Graphic Novel Review

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The dark, violent story smothers otherwise compelling characters

By Jason Henderson     July 19, 2000

What a dark, unpleasant little world is the landscape of Grendel Tales: Homecoming! What visions of mirthlessness greet those who pass this way? A post-apocalyptic character study of sorts with a worldview that makes Aliens vs. Predator look optimistic, Homecoming is the kind of punishing science fiction that makes me feel the need to take a long shower afterwards. You're wallowing in muck, and you don't know why.

The deck is stacked, of course. Science fiction always plays close to its worldview. In Star Trek, the worldview holds that humans will always incline towards their betterment. Star Wars feels the same, but advises faith as a lodestone. Grendel Tales, at least as seen in Homecoming, doesn't have much hope to offer. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave us with much to take an interest in.

The main character of Grendel Tales: Homecoming is Susan Veraghen, a quiet, green-haired, violent knight-errant in a post-apocalyptic land. Susan comes back to her hometown to discover it's been taken over by a gang of hopped-up thugs called 'Orion's Bastards.' The Bastards let their rule be known by hanging those who oppose them from the power lines at the city's entrance. The town is the coarsest vision of a western city--filthy and plastered with graffiti--and Susan herself wonders why she came here. I wasn't sure why anyone stayed.

One person who has stayed is Avril, a delightfully flirtatious and fairly innocent hooker and former flame of Susan's who gets to stay alive and relatively unharmed so long as she keeps working for the Bastards. Avril and Susan once had a fling, and now renew their affair, finding beauty amid the trash. These are the best moments, as Susan and Avril lay about staring at the ceiling and searching their feelings. I could read a whole issue of this and they wouldn't even have to stay naked. (One senses they're only naked, anyway, because the creators were afraid there wasn't enough going on in these scenes. Also, because we all want to know if Susan is a natural green.)

But these moments of pastoral bliss are fleeting. No sooner has Susan renewed old love than the muddy universe remembers that she's an action hero, so the love affair is brutally cut short and the nastiness begins afresh. You may ask yourself, can a thick-calved, butch woman with rings in her nose be as head-stompingly cruel and violent as a male action hero? Your answer is here. Hurrah. Can't we break another convention, and have a story about the interesting people you've created?

There's a violence to Homecoming that strikes one as genuinely prurient. I get no joy from seeing an innocent woman beaten and in pain, and I don't suggest that the writer expects me to. But I do suspect that they want me to internalize that pain and gear myself up for the pain the hero will deliver in turn. But I'm not buying it anymore. It's all too forced, too needless. In Homecoming, we're given an unusual character for comics-- in this case, a sourpuss lesbian warrior--and she's plunked into a plot that would serve almost anyone with a shotgun. What's the point of an interesting character if you waste her? The main villain is a big purple drug-dealer who demonstrates his meanness by randomly chewing off one of his own fingers. What is that supposed to tell me? That we've gotten so jaded by evil characters that we're running out of ways to set them apart?

The whole thing is depressing--Grendel Tales: Homecoming is muddy, dark and splotchy, with no particular lesson to be learned from its darkness other than this one: post-apocalyptic cites are singularly unpleasant places to live. Here's a thought: Didn't we learn this way back in Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog? Isn't there anything new we can do besides fiddle with the genders of the main characters? How about a post-apocalyptic hell story in which the main character tries to make her surroundings better than they were before she arrived? Further, how about if that solution involved something besides kicking people in the teeth?

I want to think that Grendel Tales: Homecoming is dark and violent because it wants us to meditate on darkness and violence. Except that, if art is dialogue, this statement has been made and this demand for meditation has been asked. I want to hear some answers now. Dark science fiction has reached a point where it's a lot like porn--the familiar elements are there because they're expected. Interesting tidbits may show up, but they're tossed aside in favor of the conventions of the genre. Susan Veraghen is an interesting character. Too bad the world she lives in won't budge.

Trade Paperback from Dark Horse Comics. Story and Pencils by Pat McEown. Painted Art and Lettering by Dave Cooper. Additional dialogue and cover by Matt Wagner.


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