Noir on Fire in Kot, Taylor and Loughridge’s ‘Wolf’ #1 [Review]
Wolf #1, written by Ales Kot with art by Matt Taylor and Lee Loughridge, opens with one of the most beautifully distinct images I've seen in a comic this year: a man on a hillside overlooking LA; the buzzy glow of the city's lights just visible in the distance; the man is singing a blues song, Robert Johnson's Hellhound on My Trail; also, he's on fire.
It's a haunting image, all the more because of the complete lack of explanation. “How do you feel about myths?” reads the single caption, and there's something genuinely mythic about these opening pages. This image of a burning man, picked out in flames of unnaturally bright orange by colorist Loughridge, is eerie, primal and immediately iconic.
These pages set the tone for the rest of the issue, and most likely the series to follow --- and even if the rest of the issue's sixty-something pages never quite match the highs of these first few images, it's a promising start.
The man is Antoine Wolfe. It's a bold way to introduce a lead character, given that Wolfe's temporary immolation makes it hard to pick out any distinct facial features --- but that doesn't mean we don't learn anything about him. We see dog tags, identifying him as a veteran. More importantly, artist Matt Taylor gives Wolfe the body language of a contemplative wanderer, as if the fact of being on fire is nothing more than mild inconvenience to him.
This is because Wolfe is immortal. Even in a Los Angeles filled with supernatural creatures, he's a mythic figure, able to see ghosts and wield a certain level of magical power. The title, the Johnson song, and a couple of moments in the comic suggest there may be something lycanthropic going on, but it's kept vague.
In fact, for the first half of the issue --- that opening scene aside --- all of the story's supernatural elements are kept this way; just a suggestion. This part of the story stays grounded in the real world, or at least in a crime fiction world. A conman tries to separate an old woman on the bus from her money. A war veteran deals with the traumatic memories that haunt him. An old racist man hires a man to solve a murder.
With Taylor's loosely sketched characters, the muted yellows and blues of Loughridge's colors and the way the book devotes entire silent pages to mundane actions like coming home or falling asleep, there's an almost slice-of-life tone to Wolf. It's easy to forget that the conman is a magician, that the war vet is haunted by literal ghosts, and that the old man is hiring a clairvoyant who he already set on fire as a test. The uncanny elements sit right beneath the surface --- until, in a splash page about two-thirds of the way through, we're introduced to Freddy Chtonic.
A hipster Old One with an alliterative flow to his dialogue and word balloons that drip like they're out of an EC horror comic, with a past starring in tentacle porn and vampire landlords, Freddy unlocks the comic's weirdness, building to a final page that introduces a character with the name Anita Christ. On first read, this all feels out of place with the comic you've been reading, but... you remember this is an issue that opened with a dude on fire, singing the blues, right?
After all, this is a comic written by Ales Kot, and you'd hardly need to see the credits to tell. The speech balloons nearly collapse under the weight of allusion and ideas and philosophy. Fall out of Kot's rhythm and this can feel alienating --- but when his style clicks, it's like flirting with someone considerably smarter than you are.
Ultimately, as packed as its 64 pages are, Wolf #1 is a mood piece. Despite the wealth of plot threads being laid down, despite the density of concepts being thrown at you, it's the comic's feel that will stay with you. Single images. Individual moments Like a man, on a hill, in flames, singing the blues.