Reviews of WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN VOL. 2 and MATT WAGNER’S GRENDEL OMNIBUS VOL. 1: HUNTER ROSE
While one of earth’s greatest heroes is wrapped up scrambling for cash to fund his school, one of the world’s greatest villains, a devil in black and white, stalks the streets as we catch up with the continuing adventures of the Westchester X-Men and discover a criminal mastermind’s most diabolical legacy.
Wolverine and the X-Men Vol. 2
After the brief diversion of Wolverine and the X-Men: Alpha & Omega, we return to the regular series with volume 2. For those who missed it, the X-Men have schismed into two groups: Cyclops and his team at Utopia on the West Coast and Wolverine heading the Jean Grey School for the Gifted Youngsters in Westchester on the East. While Cyclop’s Extinction Team confronts world-ending menaces and alien supercriminals, Wolverine confronts the trepidations of running a school populated by superpowered teenagers and the reemergence of the Hellfire Club.
In this volume, Hank McCoy takes the class on a fantastic voyage into the mutant body, getting up close and personal with antibodies, the mutant gene, and a number of the ickier organs, all rather brilliantly illustrated by Nick Bradshaw. Meanwhile, Wolverine contends with the school’s money woes, desperately scrabbling for income from Worthington Industries, a prospect immediately shot to ribbons when the board of executives declares Warren Worthington (alias Angel, formerly Archangel) declares Warren mentally unfit to run the company (and as Warren sheds his clothes on the company HQ’s lawn, it’s hard to argue the fact). Officially hitting desperate times, Wolvie fetches his trusty bag of desperate measures and yanks Quentin “Kid Omega” Quire out of class, loads up in a rocket, and rides to the galaxy’s richest casino. And if thought they treated card counters harshly in Vegas…
Meanwhile, Kitty Pride is…pregnant!? OR IS SHE!? *dramatic music sting*
God, it’s been a long time since an X-Men book has been fun. Fun and not wrapped up in the overdramatics of persecution, prejudice, and people generally acting like assholes. Is a bit of fun adventure so much to ask from a comic book? Not that a bit of drama and tragedy is a bad thing, but when an entire book becomes saturated with it to the point that everyone is miserable and angsting about one tribulation or another…yeah, like any monotone, it gets boring eventually. The characters here aren’t exactly having the times of their lives either, but the overall tone is much more lighthearted and enjoyable. Wolverine and Kid Omega continue their authoritarian/anti-authoritarian rivalry while bonding over the joys of extraterrestrial gambling. Meanwhile, Kitty’s pregnancy gets her questioning her choices in life, the mistakes made and relationships past gone wrong. And as an alien menace invades the school, the students must summon the strength to be heroes — albeit, in Kid Gladiator’s case, the call to heroism means having your masculinity questioned by an uppity white blood cell. Following the events in X-Force, Angel’s delusions smack head first with reality, forcing him to question truths he thought immutable and dreaming of reconciliation. The book concludes with a one-and-done spotlighting Hank McCoy (and featuring the return of artist Chris Bachalo on pencils, always excellent), yet again battling between the beast and the brain as Sabretooth pushes him to the brink in yet another ploy by the Hellfire Club. Overall, it’s all very proactive and develops each character in a positive direction, rather than taking them down the twin roads Dick and Douche.
I suppose the harshest thing to be said about this book is that it avoids all those classic X-Men dilemmas too much. The school comes off as a far too insular a place and you yearn to see these characters interacting with the outside world with non-mutant humans. For a lot of the students, particularly the ones we follow the most like Kid Omega and Idie, how they’re viewed by humanity plays a large part in defining their character, turning Quentin into a lovably diabolical smartass and Idie into a self-loathing bag of neuroses. It just comes off as a lot of missed opportunities passing the series by.
But for what it is, Wolverine and the X-Men is one of the better books being published by Marvel at the moment, a publisher which, like DC, has been pursuing some rather questionable editorial pathways in recent years. When was the last crossover event when the good guys actually fought a villain rather than fight each other? While DC made the mistake of disowning their characters’ pasts with the September 2011 reboot, Marvel makes the mistake of letting their characters’ pasts bog down a narrative to the point that heroes end up bickering among themselves over the tiniest trifle while villains just fade into the background. This is why Wolverine and the X-Men feels so good to read; it’s just so refreshing after the same old overdramatic crap plays out for the hundredth time. Sure, it may not be the most revelatory of X-Men books but it compensates with sheer entertainment.
And now, a tangent…
Conundrum: Is it better to get more trades more often at the cost of fewer issues published per trade or get fewer trades less often but with more content per trade? At the moment, this is one of the key differences between DC and Marvel’s publications. While DC’s trades are being rolled out with at least a six month gap between each publication, each volume contains no fewer than six issues with at most eight issues. Marvel, on the other hand, have taken to publishing four issues per trade while occasionally upping that to five or six. Both companies give some leeway for the storylines to dictate the number of issues per trade so the reader isn’t left with all but the last issue of an arc missing or two halves of a two stories shoved together into a single book. It also shows how each company is willing to let writers decompress their stories. Peter J. Tomasi’s first story arc on Batman and Robin took a total eight issues to unfold and DC kindly packaged all eight issues in one trade. Meanwhile Marvel’s writers have been trending toward shorter storylines concluding in four to five issues. Both schools of thought have their advantages but, coming in at a scant four issues, Wolverine and the X-Men Vol. 2 feels underweight, especially for a hardcover release at its current price.
Nevertheless, the quality of the stories will leave you wanting more and it’s only a few months’ wait for volume 3. Personally, I really hope this title survives Avengers vs. X-Men with the same writer intact but, if not, I’ll heartily enjoy it while it lasts.
Reviews of previous volumes: Wolverine and the X-Men: Alpha & Omega.
A look at the latest collections and omnibus releases
Matt Wagner’s Grendel Omnibus Vol. 1: Hunter Rose
Inspired by the European noir of Diabolik, Matt Wagner’s Grendel premiered in 1983 from Comico but soon moved to Dark Horse, serialized in Wagner’s own Mage series, after that company went defunct. As years passed, Grendel grew out of its pulp fiction roots into a treatise on crime and aggression, of the strength of the human will and its sublimation by the strong and corrupt. In short, an epic.
What better series to archive into an omnibus collection given its twenty year history, choppy publication history, and the sprawling nature of the work, covering the life and legacy of the world’s greatest criminal mind and the fallout from his vainglorious reign?
Grendel’s debut, Devil by the Deed, is a sophomoric work, indicative of Wagner’s young age (21 at the time of publication) and early exploration into the medium. It’s not so much a comic as an illustrated essay; indeed, the story takes the form of an article, or possibly book excerpts, of a third party recounting the famous criminal mastermind’s deeds. Wagner’s prose is overwrought at times, rarely broken up with dialogue, expositing constantly. Yet the story plays a key role in everything that is to follow. What we are reading isn’t a bildungsroman recounting the rise and fall, life and death of Hunter Rose but rather the legend of Grendel, mythologized like his namesake. What’s important isn’t the twists and turns and intrigue of Grendel’s doings but, rather, how these things build upon his legacy.
At face value, Hunter Rose is very much a Mary Sue, perfect in nearly every way, praised by those around him, unerring in nearly every deed and crime and kill. So Devil by the Deed barely builds upon him as a character, leaving deeper insights into his motivations to the speculations of the narrator. Thus, Grendel’s entire career from birth to death is expounded upon in broadest details, painting Grendel as mythically capable and unimaginably talented, doing most to set the stage for future stories than build a cohesive stand-alone narrative. Everybody knows the tale of Beowulf, whether they’ve read the poem or not, and they know the end before they’ve read it; how Beowulf dies is not important, but rather how he lived and what he stood for matter most. Similarly, it’s Hunter’s singular sense of utter superiority and the fruits he reaps of his latent talents and malevolent deeds that form the centerpiece of the Grendel cycle.
Effectively spoiling the entire narrative of Grendel’s life draws the reader’s focus away from basic narrative conventions — will he survive? won’t he? who will prevail over whom? — and forms something worthy of the Grendel title: a twisted and bastardized rendition of the Hero’s Journey. While Wagner’s prose tries terribly hard to evoke literary sensibilities, ultimately sounding pretentious, the story succeeds in establishing the Grendel mythos, building the framework for what will emerge from the collections to follow and the story to conclude Hunter Rose’s time as the devilish Grendel. What works most about Devil by the Deed is Wagner’s artwork, remarkable most in its composition if not the detailed artistry of each individual image. They complement each narrative passage well, doing more to evoke the necessary emotional resonance than the prose itself.
What follows, the collections Black, White, & Red and Red, White, & Black, compose the heart of what makes Grendel a remarkable work: short stories centered less around Grendel himself and more so those affected by his plans and plots. Those he hunts, those who witness his kills, those who cross him, those who track him, those who fear his name and quake at the thought of that double-bladed staff pointing their way. Each story unravels in its own unique style, assisted by the multitudinous talents of the artists on display here who all make the most of Grendel’s black and white with red spot coloring style.
The book closes with Behold the Devil, the longest of the stories, and one of the few with a full arc. Hunter Rose is in the middle of his career, expanding his reign over organized crime and arranging deals with foreign mobs. But Hunter Rose is feeling off his game as a strange presence stalks him; feeling as though he’s being watched, Rose finds himself uncharacteristically flinching at shadows. Meanwhile, a reporter and detective each find themselves on the trail of Grendel, skirting the edges of his criminal empire but unable to penetrate it. And with Hunter preoccupied by this strange menace, they may just get the advantage of him. The story builds to the ultimate challenge to Hunter Rose’s self-made brilliance, calling into question his own capability and uniqueness in a world suffused with banality.
The biggest fault to be laid against this book is in its publication. Dark Horse has elected to release these omnibus editions in paperback only with glued binding. Given the number of pages, snapping the spine is absolutely required to fully enjoy any double-page spread. As well, the nature of the binding and the quality of the paper makes the book awkward to hold. To top things off, while several of the collected works here were originally published in standard 7” x 10” comic book format — namely Behold the Devil, the longest, piece which easily dominates the book’s page count — all have been reduced to 6” x 9” format. It’s not a book made for repeated readings nor will it have a long shelf life; while the paper itself is high quality, the book feels as though it will fall apart with time. The minimal amount of extras taken with the book price and the above grievances indicate Dark Horse doesn’t intend this to be an archival release so much as a definitive collection of every Grendel story targeted at new and curious readers. However, given the quality of the stories here and the sheer amount of them and the reasonable price, those unfamiliar with Grendel have no excuse not to pick it up and discover a true masterpiece of sequential art.
Grendel Omnibus Vol. 1 is a must-read for any fan of noirish, literary comic books, classic pulp fiction, and unconventional storytelling.
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