I love GRENDEL. Matt Wagner’s seminal comic, initially a noir-inspired look at a villainous assassin-turned-crime lord, through this period of time, eventually became this giant sprawling whole…thing. It became, in Wagner’s words, about “the nature of aggression.”
Every time I read GRENDEL through, beginning to end, I think about that phrase. I think about what “the nature of aggression” means, because to me, I think the comic actually phrases it much differently in practice. It’s not about the nature of aggression, it’s about the futility of the cycle of violence. There’s a deeper level to that definition, versus I think just labeling as being a somewhat abstract take on aggression.
The entire nature of what and who Grendel is, and then furthermore what it means to be (a) Grendel, is entirely based around this almost Darwinian and Calvinistic belief that the strong and the powerful are destined to be at the top. Hunter Rose is sure that the mechanics of his plans and legend of Grendel will make him king of New York. Christine Spar knows that the righteous fury of being Grendel will give her satisfactory vengeance. The idea of Grendel as a drug that fuels rage and religious fervor seems like such a sweet proof of absolution that the righteous crave in a Christ-obsessed super future. All the warlords and the monsters of the nuclear wastelands to follow, they all crave it, if not in name, then in spirit, this determination to prove that they are the ones who will be different, the ones who will be successful in using violence and unmitigated strength.
They all fail, but they all try, ending tragically.
Orion Assante however, is the one Grendel, the Grendel-Khan, who perhaps completely understands the power of being Grendel. It’s why he rebels against being called that at first, and why he only reluctantly takes it up as a mantle, hoping to harness it. Even then, he’s hesitant, an ultimately recognizes how it can fail as a system.
Assante’s legion of Grendels, his shogunistic society that ends up becoming a feudalistic wasteland of haves and have-nots, is fucked. It’s completely fucked, and I think that he knows it. The Grendels go from the military elite to the sci-fi apocalyptic wasteland raider cliche, people who take by force simply because they can. They lose momentum, and instead peter out, proving the uselessness of the idea of Grendel. I think he felt it would be a possibility, that after he was gone the structure would instantly start to rot, and the momentum would run on nothing but fumes and the promise of a return to glory days, glory days that were never really there in the first place.
It’s why the ultimate personification of what Assante thinks is Grendel is a machine, the cyborg Grendel Prime who despises everything It’s why the world falls to shit the instant Orion dies, and it’s why the true nature of the comic is that violence is a futile and pointless cycle to engage in as a legitimate way to move things socially. Grendel as a presence and a role model tries and and tries and tries to change things, to mold things through force of will and naked aggression, and it just doesn’t work. I think that ultimately is the lesson, the theme that Wagner was focusing on here. It’s not just there being some kind of indescribable nature to aggression or violence. It’s specifically about the long-term uselessness of aggression.
The later stories, both by Wagner and by the other contributors that he invites to write in his world, continue to illustrate this. Violence is pointless, it does nothing but create circle effects that can only bring people and their worlds down. Nothing about this world of flying cars and laser swords and advanced cyborg prosthetics sounds enjoyable. It sounds tiring, intensely tiring. Survival for the sake of survival in a world that hollowly preaches aggression and bloodthirstiness is awful, and never something we should aim for.
Is it some kind of message about larger preexisting social structures or traditions? Maybe. Is it about the doomed future of humanity due to cyclical human nature, constantly going in and out of violent phases? Probably not, to be honest. It does definitely make some interesting commentary about violence as a solution. Even though Argent the Wolf is Hunter’s opposite and the closest to a “good guy” in the original Grendel comics, even though Orion made “Grendel” a spirit to be embraced to battle vampires and invasion…it still isn’t right.