It’s rare that you encounter a book quite so single-minded as Grendel vs. The Shadow #1. Solely dedicated to bringing together Matt Wagner’s murderous archvillain/sometimes anti-hero and Walter B. Gibson’s gun-toting vigilante for the first time, the book uses an almost comically simple “oops, time travel” solution to draw Hunter Rose from his criminal empire in modern-day New York to the no-less gritty 30’s.
This book moves quickly and revels in how simple and yet wonderfully theatrical and – for lack of a better word – outright crazy these two are. Thrust back into the past, Hunter Rose’s first thought is how he’s going to assume control of the Prohibition-era liquor trade from the five mob families, whereas The Shadow, well, he’s just happy to shoot criminals until there aren’t any more criminals to shoot; adding one more in a mask just gives The Shadow one more target.
Writer and artist Matt Wagner guides us along with dueling narration from Hunter’s POV and, interestingly, that of The Shadow’s lady friend, Margo Lane, who’s just about fed up with being somewhere near the bottom of his alter ego Lamont Cranston’s priorities. I suspect Wagner makes this choice because The Shadow is so mythic in this version of Chicago; he’s too much crazy to contain in a couple of thought bubbles, and even when Lamont talks about himself and the city, it’s with Rorschach levels of detachment and barely-contained anger.
Wagner’s version of the character is stripped of any concern for the innocent (the one time he lets a criminal go free, it’s so the guy can snitch for him), which I suppose is a perfect match for Hunter Rose’s barely-contained brand of insane (he flits from flirting at dinner parties to threatening mob bosses like it’s nothing).
Wagner doesn’t spare a drop of the red ink by the way: this is a bloody, bloody book, with multiple decapitations of bodies getting hit with bullets before its two leads even meet (an event saved for the final page – this type of book has a format, you know). Thanks to Brennan Wagner’s colors, the present in rendered in greyscale while the 1930s are mostly variations of amber with some red and grey thrown in for contrast. Later, a high society party is rendered in champagne pink, lightening the tone momentarily as Hunter flirts (in his creepy, narcissistic way) with the daughter of one of the mob bosses in his crosshairs.
This first issue of Grendel vs. The Shadow is a high-speed collision of crazy in a way that only Matt Wagner could produce. That the two characters are high-functioning sociopaths makes the inevitable explosion all that more fun to wait for.
Rating: 4 out of 5 burritos