Although he takes his name from the monster of the Beowulf poem, Grendel is actually human, by day popular author Hunter Rose, and otherwise the masked, athletic leader of a criminal organisation. His earliest appearances are found in Grendel Archives, but when Matt Wagner revived the character for a sequence of back-up strips he took a very different approach. Whether or not he’d already conceived the idea of Grendel as a name that progressed through centuries, this is told in hindsight, by a person two generations distant from Hunter Rose. In terms of pages it’s very short for a hardcover collection, at just 32, the remainder being some very good pin-ups, but the chosen storytelling method supplies a density. Wagner opts for text captions accompanied by baroque illustrations. These are beautifully designed, the art deco styling of them surrounding figures and symbolism, almost every page a work of art while still managing to tell a story when combined.

The opening pages recap the necessities of Grendel Archives, after which the story moves forward from the cliffhanger ending of the infant Stacy Palumbo being kidnapped. We already know the narrator is her child, so survival is given, but tension concerns what state she may be in. Psychological motivation plays a large part in what’s an engrossing story well told, and best read without any further plot explanation. Wagner switches the tone between the narrator’s factual journalistic recounting and the occasional excerpt from Grendel’s journals, “The wolf continues to hound me and mine with a predator’s tenacity” having a more poetic quality.

Devil by the Deed is a satisfyingly twisted tragedy, a story moved in an unexpected direction by an unexpected source, and one of an immensely confident writer despite a relative lack of experience. While at the time the allegorical Mage seemed a more personal project for Wagner, there have been very few other creators who’d have the courage to follow the path he leads his title character down. It still ranks among Wagner’s best work.

A 1986 collection used the full colour of the original serialised stories, but when reissued as a squarebound comic in 2003 Wagner opted to have the colouring match the then recently issued Black, White & Red series, where only those colours were used. Discussions noting approval and disapproval raged, but only Wagner’s view counts. The sample pages provide a comparison. If you prefer the full colour search out a used copy of the 1980s Comico printings or the Graphitti hardcover. However, either will probably cost you as much as the first Grendel Omnibus, which opens with this in black, white and red, and features over five hundred pages of other material. The next story Wagner produced was Devil’s Legacy, found in the second Grendel Omnibus.