Von Allan’s comic Wolf’s Head is an odd book to read. It starts off in an almost off-putting way, filled with unlikable characters, tonal issues and odd narrative choices. It was at once a compelling and frustrating comic until eventually, by the start of the second issue, any issues I had were not only resolved, but transcended. Something shifts throughout the series and those elements that didn’t work, suddenly align into a very compelling narrative.
Wolf’s Head focus on Lauren Greene, a police officer who quit her job after refusing to enforce violent repressive methods of the Metro Detroit police department. See, she’s a black woman and she just can’t sit idly by as African-Americans are unlawfully targeted. She doesn’t have a job lined up, so she just kind of, sits around for the rest of the issues, struggling to make ends meet, while chatting with a friend who runs a bar. She also deals with her mother, a cleaning lady in a high-tech facility, who survived a fire inside the facility somehow. There’s a mystery involving what the mother saw, what she may have stolen from her employer, and another sub-plot about a group of thugs who get really upset at Lauren for a previous altercation. The story tackles the growing divide between rich and poor, racism, health issues and the injustice caused by America’s for-profit health system, injustice, morality, mortality, and more. It’s a lot, and it’s introduced very quickly, it’s almost dizzying. It’s a lot of exposition, but it eventually finds a good cruising speed and the overactive plot begins to unfold at a manageable pace and manage to keep all the elements of its dense plot forward perfectly.
It’s a very odd premise and the protagonists we follow are very difficult to root for. They keep making bad, impulsive or self-destructive choices, yet, that somehow becomes why they’re so endearing. Our former police officer quit her job with no idea of what to do next. A situation some people often find themselves in, but you keep expecting she has a plan. When you realize she doesn’t, you keep hoping she has something in mind for her future, but it’s not entirely clear that her impulse choice will lead to a clear resolution. She takes out her frustrations on a thug, assaulting him and confiscating drugs. That comes back to haunt later when the same man and his friends sees her outside with her mother and her dog, vulnerable and wants to beat her up as revenge. It’s frustrating to see because it’s her own poor decisions that ends up endangering her mother and herself. It’s also refreshing to see her character acting this way because you understand why she does what she does and you want her to succeed and to make better choices. It eventually comes around in a very satisfying way. She’s a deeply flawed and self-destructive protagonist and ultimately, a compelling one.
This is Von Allan’s first foray in relatively more grounded fiction after a very heartfelt graphic novel called The Road to God Knows, a fictionalized account of his early life with his mother who suffered from schizophrenia. While Wolfs Head doesn’t have the same pretension to reality or gravitas, Allan is able to imbue Wolf’s Head with some of the heartfelt energy that was present in his previous graphic novel. It’s particularly noticeable in the relationship between Lauren Greene and her mother. Their introduction is front-loaded with expository dialog, but it quickly slows down and we are witness to the tense and difficult relationship between a mother and a daughter who don’t always get along but love each other in spite of it all.
Von Allan’s art is fluid and his characters move smoothly. The color palette is muted and down to earth and benefits the story perfectly. It’s vibrant when it needs to be, in particular with an invention taken from Lauren’s mother’s employer. It’s interesting to note how he wishes to and has improved his own skills. His issues even include side-by side comparison of his earlier work and the same page that he remade with his current, more controlled artistic abilities.
Ultimately, this comic has a strong enough hook and the story is compelling enough that it makes me want to revisit it and see more of it. In hindsight, it’s rough, early start allow for a clever twist further down the road. There’s a big hurdle to cross, but once it’s passed, Wolf’s Head becomes an interesting thriller about a flawed character’s redemption, her personal issues and a mild revenge story and the danger of trying to control forces we don’t understand. I was disappointed when I finished the second issue of Wolf’s Head. Disappointed in a good way as I didn’t have more to read at that point. It was not the feeling I had when I started reading the book. Ottawa comic artist’s Von Allan’s series Wolf’s Head starts off painfully slow, overburdened by long dialogs between characters and, unexpectedly, this ends up working to its advantage. I’m looking forward to seeing where the creator takes the story. It’s a journey worth taking.