Matt Wagner’s Grendel has been a phenomenally successful series practically from its beginning in Comico’s Primer in 1982. Due to the vicissitudes of the comics industry, however, it’s been somewhat sporadic. Despite that, it has become successful enough, and important enough in the history of American comics, that it has not only spun off a number of series, but has become a franchise.
Devil Quest is one of those spin-offs, concerned with the cyborg Grendel Prime and his search for the spirit of Hunter Rose, who, although not, according to Wagner, the first Grendel in history, is the first of whom we have knowledge. The series is set in the far future, when the Khan Jupiter III, a weak ruler, to say the least, sees his hegemony over the world eroding rapidly. Perhaps “collapsing” is a better word. He sets the Session twins to hunt for Grendel Prime. The various stories in this series detail stages in this hunt from a number of points of view.
This is by no means the most successful of the Grendel stories. The script is at times incoherent, and all too often the graphics fail to carry any of the narrative flow. The opening section, “Imitation of Life,” suffers from illustrations that are simply busy rather than dense — the clarity that was a striking feature of the original stories is completely lacking — while the dialogue echoes every overdone villain you’ve ever seen. Exposition is necessary in something like this, but one could wish for a little more sophistication, especially at this point in Wagner’s career.
There are high points. “Incisionary Tactics,” which covers the Session twins — two merciless sisters who look like KISS gone bad — as they find the first real lead in their search, is one such. Their methods are not tasteful, but the formal aspects of this segment are arresting: text is handled partly in traditional dialogue balloons and partly as type used as a background, both in the frames and in separate “non-frame” negative-space boxes. This builds a tension in the sequence that is largely lacking in the rest of the stories.
As far as content goes, much of this one is fairly repulsive. The Session twins are not nice people, and they are not the only example of gratuitous violence of the sort that has had moralists foaming at the mouth about the detrimental effects of comics for generations. They are not unique — casual destruction seems to be a touchstone for this collection. Wagner has said that the Grendel series is a study in aggression, but here we see the aggression without much study.
I had looked forward to Devil Quest, which I had never read before, but have to confess that I was disappointed: it lacks the graphic strength and narrative coherence of Devil by the Deed and the Grendel Archives, which includes the first episodes from Primer and the first Grendel numbers. Quite frankly, by this time in the history of the series, given the brilliance of some of the earlier stories, one wonders what Wagner was thinking.
(Dark Horse Books, 2008 [orig. Dark Horse Comics, 1995])