Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Wolf #1 from Image Comics promises a city full of monsters and the pulpy swagger of crime noir.
The creative team, consisting of writer Ales Kot, artist Matt Taylor, and colorist Lee Loughridge, deliver on that promise with bravado. Theirs is an otherworldly Los Angeles drenched in myth, magic, and film noir allusions, as rich as its sun-bleached hills and the murky darkness that swallows them at night. Leaning on the familiar tropes of Raymond Chandler’s crime novels, hardboiled paranormal detective Antoine Wolfe has a headful of nightmares and a death wish, moving comfortably from one recognizable tableau to the next. He walks mean city streets populated by conmen and creatures, racists and hired goons as he reluctantly takes on the case of orphaned teenager Anita Christ, who may just prove to be a major player in the impending apocalypse. Just as Antoine burns above the dirty city below, so too will the world in this genre-bending noir mystery.
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But noir is a funny thing. Popularized by film noir of the 1940s, noir fiction is both everywhere and nowhere. Whether we recognize it or not, pop culture is littered with the remnants, remixes, and love letters to this seemingly ever-present genre. We see its influences today in comics with Hit: 1957 and The Fade Out, on TV with shows like True Detective, and in cinema with movies such as Brick and Drive. The grim themes, settings, and characters capture what we think of as the essence of noir, but as film historian Mark Bould notes, noir is “an elusive phenomenon, always just out of reach.”
Film noir itself adapted the hardboiled crime novels of authors like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler for the screen, tapping into the unique visual language of German Expressionist cinematography. This genre of film, while known for its bleak plots, unflappable detectives, and sensuous femme fatales, was initially a direct response to the American social and emotional difficulties of The Great Depression and World War II. Returning soldiers found themselves funneled back into impoverished rural areas or overcrowded cities with the rest of their anxious countrymen. PTSD, alcoholism, and unemployment were common problems for veterans transitioning back into an unsure workforce. This was further complicated as many of the women who began working during the war were reluctant to return to more traditional roles, creating tensions between what was considered accepted male and female norms.
This paranoid archetype of the tragic and haunted detective became the stock protagonist of the genre, juxtaposed with the sly cunning and sexual agency of the femme fatale. Death awaited the brooding detective in every dark alley or bourbon-soaked bar, contemporary suffering manifested in the cruelness and perversity of mob bosses, crooked cops, and pornographers. The sexual politics and existential crises of this distinctively American social turmoil made for films that were sparse, fearful, and often bleak.
Cheap budgets and hasty shooting schedules demanded clever framing and pacing tricks of film noir directors. Long dialogue-heavy scenes were compressed into single, carefully constructed takes that moved swiftly through rooms, down dark hallways, and along empty roads. High contrast, chiaroscuro lighting boldly defined scenes in black and white, good and evil, classifying characters and relationships in iconic and sensible ways for the sake of narrative brevity. Violence was ubiquitous but the Hays Code prohibited it from being shown, forcing acts of brutality to happen just outside the frame, where its affects could be heard and felt but never seen. This made the viewer complicit in the execution of violence, imagining acts in all the lurid details censorship of the day prevented. Noir is indeed inherently dark, but it stems from a very vulnerable place in American history, serving as a means of facing the emotional demons of its viewers.
This is where Wolf #1 fits into the history of noir. Whereas many contemporary stories emphasize the austere monochromic style, pithy dialogue, and masculine swagger of classic film noir, Wolf captures its sad, fragmented soul. It isn’t cool, it isn’t slick, and it certainly isn’t attractive. The world of Wolf can be a cruel and ugly place, full of monsters and killers; Antoine Wolfe understands this, and he wields this knowledge like a blunt instrument.
Antoine Wolfe is a war veteran, a haunted kind of every-man with a hollow face and a biting tongue. Antoine is traumatized and angry but still good on the inside, where the nightmares haven’t yet turned him cold. The dog tags around his neck pointedly remind the reader of Antoine’s past even when his face is obscured by shadow, crystallizing his identity and role in the story. He is every inch the troubled veteran reentering society as a detective, a trope of a bygone era now fully embraced for contemporary audiences. His own post-war anxieties reflect modern American psychology, complete with its racial tensions and economic uncertainty. Stoic and often in the center of the composition, Antoine’s bulky frame and broad face takes up space, demanding attention. However, his frequent silence distances him from the people and objects in the panel, cutting his masculine silhouette with a sense of sadness and fragility. As much as his strange abilities connect him to the world, he remains doggedly separate from it. While Antoine is the big and archetypically male hero of the story, his visible reluctance deflects genre expectation much as possible, embracing, lavishing, and ultimately subverting this trope.
Wolf #1’s particular apocalyptic version of Los Angeles is a glittering city on the horizon in the books’ opening pages, before slowly unfolding into an unsettling, emotionally numb place. The supernatural creatures that populate the city harken back to the slimy criminal element of classic noir with a more modern twist. In a world with broader, stranger fears to shoulder than in the 1940s, the inclusion of monsters as a metaphor for the evils of modern living is both apt and amusing. Just as mobsters and femme fatales represented the scary and unknown for previous generations, Wolf allows us to dive into myth and contextualize our fears through this lens. Vampires, immortals, and Lovecraftian inventions run amok in Antoine’s world so that he can put them into their proper places, allaying our fears.
Kot’s scripting embraces noir sensibility, with its clipped rhythm and memorable idioms, but keeps conversations largely relaxed, natural, and contemporary. Taylor’s vacant street sequences and flat, minimalist interior spaces compress Antoine’s surroundings into a progression of surreal environments from which he is emotionally detached. The placement of characters in relation to each other throughout the narrative strongly utilizes classic film noir pacing, combining characters and perspectives into a fluid and dynamic exchange. Objects fall away and the focus reframes Antoine in broad fields of unsaturated color or murky shadow; this distorts space and heightens tension through a mounting sense of claustrophobia. Dramatic perspective and the slanted shadows of venetian blinds further ensnare Antoine in this paranoid world. Even acts of violence are treated with Hays Code-era cognizance, alluding to or turning away from bloodshed in favor of exploring its aftermath. This self-censorship leaves the brutality for the readers to imagine and reconcile for themselves, forcing us to actively take part in violence rather than passively observing it on the page.
Loughridge’s meticulous use of color encodes a very specific atmosphere into every sequence, from cool blues to anxious greens, somber purples to explosive reds. The dramatic interplay between Taylor’s heavy use of shadow and Loughridge’s intuitive colors frame scenes in strict binaries of good and evil, known and unknown. Shadow often engulfs Antoine; instead Taylor’s compositions and Loughridge’s vivid lighting effects focus on the characters that pose the most threat to Antoine, emphasizing the knowing danger he’s in at every turn. Antoine is trapped, fixed in the nebulous space between myth and reality, and he knows he can’t do anything about it. As readers, we too are trapped, just waiting for the city to burn as the narrative drives methodically to its final, full-page illustration of Anita looking up at Antoine for help. In this way, Wolf even offers its own spin on the dangerous female stereotype, but one stripped of her usual venom in exchange for youth, innocence, and a devastating fate.
Antoine Wolfe isn’t the noir detective we’re used to seeing, but he draws on a long forgotten, often remixed archetype. To be fair, Wolf #1 isn’t particularly original. On the surface, it’s yet another remix of noir aesthetics and storytelling tropes. But this creative team knows their stuff, and works together beautifully. Kot, Taylor, and Loughridge supplement gritty realism with mythic unreality, the Chandler-esque flippancy with poignant relevance, to update the book’s framework with respect and care. The end result is a polished, mature, and incredibly crafted piece of neo-noir that pays loving homage to its classic roots.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed