In what appears to be the final volume of Dark Horse's reprinting of nearly the entirety of Matt Wagner's seminal 1980s indie comic Grendel (though word has just come forth that, perhaps inevitably, Wagner will be writing and drawing a three-issue prestige format Shadow/Grendel crossover mini-series), we are presented with the culmination of plot lines first hinted at in the very beginning of the title’s second Comico-published run (1986-1990), Wagner and illustrator Pat McEown's War Child mini-series (1992-93), Wagner's Devil's Quest back-ups in the 1990s spin-off anthology series Grendel Tales (1994-97) and the Greg Rucka-penned and Wagner-illustrated Grendel novel Past Prime (2000).
Grendel has its beginnings in the early-1980s black-and-white comic book boom, a minor interest title published from March 1983 to February 1984 by the then-upstart company Comico. Ostensibly the story of an assassin-for-hire named Hunter Rose, Wagner took his inspiration from pulp characters Diabolik and The Shadow and, in the startlingly experimental and masterful back-ups of his first Mage series, The Hero Discovered (1985-1987) (itself benefiting from a significant maturation in style mid-way through its run) Wagner subsequently refashioned Rose as a criminal mastermind and celebrated author. The initial black-and-white series, which Wagner now refers to as a "rough draft" (it was not included in the first volume of the Omnibus series, Hunter Rose , though it was reprinted in the non-canon Grendel Archives, a standalone volume published in 2007, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the character's inception) was cancelled due to Comico's financial troubles at the time.
One year later, in a light-years leap forward in artistic acumen, Wagner began a series of Grendel back-ups in his subsequent Comico title Mage. These were later collected as a 48-page, European-style album-sized "graphic novel" Devil By the Deed ), revitalizing interest in the character. After Mage concluded, Comico quickly launched a second Grendel series; a different artist was used for each "incarnation" of Grendel as Hunter Rose died at the end of the Mage back-ups (a similar method was used to great success in Neil Gaiman's Sandman): the Pander Brothers for Christine Spar (Devil's Legacy, issues 1-12 [1986-1987]), Bernie Mireault for Brian Li Sung (The Devil Inside, issues 13-15 ), Wagner for the Hunter Rose stories (Devil Tales, issues 16-19 ), Tim Sale for Captain Wiggins and Grendel-Khan (The Incubation Years, issues 20-23  and Devil's Reign, 34-40 [1989-1990]) and John K. Snyder for Eppy Thatcher (God and the Devil, issues 24-33 [1988-1989]).
Part-way through the run of the second Comico series run, Mireault asked Wagner what would happen if the "spirit" of Grendel, which had by then "infected" individuals Spar and Li Sung, instead came to infect an entire population. This suggestion inspired Wagner to substantially alter the concept and scale of the comic, catapulting it to the far future of the 26th century; Rose's story took place in the 20th century while Spar, Li Sung and Capt. Wiggins' storylines were set sometime in a mostly-recognizable early 21st century.
The Incubation Years, as they later came to be known, set the tone and plot for what followed, to the extent that the Grendel mythos can be said to occupy two wholly distinct periods: that of the early, character-driven stories of Spar, Li Sung and Capt. Wiggins, collected in the second Dark Horse Omnibus, The Legacy, and the large-scale epics of the third Omnibus, Orion's Reign, centered around the reign of the first Grendel-Khan Orion Assante, which also collects The Incubation Years (the first time those issues have been reprinted; the original art had deteriorated too much for earlier technology to successfully reprint them), God and the Devil and Devil's Reign.
The Incubation Years not only explores the expansion of this Grendel infection, contrasted with a similar infection of vampires (the metaphor is taken to painful lengths in the flip-flopping narrative of Devil's Reign), but also manages to explore such heady ideas as political and papal corruption and environmental and social collapse. Numerous mini-series, one-shots and crossovers appeared in subsequent years, each of them exponentially expanding an increasingly labyrinthine Grendel mythos.
As noted, the initial volume of Dark Horse's Omnibus series, eponymously entitled Hunter Rose, focuses on what came to be Grendel’s initial host, undeniably Wagner's most interesting and enduring character. It collects nearly all of the Hunter Rose stories, with the exception of the initial 3-issue black and white run, and the unfortunate exception of Wagner's superb Batman/Grendel one-shots Devil's Riddle and Devil's Masque (both 1993), probably not included due to copyright issues.
The volume does happily include the re-colored version of Devil By the Deed, the entirety of the two mini-series Black, White and Red (1998-99) and Red, White and Black (2002) (written by Wagner and drawn by an assortment of illustrators; somewhat of a mixed bag), and Wagner's ultimately disappointing Behold the Devil (2007-2008), disappointing in part because it is drawn in Wagner's post-Aerialist (1990) cartoon-style, which, while it works well with some of Wagner's later superhero work, similarly marred his Mage sequel The Hero Defined (1997-99).
This cartoony style jars with the expressionistic Grendel and, oddly, seems a bit of a throwback to Wagner's earlier, amateurish pencil-work on the original Grendel series and the first third of Mage. For me, the pinnacle of Wagner's achievement, both narratively and stylistically, came between 1985 and 1989, with Mage's latter two-thirds (roughly issues 6-15), Devil By the Deed, Wagner's highly experimental Rose contributions to the second Grendel series (issues 16-19) and the first Batman/Grendel crossovers (published in 1993, but written and drawn in 1988-89).
To my eyes, nothing Wagner has done before or since has matched these achievements. His new style betrays a disastrous sense of anatomy (even by cartoon standards), and often interferes with his oftentimes complex, nuanced storytelling.
And, make no mistake, Wagner is a master storyteller, even if his dialogue occasionally falls flat. Compared with the first series, Mage II perfectly illustrates this overall decline in writing and drawing, even if the story itself manages to work despite those shortcomings.
Grendel is another keen example of how Wagner's imagination has strayed too far and too wide from the initial concept that made Grendel such an engrossing and thought-provoking comic. In fact, Wagner's Hunter Rose saga can be viewed in some ways as a variation on The Shadow mythos (and, to a lesser extent, Batman, insofar as Batman is a superhero version of Lamont Cranston); Andy Helfer's sadly underrated (and short-lived) The Shadow series (1987-89) (see this perceptive reconsideration from Chris Winderlich) is perhaps Wagner's Hunter Rose-era's closest cousin.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Wagner's post-Grendel, post-Mage career at DC found him helming such decidedly pulp-derived titles as Sandman Mystery Theatre (1993-99) and several Batman storylines (most especially his notable Faces mini-series in the Batman anthology series Legends of the Dark Knight ).
The Wagner-drawn Devil's Quest and Past Prime, collected in Prime, this mostly complete fourth Omnibus (again, for copyright reasons, rights to the second Batman/Grendel crossover [Devil's Bones and Devil's Dance from 1996], which involve the Grendel Prime character, apparently could not be secured) suffers from Wagner's new illustration style.
In fact, the War Child mini-series (initially intended to have been published as Grendel #41-50; Comico went bankrupt and Dark Horse took over publication) is the best material here, and even this is a mostly lightweight effort, a futuristic/dystopian road movie, often rightly described by fans as Lone Wolf and Cub meets The Terminator II: Grendel Prime, a rogue cyborg, has been tasked with protecting Orion's son, and heir to the throne, Jupiter, from a potential military coup.
The series is a giddily violent concoction of mid-1980s sci-fi fare, similarly enjoyable and fast-paced, but, also like most mid-'80s sci-fi, ultimately forgettable and at times curiously empty. Wagner's often silent script, coupled with McEown's kinetic artwork, shows an obvious debt to writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima. In fact, War Child so closely resembles Lone Wolf and Cub that at times it almost seems an act of homage.
Devil Quest takes place 104 years after the events in War Child. Jupiter, the new Grendel-Khan, attempts to locate Grendel Prime, who has gone to the desert in an attempt to raise the spirit of Hunter Rose. Wagner's painted artwork is largely static, making for a less-than-fluid reading experience; it does not help that the stories, which again originally appeared as back-ups in the Grendel Tales mini-series, are relatively self-contained, making this a somewhat incoherent, disappointing effort, an effort to bookend the far more impressive second Batman/Grendel mini-series. Its interest, ultimately, is as a bridge between War Child and the sadly absent second Batman/Grendel Prime-era crossover.
The Past Prime novel could just as well have been entitled Grendel: Past Its Prime. It's an interesting experiment (Wagner, notably, was working on his own Grendel novel at some point in the mid-1980s, ultimately abandoned), yet this Greg Rucka-penned wannabe novel, primarily concerned with a minor – and somewhat inconsequential – character from War Child, does little to enlarge the Grendel mythos or use the novel format to provide any additional details. Where Wagner's previous foreshadowing of seemingly inconsequential minor characters (Brian Li Sung and Capt. Wiggins) lent the series elements of pathos and tragedy, here, like the novel itself, it seems largely unnecessary.
Altogether, Prime presents a fair-to-middling sampling of late Grendel; the first three volumes are by far the most impressive, with the second volume, The Legacy, perhaps the most cohesive and, thanks to the contributions of the Pander Brothers, Mireault, and especially Wagner, experimentally adventurous. Prime, on the other hand, is for completists only; the less dedicated Grendel reader would probably be best served by picking up the first War Child collection (also Dark Horse, 1994) and skipping the rest.