On the surface, “Grendel vs. The Shadow” shouldn’t work. After all, it features two very different characters from different times, pitting protagonists against one another in a battle that theoretically neither should win since the other would end up dead. And yet, readers with long memories will recall that “Batman vs. Grendel” had some similar issues and ended up fantastic thanks to writer/artist Matt Wagner’s skills. As it turns out, “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #2 continues a strong mini-series moving forward as something far more enjoyable than one would expect.
Right off the bat, one great thing about “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #2 is that Wagner doesn’t lose sight of his own creation, Grendel, being the villain of the piece. Hunter Rose has, over the years, become romanticized so much in the eyes of readers that it’s easy to cheer for this thoroughly despicable man. Wagner reminds us of both sides of Rose’s proverbial coin here; he’s charming and witty, able to flash a smile or drop a bon mot in a way that leaves his foes withering. But every time you start to get too close to Grendel, Wagner quickly shakes us out of our reverie; all it takes is a hideous massacre courtesy Grendel and you’re reminded that it’s all an act. Hunter Rose is the mask, Grendel’s heart of ice is the real soul (or lack thereof).
Wagner also gives us an equal match-up between Grendel and the Shadow. It would be easy to favor Grendel here (being Wagner’s baby), or to alternately have the Shadow make Grendel run with his tail between his legs. Instead we end up with something far more satisfying; two foes who have each found the other to be quite the formidable opponent. That’s great for the reader, because there’s no underdog here. Every time one character gets the upper hand, the other quickly proves him wrong. Wagner also doesn’t lose sight of the secondary cast. Margo is a bit in the back seat as always, but I appreciate that in “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #2 she gets some meat in her scene at the charity gala, being directly responsible for Lamont’s attendance that tips him in the right direction. Sofia Valenti is a great figure on the side of Grendel; she’s got a strong personality, one that dares to try and control both Grendel and Hunter Rose. Her strong emotions may end up being her undoing, but for now it’s nice to see them as a contrast to Hunter.
Wagner’s art is stunning as ever, be it iconic splashes or tight action sequences. The opening page for “Grendel vs. The Shadow” #2 deserves to be framed and on someone’s wall; the Shadow staring down at the reader with scarf fluttering and guns pointed, Grendel crouched with mask and blades cocked in response. For a static pose, there’s a lot of compressed energy in those poses, Wagner fully understanding how to make someone look like they’re about to move. And sure enough, in the pages to follow, oh how they move. Grendel’s leaping and cartwheeling across the alley as the Shadow shoots at him feels very true to life, and the moment where Grendel is kicked through the air by the Shadow doesn’t need the “WAM” sound-effect because the art carries it so well. 13 pages of fighting have never felt so intense, here, and they’re amazing.
At the same time, don’t think that Wagner can’t handle the quieter moments. He draws a beautifully classic tuxedo here, and watching Grendel strut around with it and mask while the Valenti crime family watches is astounding. There’s a lot of elegance and grace on display, not only with Grendel but also Sofia and her family; you can just tell by their poses and physical demeanor that these are people who are used to ruling without more than a moment’s thought. Little details are taken care of too; ivy crawling up the brownstone wall, for instance, or the trails of blood after Grendel has destroyed a family. Brennan Wagner’s colors are impressive here, too; with deep hues that mesh perfectly with Matt Wagner’s lines, it’s clear that talent runs in the family.
“Grendel vs. The Shadow” #2 is a real joy, another strong chapter in a mini-series where it just gets better and better with each new page. What might have sounded like a throw-away concept has turned out to be a must-read for Grendel or Shadow fans alike. Even knowing that by the end both characters will be separated and in their own times doesn’t matter; it’s the thrill of the hunt that is so fun, here. As nice as the first issue was, this one is better. I can’t wait to see if that progression continues in next month’s conclusion.