September 3, 2014

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Grendel vs. The Shadow #1

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Written and drawn by Matt Wagner 
Colored by Brennan Wagner
Published by Dark Horse and Dynamite

I discovered Matt Wagner’s Grendel in mid-2007, with issue #0 of Behold the Devil. I fell in love, devouring everything Grendel I could get my hands on, allowing Hunter Rose and the devils who came after him to take me by the hand away from a world of Marvel and DC (and the occasional Hellboy) and into a universe of alternative and indie comics. I collected paperbacks just to lend out (much more convenient now, thanks to Dark Horse’s Grendel Omnibus series), and had my first forays into the money pit that is eBay to form a collection of old single issues. However I caught up quickly, and have been patiently waiting for something new from the Grendel-verse ever since.

In theory, Grendel vs. The Shadow is an excellent idea. Wagner began chronicling the early adventures of Lamont Cranston for Dynamite in February 2013, and the influence that pulp and noir characters had on Grendel (Hunter Rose in particular) is fairly easy to spot. The black, white, and red aesthetic and tendency for Rose to narrate through his journal is straight noir, and Cranston’s violent justice would fit well in the world Grendel inhabits. Yes, in theory, a Grendel/Shadow crossover would be a complete success, an intriguing idea at the very least. In practice, however, not so much.

I had a number of problems with this first of three issues. It seemed that Wagner, in trying to find a good medium between the world he had created with Grendel and what he had added to The Shadow, got somewhat lost.  (Perhaps it's due to this being the first sizable Grendel story in more than half a decade?) The story so far ended up feeling more like a fan-fiction than a well thought out crossover story.

Although the world of Grendel is no stranger to mysticism and magic, I felt that the way Hunter Rose ends up in prohibition era New York (an ancient Chinese scroll that when read aloud transports the reader back in time) falls a little flat. It seems to be more of a device than a plot point – something that is unexplained, relying on suspension of disbelief rather than in-world logic. Perhaps this will be explained later, but for now it remains more of a cop out than a real explanation. What I found to be most detrimental to the quality of this first issue, though, were the colors. Using a rather uninteresting medium palette rather than the black, white, and red of other Grendel stories, or muted colors more suited to a detective story, Brennan Wagner does little to add to the atmosphere of the book, and takes away somewhat from the stylized noir action that both readers of Grendel and The Shadow are used to.

For all the initial problems, though, I was not entirely disappointed with this first issue. Wagner’s art (despite being weakened somewhat by the colors) is strong, keeping in style with his recent work and full of some excellent panel layouts. The story began to pick up towards the end of the issue, giving me confidence that the next two issues will be considerably better. The action is enjoyable, violent and aesthetically pleasing as one expects from Wagner. The Shadow is re-introduced in a way that makes it so that the reader does not have to be familiar with any of the character’s previous 84 years of appearances, and the interaction between him and Grendel is looking like it will be interesting, at the very least.

Ultimately, the first issue of Grendel vs. The Shadow was not everything I had hoped it would be. This is most definitely not the book I would hand to a friend to introduce them to either character. However, if you are already a fan of Grendel or The Shadow (or both!) I believe you will find this book, at the very least, entertaining. I will certainly be reading the next two issues, and I am looking forward to the direction the story seems to be heading.