Batman/Grendel by Matt Wagner came out in 1993 and takes the format of two prestige size books, each clocking in at around 50 pages. The first part is subtitled Devil’s Riddle and the second is Devil’s Masque. In terms of a crossover it is somewhat unusual, as Batman plays his standard hero role, while Grendel is the villain. This would not be strange to fans of Grendel, as he plays the role of villain typically, but I can see where this might confuse some readers.
Writer & Artist: Matt Wagner
Publisher: DC Comics
The story is about how Grendel is somewhat bored with New York, so he decides to venture to Gotham for a bit of a challenge. He knows that the city has a unique and talented protector, which he intends to best. His plot involves the shipment of the head of the Sphinx from Egypt, which he intends to interfere with although his intentions aren’t made clear up until the story’s conclusion. To draw out the Dark Knight, Grendel imitates the crime pattern of the Riddler. This is after an amusing analysis of which of Batman’s rogues gallery he can accurately impersonate. This essentially provides a space for Matt Wagner’s commentary on the state of Bat-villains in the mid-nineties. Upon his choice of the Riddler, Hunter Rose states that “it’ll be fun making a real threat out of someone this pathetic.” I’m not sure Edward Nigma would agree, but nonetheless, the game’s afoot.
An unexpected pleasure of the story is the inclusion of two civilian characters who meet Bruce Wayne and Hunter Rose and become embroiled in the drama that unfolds. Rachel works at the museum that Grendel has targeted for his crime, and Hillary, her roommate, is one of Rose’s book industry contacts in Gotham. Hunter Rose begins dating Hillary as a method to get closer to Rachel, who meets Bruce Wayne through her involvement with the museum, which Wayne is financing as an act of charity. Eventually Grendel begins to extort Rachel using information that she had hidden even from her best friend and roommate, and Batman becomes involved as he realizes that this isn’t the work of the Riddler.
It’s an interesting way to get to know the two sides of Hunter and Bruce and it adds an element of human drama that might not otherwise be there. At first I found Rachel and Hillary’s involvement to be distracting due to the excess dialogue that it created which, for some time, I wasn’t sure was going anywhere. Plus, the whole Rachel roommate thing gave me unerring flashbacks to the Friends television show (shudder).
The writing style is very typical for Matt Wagner’s other Grendel books. There is internal narration from all the characters involved. Rachel and Hillary express their thoughts in a diary-like fashion. Their worldly concerns moving from work, fashion and going out to being murdered by a sociopathic assassin art-thief. Grendel’s narration is usually flowery and verbose, alluding to his alter-ego’s day job as an author. Batman’s inner dialogue contains these terse statements that are very analytic, akin to something that would be found in a police file. This treatment of Batman is actually a source of unevenness in the story.
It is to be expected that Wagner favours Grendel, especially at the point that he was at in his career in 1993. Grendel goes from being in the pages of recently bankrupt Comico to being in a crossover with one of DC’s hallmark characters. To show Grendel’s superiority Wagner depicts Wayne as a juvenile oaf (exaggerating the playboy side that Bruce uses to deflect any thought of him being Batman). I don’t have much of a problem with this as it has a role in the Batman mythos, but his depiction of Batman is weak. Hunter Rose is always one step ahead of Batman, so much so that Grendel basically has to spell out when and where the crime will occur because he actually wants to fight with the Bat. So Grendel bests Batman as a tactician. Most of the physical conflict comes in the second part and Batman fares better there. It’s tough to critique this without sounding like a Bat-fanboy, and I know Batman can’t look like a champ every time he does something, but he still retains the moniker of World’s Greatest Detective, right? The only thing that I can think of is that this takes place earlier in Batman’s career, which would place his skills closer to those of Batman: Year One.
Wagner does a fine job on art, definitely at home with Grendel’s slender frame and smooth actions. I love the way he depicts Batman as well, it actually reminds me of Frank Miller sometimes because of the way he makes Batman appear heavy and very powerful while still lightning-fast and precise. The backgrounds and settings are stylish and colourful. Gotham feels alive in the hands of Matt Wagner and it’s no wonder that he has handled Batman multiple times. Wagner does not skimp when it comes to fleshing out the little details that can make all the difference. There is one specific two-page spread where Batman and Grendel confront each other in front of hundreds of stuffed birds in the museum and Wagner draws each of the birds off in the distance. It adds a layer of intricacy that feels as intentional and practiced as the skills of the character’s that are at odds with each other.
Fans of Matt Wagner would probably love this book, and it contains a decent Batman story. Seeing these two characters clash was exciting but a bit underwhelming and left me wanting more. Thankfully there was a second crossover between Batman and Grendel, but unfortunately it is not nearly as good as this one. Both crossovers are collected in a Dark Horse trade paperback which came out in 2008. As an inter-company crossover, it’s pretty good and probably better than a lot of things that were on the shelves in 1993. However, Batman/Grendel fails to make any lasting impact and by the end of the crossover I think both characters know that too.