by Tom Neely
Self published / 228 pages /$25
I usually stay away from wordless comics. Telling a story entirely in pictures is supposed to be one of the things that comics can do better than any other visual medium—remember that wordless month that Marvel did about 10 years ago?—but more often than not, I find that those stories speed by too quickly, that there’s not enough emotional depth to the characters to latch on to, that it’s too easy to slide over the images without really engaging them.
But in the right hands, hands with the ability craft images of overwhelming power and resonance, a wordless comic can be amazing, taking the breath that would be spent on words and channeling it into the art. That’s the case with Tom Neely’s The Wolf.
You may know Neely from his contributions to the pretty damn funny Henry and Glenn Forever, which posited a world in which a very cartoony Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig were lovers. It’s a fun idea and was a fun comic, with Neely’s adorably round and plump lines making the aging musicians seem childishly sweet. But don’t let that style, or Neely’s propensity to portray characters with Mickey Mouse-style gloves on their hands or Popeye-esque physiques fool you: the man is plumbing some dark places.
The Wolf is Neely’s follow-up to his breakthrough work of relationship horror, The Blot. As there, The Wolf is a wordless narrative, seemingly about the end of one relationship, the fallout and struggle to recover from it, and the salvation of finding new and invigorating love. But there’s no mopey autobiographical morass here. The character whose heart needs healing is the titular half-man, half-wolf, all-nude creature with huge fangs and rangy limbs. What caused the previous relationship’s failure isn’t explored or explained or, I’d argue, even needed. We know what we need to know about what’s happened when the man, just before his transformation into a wolf, stands in the doorway of his bathroom. In front of him, the bed that once held a woman is empty. Behind him, the bathroom mirror retains a reflection of his inner self, a wild man complete with jagged beard and knife-sharp teeth.
And then he vomits forth the essence of that wild man, Neely’s trademark ultra-thick ink spots (a blackness as characteristic, and as masterful, as Charles Burns’ lush brushwork), which transform him into the wolf creature.
The Wolf is then beset by first one skinless creature, then a series of them, unraveling their muscle fibers and trying to ensnare him. He flees, only to come upon a sleeping woman who, after they have sex, is attacked by both the skinless creatures that pursued the Wolf, and sibling creatures of her own.
Words aren’t needed to understand the immediate and profound connection the woman and the Wolf have, what their union means to both of them (their worlds, previously only black and white, erupt into color and richness during and after sex), and the threat the skinless creatures pose to their future. They’re not needed to explain the final transformations of both Wolf and woman or where they end together. Not needed due to the strength of Neely’s images.
Unlike the traditional comics page, broken down into panels, each page of The Wolf is a single panel that fills the entire page. This allows Neely’s art not only breathing room, but also gives each page a more powerful impact than the occasional splash page nestled among groups of panels could have. It makes particular pages—the creatures studying the duo with dreadful inquisitiveness, the ceremony performed by the druidic priest, the Wolf’s initial presentation of himself the woman in her darkened bedroom—literally arresting. These pages force you to stop, to linger, to take in their subtlety and allusion and power.
And it’s the power those images have bound up in them that helps The Wolf reach past panels, reach past words and, with the emotion and horror and joy and release of its images, touch both our darknesses and our vulnerable, loving selves.
story 4.75 / art 5 / overall 4.87
(out of 5 stars)