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A paladin returns: Matt Wagner sounds off on ‘Grendel: Devil’s Odyssey’ and sci-fi storytelling

The iconic author returns with one of the greatest anti-heroes in comics.

Matt Wagner has been writing comics since 1982’s Comico Primer #2, which was the first appearance of the now iconic Grendel. Since then, he’s gone on to write Batman stories, produced epic chapter after epic chapter of his iconic Mage series, and dabbled with stories across publishers. On October 2, Wagner is back with a new Grendel Prime story focusing on the character set in a far off future where humanity is… well, maybe Wagner should explain:

The basic premise is that Earth has seen its day and the civilizations of humankind are crumbling. Prime is old and extremely cynical at this point and only a very special offer could convince him to reengage in mankind’s petty struggles, becoming once again the paladin whose charge is to protect and defend the fate of the human race.

I had the opportunity to speak with Wagner about the new story, Grendel’s place in the comic’s history of team-ups, creature creation in this new epic science fiction story, and much more!

AiPT!: Hi Matt, David Brooke from AiPT!. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. First off, Grendel is back this October! What is it like developing new stories for this character every few years?

Matt Wagner: Anyone familiar with the history of Grendel knows that it’s always been a wide-open palette for different styles of story-telling, not only visually but also via narrative tone, structure, etc… What started as a late-20th-century crime drama (with super-hero overtones) eventually evolved into psychological suspense, urban horror, socio-political satire, and futuristic dystopian fiction. As a result, it’s always a blast to come back to Grendel since the tableau is wide open for almost any kind of tale I can conceive.  It’s been a while since my last foray with Grendel-Prime so I thought it was time to really shake things up a bit and finally take the story off-world.

AiPT!: By my count, it has been five years since the last Grendel story (correct me if I’m wrong). Why is 2019 a good time to bring back one of the greatest heroes of all time?

MW: Well, I’d have to amend that question a bit to say “one of the greatest anti-heroes of all time.” Grendel’s never really been a hero, per se, even though several versions of the character have had motivations that could be seen as noble or at least understandable when viewed through a certain lens.  But Grendel as a title has always been about blurring the traditional lines between the classic good-actor/bad-actor tropes.  Even from its first incarnation, wherein the crime-lord/assassin Hunter Rose is presented as suave, handsome and charming while his nemesis, the ostensible “hero”, Argent the Wolf is shown to be ugly and savage.  After recently finishing up the third and final book of my Mage trilogy, my thoughts turned once again to the other half of my creative soul…Grendel.  And, looking at the world around us, where the distinction between good and evil seems to be lost in a cacophony of opinion and misinformation…2019 seemed like a perfectly apropos time to resurrect this saga.  These days, there are a lot of anti-heroes in comics but in fact, Grendel was one of the first titles to embrace and depict this dichotomy.

Cover art by Matt Wagner.

AiPT!: Grendel Prime has teamed up with Batman (and Grendel has teamed up with the Shadow), are there any other heroes Grendel-Prime might be suited to strap up with?

MW: Here again…“teamed up” isn’t quite the correct term since both Batman and The Shadow battled hard against every version of Grendel they encountered.  In fact, the title of the latter engagement was Grendel vs. The Shadow.  I’ve been offered a lot of other cross-over possibilities over the years but I’m pretty selective about the sort of stories I want to tell.  If I don’t have an existing interest or affinity with the suggested crossover character, then I’ve generally passed on such opportunities.  Luckily, both Batman and The Shadow have been two of my favorite pop-culture character since I was quite young.  In both those cases though, it was the publishers who in fact approached me about crossing over the two characters. So far as other heroes who might be able to properly mix it up against Grendel-Prime..?  Let’s just say I’m open to new suggestions!

AiPT!: When it comes to creature creation (like the droid or the giant alien that pops up in issue #1) how do you approach the innovating it from the ground up?

MW: Aliens creatures are always fun to develop since there are no real limits to what you can create.  I tend to look to strange examples of life here on Earth and then extrapolate that outwards as to how such a critter might develop on a different world and under different conditions.  So far as the technology goes, I’m following a certain pulp sensibility that reflects the narrative of the Grendel universe.  In the world of Grendel, humanity never really made it out of our solar system since nuclear power had long ago been forbidden and the necessary resources for such far-reaching exploration had become lost to the endless tides of warfare.  As a result, the tech isn’t super-advanced and slick but has a rather more retro sort of vibe.

Cover art by Fabio Moon.

AiPT!: Page composition is so important and there are so many great panels/pages in the first issue. From the symmetry to epic angles of the ship Grendel is about to embark on, is there a feeling you’re trying to convey in this new series?

MW: Scale is an important factor in science fiction settings and as a result, I find myself using a lot of layouts that completely fill and bleed off the page.  If you go back and look at my most recent work, Mage: The Hero Denied, it’s got exactly the opposite approach.  Mage has a much more down-to-earth feel with its everyman characters and homespun sort of narrative (despite all the magic and monsters).  As a result, Mage has a much more traditional approach to its story-telling and panel compositions.  Like I said, Grendel is a totally different beast and it’s fun to be able to cut loose and blow things up on the page, so to speak. To infinity and beyond!

AiPT!: The alien worlds and life are so vivid in this series. Are there any inspirations you’re drawing from be it books, movies, or other media?

MW: I’m actually drawing inspiration from two different sources for this series.  The first is by paying homage to a magazine that meant a lot to me in my younger years.  As a young comics fan who grew fairly rural through the 60s and 70s, Heavy Metal magazine had an enormous impact on my conception of what comics could be.  Finding Heavy Metal on the magazine shelves, as opposed to the more kid-friendly spinner racks, was a real eye-opener for me in regards to both story and art.  The work of artists like Moebius, Caza, and Philippe Druillet presented a whole different aesthetic to mainstream American comics and I savored that contrast as something to which I might hopefully someday aspire.

It helped that I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in these stories, which only served to heighten the sense of mystery and wonder that so enthralled me. My other inspiration is found in the fact that Devil’s Odyssey is a somewhat loose riff on Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift, with Grendel-Prime visiting a succession of planets that in certain ways are reflections of the problems that led to the eventual downfall of organized societies of Earth.  In the end, the whole question comes down to…should humankind try to colonize the stars?  Of would they ultimately be destined to just f--k things up the same as they did here at home?  I guess we’ll have to wait and see what Prime discovers on his odyssey…

AiPT!: What is your favorite method of procrastination?

MW: I’m a closet crossword junkie.  I do at least one every day and look forward every weekend to curling up after breakfast with the Sunday New York Times puzzle.

AiPT!: Thanks so much for the time Matt!

MW: My pleasure!  Here’s hoping everyone digs the far out journey of Grendel: Devil’s Odyssey!

You can pick up Grendel: Devil’s Odyssey #1 everywhere comics are sold October 2, 2019.

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