Matt Wagner has returned to comics after far too long, reviving his tour-de-force fantasy/adventure ‘Mage.’  But once upon a time, even he was just a young creator looking for his big break, with an idea for a comic based on the epic ancient poem, Beowulf, and the battle with the monstrous Grendel…  Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Primer #2 awaits!

PRIMER #2

Writer: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner
Penciler: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner
Inker: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner
Letterer: Gerry Giovinco
Publisher: Comico Comics
Cover Price: $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $170.00

Previously in Primer:  Beowulf is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3,182 alliterative lines, and may be the oldest surviving long poem in Old English.  It is commonly cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature.  The date of its composition is a matter of contention among scholars; the only certain dating pertains to the manuscript, which was produced between 975 and 1025.  Grendel one of the primary figures in that story, one of the major antagonists, and much debate about his nature and what he looked like can be found in fiction, which follows through into Matt Wagner’s ‘Grendel’, a book that is a much about monsters as the original text.

And it all starts here…

Well, not here here, as this issue begins with the story of Victor, an outer-space warrior story featuring costumed superhumans, using elements of Star Wars and Jim Starlin’s cosmic ‘Warlock’ tales to interesting effect.  The villain of the piece, Pulsar, is Victor’s brother, and the entire story hinges on his unreliable powers…

In practice, it’s an interesting approach, but the “out of power” dodge makes it feel like the creator realized he had reached his page limit and needed to wrap things up first.  As for the art, it’s clear and makes interesting use of spot black effects, but it feels very much like the top-end of amateur art.

And, of course, there’s a reason for that…

This issue is only the second comic book that Comico ever put out, and the creators/publishers were a group of young artists who had come together working on a local school paper.  The black-and-white boom that came in the wake of ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ gave them an in to make comics, and as the ad above shows, they were actively seeking submissions to keep their comics line going.  The first issue of ‘Primer’ featured a number of characters who didn’t hit it big (the guy with his tongue out is Skrog, one of the creepiest characters I’ve ever encountered), but only Victor returned for issue #2.  The second story takes its cues from ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Epic Illustrated’…

A masked man named Mangonel breaks into a secure facility where a nearly naked woman called Spirit is being tested.  She may be a cyborg (it’s not made clear), there’s some fighty-fighty, some really well-done cross-hatchy art that keeps calling attention to how cross-hatchy and complex it is, and Spirit’s life is saved by a big hair-tie.

No, really.  She takes a shot to the head, but the blow isn’t fatal thanks to her hair clip.  She’s taken before Mangonel where she sudden breaks free and declares herself his executioner, but there is a twist…

I was confused about those last two panels, as the shadowing made it look at first like her eye was bleeding.  I can’t find any additional appearances of Spirit, so I’m inclined to think that this was a one-shot deal, with a cruel Outer Limits twist ending.  That’s not true of the last story, the thing that brought me here to Retro Review the book in the first place…

From the very first panel, it’s clear that Matt Wagner brought a lot to the table, and while his art still feels like that of a young creator figuring things out, it’s much less amateurish than our first two features.  The dialogue bears the hallmarks of someone trying to create drama with blunt instruments, but there’s a sense that something more is going on in these pages than just a costumed character battling a monster.  For one, there’s the fact that the main character is treated (and considers himself to be) the villain of the piece…

Grendel has (as Hunter Rose, his upper-crust alter-ego) infiltrated a party in order to find a man named Christie, who is an underworld figure of some note, running a particularly seedy prostitution ring.  Grendel proceeds, as the narration explains, to terrorize him, eventually murdering the man and stealing his ledgers, filled with the secrets of all of Christie’s clientele.  Of course, since the first page of the story was Grendel calling up his enemy to announce that the murder was going to happen, said enemy quickly makes the scene…

Even at 21 years old, still feeling out his way in the world, Wagner’s skill with contrast and use of blacks is pretty stunning, and while the art feels stylized and occasionally crude, it doesn’t have the failings of Victor or Spirit’s tales.  Grendel’s appearance here is terrifying, followed by a full page of violence wherein the “Wonderous Wolf” murders all of Grendel’s henchmen…

The insouciance of Grendel at seeing his employees slaughtered is another hint that there’s something more going on in these pages, hinting at what would eventually become a Grendel dynasty, spanning time, space and genre.  Of course, since this is a comic book and it was 1982, there had to be a fist-fight…

And it’s a well-done one, at that.  Wagner’s work, from Grendel to Mage and beyond, has always felt like it truly belongs in black-and-white, something that other Primer features didn’t always share.  The choreography and fluidity of the movements (with Wagner’s loose, expressive pencils) make the two page battle interesting in ways many of the independent comics of ’82 could only dream of…

Of course, it ends like the previous two stories, with a sudden “Crap, out of pages!” panicked denouement, but this is nonetheless a promising first appearance.  Grendel immediately spun off into his own title, a book that only lasted three issues, thanks to money woes at Comico.  When Grendel returned in ’84, it was as a backup in Wagner’s other successful book, Mage, and heavily reworked Hunter Rose’s debut stories, eventually leading to his own in 1986, a title that outlived Hunter Rose himself, lasting well into the 1990s, and eventually featuring a couple of crossovers with, of all people, Batman.  All of that, though, starts here with a 20-year-old artist, a shoestring publisher and a high concept that has legs, leaving Primer #2 with a well-deserved 4 out of 5 stars overall, even when you factor in the least successful parts of the first two stories.  As someone who got into comics precisely as Comico ramped up to do amazing things (like ‘Jonny Quest’, ‘The Elementals’, ‘Justice Machine’ and more), I can’t help but fondly think of this as a love-letter from an earlier, wilder, more unpredictable time, and I miss the weird, amateurish-but-ebullient comics of that time…

Matt Wagner has returned to comics after far too long, reviving his tour-de-force fantasy/adventure 'Mage.'  But once upon a time, even he was just a young creator looking for his big break, with an idea for a comic based on the epic ancient poem, Beowulf, and the battle with the monstrous Grendel...  Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Primer #2 awaits! PRIMER #2 Writer: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner Penciler: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner Inker: Andrew Murphy/Jim Alderman/Matt Wagner Letterer: Gerry Giovinco Publisher: Comico Comics Cover Price: $1.50 Current Near-Mint Pricing: $170.00 Previously in Primer:  Beowulf is an Old English epic poem consisting of 3,182 alliterative…
A mixed bag anthology, with an unpolished gem in the form of Grendel's debut. Overall, a winner, especially if you got it for a buck-fifty...

PRIMER #2

Writing
Art
Shading

A mixed bag anthology, with an unpolished gem in the form of Grendel's debut. Overall, a winner, especially if you got it for a buck-fifty...

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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