Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon not enough monsters for you? DC Comics to the rescue! – Beowulf #6
Beowulf, the Old English epic poem that most people read because they have to, not because they want to, is nevertheless one of the more mined of the classic, anonymous, ancient works of literature. More accessible to a modern audience than The Epic of Gilgamesh, and more narratively interesting than The Song of Roland (which reads like a never-ending series of people chopping one another with swords), it’s been the source of a number of derivative works. Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead is one of the more recent and famous, while John Gardner’s Grendel is perhaps the most delicious, giving us the ages-old saga through the eyes of the monster. Plus you had the straight, creepily animated (not in a good way) Beowulf film several years ago. A fertile field indeed.
And, in the 1970s, DC Comics flung this series before audiences, one of the many shooting star titles that littered that company’s Explosion/Implosion.
It took the straight-forward Beowulf (town harassed by Grendel and his mama, Beowulf shows up, kills them both, in the end gets killed by a dragon) and threw another complicating layer of story on top. In this issue, in addition to the minor cameo of a rather thinly drawn Dracula(!), and appearances by Grendel, his mother and Satan, you have Beowulf crimping from the Twelve Labors of Hercules (no Golden Girdle, though) by going toe to toe with the Minotaur. In the Cretan Labyrinth.
You can say that there are problems with the original Beowulf text. Many people find it a chore to read, after all. But I don’t know if anyone ever read it in some introductory Western literature course at college and thought “Geez, I wish there were some vampires in this bitch.” Adding wheelbarrows full of extras to the proceedings strikes me as a bit like trying to streamline government by adding another layer of bureaucracy on top. Eventually the supporting structures that held the original framework in place are going to buckle and collapse, right?
Jack Handey perhaps put it best with one of his Deep Thoughts:
If you’re a circus clown, and you have a dog that you use in your act, I don’t think it’s a good idea to also dress the dog up like a clown, because people see that and they think, “Forgive me, but that’s just too much.”
Forgive me, but this is just too much.
Here’s the Labyrinth (Beowulf and his Rima-looking companion are led there by the Peeper, who you can tell is Satan in disguise LONG before he reveals himself to our out-of-his-element hero):
I spent several minutes staring at that maze, trying to find some hidden image or “DRINK MORE OVALTINE” message, mainly because the surrounding story was so bewildering. No luck.
Here’s Satan giving his marching orders to “NOT THE COLAN” Dracula — “Destroy Heorot and grow goofy facial hair!”:
And, of course, Beowulf has to fight the Minotaur, who’s doubly enraged because Beowulf is wearing horns from his cousin or something. Oh, and this Beowulf lets his babe do a lot of the work:
Stop hiding behind your woman’s skirt. Hero.
While we should all appreciate these storytelling efforts from scribe Michael Uslan and artists Ricardo Villamonte, Ric Estrada, and Liz Safian, the DC Beowulf saga was a bridge too far. If Domino Pizza’s Noid had been around when this was published, he might very well have found his way into the story. Oh, that sounds farfetched to your delicate ears? Do I have to remind you that GODDAMN DRACULA WAS IN THIS?
Contemporary audiences were underwhelmed, and this issue — which ended with Beowulf gaining Grendel-matching strength by chomping on the mystic Zumak Fruit — was the last of the series, leaving the big Man vs. Monster showdown unresolved. Humanity survived this hanging chad. Somehow.
Beowulf has reappeared in recent years. No one cared. Personally, I’d be more interested in knowing what happened to his scantily clad babe. Any chick who’ll hop on a man-bull’s back while wearing a leopard print bikini is all right by me.