Bizarro Back Issues: Beowulf vs. Satan vs. Grendel vs. Dracula (1975)
I'm always on the lookout for spooky comics to write about whenever the weather starts to get cold and the scent of pumpkin spice is carried aloft by a chill wind, but after years and years of doing this, I sometimes worry that I'll run out. I mean, there is a theoretically finite amount of weird old comics floating around out there, and once you've already talked about that issue of Star Trek where they find a haunted house in space and fight Dracula, it's easy to think that here might not be a whole lot left to talk about.
That's why I was so glad when reader Ian McDougall recommended that I dive into the back issue bins and find a copy of 1975's Beowulf #6, which he describes as a comic where "Grendel vies with Dracula for Satan's throne, Beowulf solves a maze by punching it." And folks, if there is a sentence that will make me read a comic faster than that, I have not found it.
You're probably most familiar with Beowulf from high school --- reading the original epic poem as an assignment, that is, unless you're old enough to have actually attended classes in the 9th century --- but from what I can gather, Michael Uslan and Ricardo Villamonte's version is pretty wildly different from the original. It only ended up running for six bimonthly issues in the mid-'70s, and just to give you an idea of how far they went from the text, consider that this issue is not the first time that Dracula makes an appearance.
Needless to say, it's also pretty awesome, and finding out that previous issues involve B-Wulf meeting up with Odysseus and one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel in between Dracula appearances has sent it right to the top of my list of full runs to track down. If this particular issue is any indication, the entire series is like a graphic adaptation of an epic metal concept album written by a teenager who just heard Led Zeppelin III for the first time.
Just look at this opening, where Beowulf and his bikini-clad lady companion Nan-Zee find themselves shipwrecked by the awesome power of the Devil:
Rather than drowning, though, Beowulf and Nan-Zee are just washed up on the shores of Crete while we cut to another scene that stars Wiglaf, who is essentially Beowulf's burlier, mustachioed equivalent of Jimmy Olsen.
To be honest, this is the section of the comic that has so many Sword and Sorcery clichés heaped onto each other that my eyes started to glaze over while I was reading it. Even before we get to the manacled strongmen and the cowardly wizard --- excuse me, shaper --- the first location caption tells us that we're looking at "the Yondo sect of the T'ang tribe in the land of Pikadon," and that, my friends, is where I check out.
But to their credit, Uslan and Villamonte do manage to pull me back in by the end of the page, when they not only have Wiglaf actually start applying pro wrestling submission holds, but also hide a cheerful message in the form of a magic spell:
It's not the only one, either. On the next page, the Shaper's backwards incantation reads, "Is there room for me on Star Trek."
It should be noted that this was the final issue, and you kind of get the impression that they were long past caring about a lot of stuff by this point. And really, they shouldn't have been --- it took over thirty years for Beowulf to make his next appearance after this issue, and I don't think that story covered whether or not Wiglaf and his crew ever made it back to Daneland.
Back on Crete, Beowulf and Nan-Zee wake up and start looking around for the Zumak, a legendary fruit that will give Beowulf super-powers by combining with the venom of the black viper, because sure, why not? And, since this is Crete and we're dealing with some pretty vague ideas about mythology and a timeline that doesn't make a lick of sense, it is of course hidden in the middle of King Minos's infamous labyrinth, which they are led to by a mysterious old creep named the Peeper.
I love that the caption describes it as "the foulest-smelling place on Earth," because while I'd never actually thought about it before, that would in fact be an incredibly accurate description of a giant maze where a half-man, half-cow killed and ate people.
As you've probably already guessed, the Peeper is actually The Slave-Maiden Of Satan in disguise, and she seals Beowulf and Nan-Zee in the labyrinth, leaving them to their doom. But down in Hell, there are other plans afoot - Political plans! It seems that Satan has become disappointed in Grendel's inability to kill Beowulf, and has decided to hand off his throne to his other son, Dracula. And the news does not go over well.
It seems that Grendel's Mother overheard the plan to cut Grendel out of his inheritance, which is about when their particular story turns into a bizarre fever-dream version of Columbo. Dracula flies off using his new bat-powers, and Grendel spends literally the next six pages slowly advancing on Satan from behind with a stalactite.
Back in Crete, Beowulf and Nan-Zee have made their way to the center of the labyrinth and found the Zumak. Unfortunately, they've also found the "Grotto Minotaur," who is both enraged that Beowulf is wearing a helmet made out of a minotaur skull and fueled by the power of Satan.
With that much going for him, the Minotaur ends up being a pretty formidable opponent. He easily gores Beowulf with his horns --- albeit bloodlessly --- and while Beowulf could power up with the Zumak, Nan-Zee finds herself unable to pluck a piece of fruit from a tree.
Things are looking pretty grim, but it turns out that actually lending Satanic power to a minotaur is something that requires active concentration, and getting stabbed with a giant piece of rock is, to say the least, a bit of a distraction.
With that (and with Dracula still flying around in his bat form looking for all the world like he's trying unsuccessfully to find an open window in Hell), Grendel has murdered Satan and taken over the underworld for himself, a momentous change with dire consequences that happens two pages before the series ends forever.
The effect on Beowulf's situation, though, is immediate. Without the devil powering him up, the Minotaur loses its hell-forged super-strength, and Beowulf regains the advantage and starts handing out punches. First, he knocks out the Minotaur by shattering its teeth with a straight right...
...and then, as promised, he punches out the labyrinth itself:
And with that, the series ends, and DC's Beowulf fades away from newsstands. Which, really, is a shame --- with Satan dead, Dracula and Grendel battling for the Throne of Hell, and Beowulf off on a rampaging quest for revenge, there's a pretty good setup there for a second arc. But at the same time, if you've got to get canceled after six issues, 18 pages of comics where every single panel could be airbrushed on the side of a custom van is a pretty good way to go out.