Beholding the Devil with Matt Wagner

Most comics readers are familiar with writer-artist Matt Wagner and his work. He wrote and developed one of the cornerstones of the original Vertigo line, "Sandman Mystery Theatre," which is, belatedly, being collected into trade paperbacks now. Wagner alsowrote the "Doctor Mid-Nite" miniseries that introduced a new version of the Golden Age superhero to the modern DC Universe. Most recently, Wagner's written and illustrated "Trinity," "Batman and the Monster Men" and "Batman and the Mad Monk." But with the possible exception of his iconic, semi-autobiographic indie comics sensation "Mage," the character for which Matt Wagner is most famous is that of the enigmatic Hunter Rose.

Olympic fencer, best-selling novelist, man-about-town, vicious crime lord and the mastermind known as Grendel, Hunter Rose is a character unlike any other. In November's "Grendel: Behold the Devil" #1, Matt Wagner returns to his very first comics creation and celebrates its 25th anniversary. The nine-issue Dark Horse miniseries will be joined by the hardcover book, "The Art of Grendel," and an exclusive preview on MySpace Comic Books.

Besides writing and illustrating "Grendel," Wagner is creating a new series for Vertigo, "Madame Xanadu," with artist Amy Hadley. Additionally, he will be working on "Zorro" for Dynamite Entertainment, writing the origin story and serving as art director and cover artist for the series. Wagner took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with CBR News about his many projects.

You once said that when you created him, Hunter Rose was an idealized version of yourself.

A very nasty, idealized me.

Let's say the public persona of Hunter Rose is the idealized you. So many years later, how do you think of the character?

I don't like him as well. I have said in interviews before that every time I come back to Hunter, he's a little more evil than the last time I left him. That's just a maturation of me as a creator and me as a person. You don't feel the need to strike out as much as when you're young. Or strike back.

I had a complaint I read recently on a message board, where somebody was complaining that they think I've gone too far the other direction. That Hunter, although he was bad, was never that bad. I don't know about that. I think just that by the nature of the way "Devil by the Deed" was set up in its narrative, you didn't see him being evil all that much, but they talked about it and the narration reiterates it all the time. That he kills people for pleasure, that he kills people for profit, he kills people that get in his way. How is that not really evil?

The funny thing is, he's not a psychopath in the traditional sense of the word. When I just said that he kills people for pleasure, that's actually not quite right. He doesn't kill people because he enjoys killing them; he enjoys showing them how superior he is.

I commented on this in another interview as well-- I find it no surprise that Hunter Rose and Hannibal Lecter both appeared in the public lexicon in the very same year. They both made their premieres the same year. And the two are very similar in so many ways. There's something really attractive about Hannibal Lecter and it's the erudite quality, the fact that he's a gentleman first and a monster second. And again, there's a certain wish fulfillment there. All of us would kind of love to have the power and the emotionless lack of restraint to strike down the woman that gives you an evil look in line at the grocery store, or the bureaucrat who's rude to you on the phone; all those things that are really base and primal wish fulfillment. I mean, obviously you're not going to do that. You would hope a person has that sense of restraint. Every one of us has sat there and spun these little homicidal fantasies in our heads. And both Hunter and Lecter fulfill that need without being grotesque thugs, with still having a sense of class and erudition and that takes the wish fulfillment even further.

Is it hard getting Hunter's voice right?

Yeah. He's just so freaking arrogant. He's the exact opposite of Kevin Matchstick [in "Mage."] In the second "Mage" series, Kevin starts to develop a certain arrogance, but part of Kevin's character arc has always been a certain self-doubt and Hunter just doesn't have an ounce of that.

Where did the art deco sensibility in "Grendel" come from?

Again, there's a certain elegance. The art deco thing is character-specific to Hunter. Deco stands for decorative, but in my mind there's a certain decadence about it as well. There's an austerity. It arose in a time period right around the roaring '20s when the country was mired in a decadent existence and a large sense of its own importance. It just seemed to fit for me. And anybody that knows my work knows that I have kind of a "less is more" aesthetic, even at my most illustrative, and deco certainly echoes that thought process.

What was your process for working on this miniseries, "Behold the Devil?"

If you ever saw my pencils they are by almost anybody's description, sloppy as shit. And the reason is I don't want to nail it down that hard. I want to keep the inking stage as fresh and creative and fun as the penciling stage is. If I nail it down really tight in the pencils… well, to quote the old Kevin Smith joke, then I'm just "tracing." [laughs] I've got no interest in that. That's not fun for me. And at this point in my career, I've gotten to where I can draw in the ink pretty darn well. My pencils tend to be just layouts of figures and placements and often backgrounds are just scribbled in, I'll draw the backgrounds in later. But I have no delineation or very little delineation of line weight, almost no delineation of shadow or texture. I create all that in the ink.

You're not even preparing thumbnails beforehand?

Yeah, I've given up doing thumbnails, too. [laughs] I used to when I was younger. On the second "Mage" series, I fell into an approach that at the time seemed very endemic to "Mage" because "Mage" is such a personal project for me. It almost seemed like a Zen journey. I would sit down with blank pages and just start going. I knew kind of where I wanted to go but I didn't really want to nail it down, I wanted to keep it fresh, and a bit of exploration as I went. And it worked really well. And I do that all the time now. I may jot down a few notes and a few character designs, but for the most part, I've been at this long enough that I know how to tell a story, I know how to make it fit into the number of pages I have allotted, and I just go from there.

And your editors know you and your work enough to trust you?

I don't work with ones that don't. [laughs] That's a bit of a joke but it's also the truth. Most of the work I've done at DC has been under Karen Berger, who always trusts me, or with my old comrade at arms Bob Schreck. When I work with Bob, hell, I might as well be working on "Mage," he just so leaves me alone. "Matt knows what he's doing, just let him go." Occasionally they'll come back and say, we're not allowed to this, but very rarely.

DC has really opened its approach to individual views, it's not quite as continuity-nuts as it used to be. And also most everything I've ever done for DC tends to be set early in the character's career. Certainly "Sandman Mystery Theatre." I was building from the ground up. The two recent Batman stories I did and "Trinity" were all set early in the characters' careers and that's because I just don't have to mess with continuity. I just want to start fresh. At one point they offered me "Superman: Year One" and I was really excited about that, but strangely at the same time they already had Mark Waid's "Birthright" series. And that was Year One. So I don't know. If they would give me character, like one of the big characters, and said go ahead, do whatever you want, start it from the ground up, I would love that. But they're not going to do that anytime soon.

What's your working relationship like with [Grendel editor] Diana Schutz?

At this point we're like an old married couple. We've had our rocky patches and occasionally I've got to yank her chain or she has to yank my chain, but that all works. She's a great editor in that she never tries to impose any editorial viewpoint on the creator. She's just there to be a facilitator. To make sure the creator's words and grammar and correct in a fashion that gets across what he's trying to convey and to make sure that it gets done in a timely and efficient fashion so far as publishing. She really takes every project to heart and that again is what makes her a great editor.

Just describing your process, how important is choosing the colorist?

I colored the whole first "Mage" series, so I really know what I'm doing. The only reason I hand things over to a colorist now is time constraints. It would just take far too long for me to color my own work. I know enough to know what I want and color is such a vital factor in color comic books that I always have a theme in mind of what I want the color to achieve.

I've been so lucky to have fallen into working with Dave Stewart, who deserves every Eisner he gets every year. Much as I said Diana facilitates the creator, so does Dave. Dave is one of the few colorists who doesn't look like he has a bag of tricks. His coloring looks like what the artist would have wanted it to look like. If you look, he colors my work, "Hellboy," and the incredible painted coloring on top of Cary Nord for "Conan." All three of those examples completely, completely, completely different and yet Dave does them all very handily and seemingly effortlessly.

A few times in the past where I've had a crappy colorist, it's like a burr I can't get out of my flesh. Every time I go back and look at those projects, I'm like, god, that could have great except for "dot, dot, dot." So these days I really am pretty picky about who the colorist is and have been for quite some time.

Was the plan to do "Grendel: Behold the Devil" in black, white and red from the beginning?

Yeah, that was the idea from the beginning. After the two "Black, White and Red" miniseries, we've just kind of fallen into the fact that everything Hunter Rose is black, white and red. Now, obviously not the first Batman/Grendel crossover, we can't go back and redo that.

We just republished "Devil by the Deed" and had it re=colored in black, white and red and I was a little trepidatious about that whole prospect because the first two versions of that were very, very colorful. I colored the first one and Bernie Mireault colored the second one. And so I thought, well how is that art deco thing going to work with this austerity of color? Well, I should have realized art deco is kind of all about austerity of color. And I think it turned out terrific and it's actually my favorite of the three versions now.

There was just never any question that "Behold the Devil" was going to be black, white and red. I could see it that way from the very, very beginning. I'm very happy with the way it's going. I'm actually doing the gray tones and the red plates in the series. Since it's only two gray tones and a red tone it doesn't take up as much of my time. I actually do them on Xeroxes with markers and turn them into a production staff guy at Dark Horse who's done a really great job at translating what I give him into computer files.

You have this centuries-long story of Grendel, and now you're telling a key story of Hunter Rose which makes it sort of a central, important moment of this 600-year epic. Is that a lot of pressure?

[laughs] Not really. I told this story at San Diego this year, on the panel. Diana teaches a course in comics as literature in one of our local community colleges here in Portland and every year I do a classroom presentation. The year before, I did the presentation and then she and I always go out and grab a bite to eat afterwards. We were having dinner and talking about the various projects we'd like to see for the 25th anniversary of Grendel, one of them being, "The Art of Grendel," which she had been wanting to do for years.

Then she said to me, "If we're going to have the 25th anniversary, you need to not just write a Grendel a story, you need to draw one as well to make it extra special. And I said, yeah, sure, you're right. And then she said, "If you're drawing it, it should be Hunter." I said, yeah, you're right. She said, "If it's going to be Hunter, it's got to be something important, it can't just be a caper." And I was like, oh fuck, I already told all of Hunter's important stuff.

But I am a storyteller and brooded on that for a couple days and all of a sudden I thought: there's a loophole, there's an interesting idea, there's a story I could tell about Hunter that will reveal something about him that we've never known before. The premise is that it's a section of Hunter's journals that were deliberately ripped out and destroyed. Even Christine Spar never found out what happened during that time period. If you read "Behold the Devil" #0, you know that's the setup.

I really tried to style the story to introduce brand new readers to Grendel all over again, and try to introduce it both as a character of Hunter and as the grander concept that it eventually becomes. And at the same time, if you're an old time Grendel reader you get to see: A) lots of Hunter being his badass self and B) there's a handful of stuff in there that's really interesting little tidbits about Hunter that had never been revealed before.

So, pressure, I don't know. I don't really worry about pressure. That's not my gig. At this point in my career, this is just what I do. I know how to make the muse work for me. And we have a very good relationship, my muse and I. [laughs]

Is it strange to go back and look at old stuff? Do you do that much?

Sure. We just republished the original black and whites [in "Grendel Archives"], the three issues that were in black and white before I basically abandoned the title in the old days to develop "Mage." At that point, I was perfectly willing to let Grendel just fade away into the woodwork as my initial attempt at published comics. After "Mage" started to catch on and I started to click more and more as a storyteller, I started to get response from fans saying, "what the hell ever happened to Grendel, I'd really like to find out what happened to that storyline?" Which led me to revamping it into the backup story in "Mage" that became "Devil by the Deed."

I've never reprinted those old, old, old black and white issues because, well, the popular scuttlebutt was that I was ashamed of my early efforts. That's just false. I never reprinted it because it's half a story. It's not even half a story, it's like, a sixth of a story. It stopped midstream. But for the 25th anniversary, I thought, well that's a milestone that deserves some marker like this and I thought it was the perfect opportunity to reprint this and finally let people who had not been able to afford the eBay prices for the old issues to glance at it.

So sure, going back and looking at my earliest work is a trip down memory lane. You try to remember where your headspace was at that time. Of course, you cringe at your lack of various artistic abilities, but you know, I've always tried to make my reach exceed my grasp a little bit and boy, it really did in those days. [laughs] When it came time to write the introduction for that book, I really tried to address that issue; that everything has a starting place and this is my starting place. And it's neat to be able to readdress it and take a peak at it again.

I've gotten over the cringing stage of it. Sure there's a cringing stage where you're like, oh I'm so much better than that now. Now I know I'm so much better than that now that I don't cringe. What I would cringe about is if I didn't draw any better now. [laughs]

What is this exclusive MySpace Comic Books preview?

That's an additional two pages that won't be in the real first issue. I had a neat little introduction sequence that's bold and bloody and it was perfect space to just slot in two more pages as almost a punctuation to that scene. It worked out really well.

Besides the unexpected, and lots of people getting stabbed, what else can we look forward to in "Behold the Devil?"

You can expect to see an emotion that Hunter's not familiar with. You can expect to see his supremely well-crafted veneer be in danger of cracking a little bit. You can expect to see some really cool artwork. Some really neat tricks with the red, and just a grand dark time.

You also have a new Vertigo series coming out

"Madame Xanadu." That was an oddball situation in that again, at this stage in my career, I'm so used to concocting all my own projects. I get an idea and I pursue it. Either it's a Grendel idea or now it's time to work on "Mage" or I decide I want to do Batman or something like that. Basically, I always approach the publisher and say, hey I have an idea, let me do this.

In this case it was [editor] Bob Schreck, who had newly moved over to Vertigo, really trying to get me to work with this fresh young artist Amy Hadley who Bob had experienced due to his assistant Brandon Montclair, who used to be an editor over at Tokyopop. Brandon knew Amy's work very well and really wanted to branch Amy out into a different audience and a bigger audience. For some reason they thought we would perfectly click and I've got to confess, initially I didn't see it, but now it's all working out just fine.

So I've got to give Bob credit there for basically creating this scenario where I'm working on a project that I never would have considered and that's exciting for me, too, at this stage. Again, I'm so used to doing everything my own way, and it's not like I'm not doing this my own way, but I had to catch a ball that somebody threw at me in midair. And now I'm juggling that ball. And it's really turning out quite swell. Amy's really rising to the occasion, too. I think people who are only familiar with her work at Tokyopop will be kind of surprised to see what fresh aspect she brings to Vertigo and to her own work. "Fools Gold" was kind of typical manga in that it's pretty girls and cool boys and their relationships after school. "Madame Xanadu" is certainly not that. [laughs] And again, I will say she is really rising to the occasion and doing some really cool stuff.

It's an ongoing and you're writing the first story arc, right?

Ten issues. I had no idea they wanted to do it as an ongoing. I don't think they had any idea, as well. They just thought, here's this old character of ours, let's see if Matt can do something with it. And I guess they like it well enough.

Are you unsure about sticking around or are you definitely not?

I suspect not. It's not like I'm in love with "Madame Xanadu." This is another unusual project for me in that I'm kind of feeling my way through the character as I go. I don't know the character that well. Certainly not like I know Batman. So I doubt I'll stay on after the initial storyline, but I will certainly get the character setup to where almost anybody can take it and run after that.

Have you given any thought to the third "Mage" series?

No. The third "Mage" series hasn't given any thought to me, yet. That's kind of the way it works. It suddenly consumes me. It suddenly takes me over and I haven't felt any tapping on the shoulder from that series yet.

More immediately, in addition to "Madame Xanadu" I'm also helming the re-launch of the Zorro franchise for Dynamite Entertaimment.

You're the art director for the series?

Just like John Cassady did on "The Lone Ranger," I'm doing the covers and I'm art directing and, additionally, I'm writing the eight-issue origin story. I'm hoping to achieve what they did with "The Lone Ranger," which is make it a little more palatable to a modern audience and I think that's coming off very, very well.

How did this end up happening?

I had seen what they did on "The Lone Ranger" and thought, that's a really clever way to update that character. They didn't bring it forward in time, or anything. Kept it in its proper time period and era. They just updated the sensibilities. Gave it a little more grit without making it too psychotic and dark. He's still a good guy, still a hero. But Tonto's no longer this passive tagalong sidekick, he's half of the team. And the Lone Ranger's origin had some blood and consequence to it. You really felt the cause of his vendetta for justice.

We're trying to do the same thing for Zorro. When I saw Dynamite announced they had gotten the rights to Zorro, I've just always loved Zorro in all of his many and bizarre incarnations. I called them up and said, you've got John doing the covers and being art director on "Lone Ranger," I would love to fulfill the same role on "Zorro." And there again, I've never really done that. I've never called anybody up and offered my services for covers, it's usually the other way around. So it's a whole new journey for me in many ways this year. At the same time, coming back to Hunter Rose.

When Dynamite called me back, they said, what do you think about writing the first storyline as well? And I didn't have to think too hard on that one to say yes.

Do you have a favorite interpretation that's been a major inspiration for what you're trying to do?

Well that's the nice thing about it. My version of Zorro is an amalgam of a lot of things. I love the original novel, which is a pulp novel, so I love the pulp immediacy of that. I love the fresh exuberance of the original Douglas Fairbanks movie. The first time you see him he's smoking a cigarette -- as Zorro, not as Don Diego. Just puffing away on a butt. I love the Tyrone Powers film. It's terrific and yet it suffers from the fact that the whole climax and finale he's Don Diego, not Zorro, so he's not in costume for the last, I don't know, 30-40 minutes of the movie. It's all very exciting but where's our title character. I love the Banderas movies. There's a part of me that loves the Guy Williams Disney stuff even though it's so innocent and naive.

Several years ago there was a novel out by Isabel Allende and it was just great. And the licenser owns the rights to that novel so I got to basically cherry pick what I liked out of the book to use for the origin. What we're doing is not a straight adaptation, but there's plenty of stuff in there that I really like that I used.

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