Matt Wagner's newest graphic fiction collection, Grendel: Red, White & Black, brings together 23 vignettes all written by Wagner and each illustrated by a different artist. For the uninitiated, Grendel is a long-running, innovative character created by Wagner about 20 years ago that brought a sense of grit, noir and character that hadn't been seen before in U.S. comics. Over the years the Grendel legacy has grown to include a variety of versions, each one bringing his or her own flavor to the stylish black costume and two-pronged sword that make up the Grendel trademark. The stories in this book all focus on Hunter Rose, the original and most popular of the Grendel incarnations. Rose leads a double life: one part NY City sociliate, the other the black-costumed assassin and crime boss known only as Grendel.
Most of the tales showcase Grendel's stylish yet grisly killings of competing mob bosses and snitches, but a small number focus on Argent, a werewolf who will one day kill Grendel. In full issues Grendel is a surprisingly complex character, balancing two very different lives and doling her own special brand of mob justice on the streets of NY City. But these stories are mostly quick action scenes, and they often feel like pages Wagner left out of other issues. There are some subtle references to main conflicts in Rose's life, but they are so subtle only the hardcore fans will have any idea they are even there. It's unfortunate, because Wagner is a gifted story-teller and has continued to break new ground in comic book stories over the last two decades. A series, even a short one comprised of single, stand-alone issues, with a rotating roster of artists would come off much better than what he has here.
The artwork, on the other hand, is quite impressive. Wagner pulled together a roster of highly talented, diverse artists who all offer up their own unique visual interpretations of Grendel. From the fairly straight comic style of Kelly Jones (Sandman) to the hip-hop inflected indie-spirit of Jim Mahfood (GrrlScouts) the book is a good example of the sheer variety of styles and methods a collaborating writer/artist team can tell a story. If only the stories themselves were more worth reading.