descriptions apply. Chris and Brian are a warning against letting any tragedy run our lives, a reminder of the importance of allowing ourselves to heal when we are wounded by the world. It is easy to wrap ourselves up in pain and let it overpower us, but never the right choice, because all that can accomplish is to spread the pain to those around us.

NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.

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