Grendel: Black, White, and Red
Written by Matt Wagner
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Anthology
Art by Tim Sale
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Short Story
There are times when I know that I am not the intended audience for a book. The run of YA novels that have won the literary awards are a good example of this. And still I have rarely felt as unwelcome as I read than I did with Grendel: Black, White, and Red. Not only was I not the target audience for this book, Wagner was clearly uninterested in approaching anyone other than that audience.
I had never read Grendel before. I was generally aware of the series and I knew vaguely that it was about a super assassin. Wagner was unwilling to make any kind of concession to new readers in Grendel: Black, White, and Red. After reading this book I'm even less likely to try Grendel.
Black, White, and Red is an anthology of eight page stories most of which spin out of a facet of the original story. Consequently I got an vague understanding of the original with none of the emotional context that would be necessary to appreciate the story. It turned this book into a slog that was only occasionally brightened by a story that stood on its own.
"Devil's Advocate" (all of the story titles start with "Devil" which got on my nerves quickly) is the first story in the book and it is the best one. It's a simple story of a lawyer who is blackmailed by Grendel into working for the mob. I felt it was just too short, though. Eight pages were not enough to explore the subject since it leaps forward quickly without letting the beats of the story sink in. It feels like it's missing huge chunks of the story and conveys all of the concepts in exposition instead of letting Tim Sale's artwork express things. Still it wasn't actually bad, just abrupt.
All of the stories, there are twenty-one in total in the collection, are abrupt. There's two or three that use the short format well to give just a tiny window into things. Those are the stories that I enjoyed. You would think that a super assassin would have a built in format for such short tales but there is very little in the way of assassination in the book. Instead the stories are mainly character moments for characters that Wagner never bothers telling the reader who they are.
The best aspect of this book is the art. Each story features a different artist and there isn't a weak link in the bunch. They range from the incredibly cartoony style of Jason Pearson to the detailed sketches of David Mack to Bernie E. Mireault's nearly abstract designs. All of the artists match the tone of their stories well so even if the stories weren't interesting to me I could appreciate the pictures.
The book is, as the title suggests, in black and white with occasional splashes of color to punctuate each page. For the most part it's effective though in some stories it seemed to be more of an afterthought than a different method of presentation. I appreciated when the technique was used to play with perspective but it was much less effective when its only use in the story was to mark a character.
There was a lot of things in Black, White, and Red that turned me off of Grendel in general that I haven't mentioned because I lack the context from the original. Still it is worth saying that I disliked the vast majority of stories in this book and that's enough for me to say that I don't recommend it. On the whole they just weren't very interesting even as eight page stories; they seemed to be relying on the reader's familiarity with the characters in the place of characterization. Perhaps fans of Grendel may enjoy this anthology than I did for everyone else it is not worth their time.