I’m going to go ahead and confess I went into Cullen Bunn and Jeremy Haun’s new Vertigo series Wolf Moon with a whole fleet of reservations. On the positive front, this is one of the few new pop comics without a mononymic title. But less positive are things like the inexplicable “sexy but creepy naked lady turning into a werewolf!” cover courtesy of an especially lazy Jae Lee, the fact that it’s been a while since we’ve seen a great werewolf work and Cullen Bunn’s frequently disappointing track record. I think that Bunn is a writer who can easily come up with killer concepts, but I often find myself bored by their execution. If I had to nail down my issue with Bunn’s writing, I’d say that it’s because he tends to play it safe and provide pretty workmanlike scripts, which is probably why my favorite work of his is Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, a misunderstood miniseries that provided extremely subtle, sly commentary on fandom’s love for alternate universes and timelines where they can watch their favorite characters get brutally murdered or maimed by other favorite characters. But Wolf Moon is a pleasant surprise on a number of fronts and it all starts with Jeremy Haun, an artist who is far livelier and more expressive than any other artist I’ve seen Bunn paired with.
Wolf Moon begins with an X-Files style cold open, as a group of men try to track down an animal that has been killing their cows. Because this is a werewolf horror story, these men are of course hunting at night, with the light of the full moon guiding them and while it’s no surprise they meet their demises by the claws and fangs of a werewolf, the anatomical cruelty Haun inflicts on these anonymous characters is quite shocking. Part of that is because Haun’s style initially looks like a hybrid of Sean Phillips and Tony Harris, with loose, jagged lines and faces that look as though they’ve been candidly photographed. Lee Loughridge’s flat, stark coloring undoubtedly helps bring these references to mind, but by the second page, when the werewolf drops a desiccated dog corpse from its mouth, Haun’s artistic personality forces its way to the forefront. Haun’s gore scenes are horrific and unsettling, even though when you break them down they’re perilously close to reaching the cartoonish heights of Steve Dillon’s work in Preacher and Punisher. There are a number of things grounding Haun’s gore, though, the most important being his mastery over his characters’ expressions of shock. When the characters in Wolf Moon witness or are victim to monstrous violence, you are convinced by their terror, and Loughridge’s moody coloring only makes it more solemn.
Bunn wisely gives Haun plenty of opportunities to make us feel the terror of the huge number of victims in this first issue. The plot is mostly standard werewolf fare, following Dillon, a man who has been hurt by a werewolf in the past and now dedicates his life to killing the beast. Dillon keeps an eye out for gruesome death scenes blamed on local wildlife, but he’s well aware that his mission is almost certainly not going to end well no matter what; that knowledge allows Bunn to purposefully make Dillon less of a sympathetic character than a navigator for the plot, his emotional detachment providing a reason for the high amounts of collateral damage inflicted by his activity. Bunn does provide one key twist to the werewolf mythos that is revealed towards the end and while it’s too early to tell whether this will be an exciting evolution, Bunn deserves credit for finding a way to connect the European folkloric version of the werewolf with the Native American concept of skinwalkers.
As adventurous as that twist is, Bunn still can’t help himself from indulging in some of his writerly tics. The most distracting is the detached internal dialogue that pops up on nearly every page, allowing us to read Dillon’s thoughts even though those thoughts are almost always clearly apparent through Haun’s art. This sequence, showcasing the first battle between Dillon and the werewolf in the issue, is particularly egregious:
Just before this batch of panels, Haun provides a pretty clear depiction of the bullet hitting the werewolf in a non-lethal spot and the werewolf leaping away after. The first panel here is admittedly a little awkward, Dillon’s perspective is kind of off (is that a wall of asphalt in front of him?) but Haun’s close-up on the wound at the end reminds us that Dillon’s shot didn’t just miss a vital organ, the wound is already closing up despite the bullet being silver. Yet Bunn feels it’s necessary to verbally explain what we’ve already seen and remind us that Dillon’s shot didn’t do shit. When Bunn isn’t indulging in this obvious explanation of what Haun’s art makes explicit already, he’s providing dialogue that isn’t exactly exposition but is no less unnecessary, like a scene where Bunn decides to remind everyone that werewolves aren’t like regular wolves, they’re unnatural:
With an artist as gifted as Haun supporting him, I’m not sure why Bunn feels the need to provide this internal dialogue. I get that as a writer you want to leave your stamp on a work, but I mean, even the world’s best singers know when to shut up and let their backing band do their thing. I’m not picking on Bunn because I think he’s a bad writer, either; if anything, I think he’s a writer who is skilled enough that he can relax his scripts and let the art tell the story he’s crafted without interruption. But I do think it’s a disservice to Haun, since these dialogue boxes aren’t just clunky, they also have a habit of stealing the spotlight from artistic emphasis Haun has provided. In the example above, you’ll notice that the first dialogue box appears over the woman whose face has just been smashed into a window, which is that panel’s action moment. The second panel features a nice touch by Haun, where the cheerful burger boy mascot is grinning and licking his lips as the werewolf is preparing to run after some of these terrified meals on legs fleeing from him, but again the dialogue box is placed right above it. Those dialogue boxes might guide your eye to the general area where these beats are, but they force you to look at them first because that’s the way our brain works. Without the dialogue, your eye would naturally wander there, and drink it in.
Outside of that tic, there are some other troubling aspects of Wolf Moon, the worst of which is the way Bunn treats the female characters in the story. Or, more accurately, the lone notable female character, who at the moment mostly exists to fulfill the “nagging wife” trope. Bunn hints that Dillon’s partner Cayce has been traumatized by a werewolf too, and that that experience is what brought her and Dillon together (though whether they’re married, boyfriend and girlfriend or just casual is unclear at the moment). But Bunn exclusively utilizes Cayce to remind us that Dillon is as selfish as he is driven, that he recognizes his obsessive pursuit of the werewolf is going to wreck the relationship but he can’t stop himself. Of course, for all we know, Dillon will die next issue and Cayce will replace him as the protagonist, but the short thrift Dillon and Cayce’s relationship gets here makes it hard to care about what happens to their relationship or Cayce as a character. The shallow nature of that short scene featuring the couple makes it easy to suspect Bunn is going to continue to treat Cayce as a hollow motivational device, and if she ends up as a fridged character, a lot of the goodwill built by what this debut issue does right will be lost.
If I sound overly cynical, it’s because I was genuinely impressed with Bunn and Haun’s work here for the most part, and I’d like to see Wolf Moon continue to evolve the werewolf genre rather than indulge in more of the weaker elements of horror. That’s the thing with horror works that are bold enough to make significant changes to the mythology, they wake you up to some of the shallower elements of horror you would otherwise forgive, like bland, stock characters and predictable plotlines. As tough as I am on Bunn here, I’m thrilled that he has come up with a story that breathes new life into the werewolf genre and gives Haun so much to play with. If Wolf Moon can continue to build on the strong start Bunn and Haun have provided here, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a successor to Vertigo’s other New Horror hit American Vampire.
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