Do you think fire stands out to humanity as an immortal symbol because of its danger? Or is it because of its utilitarian purpose? We fear fire but it also guides us, warms us, destroys forever anything we feed to it. Fire is fleeting but its destruction is permanent, a sure way to erase an object or a person. Ales Kot and Matt Taylor know the potency of that cleansing image, it’s how they begin their new series Wolf, a man in flames looking out over the hills onto the equally dangerous burning beacon of LA, a flip of the cover, where the perspective is from California streets, looking out on hills a’blaze, a portentous omen of wildfires or maybe something worse. The immolated man is Antoine Wolfe and the first thing that should frighten you about him is that unlike every other organism on the planet, he doesn’t seem to mind being set on fire.
Wolfe is in many ways an archetypal LA noir lead. He is destitute, clad in simple attire, dog tags hanging down his neck as he walks around in a white tee and blue jeans. He seems to operate on the fringes of society, his chief skill not a knack for detective work but taking a beating. It’s not that Wolfe is stupid, it’s that the laws of LA noir require you to stomach giving and taking beatings on the regular. This is because LA noir is unified by the omnipresent threat of its setting, its detailing of a metropolis of hard knocks and bad habits and simmering, fatal envy and greed. There is really only ever one villain in true LA noir and it is the city of Los Angeles itself, its foundation of commercial evil and its desire to consume the souls of all who flock to it only generating countless executors of its whims. It’s a truer kind of hell, one that presents itself as a paradise, offering everything you could ever want, but reminding you that the desire for warmth that fire fulfills is also a perennial threat– get too close and you might be maimed or killed.
Taylor and his colorist Lee Loughridge grasp this to an uncanny degree, the book laid out like a fire cycle, beginning with the too bright heat of its cover and opening sequence before diminishing to ashy grays with occasional blue and orange sparks. The epiphanies themselves are like sparks, single orange and red frames centered within ample black space, a pivotal plot moment in the actual center of the book literally consumed in darkness as a point that we tolerate our fear of flame because without it we would know nothing about what lurks within shadows. And in Wolfe’s case that’s a little more literal than normal, as he’s not just a man but a monster, an “immortal” werewolf who, like so many LA noir figures before him, isn’t just unafraid of death, he actively courts it.
When you first meet Wolfe, you don’t know this. You know something is up with him, because he is singing about hellhounds on his trail while he is in flames in a straitjacket and he makes it through that incident well enough that he seems to be in pristine shape while getting interrogated by some glib cops. By the end of the first issue, you come to realize the hellhounds on his trail are analogues for himself and his inner demons. Wolfe is a man who feels most comfortable when he is in danger, probably because comfort means sleep means nightmares. His foil is a young woman who comes to in the middle of a murder scene, which she may or may not be responsible for. Where Wolfe looks for danger, this young woman is a catalyst, and unlike Wolfe, she listens to the ghosts that follow her around because she wants to find a way to stop the trouble, not stir it up. Or to put it the way an old crone does when she gets mistaken for a seer by Wolfe, “You either surf the synchronicity or the synchronicity surfs your ass.”
Luckily, there is ample synchronicity in Wolf for you to surf. Kot is an obsessively detailed scripter who likes to make his artists go micro, but Taylor stands out as one of his best collaborators because he has an intuitive understanding of how to frame small moments in an exciting way. Wolf is almost certainly Kot’s most user friendly work to date and Taylor’s work deserves a lot of the credit for that, picking up the heavy weight of Kot’s heady symbolism visually rather than textually, filling pages with expertly executed extreme close ups on facial features that then pan out to larger full page imagery. There is an early scene that displays this especially well, and not coincidentally it’s the first synchronicity we see between Wolfe and his foil, moving from a static medium shot of Wolfe getting thrown in the trunk of a car of some henchmen to a tight three panel sequence that could initially be read as a dazed awakening in a trunk but ends up being a murder scene.
That extends to dual awakenings for the characters, the girl being led away from the murder scene and eventually “waking up” while in the back of a police car while at the same time, Wolfe is literally waking up from his forced trunk slumber, realizing where he is and what the new stakes are. Kot could have taken this in a more surreal direction, he certainly has before in series like Change but maybe because the “rules” of this take on LA are already so nightmarish, he plays it relatively straight. In order to get something he wants, Wolfe has to collaborate with those eternal occult fetishists, Nazis, and take care of a situation that requires his particular skills. All that head knocking and immolation was foreplay, a test of his endurance, like the various gauntlets Dudley forces Bud White to undergo in LA Confidential just to prove he’s the right kind of stupid. And we know how that eventually played out.
The Nazis aren’t meant to be perceived as a legitimate threat, even though Wolfe outright says he knows they’re going to try to kill him once he wraps up his task. That’s because Wolfe’s chief fear isn’t physical violence but uncertainty. He knows the Nazis want to kill him, therefore they are not a mystery and are not worthy of caution. But the girl is an unknown quantity, as is whatever is going on with the “immortal” scene in LA. This is why Taylor frames the characters in a way that makes them seem small against the city, Wolfe’s debut coming as a tiny fiery fleck on a hill, the young woman first appearing as a wobbly, shadowy figure in the middle of a murder, Wolfe’s employer Sterling Gibson equally tiny in his office as he’s surrounded by historical busts, a group of vampire slumlords hunched over in a dark room on a sad couch as Wolfe confronts them. All these “monsters” seem sadder when they’re reduced to small characters in a grander LA scheme.
But they’re all sparks, and all sparks can become flames, and all flames can become wildfires. Wolf seems committed to this idea of the spark, of the tiny figures accidentally colliding to set off some larger blaze. In the real world, in our reality, LA is itself currently on the precipice of mass fiery destruction, surrounded by threats of drought-induced fires, cataclysmic earthquakes and floods on standby just in case that’s not enough. Wolf has set itself up to be a story about shining a light on the monsters of Los Angeles as well as a story about how that light will invariably burn us. Beyond that, it wants to explore the necessity of sometimes getting burned, building up tougher skin, purifying toxic elements. How close are you willing to get to its flames?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover