Matt Wagner opens “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #1 with a time travel plot device that will send Grendel to the stomping grounds of The Shadow in 1930s New York City. Although the method of travel — an ancient Chinese artifact — is an eye-rolling gimmick, it gets the job done quickly. Also, given Grendel’s interest in historical artifacts, it’s in character for him. Wagner also wisely makes the introductory scene serve another purpose: introducing or re-introducing Grendel to new readers as well as old ones. In this respect, the introduction is masterful. The first few pages quickly establish Hunter Rose’s taste for finery, his erudition, intellect and debonair charm, his weapon of choice, and last but not least, his ruthless disregard for lives other than his own.
Though Rose is a materialist, he is perfectly comfortable losing everyone and everything save his wits and his grace. Most people would be at least partially dismayed at the results of travelling into the past several decades by accident, but Grendel barely skips a beat. He seems incapable of being ruffled. Stripped down to mask and weapon, he has all he needs to start taking over New York organized crime all over again, and he attacks the task with a zest and a talent for strategy and drama that is flattering to his character. His ethics are rotten, but his enthusiasm is addictive.
Like Milton’s characterization of Satan in “Paradise Lost,” Hunter Rose is arrogant, powerful and charismatic, and like the devil he was inspired by, he is a scene-stealer, often upstaging the good guys who are his heavy-hitting opponents.
Wagner’s pacing is smooth and quick-moving, and he sets up the chess pieces quickly: Grendel, the five families, The Shadow and Margo Lane. Margo actually comes across better than The Shadow. Despite being one of the main characters and a hero with a long pedigree of his own, he’s flat as cardboard both in his mask and out of it. The Shadow feels like the standard a stoic defender against evil, although his catchphrase distinguishes him a little. Margo fares better, and her well-founded musings about her relationship create a little depth. The worst-defined character so far is Sofia Valenti, daughter of one of the mob bosses. She’s a cookie-cutter version of an overly feisty bad girl, with unbelievable dialogue like, “My hair doesn’t like to be tamed…and neither do I!” She sounds like a like shampoo commercial girl, with all the come-hither gestures and defiant head-tossing. The analogy is complete in the panel in which she runs her gloved hand through her glossy mane. Future scenes in which she shows up don’t make her any more interesting. She seems destined to be a pawn for Grendel, whose abilities match up to his arrogance. It’s too bad, since Wagner has created less stereotypical and much more convincing female supporting characters before, notably in “Batman/Grendel.”
Text box voiceovers are one of Wagner’s strengths. He gives many of his characters distinctive thought-speech patterns, as strong as good dialogue. It’s a nice touch that Heisler’s script lettering for Grendel’s thoughts is appropriate to the character and in line with his lettering treatment in earlier stories.
The setting is full of vintage flavor, and Wagner’s backgrounds of New York streets and rotary callboxes are delightful. His people are a little boxy and less elegant than their surroundings, but their facial expressions and body language are well-defined. Brennan Wagner’s colors are largely unimaginative, but it’s a nice touch how he uses pleasant sepia tones to set The Shadow’s home vs. apart from the reds and purple-blacks of Grendel’s bloody and nocturnal scenes of action.
Overall, “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #1 is a fine beginning to another “Grendel” miniseries. It’s an issue of exposition, but Wagner makes it move quickly and he’s able to dispense with information dumps. However, the most interesting part is yet to come. Wagner has said that he uses the character of Grendel to tell stories around the theme of aggression. The Shadow’s reaction and methods in reaction to Grendel’s opening moves may illuminate more about both characters and their approaches to the art of war.