Along with a significant bibliography in the realm of corporate comics, Matt Wagner is the rare cartoonist who can claim credit for not one, but two long-running indie epics in his prolific career. These titles, Mage and Grendel, both debuted in the raucous '80s, when superhero revisionism and reinvention ruled the day. In both, Wagner distinguished his work by imbuing propulsive narratives with social awareness and moral ambiguity that hinted at a life lived beyond the panels and gutters of comics.
Wagner has revisited both Mage and Grendel throughout his career, but their presence on the racks has been marked by long stretches of absence. Wagner has taken a thoughtful tack in mapping their respective trajectories, adding to their respective canons only when he has something substantive to say. In this way, the properties have grown alongside Wagner. Both have largely managed to maintain their vitality because they are built on solid foundations; formally flexible in their telling, but rigidly adherent to their thematic concerns and also to their signifiers, as evidenced by details such as titling conventions and costume design.
By Wagner’s own account, Mage, an autobiographical re-imagining of the Arthurian legend, has now been completed; the story culminated in Mage: The Hero Denied, a 16-issue series published by Image from summer 2017 through early 2019. Following Mage’s conclusion, Wagner announced Grendel: Devil’s Odyssey, a surprising return to the Grendel canon, a continuity that he had not advanced forward since the publication of Devil Quest way back in 1995; more recent Grendel projects from Wagner had, instead, focused on retelling and elaborating upon the series' past.
If Mage was a riff on the hero’s journey in the vein of Joseph Campbell, Grendel arrives by way of Freud or Jung. Despite its sprawling, centuries-spanning scope, Grendel is a journey of the interior, a meditation on aggression as an animating force. "Grendel" is not a singular costumed character with a secret identity; rather, different people become Grendel across time. In the struck-through demon eyes of the Grendel mask, a visual motif Wagner has repeated endlessly across iterations of the costume design, he is presenting a manifestation of the collective psyche. Characters are pushed into embodying Grendel as the broken societies in which they dwell leave them desperate and vulnerable. The lesson that Wagner teaches us over and over is that what Grendel emboldens it ultimately destroys. Unchecked aggression is destructive, upsetting the natural order. In Devil’s Odyssey, he puts this at the forefront.
With each successive incarnation, Wagner has changed the rules without changing the game. If Grendel is a mantle taken up in the spirit of aggression, Wagner has posited over the course of each successive installment: what if the whole world was gripped by such aggression? The series of stories that constitute the Grendel canon was initially published from 1986 to 1990 by Comico in a 40-issue ongoing series in which Wagner focused on scripting. Told in six arcs, the series charted Grendel's rise to a global force over the course of centuries. Having followed an abortive three-issue series and a number of backups written and drawn by Wagner, the Comico run was later republished in arcs by Dark Horse, beginning in 2000 with the first arc, "The Devil's Legacy", re-colored by Jeremy Cox. Wagner recruited up-and-comers like Tim Sale and indie darlings like Bernie Mireault and John K. Snyder III for art duties, giving each iteration its own distinctive tone. New miniseries followed Comico's bankruptcy, and what started in 1982 as a character study of master criminal Hunter Rose’s attempt to transcend the mediocrity of the modern world had transformed by the mid-'90s into a meditation on ethics and duty under military dictatorship.
If Hunter Rose was the seed of the Grendel concept—the first character on whom Wagner bestowed the eponymous mantle—then Grendel-Prime, debuted in Grendel: War Child in 1992, embodies the concept in its fullest bloom. It makes sense that these two characters, which act as bookends of the canon, have been the ones Wagner has most revisited. They are also the characters for which Wagner has most often taken up art duties himself.
Grendel-Prime is the cyborg paladin built by and conscripted to the service of Orion Assante, a benevolent dictator and the first Grendel-Khan. Devil’s Odyssey finds Prime once again summoned to the service of a Khan, this time a distant heir to Assante’s bloodline. After centuries of misrule, the empire Orion built teeters on the verge of collapse with warring factions of Grendel clans vying for power and a greater share of dwindling resources. Over a century has passed since the events of the aforementioned Devil Quest, Prime’s last in-continuity adventure.
“If humankind is to survive, it must leave behind its thirst for conquest and war,” the Khan tells Prime before tasking him with the mission of finding a new Earth. The jaded paladin notes the irony of trying to reset the path of humanity by repeating the cycle of aggression on an interplanetary scale, but his sense of duty supersedes his misgivings. Thus, he embarks in one of the most phallic spaceships put to paper. He is accompanied by a sentient drone, Siggy, a disembodied head who flits and buzzes around him, supplying Prime with tactical counterpoints to his instinctual strategies, as well as expository patter.
In his introduction to the collection, Wagner frames Devil’s Odyssey as a riff on both Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the early issues of Heavy Metal. Given the prompt, it’s easy to see the connections. Throughout the series, Prime tours potentially inhabitable worlds and makes contact with the species indigenous to them. Through Prime’s interactions, Wagner offers alternatives to the unchecked aggression of empire-making. The reader glimpses older societies more in sync with their material conditions and, thus, more sustainable. Wagner is not shy about portraying the sacrifice needed in these societies, but frames them as a more noble endeavor. Resources are shared and conserved. Here, Wagner lays bare the central conundrum of tasking an agent of empire with this mission. Time and again, Prime’s instincts toward aggression put him at odds with mission’s requirements of a diplomacy and a light touch, bringing to mind the cognitive bias known as the Law of the Instrument: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” The adage places Wagner’s story in well-trod territory, but he uses the incongruity to create compelling conflicts.
Swift comparisons notwithstanding, when it comes down to characterization Wagner casts Prime in a quixotic light. In previous outings—War Child, Devil Quest, and even the under-appreciated Batman/Grendel II from 1996—Prime was a model of focus and capability even amid mission creep and foiled plans. These qualities found expression as stoic optimism, which allowed Prime to achieve his objectives in the short term, even if they proved fruitless in the long term.
In Odyssey, that stoic optimism remains, but the path is open-ended, the goals murky. He is looking for an inhabitable planet, something which intelligence posits could exist, but doesn’t necessarily. Despite the unknowns, he can only bring his focus and capability as a warrior to bear because they are all he has, even though his mission of finding an inhabitable planet calls for a more socially adept stance.
For example, early on, Prime lands on a desert planet and makes initial contact with its indigenous inhabitants, who hold water and the means of obtaining it sacred. Seeking to circumvent niceties and prove the value in his alliance, Prime uses his outsize strength and handily removes one of the heavy and unwieldy aqua pods the indigenous use to hydrate. Failing to consider the cultural connotations of the gifting, Prime is blasted by the locals as a heretic for not adhering to the customs associated with the life-giving water. The larger story of Devil's Odyssey is told in fairly modular episodes like these. Each episode takes on an allegorical tone, imparting some insightful lesson meant to highlight the absurdity of human nature, but also the bravery in aspiring to ideals given the difficulty in living up to them.
Whether alone or in collaboration, stylized storytelling has always served Wagner well. Devil’s Odyssey finds Wagner at his most accessible, and that is largely due to his restraint. His straightforward, unpretentious cartooning stands in stark contrast to the Art Deco excesses of his work in the seminal Hunter Rose serial, Devil by the Deed (a backup feature in Mage: The Hero Discovered, 1985-86), or the more expressionistic passages of the grimdark Devil Quest. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, Devil’s Odyssey might read as fitful, but Wagner, who has always been at his best in a serial mode, weaves the component parts together masterfully. The colors for Devil’s Odyssey are provided by his son Brennan, whose bright palette and understated use of complimentary sheens and glows are where the comparisons to Heavy Metal are most apparent.
With all this said, Devil’s Odyssey is a product of its time, and less charitable readers may find Wagner’s indulgence in contemporary references off-putting, especially if a liberal perspective of the baby boomer variety does not align with their own views. Taken in the context of a sci-fi adventure serial, satire does not feel entirely out of place, even if his jabs are about as potent (and as subtle) as a Colbert monologue. Wagner isn’t shy about casting Prime as a boorish asshole, an avatar of the aggrieved conservatives who don’t have time for SJWs and their damn pronouns. And his depiction of Prime’s run-in with a toad-like analog of the freaking Cheeto Mussolini is so on-the-nose as to elicit groans. These sins feel forgivable, though, given the otherwise engaging story.
On its own, Devil’s Odyssey holds up remarkably well. As an entry in a larger canon, though, it feels confused. Tonally, the cynical irony of Devil’s Odyssey tracks with previous entries, but the dearth of references to past events puts it a little shy of proper coda territory. Perhaps, as Wagner reveals more about the present state of his creation, he will bridge the gap between past and future in a more cohesive way. Without revealing details as to the story’s conclusion, it ends on the promise of another trilogy. Still, reinvention has long been the through line to Grendel, and Devil’s Odyssey delivers in that regard.