Writer: Darko Macan
Artist: Edvin Biukovic
Cover Artist: Edvin Biukovic, Matt Wagner
Genre: Drama, Action, Science-Fiction
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Pub. Date: October 1996
This book collects:
Grendel Tales: Devils and Deaths
: Devil's Choices
This w/u is mostly spoiler-free, although it summarizes the first 2 books (no specifics!) in order to be able to explain the latter, more substantial part.
This graphic novel was the first Grendel book I have purchased, knowing little of the world that Matt Wagner created, and others then elaborated upon. I was struck by the expressive, clean art, mature themes and natural, unforced writing, so I thought I'd share my admiration here.
Devils and Deaths is a two-part story, told from the perspectives of four major characters, whose lives intertwine in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways. The time period isn't exactly defined, but takes place in Distant Future™. The Grendel Khan controls most of the world, except for a few places where local Grendel clans squabble for power through virtually the same methods, just with different logos. Wars are fought with nearly contemporary weapons or their logical "futuristic" counterpart - hovercraft instead of cars, energy blades (rare, but obtainable) instead of the more common swords, plasma tanks (or what have you) instead of conventional - the conflict is easily recognizable in terms of modern warfare. It is in one of these areas (presumably in the region of former Yugoslavia (the authors' homeland, where they can - and do - draw parallels to their present time Croatia) that the action takes place.
The first part focuses on Drago, an "old skool" Grendel belonging to the Agram clan, fighting (endlessly, futilely) against the Karantani clan. In this 2-part vignette (Devil's and Deaths 1 & 2), Drago's honor is shown to be far greater than that of his foes, his chief and even his clanmates, some of whom are concerned only with power. Drago exits the scene, poignantly, passing his legacy (and his sword) to his younger brother, Goran. In the meantime, the Agrami degenerate into a brief, effective and violent coup d'état.
Approximately ten years later, Goran is on a recon patrol in the frontlines, courtesy of both his skill as a warrior and his insubordination. A camaraderie that's borderline playful and homicidal is established between his group (aware of why they're placed on the frontlines) and the leader. The tension is played off wonderfully here, both the art - very expressive faces - and the dialogue, natural and unforced. Goran, scouting alone, runs across a force of Sava warriors and defeats them all; just then, over the radio come news that a peace treaty has been signed. As Goran stands amidst the corpses, listening to the cheers over the radio, we're left with an indescribable sadness.
Back at the settlement - modeled on real world Zagreb - we find that the perpetrator of the coup - Igor, the former general's son - is now chief of the increasingly unfocused, almost rogue Agrami. Having become Grendel general without ever going through the Grendel initiation, Igor's innate insecurity exhibits itself as lust for pure, uncontrolled power. Becoming more and more chaotic, the Agrami become worse than their enemies, honorless and deceitful. Amidst all this, Goran gets sent out to make peace with another clan to unite against the threat of the Grendel Khan's all-encompassing agenda and approaching armies.
The tale continues to swap between Goran, Igor, and Borna, a deserter from the Agrami who, having become disillusioned with the cause and only wanting peace for his unborn child, runs as far away from the increasingly unstable Igor as he can. He ends up running into the forces of the Grendel Khan, who gives him an ultimatum. He accepts, not due to a threat but due to a feeling of obligation to clan and kinsmen.
The book is all about honor, bravery, loyalty, betrayal, the irony/futility of fate and a little bit of "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" (or woman). The characterisations of the primary characters are excellent throughout, and if you make it through the book without being thoroughly depressed, you're reading the wrong book. I highly recommend it; you don't even have to know anything about Grendels, but reading a bit about The Balkans might help.
The book is definitely recommended for mature audiences.