“Oh poor heart / I was doomed from the start / Doomed to play the villain’s part…” — Nick Cave, Up Jumped the Devil.
I just finished reading this amazing comic book and I am in love with it. This first of four omnibuses collects the story of best selling author Hunter Rose, who moonlights as the criminal mastermind known as Grendel. The other volumes will tell the story of Hunter’s legacy and the other people who assume the mantel of Grendel. This is my introduction to the character and I have to say I am very impressed. In the first story, Devil by the Deed, the story of Grendel’s life is told by reporter Christine Spar. This story contains an overview of the entire life of Hunter Rose, starting from his youth up until his ultimate undoing.
The story is compelling. I happen to like bad guys as a general rule. I don’t condone this behavior in real life but in my entertainment it can be cathartic. It also helps that the character of Hunter Rose is so phenomenal. The crux of the mythos of Grendel is that he is truly a force to be reckoned with. Devil by the Deed shows us how Hunter Rose formed his life into that of Grendel. His real name is Eddie, and a last name is never given, as in the mythology Christine Spar is collecting the story from Hunter’s notes that he kept over the period of his life. Eddie is a highly gifted youth, possessing an extreme mental acumen as well as the grace of a Olympic gymnast. He is so gifted that life presents no challenges for him, or so he assumes. In his teen years he becomes a fencer and finds that this is his forte. At an international match in Europe, he meets what he feels will finally be a challenge for him, only to find himself underwhelmed and throws the match as he feels the world is unworthy and unwilling to see his gifts.
A coach for the other team, Jocasta Rose, notices what he has done and confronts him on this issue. They soon fall in love and passionate affair evolves that is short lived. It is from this doomed romantic encounter where Grendel (and Hunter Rose) is formed. Hunter writes his first novel and it is a best-seller. He does this with great ease and to create a public persona. He moonlights as a hit man named Grendel and makes his way up the organized crime hierarchy. It is at this point that Grendel meets his first and only challenge. The police work with a werewolf named Argent, the only creature who is able to fight the terror known as Grendel. Grendel loves the fight and does not wish it to end. Thus begins a game of constant one up-manship that Grendel consistently wins.
The rest of Devil by the Deed chronicles this fight between the two and how the stakes are raised by Hunter adopting the young Stacy Palumbo, niece of the head of the Palumbo crime family, who is one of Hunter’s marks. She finds the body of her dead uncle and Hunter, in a supposed act of remorse, takes her in. Stacy is friends with the wolf Argent and Hunter resents her affection for him and uses her in a pawn for his schemes against Argent. The cost of this little game will be high.
This is as far as I go with outlining the story. The rest of it you have to read for yourself. The other stories are short tales that expand upon the tales told in Devil by the Deed and are a collaboration between creator Matt Wagner and various illustrators. What I like about this story is that it combines two of my favorite genres: crime and horror. There are strong implications that Hunter Rose is possessed by a demon or under some Satanic influence throughout the series. And despite this, the character never loses his charisma. He is so eloquent and good at what he does that, at least for me, I couldn’t help but escape into his reign of terror. There are some very foul things he does, but Matt Wagner makes sure there are some lines not to be crossed. For example Grendel despises torture. He only uses it in one instance. Also, he makes it a point to destroy all the kiddie porn markets once he assents to role of head of all the families on the eastern seaboard, invoking the trope of “even evil has standards”.
Hunter is a darkly romantic character with Nietzschean philosophies. He is spurred on by the loss of his one true love in a world that he feels holds no challenges and so he makes his own challenges in their absence. In his world, only the strong survive and none is as strong as Grendel. The stories make it a point to show that while this is great literary escapism, there is nothing really likable about the man’s actions. Everything he does ruins or ends the lives of those around him. There are no happy endings here.
I love how the artwork displays the refined physicality of Grendel’s body language. As Hunter Rose, he walks with a cane to support a faked limp. As Grendel, the cane has a forked blade that retracts from it’s end. It is also electrified at the press of a button. Never, until the last story, do we see Grendel in a state of un-ease. He displays a confident cool that never wavers. He knows he is going to win, and he does, in very bloody fashion and with no real challenge. If it weren’t for the experimental nature some of the stories are told, this would be a narrative issue. And indeed, it is a bit of a short-coming that they hinge a story on someone for whom most of his career is unbeatable. However, most of the stories expand upon his psyche and those around him that it continues to be engaging. Stories are told from different points of view of those who have the misfortune to come into contact with him and how his corrupting evil influence destroys almost every life he comes into contact with.
And yet, we can’t help but keep reading. In one notable fight with Argent, Grendel is seen quoting Byron, Shelly, and Keats. He is so well educated and refined that it makes for a more diabolical and charismatic villain. As Christine Spar concludes in Devil by the Deed: His journals are twisted, yet far too beautiful in other respects to render him as any ordinary fiend. I believe his qualities, rather, to be the stuff from which all men of power are carved. There is always a quality that accompanied overt capability. That is the fact of achievement. At first it is by requirement, but eventually there is desire, which all too soon becomes need. Grendel’s existence is lamentable. He burned with a potency that rarely emerges in society. Sadly, we often miss the beginning sparks of such infernos, and so must suffer their consumption rather than profit from their well-nurtured power and warmth. Regrettably, Grendel has always been. He is the demon of society’s mediocrity.”