Stop me if you’ve heard this story: once upon a time, there was a mysterious monster terrorizing the land. The king enlists the aid of a magical hero who must vanquish the monster.
And his mother. And a dragon for good measure.
The story is Beowulf, an ancient poem–titled after the main character–and if you want to read it you’ll want to buy the Seamus Heaney translation. Then, just for fun, pick up the novel Grendel by John Gardner, which tells the story from the monster’s perspective.
Devil by the Deed is a different beast entirely, but it’s essentially an homage to the original myth. An incredibly creative homage. The book tells the story of Hunter Rose, a brilliant author by day who dominates the criminal underworld at night under the alias of Grendel. The original Comico series is so rare that a retelling is necessary, and it serves as a perfect bridge for the second volume of the Comico series, which would pick up the story decades later.
You see, Devil by the Deed isn’t the story of Hunter Rose as written by Matt Wagner. It’s the story of Hunter Rose as written by his granddaughter, Christine Spar. This narrative choice should feel pretty familiar for anyone who’s read a book written in the first-person narrative style, but it serves a great function in this context because Christine will–in the first few issues of volume 2 of Grendel–become intricately involved in the legacy of Grendel: both its psychosis and its toxic aggression.
Christine tells the story of Hunter Rose with the help of his own journals, and a variety of news accounts from the time period, as well as some minor recollections from the creature who killed him: Argent.
Hunter Rose was gifted. So gifted, in fact, that his fencing skills drew the interest of an older woman named Jocasta Rose who saw unlimited potential in him. They began a relationship, and eventually the woman died (here Christine Spar points out a mystery she hasn’t solved). Hunter Rose took her last name and returned to New York City to build a criminal enterprise. He saw it as a challenge, one made all the more beautiful by a crime-fighting werewolf named Argent.
It isn’t long before Rose adopts Stacy Palumbo–niece of a criminal murdered by Grendel–in an attempt to protect the young girl. This misplaced heroism eventually leads to his downfall when Stacy learns the truth about her adoptive father’s role in the death of her uncle, Barry Palumbo. Stacy, depressed and confused and angry and vengeful, conspires to pit Argent against Grendel in a battle to the death.
Since the story is told by Christine Spar and relies so heavily on fictional writings by Rose, there’s a layer of mystery beneath the text. We can’t for sure know the motivations of Grendel beyond his desire for a challenge, just like we can’t for sure know the motivations of Argent, beyond his desire to make the most of his curse. What we do know is that both of them care about Stacy Palumbo. But where Argent’s love for her feels paternal, Grendel’s love for her seems material. He knows he wants to protect her, and yet he has no problem harming her relationship with Argent and, in the process, harming her fragile mental state.
Witness the most cruel of Grendel’s acts: the humiliation of the Wolf. After enacting an elaborate ploy to trick Argent into believing Grendel is going to attempt an assassination, Hunter Rose takes his adopted daughter to a wealthy dinner reception at Stone Bayou. Meanwhile, Argent finds himself on the roof of the Stone Bayou mansion, tracking what he thinks is Grendel about to assassinate the owner of the mansion.
Instead, Argent falls through the flimsy glass ceiling, landing among the terrified dinner guests. Hunter Rose may get a kick out of seeing his nemesis humiliated, but for Stacy this is a moment of pure terror. This is the moment she sees, for the first, time, the frailty of a parent. That moment we all experience at some point when a parent is no longer a superhero but something far more … human.
Things get dark quick. It isn’t long before Stacy accidentally happens upon her adoptive father’s secret. From there, she concocts her plan to pit Grendel against the Wolf. In their final battle, Argent’s body is broken and Hunter Rose is dead. Stacy’s life deteriorates. Her daughter, Christine Spar, ends with a eulogy to her grandfather, touched with just a hint of … appreciation? Wonder? Respect?
It’s hard to say. But if we read this issue as it’s written–by Christine Spar–some important things come to life. First, Christine is trying her best to be objective (which makes sense given she’s considered the foremost expert on Grendel). Still, you can’t help but read some sympathy she harbors for Hunter Rose. She “laments” his existence, maybe because she believes that in another world, Rose could have been a force for good if only he’d been appropriately nurtured.
Which raises the question: What was the nature of Hunter Rose’s illicit love affair so many years ago? It’s a fun question to pose, and how you the reader answer it will have profound implications for how you view Rose’s relationship with his adopted daughter. In all this, Argent comes out smelling a bit like a flower, even though the humiliation now rests on his soul like a second curse. Christine Spar only offers a hint of what else may have drove him: did he, too, crave a nemesis? A challenge?
And if so, isn’t he at least partially responsible for the destruction of Stacy Palumbo’s innocence?
About Matt Wagner: After the success of the initial print run of Grendel, volume 2 began in the early 90’s and lasted for around 40 issues. Wagner went on to develop Mage, and wrote for both DC and Marvel at different points. He also had a tremendous run with Sandman Mystery Theatre.
Images copyrighted by Dark Horse Comics, Matt Wagner, and Comico.