Don’t let the cover by the latter day Matt Wagner confuse you, as Grendel Archives is his first published work from 1982, work that wouldn’t have been deemed acceptable by established publishers. That noted, Grendel Archives should be an inspiration to anyone with basic writing and drawing talent who’s ever dreamed of creating their own comics. From this inauspicious beginning, the Grendel series continues to this day, albeit with longer gaps between publications since the millennium, and Matt Wagner has long been considered a creator with an individual note and an interesting view on whatever he’s undertaken. Partial proof of that is his willingness to let his earliest unrefined work be collected.

The sample art is the first published page of Grendel. The page is poor, but the basic drawing talent is obvious, as is Wagner’s willingness to try something individual rather than copying the standard superhero comics that filled 99% of the shelves in 1982. The pose of that first panel is interesting, as is the idea of Hunter Rose dressed in a dinner suit, matching the sense of superiority in his sardonic, taunting dialogue, and so is the dark, obviously furry silhouette with highlights. It intrigues as intended. The layout is messy, a case of running before walking, but as a page it does its job of grabbing the reader, and the tone of the following nine pages matches that. There’s an abiding crudity, but Wagner’s mimicking of the basic nature of 1940s comics is spirited, even before considering the concept. That’s original, a masked athletic criminal even other criminals fear, having a sense of honour deeming certain crimes unpalatable, and being chased down by a bulky wolf creature, apparently also a police officer.

Given a Grendel series after those opening pages, Wagner continues to experiment with silhouette and shadows in the black and white format, constantly having the highlights of Grendel’s distinctive mask or Argent’s eyes emerging from largely black areas. The art improves by the chapter, Wagner styling Argent’s story very differently from Grendel’s, and after three chapters Wagner’s learned a hell of a lot about designing an effective page. There’s a corresponding originality to the writing, of Grendel being acclaimed novelist Hunter Rose, Argent’s very presence and the introduction of Stacy, a young girl. The dialogue is strained. Lines like “destiny is an excuse – an opiate for the weak. And I am not weak!” match the art in suggesting an ambition beyond the creative grasp, deep concepts introduced to display cleverness, but not actually having any great relevance.

There’s a maxim working comic artists hand out about how a hundred bad pages have to be drawn before something acceptable emerges. Well, if that’s true these are Wagner’s hundred bad pages, the first hundred he published, and by the end they’re good, and most before then have been interesting. Wagner would improve immensely, but there’s still a spirit and imagination here making this better than much work hacked out by creators on autopilot even now. Grendel continues with Wagner taking a very different approach with Devil by the Deed. It should be noted that Grendel Archives stands alone, and isn’t part of the later Grendel Omnibus collections.