Matt Wagner’s Batman/Grendel

batman grendelMatt Wagner did two crossover series, the first a joint effort between Comico, his publisher at the time, and DC Comics, and the second between Dark Horse and DC, to bring together Grendel and Batman.

In the first mini-series, originally published as “Devil’s Riddle” and “Devil’s Masque,” Hunter Rose is in Gotham City being courted by a new publisher; as Grendel, he decides on a little bit of mischief. He’s bored: Argent has been lying low for a while, since their last confrontation, so Grendel decides to find a new playmate. As it happens, a rare and valuable ancient sphinx head is being brought to Gotham and will be exhibited at a prominent art gallery. Grendel decides to interfere, using the publisher’s liaison, Hillary Ferrington, and her roommate, Rachel King, who happens to be the gallery’s director, as his cat’s paws. He assumes the identity of the Riddler as a smokescreen, but Batman doesn’t buy it. Grendel does achieve his goal, in some measure, but doesn’t escape unscathed: the adversaries are evenly matched.

I have reservations about this one, starting with the story itself: it’s more than a little formulaic, even for comics, and Grendel’s methods, while certainly in keeping with his character, are almost trite. My deeper complaints have to do with the way the story is executed. By way of establishing a baseline, I tend to favor comics and graphic novels that display a clean, economical visual style, particularly if that involves an open feeling to the frames; a certain freedom with page layouts — moving more toward graphic design than a strict narrative order; and synergy between the visual and text components, so that each carries a portion of the narrative line. Consequently, I find the earlier parts of “Devil’s Riddle” congested, almost claustrophobic, “busy” with a lot of information that doesn’t contribute to the momentum of the story. Wagner has opted for parallel narrations, as well, rendered in a manner between captions and dialogue, initially by Grendel and Batman, but incorporating narratives by Rachel and Hillie as well. It’s an interesting device, and one that could — and sometimes does — add depth to the story, but in some cases it serves to obscure the narrative rather than amplifying it: one comes away with the feeling that the story was conceived as verbal rather than verbal/visual in nature. What’s disappointing here is that Wagner has handled this sort of thing very well in other stories, adding a measure of visual interest as well as character and thematic development, but it doesn’t quite come off here.

Most of those complaints disappear in the second mini-series, incorporating “Devil’s Bones” and “Devil’s Dance.” It is four years later. Grendel and Argent have had their final confrontation, leaving Hunter Rose dead and Argent crippled. However, from far in the future, the cyborg Grendel Prime is pulled back in time to the Gotham Museum, where an exhibition of “Gotham City Killers,” notorious psychopaths and murderers, including a partial skeleton of Hunter Rose, is about to open. What has provided the link for Grendel Prime is the True Skull, for him a talisman and very nearly an object of religious veneration, by means of which he hopes to make contact with the soul of Grendel. For some reason, Batman takes exception to this — maybe it’s all the dead bodies.

This one made me a lot happier. The story line is more elemental, a somewhat purer version of the eternal confrontation between good and evil, with the added fillip that Grendel Prime is revealed as a creature who, while by our standards completely amoral, has his own sense of imperatives that direct his actions. It seems, somehow, better suited to graphic treatment, perhaps because it is relatively direct: the visuals are cleaner, less cluttered, and Wagner has created some fairly dazzling layouts, in some cases similar to what he did in the original publication of “Devil by the Deed. There are full pages and double-page spreads in this one that display a strong design sense and that still move the narrative along smoothly. It’s also a terrific mood piece, with a strong feeling of darkness and — not malice, exactly, but a little chill that says the universe is not a friendly place.

So, this one is a mixed bag. It would be easy to ascribe the flaws to Wagner’s development as an artist, but given the dates of these two, in comparison to the very early Grendel series, that just doesn’t hold water. The intelligibility of the various episodes in the Grendel saga seems to depend on how much information Wagner is trying to cram into one story: sometimes, it just seems to be too much.

(Dark Horse Comics and DC Comics, 2008 [orig. DC Comics and Comico, 1993])

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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