From Cover To Cover

The Devil Redux in Matt Wagner's Grendel Devil By The Deed Master’s Edition

Just because you can return to the original story doesn’t mean that you have to.

The Devil Redux in Matt Wagner's Grendel Devil By The Deed Master’s Edition
Grendel: The Devil By The Deed Master’s Edition by Matt Wagner and Brennan Wagner (Dark Horse)

The story of Hunter Rose is a man’s life bookended by two women: Jocasta Rose and Stacy Palumbo.  Both live in intimate closeness with Rose even while those relationships are completely different- one as a lover and the other as an adopted daughter. One builds up Rose and the other destroys him.  One remains a mystery while the other is a tragedy.  Matt Wagner first told the complete story of Hunter Rose, Jocasta, and Stacy back in the 1980s in the backup to his Mage: The Hero Discovered series.  Told as a biographical book written about Rose’s mysterious crime lord identity Grendel, Devil By The Deed was a tight, concise story that focused on another triangle that involved two of these characters- Grendel, Stacy, and the wolf-like Argent.  That original version of Devil By The Deed revolves around this trio of characters, threading a story of corruption among the complicated relationships between them.

So here it is 2023 and Matt Wagner feels the need to revisit and redo Devil By The Deed with a Master’s Edition.  It almost feels like he’s trying to do the comic equivalent of a “Taylor’s Version” but he goes much further than just trying to recreate an older work— he retells it and expands on it.  Almost since the original publishing end of Devil By The Deed, Wagner has been returning again and again to Hunter Rose, filling in the blanks of his life that the first book left unseen.  We’ve seen crossovers with Batman and the Shadow, short stories told with black & white & red colors, and miniseries that tied Hunter Rose’s story with the Grendel legacy that followed his life.  Wagner has told a lot of Hunter Rose’s story but here he returns to doing that in the original format; as a true-crime biography about a mysterious costumed crime lord.  

The Matt Wagner of 2023 is not the person he was in 1986 and the Devil By The Deed of 2023 is not the same as the 1986 version either.  With the 30+ years has come more pages, a more pulp flavor, and a boldness to the storytelling that comes with age and experience.  This new retelling of the story incorporates elements from those other Hunter Rose stories that Wagner has told over the years (except for really ever mentioning anything involving Batman or the Shadow.).  “Adapted from Hunter Rose’s journals kept during his life, Devil By The Deed Master’s Edition gives a broader survey of the life and times of Hunter Rose but it loses the impact that the original story still has today.  

All of the Grendel stories are about this corrupting force on individuals and societies, even if that wasn’t necessarily apparent in this first incarnation.  So as Wagner expands Devil By The Deed here, we get a view of the larger crime world of Grendel and his iron grip on New York City.  That’s something that Wagner gains with more pages- more space to explore the reach of Grendel.  There are more details about Grendel’s empire and the work needed to hold it together.  We’ve seen this in subsequent Hunter Rose stories such as Grendel: Behold the Devil as well as many many other short stories but this new edition of Devil By The Deed brings them all together to draw a more complete timeline of Rose’s life.  

But what’s not expanded on is the fall of Grendel or even the general hubris of the character.  The original telling is about this crime savant who grows to think he’s untouchable.  Hunter Rose is this child prodigy in many different ways whose boredom ultimately leaves him to satisfy his hunger through crime. The story of Hunter Rose is not how great of a criminal he was or how powerful he was; it’s how blind he was to the devil he let into his own home.  Sure it was great in other stories to see Grendel duke it out with Batman and the Shadow but those stories feel like Matt Wagner getting to play with others’ toys to see how they interacted with Hunter Rose.  They were stories about Hunter Rose but not THE Hunter Rose story.  

The story of Hunter Rose is about how powerful he thought he was to the point of letting his guard down.  That’s the story that gets lost in this Master’s Edition.  This new book doesn’t have the focus that the original does and that focus was Stacy.  She appears on nearly every page of the original telling and if she’s not on the page, then Grendel’s arch-enemy Argent is.  This triangle forms the heart of Hunter Rose’s time as Grendel as Stacy becomes the one humanizing element for Grendel and therefore his weak point.  She’s the weak spot in the Grendel armor.  

Stacy is also such a tragic character, having lost two sets of guardians before becoming Rose’s adopted daughter at the young age of 10.  She’s pulled into this world as an innocent and allows Hunter Rose these human moments until she discovers the truth about who her beloved father is.  That’s all there in this new edition but it’s watered down by everything else because there’s not much expansion to the Hunter/Stacy story.  Wagner doesn’t use these extra pages to tell more about how a young girl ultimately outmaneuvers the oh-so-great Grendel to bring down his empire.  Stacy’s story remains in this static state as Hunter’s story has been allowed to breathe and expand over the decades.  

Over the years, Wagner’s art has become more bold and that’s obviously another change in this new edition.  He’s kept some of the art deco motives from the original story and carries through the art as being more illustrative than narrative but he’s lost the wispy anime-inspired touches of the original (which was inked by Rich Rankin.) Wagner has grown into an extremely confident artist and each image is a story in itself.  This is a highly structured story where Wagner has to sell each moment through the visual impact, whether it’s a moment of violence or a moment of vulnerability.  That’s where Wagner’s new edition improves on the original; in 1986, the art was servicing the story whereas in 2023, the art is the story.

Grendel: Devil By The Deed Master’s Edition misses an opportunity to show us something new about Hunter Rose and Grendel.  Matt Wagner gets to approach his story with older eyes and do more than he was in the 1980s but this new update to an old story ultimately feels more like a rehash than a re-exploration about the nature of Grendel.  Wagner has excelled in that exploration in the past, following the idea of Grendel through different characters and time-periods, digging into what the idea of Grendel means through different perspectives.  But he keeps coming back to Hunter Rose, a story that was nearly perfect in the original Devil By The Deed.  This return to that story is only looking back without providing anything new to Wagner’s grand story.