Writen by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Matt Taylor
Colored by Lee Loughridge
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Design by Tom Muller
I've never been to Los Angeles, but I've got all these ideas in my head about it thanks to decades of movies and TV and books. Some of the best, most memorable crime stories (including crime noir) are set in Los Angeles, including three of my favorites, Pulp Fiction, LA Confidential and Heat (which is a perfect 2-hour movie that unfortunately happens to be closer to 3 hours - seriously, that bank heist scene is spectacular). What those stories have in common and what great stories about LA seem to capture is this remarkable mix of wealth and poverty, sunny skies and darkness, optimism and desperation, depravity and glamour. Fatale and The Fade Out (from the fantastic team of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & other talented contributors) both play with these ideas, as does the newest Ales Kot book, Wolf.
In recent months, Kot's work has gone in a highly metatextual direction in works such as The Surface (review here) and Material (review here), where Kot explored the thin lines between fiction and reality. Even in the recently concluded Zero, Kot took the final arc of the story in a very different direction from the earlier arcs (my review of the first 9 issues here). While Wolf has some elements that make it feel like Kot is aware he is in the noir world, this oversized (60 pages for $4.99) first issue is not only highly engaging and strongly illustrated, but it's also the tightest, most focused storytelling I've seen from Kot on one of his creator-owned projects in a while.
Wolf centers on two main protagonists, Antoine Wolfe, a supernatural detective, and a girl at the center of tragedy whose name we learn by the end of the story (and whose name will give you a clue as to the nature of the potential conflicts). Wolf begins on a striking note; the sight of a man engulfed in flames,* singing the blues as he walks in the hills above Los Angeles. It's Wolfe, as we see from his dog tags. The story follows Wolfe throughout his day, as he encounters skeptical cops, supernatural con men, wise homeless people, and unfriendly unexpected guests who bring him before his newest (and not really voluntary client), Sterling Gibson, racist billionaire and sports team owner.** Gibson was the one who had Wolfe placed in a straitjacket and set on fire because he wanted to know if Wolfe was the "real deal" before hiring Wolfe as a clairvoyant and paranormal detective (though the exact nature of Gibson's request is not made clear, it's pretty evident he's a very bad man). As the issue progresses, it's obvious Wolfe (or "the Wolf"***) is a known and respected figure in the supernatural community, as his Cthulhu-like friend Freddy turns to Wolfe for assistance in a personal problem.
During the course of the issue, we see the young girl, first standing over the bodies of two dead people in a mansion, clutching a necklace (in a weird echo of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman). Then we see her in a police car as the cops discuss her situation, and voices tell her to jump out of the car, in order to go somewhere else. As the issue ends, Wolfe and the girl have come together, and it looks like Wolfe will be taking on another weird, disturbing case.
This was a very strong debut issue. Kot is such an ambitious, experimental storyteller who loves to play with and push the boundaries of the comic form. In some ways it's refreshing to see that he still is interested in telling a more conventional comic story. This first issue of Wolf is big, sprawling, decompressed storytelling, but at no point does it seen like there's anything superfluous being shown. This all feels like it's here for a reason. In some ways this is very much a classic detective noir story - Wolfe is roughed up on a bunch of occasions, is brought before the big bad guy in order to do a difficult and dangerous job, he lives on the fringes of the law (and has the attention of law enforcement), but he's clearly well-intentioned, with a good heart, and someone who sticks up for his friends and associates and tries to do the right thing.
Like many detectives with a past (or other characters such as the lead in The Fade Out who have been traumatized by war), he's haunted by ghosts, but in the case of this supernatural detective tale, they're actual (not metaphorical) ghosts. Kot is doing some strong fantasy world-building here, but this is a ground-level view of that world, as the reader is learning about different aspects of this supernatural city through the eyes and narration of Wolfe, rather than an omniscient 10,000 foot narrator. All the complexities of the world feel like puzzles to be solved along with the main mysteries that Wolfe is trying to solve.
The choice to set the story in present-day LA (rather than the 1940's) also feels deliberate on the part of Kot, as it feels like the story is not going to shy away from sociopolitical issues, and setting the story in a (relatively) grounded, realistic, current setting helps remove the distance between the reader and a story where racism is as real as vampires. That setting makes the racism shown by Gibson to Wolfe harder to dismiss as an artifact of the past. The ordinary race and class divisions, combined with the involvement of monsters and magic, feels like fertile ground for Kot to explore a number of different social and political issues.
Kot has some highly talented storytelling collaborators here in Matt Taylor and Lee Loughridge. They set the tone from the first page of story, where Wolfe is wandering in the hills of Los Angeles in the darkness. The man in flames, walking and singing, those flames are strikingly contrasted with the cool, hazy colors of the skyline. The art then zooms in on the man in flames over the next few pages, until that's all we see. It's a hell of a way to open the series, as it raises so many questions (which eventually do get answered), and the jump to the next sequence (which takes place in the interrogation room of a police station) poses a remarkable contrast. The colors are muted and spare, and the setting of a sterile office is a far cry from the sight of a man singing while burning alive.
The decompressed pacing in this story feels helpful in setting a mood and tone. There are a number of wordless pages throughout the story, and while the issue takes its time moving from place to place, it doesn't feel slow. Rather, I think we're deliberately meant to take in each location and scene, and feel a slower sense of movement similar to what Wolfe is experiencing (almost in real-time) as he takes action (or is acted upon) throughout the issue. Taylor provides a nice variety of layouts here, from 4-panel pages that deliberately (slowly) track Wolfe's (or others' movements) to 6 or 7-panel pages, where the action and tension is sped up. It's a great use of panel variety to control the flow of time and pace of reading.
Overall, Taylor (who previously worked with Kot on an issue of Zero) has a relatively realistic approach to figure and design (somewhat similar to that of several of Kot's other Zero collaborators, Will Tempest and Jorge Coelho). Characters are stylized in a slightly rough way, but Taylor pays a great deal of attention to facial expression, body language, and all of the people depicted (from Wolfe to Gibson to the girl at the murder scene, to random bus passengers) feel like they're drawn with the idea that these are real characters with inner lives. Taylor does highly skillful work regarding the action and settings. Some locations (like the interior of a police interrogation room) are spare and sterile, but the inside of a bus or a neighborhood street scene or Gibson's mansion are highly detailed, almost photo-realistic (like some of the work of Sean Murphy). Clayton Cowles also contributes some great, thoughtful lettering - in particular, the dialogue bubbles of one character in particular provide a fun, monstrous quality that echoes the appearance of the character. Tom Muller also contributes here (as he has with other books written by Kot) to the strong overall look and design of the comic, including a dramatic spread in the inside front and rear covers.
Scenes such as when Wolf walks back his home after getting off of the bus provide an interesting contrast; as the street (homes, cars, a dog) are hyper-detailed and realistic, and Wolfe is drawn in a more stylized way, and the colors from Loughridge are handled in a limited (not monochromatic but very few colors), much more atmospheric palate. In a scene like that, it feels like the art team is simultaneously trying to ground the story in a sense of reality through detail, but the highly atmospheric coloring both lends a sense of hot, muggy air, and also gives the story a more ominous feel, well suited to the dark magic that runs throughout the issue. One of the characters in the story makes the same point when he describes Los Angeles by saying "This city is a blend. It's desert and it's woods and it's ocean and it's cheap junk and it's expensive junk and it's ugly and it's beautiful and it's fiction and it's real."
This feels very much like what all of the creators are trying to do in the first issue of Wolf, which is to say establish this setting as a place of dichotomies, where the ordinary coexists with the magical; where Cthulhu-men have typical disputes with their vampire landlords. Where good men try to help solve people's problems and get to the truth, even if it involves talking to dead people. I'd strongly recommend Wolf to anyone interested in crime stories with a supernatural, political twist.
* A striking way to begin an issue, this was also used to great effect in the first issue of Project Superpowers: Blackcross.
** A pretty clear nod to Donald Sterling.
*** A nod, perhaps, to Harvey Keitel's character of The Wolf ("I'm the Wolf, I solve problems") in another fantastic, LA-story, Pulp Fiction.