Grendel: The World’s Best Comic Series on Memes and Media

grendel hunter rose

The title of this post is deceptive and overly specific for this really is the  world’s best comic series of all time, no matter what theme you want to go with. Yup, I will die on that hill. There is no fictional property that has influenced my creative conception so much and for so long. From my discovery of the series through the first Batman vs Grendel crossover when I was around ten years old through to today’s currently published Devil’s Odyssey series, I don’t think any other single fictional tale(s) has exerted such influence in my fictional writing, drawing, and everything else. This influence is not direct but it is in the background, always.  However, I could be here all day gushing about it if I do not limit my topic so let us focus on two things the Grendel series does particularly well: Memes and Media.

Truncated summary: A guy named Matt Wagner decided to invent an protagonist villain in the 1980s who was very much supposed to be a dapper inverted reflection of many of the popular comic hero characters of the time. This was the first Grendel, Hunter Rose. A dissafected ex child prodigy who moved to New York City to kill his way to the top of assassins and the top of the best sellers list to boot. Yes, Hunter Rose was a famous author. But he was also a brutal anonymous mob hitman hidden behind a mask known as Grendel.  There was a monstrous wolf who was the antagonist hero and the story ends up with Grendel cutting a bloody swathe through the underworld and law enforcement until he is effectively the mafia lord of the east coast. Then, he is brought down at the peak of his power due to hubris and his underestimation of others.

You might think that for a niche independent series, this might be the end. But Wagner kept going. Soon we had stories in the near future as Grendel’s step-grandaughter and biographer picked up the mask for vengeance, followed by her alienated lover. So far, this was a series about what in Wagner’s own words was ‘a spirit of aggression.’ It was already a great comic book, but to become the greatest it needed more than lone alienated individuals fighting the world until their last dying gasps. This was when Wagner made Grendel a meme. Not to sell comics in our world, but a meme in his own fictional one. As the future moved ever further from these original stylistic criminal figures, Grendel became a media figure and underground cult icon. He was now the star of trashy slashers and lurid soap operas. The detective Wiggins, who investigated two of the three Grendels (killing one of them himself) decided to write stories about the first, the one he never met. His novels became a big hit winning him fame and fortune. Grendel would enter the collective future consciousness as a pop figure and even as the name of a deadly and highly addictive intravenous drug. The notoriety would only increase when Wiggins became a deranged murderer after his success. His cybernetic eye, he claimed, possessed by Grendel.

Humanity eventually stumbled (or perhaps was pushed) into a nuclear third world war. Out of the ashes came only a few surviving powerful nations-with the ones in the Americas and Europe meeting current tradcath resurgence trends by being effectively ruled by a Catholic Church more powerful and monstrous than ever before. The church used media saturation techniques not dissimilar to present day cable news to solidify its control-along with torture and the inquisition. It also had a new word for the devil and all things satanic: Grendel.

grendel eppy thatcher

But in a world so dominated by Christian tyranny, is it not inevitable that the devil goes from The Adversary to The Liberator? Indeed, when God and the Devil, my personal favorite arc of the Grendel Saga, gets going…we get exactly that. One mad prodigy takes up the mask of Grendel once again as he humiliates and sabotages the church and the unveiling of their new tower. Meanwhile, a reforming politician and oligarch, Orion Assante, fights the legal battle against the tyrannical Pope using his family’s massive media empire for subversion and the leaking of secrets the Church doesn’t want found. By the end of this truly masterful and complex arc, the best (I would say) in comics history so far, not only is there one antihero with the mask of Grendel, but Orion and his immediate circle have adopted the attitudes and iconography of Grendel as well. The cat is out of the bag and now the return of lone weirdos is replaced by a movement.

Following the destruction of the church and the humiliation of international Christianity, Orion Assante comes to take over vast swathes of the world with this now ascending ideology-that of Grendel. Adapted and repackaged for the masses, Grendel justifies war and profits off of legalized drug consumption in exchange for protection from the postwar worlds mutants and monsters as well as powers hostile to the Grendel movement. Some of Assante’s conquests have little to no military force, however, and often rely on psychically imprinted subliminal messages in the mass media he puts out. Eventually, after a series of struggles and conflicts, Orion Assante has the entire world in his hand. He is the first Grendel Khan, and this world that has been shattered for centuries is finally unified into peace and some form of prosperity. Grendel is still a force of aggression and elitism, but now it is more than that. It is a force of power and protection as well. Elite warriors sworn to uphold civil codes are now Grendels. This is still a dystopian horror show of a world, but it is a much better one than it was right after the bombs fell.

Like all things, this doesn’t last forever. There are some codas, the action packed War Child showing a succession dispute/civil war that breaks out a decade after Orion’s death and the role the cyborg Grendel Prime played in restoring the correct heir to the throne. Other series since have explored the gradual decline and fall of the Grendel world-empire. The newest current series seems to imply that the some rump element of the state survived on even further only to fall in the first issue of Odyssey. Grendel Prime himself becomes a sort of symbol of this entropy. His constantly upgrading and tinkering cyborg nature prolonging his life but alienating him further and further from humanity. He shows the Grendel-future. Having reached the apogee from villain to hero, Grendel is now degenerating back to villain. Then again, the currently running series might just be moving to a redemption arc of a sorts-but its too early to call that yet.

When the series (for the most part) came to an end Wagner stuck true to this media and meme theme and left his ambiguous Grendel-dominated future in the hands of other writers. Hence forth came the ‘Grendel Tales’, all of which were great. But I have to give special credit to ‘Devils and Deaths’ which was written in real time by a Croatian living in a then disintegrating Yugoslavia entering its full breakup bloodbath. Many of these themes can be seen directly in his far future story of what was going on in the Balkans during the succession dispute crisis of War Child.

While it never quite predicted the force the internet would become, Grendel’s 1982-1996 main run was remarkably prophetic when it came to the role memes and media would play in the future. Specifically in how media would determine the consensus of the masses while memes-as symbolism or in their general image macro form-would become a counter-culture of sorts used as a medium of communication outside of the mainstream media itself. And its hardly like the comic’s conception of future technology is really odd or quaint considering that most of the future it depicts is post-apocalyptic. Some things are more advanced, others less so, and some things are about the same. The comic also showed, despite the Nietzchian superman trappings of its first main character, that all of its successful villain-antagonists (or later antihero protagonists) did not get to their heights alone. All have a remarkable eye for talent and hiring subordinates. The ones that don’t are the ones who amount to far less in their stories. So in a sense, Grendel is also about networking and organization. The more organized the vessel for a Grendel becomes, the more the aesthetic and ideology of Grendel marches across the world. It shows how the esoteric mutants into the mass movement as historical trends call for a constant replacement of old establishments.

grendel orion assante

While Grendel is remarkably pessimistic by comic book standards, it also gradually becomes more balanced as it shows the often disturbing main characters in complex and even heroic lights as the greater meme-concept matures. We end up with a kind of Ibn Khaldunian cyclic rise and fall of a ruling elite. Jilted outsider becomes a society of outsiders which then replaces the establishment and becomes the new order…only for its gradual decay to once undermine what made it successful and open up space for others to do the same. The difference from our past and present I imagine, is that the Grendels of the future would be honest about this being an acceptable way to winnow the right to rule.

Even with the current series seeming like a true ending to the saga (but I certainly don’t know if that is the case myself) I always felt like the truly final Grendel Arc would fit this cyclic view of history. I saw in my own mind’s eye a new anti-Grendel movement rising to challenge the various Grendel-warlords with new iconography and stated appeal. Perhaps it would have the symbols of the wolf Argent, a call back to Grendel’s first and most effective foe. This too would rise and topple the complacent Grendel establishment and its leader would promise a new and different future…But there would be a final scene, a private one where this leader turns to the reader and reveals in some subtle way that they themselves are the new incarnation of Grendel, perhaps closing with the refrain seen through every arc of the saga: ‘I am patient. I am directed. I am Grendel.’

Feel free to disregard my own personal fanfiction take there, but I have seen that ending in my mind for at least a decade now.

If you want to know more about the series you can check out this guys video series on it, Part 1 focuses on Hunter Rose and Part 2 the rest. I don’t endorse everything he says and have some disagreements with him (the sun gun was meant to change Earth’s atmosphere to block out sunlight not to ‘destroy the sun’ per se, he also disdains the excellent War Child arc) but this series is niche so its not like there is a plethora of fan content to choose from.  If you want to read the series which I of course strongly recommend, its best these days to do so through the omnibus Dark Horse reprints-though those might lack the issues released between the Brian Li Sun arc and God and the Devil as those are supposedly very difficult to find and replicate. I don’t know for sure as I’ve been a holder of the old issues for all the main cycles since I was collecting all this stuff as a kid in the 90s (sorry comics code Tipper Gore wannabes, those NOT FOR CHILDREN stickers on the cover made it all the more appealing and my dad was into the series too so you couldn’t stop me). Nevertheless, the omnibusses are the easiest way to get your hands on pretty much everything and the beginning of God and the Devil gives you a brief catch up at the start to bridge the gap from the near future to the far future stories.

So thanks for everything Matt-even if you don’t end up using my *brilliant* idea for a final ending. Twenty-five years after I discovered it, its still my favorite comic book series. And outside of its excellent world building, writing, and diverse but always fitting rotating artists, it is also a damn good take on media (powerful and outsider alike) and the evolution of memetic culture.

 

 

 

 

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