October 9, 2010

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BB Wolf and the Three LPs

Written by JD Arnold
Illustrated by Rich Koslowski
Top Shelf

BB Wolf has the blues, and he's got it bad. Music is the only thing he has left, and even that's about to be taken away. Like many others who sing songs of regret and loss, Wolf has a story to tell, and he's going to sing it out one last time, even if no one is listening. This, in brief, is his tale:

The world is a hard place for a wolf. Trying hard to stay alive in a world of pigs who hate and fear him, Wolf's only consolations are his music, his whiskey, and his family. Though he'd probably not admit it, the latter is the one most important to him. It's a rotten life, but Wolf deals with it--until the pigs want his land.

When the Pigs use legal trickery, Wolf and his friends fight back. At first it seems like the wolves might win, but in the end, the Pigs have the power--and the willingness to do terrible things--to get their way. With nothing left to lose, BB Wolf takes matters into his own hands. Forced to take revenge the only way he knows how, Wolf works his way through a system rotten to its core, vowing to blow it down.

The bulk of the book explores BB Wolf's attempts to get at the root of the Littlepig family, encountering all the problems that a minority figure with no resources might have and showing what happens when you push a man, er, wolf, too far, their only recourse is to strike back. Arnold cleverly uses the original story turned on its ear to show just how horrible life can be for the powerless and oppressed, and it works perfectly.

I had the pleasure of briefly speaking to Mr. Arnold when I picked up this book at the Baltimore Comi-Con. He described the book as having a condemnation of racism, but that really didn't process for me until I started reading the book. I'd never in a million years think of using the story of the Big Bad Wolf as a way to show the plight of African Americans in the early 20th Century, many of whom would have been seen as being as undesirable as as wolf in the land of pigs.

There is no mistaking the allegory Arnold is going for. The Pigs are white landowners still smarting from the ending of the slavery system, using their positions of power to abuse and manipulate African Americans. This is only reinforced by references to the PPP and discussion of keeping the wolves away from the pig population. There's even the racism-within-racism where some pigs are better than others. The justice system is run by pigs, and the church goes along, in the name of peace. Wolf is chastised for not repenting of his sins, when all he did was fight back when his family was ruined. There's even a historical note in the back that mirrors the plight of African Americans trying to find their own history, buried in the lies written by the white press.

In some hands, this would not have worked at all. I tend to be a bit leery of message stories like this, but Arnold avoids the traps primarily by making his purpose loud and clear. This is not a thinly-veiled commentary, but an open condemnation. Using the Wolf as the victim, Arnold shows that what we are led to believe is not always the truth. That's the message this book sends to its readers, and whether or not you are receptive to it might just say something about you personally.

This book clearly has its roots in a healthy dose of research. Wolf's story takes him to East St. Louis, through wolf mobs controlled by pig interests, shows shady dealings, and even that racism was not confined solely to the south. All the while, he sings the blues, a musical style that links directly to the painful past that the wolves/African Americans share. It's constructed so well from start to finish, and I'd love to see more work from Arnold in the future.

Part of BB Wolf's excellence comes from Koslowski, who uses his greyscale tones to good effect in this story of desperation, greed, and loss. Everything has a bit of grime to it, and everyone is grizzled and weathered, particularly the wolves. The settings are dingy, almost falling in as you turn the page, yet they have a level of detail that captures the time period perfectly.

The best part of his art, however, are the characters. Each wolf has their own, distinctive look, fitting their roles in the story. The pigs look evil from the word go, but even they are easily told apart. Despite dealing with animals, Koslowski finds a way to make their faces feel genuine emotion, from joy to rage to despair to pain. He changes angles, bares teeth, shifts body position, and any number of other tricks to keep us involved in the action. These are living, breathing characters acting out a tragedy before the reader's eye. Because we feel like these animals are people, when we come to the violent parts of the book, the reader is actually shocked by the murders, even as we sympathize with them.

BB Wolf and the 3 LPs is a stunning work of political commentary that tells its story so effectively it overcomes the problems anthropomorphic comics often face, all without feeling ham-handed. Arnold and Koslowski have taken the re-imagined fairy tale to new heights with this book. It tells a great story, makes you think, and keeps you lingering over its pages. I can't ask for anything else in a comic, and neither should you. This one gets my highest possible recommendation, and definitely makes my favorites list for 2010.