The Rundown: Matt Wagner’s Grendel Spans Centuries of Malice

In The Rundown, Deadshirt dives into our cardboard long boxes to shine a light on important, unusual or otherwise remarkable comic runs (mainstream or otherwise) from a specific creative team.

Grendel-Hunter Rose2

The Series

Grendel #1-50, various mini-series, back up stories and one-shots (1983 to present)

Art by Matt Wagner, Tim Sale, Ashley Wood, Bernie Mireault, and more

Comico and Dark Horse

At A Glance

By day, Hunter Rose is an award-winning novelist, philanthropist, and socialite, enchanting high society with his books and his young, adoptive ward, Stacey. Rose is a fixture at all the upper-crust parties and gallery openings across the city, hobnobbing with the toast of New York.

By night, he rules the city with a mask and his blades, and the world fears the name he’s taken for himself: Grendel.

This is the basic gist of Matt Wagner’s Grendel, the first villain to be cool, long before it was cool to be a villain. His biggest influences are the pulp anti-heroes of European noir comics, like Italy’s Diabolik or France’s Fantômas, the latter of which’s hand can be seen in Grendel’s penchant for tuxedoes. Of course, Hunter Rose is only one of several Grendels, and the entire Grendel cycle spans hundreds of years, sprawling out from present-day New York to the ruined wastelands of Earth in the 26th & 27th centuries. Along the way, many adopt the Grendel identity, and the nature of the character evolves drastically over time.

Grendel first appeared as a publication of the now-defunct Comico Comics in the late 80s, and has enjoyed cult popularity for over 30 years. A wild range of artists has taken pen and ink to the character over the years: Tim Sale, Mike Allred, Bernie Mireault, Matt Hollingsworth, Jim Mahfood, and Ashley Wood, to name just a few. Greg Rucka, whose work has been discussed in The Rundown before, wrote a novel for the character, published with illustrations by Wagner himself. The character has evolved from an exercise in noir to a study of the nature of aggression, as Matt Wagner calls it, but the whole spiel bears the mark of Wagner himself, whose hand has guided the character from the beginning.

Standout Issues

Cover for Devil by the Deed

Devil by the Deed

Less of a comic book than an illustrated novella, Devil by the Deed tells the story of Hunter Rose’s life from start to finish. The text is presented as having come from the in-universe biography of Rose of the same name, written by his granddaughter Christine Spar. It’s the illustrations by Wagner, however, that take center stage here. The pictures are artfully arranged around the text like stained-glass windows, each page a new tableau of violence and intrigue. The story follows Rose from his secret beginnings as a child prodigy, through his twisted early years, through his meteoric rise to the head of a criminal organization that spanned the East coast, all the way to his climactic and fatal rooftop duel with his long-time nemesis, Argent the Wolf. It’s a quick read, but the story is poignant and haunting, in an unexpected way. Originally running as a backup material for another of Wagner’s original works, Mage, it’s been collected in a slim hardback edition by Dark Horse.

Cover for Batman:Grendel I

Batman/Grendel I 

The first of two crossover series that feature Grendel facing off against the Dark Knight, and the better one, in my opinion, for one good reason: it’s not just a great Grendel story; it’s a really great Batman story. The series sees Hunter Rose come through Gotham City, ostensibly on a book tour, but actually in town to try and extend the reach of his criminal empire, and to challenge the city’s fabled protector as Grendel. The result is thrilling, and it sees Batman faced with a criminal who is basically his equal opposite. I hear it’s a rare find these days, but if you can get your hands on it, it’s a brilliant read for Batman & Grendel fans alike.

Cover for Behold the Devil

Behold the Devil

In 2007, Matt Wagner wrote and illustrated this series to mark the 25th anniversary of Grendel, which covers an incident in Hunter Rose’s life so strange that he excised the event from his own private journals. The series also ties up some loose end characters from the Red, White & Black and Black, White & Red miniseries, which I’ll talk more about later, as well as connecting the Hunter Rose story more deeply with his later legacy. I love Wagner’s art in this series; the opening sequence especially makes excellent use of the character’s signature red-white-and-black color scheme. Unfortunately, I think this series has a bit of a weak ending, if only because I think it removed some of Hunter Rose’s mystique. Granted, this is a series that eventually gets into voodoo magic and kabuki vampires that run for pope, but more on that in a bit.

The Bottom Line

I focused mainly on the stories featuring Hunter Rose as Grendel in this The Rundown, mainly just to keep it (relatively) short, but the other series are no less compelling. After Rose, the mask and fork are picked up by his granddaughter, Christine Spar, in Devil’s Legacy, the first arc of Comico’s Grendel series. Grieving over her death, Christine’s boyfriend, Brian Li Sung, fashions himself a mask and stalks the detective in charge of the Grendel case in The Devil Inside. Then the series makes a time jump, with several notable one-shots and other stories filling in the interim.

Grendel Prime

Grendel resurfaces after the jump in the 26th century, as drug-fuelled anarchist Eppy Thatcher, initiating acts of terrorism against the Colorado-based Vatican Ouest and its vampire patriarch, Pope Innocent XLII. This storyline, God and the Devil, is told from the perspective of Orion Assante, who later sets himself up as the first Grendel-Khan, a story told in the penultimate Grendel arc, Devil’s Reign. The last incarnation of Grendel is as the hulking cyborg “paladin”, Grendel-Prime, protector of Jupiter I, heir to the Assante Khanate, whose arc, Grendel: War Child, would have closed out the Grendel series, but for Comico closing its doors in 1997. Dark Horse later published it as a mini-series, when Wagner moved the character over to them.

As I mentioned before, Wagner calls the Grendel cycle “a study in the nature of aggression,” but I think it’s most interesting to see what the Grendel persona means to each person it takes a hold of. For Hunter Rose, it’s a way to find challenge in the society he views as beneath him. Christine Spar turns to Grendel when she can find help nowhere else. Brian Li Sung seems doomed to fall into the identity. And the list goes on, and gets more complicated, but to each new Grendel, the cowl symbolizes a different kind of power over people. This legacy of blood, beginning with Hunter Rose, ends with a world in the thrall of the Grendel name, and watching the way that unfolds is what makes Grendel such a fabulous read. VIVAT GRENDEL!

Further Reading

  • Two mini-series, Grendel: Black, White & Red and Grendel: Red, White & Black feature stories that flesh out the life of Hunter Rose, as told in Devil by the Deed. Each story, written by Matt Wagner, has a different art team and considerably differing flavors, but the character shines throughout. These are the logical follow-up to reading Devil by the Deed, and they offer a lot of insight into Rose’s character.
  • The Grendel Archives­ feature the first appearance of Matt Wagner’s Grendel in the pages of Comico Primer #2 and those first stories are really interesting to read. These early pages see a much more impish Grendel running around the city he inhabits, a big change to the slim, masculine Grendel we see Wagner portray in later stories. The Archives, released to coincide with Grendel’s 25th anniversary, collects these early stories, as well as the original three-issue Comico run.
  • Batman/Grendel II AKA the other Batman/Grendel crossover, which pits the Caped Crusader against a time-shifted Grendel-Prime. It’s a fun ride for fans of the later Grendels, but it lacks the edge-of-your-seat factor and noir cool that makes Batman/Grendel I so good.
  • Grendel vs. the Shadow is a joint venture between Dark Horse and Dynamite Publishing, a three-issue limited “prestige format” series that sees Wagner drawing and writing for Hunter Rose again for the first time in seven years. Admittedly, I know far less about the Shadow than I do about Grendel, but it’s the kind of pulp fiction character crossover that should satisfy even the most casual readers. The first issue came out on September 10th.
  • Additionally, Dark Horse has published all the meat of the Grendel cycle in four big volumes, with each omnibus covering a different era of the character, as follows:

o   Volume 1: Hunter Rose

o   Volume 2: The Legacy

o   Volume 3: Orion’s Reign

o   Volume 4: Prime

Check out other installments of The Rundown!

Post By Adam Pelta-Pauls (1 Posts)

Working actor, comics nerd, & giant robot enthusiast. Currently living in Wales (a country), not Whales (several large aquatic animals). On Twitter @Neochiiz3000