Devilish Anniversary, Part 2: Wagner on the Future of Grendel

Yesterday, CBR News brought you a look at how Dark Horse and creator Matt Wagner are celebrating the 25th anniversary of one of his most popular creations, Grendel. Today, we continue our discussion with Wagner by taking a look at new Grendel projects to come and the long-lasting appeal of the first Grendel he created, Hunter Rose, and what makes him such an appealing character.

At last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, it was announced that Wagner would do a new graphic novel with Hunter Rose for 2007. Wagner says that the story is still scheduled, but the format has changed. "Okay, first off…it's no longer a graphic novel," Wagner says. "The realities of publishing in this marketplace have steered us into releasing this as an eight-issue series, presented in Hunter's familiar and telltale black, white and red motif.

"The story involves a section of Hunter's personal reflections that are mysteriously missing from his private journals. Christine Spar provides us with part of the overall narration and tells us of a section in Grendel's logs that have obviously been ripped out - for whatever reason, she cannot speculate. This is a section of his life that he simply chose to expunge. This series tells us, the readers, the story contained in those missing pages and is entitled 'Behold the Devil.' "

In his introduction to "Devil by the Deed," Alan Moore wrote that reading about Hunter Rose's exploits gave the story a mythological resonance that was more effective than simply experiencing them first-hand. In the intervening years, Wagner has felt more comfortable revisiting Rose in such works as "Batman/Grendel" and the "Black, White and Red" miniseries. "Again, I've got a lot more distance on the character myself since ['Deed']," Wagner explained. "Plus, I'm just a more experienced story-teller nowadays. Setting up mythic characters is kinda what I've become known for over the years - but always coupled with a human perspective.

"The key is to never let people forget that these characters are so much more than us 'ordinary' mortals. That's one of the things I find so frustrating about reading most commercial comic books these days. Christ, to read a DC book, you'd think everybody's got super powers or a secret identity! Tell me, if a dozen or so different characters have the equal or equivalence of Superman's powers, doesn't that really make him 'Ordinaryman?!' And, to read any of the Batman books, you'd think there was a darkly costumed character jumping off nearly every rooftop in Gotham! Kind of blows the whole 'dark-and-mysterious-lone-vigilante' thing all to hell, doesn't it? It's no accident that nearly everything I've ever done for DC has been set in the early days of any character's career; otherwise, before you know it, all the super-hangers-on move in and - boom - there goes the neighborhood!

"Here's an example of how I maintain some of that necessary larger-than-life quality with Hunter - these days I feel comfortable enough peeking around inside his head and exposing his inner thoughts, but I never show you Hunter's actual professional 'writing.' And the reason for this is to accentuate the uber-advanced state of his literary skills. The fact is, no one writes as well, as effectively, as accomplished as Hunter Rose supposedly does. Certainly, I don't write that well. Thus, by leaving this aspect of his legend something of a mystery, I define it's almost supernatural quality by sheer omission. It's similar to the fact that a striptease is more alluring that sheer nudity - the unknown creates a more elaborate reality in the imagination."

But why has Grendel proved such an enduring character and concept? Wagner responded, "I think the character has endured due to my early decision to open it up in a narrative sense. This meant not only including other creators into the mix but also refusing to ever become satisfied with the artistic results. I realized long ago that, if I was going to be involved with a series that would continue on and on in the manner of traditional comic books, then I'd have to strike a situation wherein the very nature of the beast would constantly reinvent itself. That was the only way it would stay of any interest to me and, I felt, that renewing vigor would translate into reader interest as weak. Twenty-five years down the line, I'd have to say - it worked!!"

And despite appearing in fewer books than any of the different characters to assume the Grendel identity, Hunter Rose remains the most popular Grendel. "Well, he obviously strikes some sort of archetypical chord that really resonates with people," Wagner said. "I don't find it in the least surprising that both Hunter Rose and Hannibal Lecter made their debuts within a year of each other. Again, the early '80s saw a real rise in the concept of the Criminal Chic. As our society became both more culturally repressive and, at the same time, more ethically unstable, the idea of an unfettered rogue who thumbs his nose at the 'normal' mores of conventional behavior really appealed to readers.

"Also Hunter and Hannibal, while being absolute social mavericks with a wicked sense of violent retribution, still both retain a certain twisted moral code of their own personal ethos - all coupled with a dashing savoir-faire that speaks of a cultural sophistication and élan. Neither of these characters are what you'd call raving madmen, but they are incredibly lethal when provoked which, admittedly, could be over the very slightest provocation. To some extent this is the audience at large experiencing a certain wish fulfillment; I am a scholar and a gentleman, but don't even try to fuck with me or I will strike you down with the merest flick of my wrist. It's a very morally confusing fantasy and, again, I think that's why it's got such lasting power. It takes some effort to understand such impulses and to see them played out in such entertaining fashion creates a persona that really sticks."

The new miniseries is the first time in several years that Wagner has done a Grendel story, and it's the first extended Grendel story he's written and illustrated in a while. Wagner said that his absence from the character wasn't the result of a loss of interest or passion, so much as a lack of time from working on other projects, such as DC's "Trinity" and "Batman and the Monster Men"/"Batman and the Mad Monk." "I've produced plenty of work in the intervening years, but I always had one foot (of many, I'm even more than a qudraped - call me a 'multiped') firmly planted in Grendel's dark and winding world," Wagner said.

Would Wagner ever see ending his saga? "Oh yeah," Wagner said. "I've had one in mind for nearly a decade now. I'll eventually get around to it, but the time just hasn't been right as of yet. And, believe me…it's daaaaaaark!"

With the reprint editions, the new story, and a feature film in development at John Wells Productions, it looks like comic readers will have plenty of Grendel to deal with in the future. "Even though this 25th anniversary marks something of a milestone, I still feel like I have a long way yet to go on this creative journey of mine," Wagner said. "In addition to the fact that 'Mage' still has the final chapter of its trilogy to be completed ('The Hero Denied'), I can see many more Grendel stories that need telling."

"I mean, after all, as long as there's aggression and violence in the world, there'll be a face for Grendel to wear. And, like I mentioned above, I've even got something new in the works that should see fruition in the next couple of years. And that's in addition to the various mainstream projects I to which I might ply my craft.

"So, I've got miles to go before I sleep…

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

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