Before I get this review going, I need to quantify a couple of points just so everyone knows how I’m approaching this. Which is to say, I’m so horrifically biased when it comes to certain characters and their creators, that it’s tough to override that. The biases come from years of immersion. For this one, I’m going to get down in the trenches on my geek level biases.
Matt Wagner is one of those writer / artists who rarely disappoints me when it comes to writing classic characters. He may not always land perfectly on the mark, but he gets so close to the right idea sometimes that it just makes a lot of his contemporaries look like they’re not trying. And some of them aren’t, but that’s another story altogether. The point is, Wagner has an innate sense of noir and nostalgia about him. He understands street level crime fiction, and as I said, he understands the core of the classics, be they noir or of the more superheroic variety. He’s one of those guys I would trust to write for any era of Batman because he’s proven he can do them all from the 30s to the present. The man’s got writing chops, and he cares about the characters, which already puts him a cut above the rest. Where this book’s concerned, Wagner truly knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. That comes partially from being such a good writer and partially from having exercised that talent in making his own creation, Grendel, a modern classic. Kudos where they’re deserved, Grendel has resonated with a great many people over the years, especially in the 90s when he first debuted, during that era where seemingly every fanboy out there was bemoaning the state of the industry. Except for me. Why not me? Because those were the years when I was following DC Comics into brave and turbulent times where heroes were proving left, right, and center why they were the greatest heroes of all time. At the same time, I was deeply investing in those great pulp adventurers of yesteryear who came before and directly inspired them…
Pulp adventurers like The Shadow, who was pulled into Dark Horse Comics in the 90s and instantly outclassed their entire roster of newly-created “darker and edgier” characters simply by showing up. This was no mean feat as many of those characters, such as Grendel, would go on to become modern classics. But there it is. The Shadow is a dominating force to be reckoned with. So you see where my bias lies. I am a fan. The Shadow numbers as one of my all-time favorites.
On the flip side of that…
Full disclosure, I am not a Grendel fan. He typically doesn’t resonate with me as he does for others. When he was first introduced to me, I laughed myself silly just looking at his knock-off Venom mask. Then I started reading more about him. It took a while, but I eventually came around to the point where I see the appeal. He’s popular for a reason, and it takes very little to connect the dots as to why. I still don’t care for the character, but I like the idea of the character. I always thought something like this would have been better had he be written with that nostalgic noir sensibility that you can only get from a 1930s pulp. And even then, I’m still convinced there are two characters from that particular era who could — and would — take him down without trying: Doc Savage and The Shadow. Grendel would unleash a lot of damage on the loyal agents of both parties, but he would be stopped in the end in single combat. There’s no doubt in my mind of this.
Here’s the thing. Obviously, nobody else is going to write for Grendel, and it’s perhaps safe to say that Wagner has an interest in keeping Grendel alive and making him look even better than he really should be against someone like The Shadow. In Wagner’s mind, and in the minds of many Grendel fans, I’m sure Grendel is all that and a bag of chips. Who am I to dispute the creator of the character? I can only base my assessment on what I’ve seen, and my exposure has been limited for reasons I’ve already listed. From what I’ve seen of Grendel, the idea of him makes him a worthy adversary for someone like The Spider, The Green Hornet and Kato, or even The Phantom. I’d love to see him fight against The Phantom. The Shadow? No, no, no… this isn’t something I can wrap my brain around easily. But in the interest of just making things a little more fair so that you get a proper amount of dramatic tension, it makes sense to elevate Grendel up to the level of The Shadow simply because it would be an extreme disservice to bring The Shadow down a few rungs. Wagner being who he is, this isn’t something I would ever need to fear.
That’s why when my best friend dangled this book in front of me, my hands overrode the thinking process and grabbed at it. Even if I don’t care for Grendel, I’ve been wanting to see Matt Wagner’s take on The Shadow since I first became aware of this guy. Why I’m just now getting to it after all these months is beyond me. It’s been sitting in my library in plain sight, silently mocking me.
But do you know what Wagner did with this story? He went out of his way to sell me on the idea of Grendel, which I have to say… I truly appreciate that. First he stripped away all of the personal baggage I walked into this with. There was always this confusing mess where he didn’t know if he was “Grendel” or “The Devil,” which is part of the pretentious crap that makes me slap-happy against this character. Pick one and shut the fuck up, Grendel, because your grandstanding in the third person is a large part of what killed it for me. Some characters can pull that off, and The Shadow is the absolute master of this sort of thing. Grendel just isn’t one of them in my book, but that’s a difference in opinion I have with his creator, and I would lose that argument on account. More egregious than that, the Devil has no bearing in the Beowulf mythos from whence Grendel takes his name, and an extremely literati character like Grendel who loves showing off his bookish knowledge should know this. It just makes me groan every single time I came across it. It’s one of those little things that I couldn’t let go, and it ultimately sabotaged my full enjoyment of what this character could do. This time around, Wagner picked, and for my part all of that baggage was instantly stowed for maximum enjoyment. Aside from a single “devil” reference that The Shadow himself used, and that could have been directed at any of his adversaries… well, so help me it worked. Finally! This, my friends, is the Grendel I’ve been dying to see from the beginning, the one who was stripped down to basics so I could see what he could do. This guy looked like he could actually stand toe to toe with the Batman and maybe hold out for more than a page or three, before the killer with no formal training and all the instincts got his ass handed to him by the man on a quest for vengeance, expertly trained in every conceivable form of martial art designed to counter those instincts right out of the gate. Let’s get real here… Batman’s been an unstoppable force for a couple of decades now, even with that line in the sand that prevents him from taking a life. Skill will defeat instinct every time, unless that instinct is something like Spidey-sense. And even then, Batman’s proven to beat that too, so Grendel’s level of threat is marked for me.
But to watch Grendel bypass the ever-popular knock-off that is Batman and go straight for the original Dark Avenger… that’s gutsy. Maybe The Shadow is perhaps not quite so masterful a fighter as the famed Batman, but he’s certainly no slouch in that department, and he’s every bit as resourceful and a whole lot scarier for all the right reasons. Furthermore, unlike the Bat, The Shadow is lethal, which makes this truly a fair fight. So Wagner time-shifts Grendel via a mystical artifact and put him squarely in The Shadow’s battleground turf, pulp era New York City. The moment it happened, I my geekbumps got geekbumps. Do you know how often I’ve seen The Shadow engaged in a truly fair fight in all the years I’ve followed him?
Once. Just once.
If he ever faced off against the likes of Tarzan, that too would be a considerably more-than-fair fight. Grendel simply isn’t in that category, as I keep saying. But he comes across here as a most worthy adversary in a world that’s pretty much tailor-made for his level of carnage and atrocity. More than that, he recognizes The Shadow is a worthy adversary, so any kid gloves are off. So when I sit here and tell you that this book is a treat, prepare your sweet tooth.
I’ll admit, it’s a story conceit to time shift Grendel in the first place to make this fight happen, and it’s quite the cop out to end it the same way. It feels a bit like that old movie The Final Countdown, where the idea is far better than the execution. I’m docking one star off the tally just for that because when killers go at one another, one stands, one falls. Period. But I also understand why Wagner did it, because in something like this, you can’t kill either one. Doesn’t make it right, but I get it. In addition to Grendel not belonging in the ’30s, it’s just understood that with the serious mental and physical blows this guy managed to land on The Shadow and his operations, it was only going to end one way without that temporal escape clause. As Matt Wagner knows all too well, and this book demonstrates that knowledge, The Shadow is the single most effective crimefighting force in the whole of pulp / comics history. He would have ended Grendel, brutally, to protect the innocents of the city and especially those of his agents who serve him unquestioningly in his quest to eradicate evil after the things Grendel pulled in this story. To Wagner’s credit, The Shadow certainly gave it his best shot, no pun intended, hence the need for the temporal save. Even in spite of that, the ending is a nice touch, and I won’t ruin that one.
A book like this in the hands of a lesser writer can and often does disintegrate into pure cheese whiz rapidly. Crossovers are the very stuff that geeks will forever debate about and discuss, no matter how contrived, no matter how badly written. Wagner, in spite of the necessary conceits needed to make the story happen, still managed to elevate this story as a winning example of the classic pulp style and all that implies. There’s more style over substance, to be sure, but there’s no lack of substance either. The only element missing to my mind are measures that The Shadow might have taken retrieve his own means to time travel so as to permanently end Grendel in his own time.
I smell a rematch. It needs to happen. Please make it happen.