Saturday, March 21, 2015

MATT WAGNER’S GRENDEL: interweaving craft & theme [part 2]

With the third storyline, The Devil Inside, of Matt Wagner’s classic character, the mantle of Grendel passes to Brian Li Sung, the San Franciscan theater manager who followed Christine Spar to New York in the previous tale.  Drawn by Bernie Mireault, this three-issue tale continues the broader examination of the Grendel mythos, while showcasing yet another different approach to the telling of the tale. 

One can see Wagner, and his artistic collaborators, orbiting the idea of Grendel, and of evil, through these various tales.  In Devil by the Deed, Grendel is already established, and readers get to see the short, tragic life of Hunter Rose.  Devil’s Legacy has Christine Spar take up the mask and fork early in the narrative and follows her, in the guise of Grendel, as she seeks revenge on the vampire who killed her son.  With this third storyline, Wagner more thoroughly investigates the transformation process through this latest Grendel, following Li Sung as he falls more deeply under the sway of this embodiment of evil.  Putting aside the fact that each story focuses on a different character – significantly tethered to the previous Grendel, in a passing of the torch from one to the other – these initial three stories act like a “Rashomon” tale, examining various aspects of Grendel to provide a greater understanding of the concept seeping into this world’s reality.  It’s fascinating. 

As with the first two volumes, Wagner, with Mireault, takes a different approach to the storytelling.  The evil that is Grendel insinuates itself into Li Sung’s psyche, as he spills into a downward spiral on his way to becoming the devil.  We, as readers, are afforded glimpses into Li Sung’s fragile mind, from varying perspectives – two sets of captions diametrically opposed, and almost battling on the page, with one another.   Through these bits of text, overlaid (and underlaid) on traditional comic panels, the drama is enacted within these chapters, until the ultimate fate of Brian Li Sung is revealed. 

One thread of text – in the form of modified caption boxes – follows the conscious musings of Li Sung.  Like Christine Spar, he keeps a diary of sorts, meditating on his life after the death of Christine, as well as the ugliness and oppression surrounding him in this dark city of New York.  These captions are illustrated as sheets from his personal diary, snatches of lined paper with neat, legible handwriting.  We, the audience, are allowed access to the questions and concerns nagging Li Sung, those now weighing him down with despair and apathy. 

Juxtaposed against these musings are the scrawled ravings most often found scratched along the bottom of the page, red marks on a black background.  At first, one cannot be certain where these ideas and thoughts come from.  They seem to emanate from outside any of the characters (their placement outside of any comic panels lends itself to this reading), the ramblings of Grendel as an idea rather than a person.  Grendel, as an embodiment of evil, is larger than any one person, and this is where Wagner begins to reveal that on the page.  These captions are hateful, angered, and, if one looks more closely, full of despair – despair at the world, at what it has become, and at what it forebodes for whoever is thinking these thoughts. 

Eventually, these scrawls and the snatches from Li Sung’s diary intertwine, as the spirit of Grendel consumes him.  Now enmeshed by Grendel, Li Sung, without any thought, kills a man who follows him into the woods, threatening to harm him if he does not give up whatever he is hiding.  This leads to Li Sung’s death at the hands of Captain Wiggins, the police officer who investigated Christine Spar.  And, once more, the devil has the last laugh.   

The way Wagner and Mireault utilize the two, disparate caption types to evoke the fragile, and fractured, psyche of Brian Li Sung is wonderful and a great example of how to use the medium to enhance the narrative.  Readers see the devolution of his character through his writings – both conscious and unconscious – even as his actions become more frenzied and harsh, until both these texts coincide with the revelation that “He knows.”

It is continually fascinating to see how the storytelling approaches of these various Grendel tales feed into the overall thematic core of each one.  I doubt most readers are aware, consciously, of the choice being made by Wagner and his cohorts.  This meshing of theme and approach creates a synergy more deeply affecting than if Grendel took the more traditional approach to storytelling.  Certainly, it would be successful, but, I would posit, not as enriching an experience as the one afforded those in Wagner’s, and Grendel’s, audience. 

Next: some Devil Tales

No comments: