Wolfpack – A Marvel Graphic Novel

By Larry Hama, Ron Wilson, Whilce Portacio, Kyle Baker & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-306-7

It’s been a long while since Marvel published an all-original graphic novel as opposed to a reprint collection, but not too long ago they were the market leader in the field with an entire range of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only proprietary characters but also licensed assets like Conan and even creator-owned properties.

They also took chances on unusual and cross-genre tales such as this little oddity which falls squarely into the category of a successful “bold departure” which subsequently spawned its own twelve issue series.

Wolfpack (not to be confused with the later maverick band of costumed heroes that appeared in the Marvel crossover event House of M) is an intriguing meld of savage inner-city reportage and high fantasy Ninja conspiracy thriller set in the utterly alien streets of the South Bronx. It takes a two thousand year old, multi-generational battle between ultimate Good and Evil and sets its latest skirmish in a terrifying ghetto where hope and honour refuse to die. It would make a great Teen TV show today…

‘Rafael’ is a loner in trouble. The corridors of Horace Harding High School are every bit as dangerous as the mean streets outside, but the cocky young outsider has a secret. He’s been training with the school caretaker…

What Rafael Vega doesn’t know is that Mr. Mack is a man with a past and a plan. As a black sailor in post-war Japan he experienced intolerance and repression from his own (white) shipmates, but found acceptance from certain Japanese ancients who saw in him a chance to continue a battle that had already spanned two millennia.

The ancients trained him in all their fighting arts, requiring him to form a new “Pack” and confront an everlasting circle of wealth, power and wicked excess called “The Nine”: an ever-changing cycle of decadents who represented the forces of Evil in some indefinable Cosmic Balance.

Mack returned to New York and began his task, knowing this opposing force would find him wherever he went. Ghastly and blighted as it was, the South Bronx would have been far worse if not for the decades-long, beneficent watch of a silent guardian – but that‘s all about to change…

Unknown to even his pupils, Mr. Mack had been clandestinely training kids in various fighting and philosophical arts for years, so when up-and-coming schoolboy gangster Lamarr targeted Raphael for death, Mack realised that it was time at last to introduce his young wolves to each other.

Now in ‘The Crucible’ Rafael discovers that some of his oldest associates were also singled out for a higher purpose by Mack and as he reassesses his new pack-mates, “Slag” Slagley, “Slippery Sam” Weltschmerz, wheelchair-bound “Wheels” Wolinski and even his own girlfriend Sharon, events turn ugly with startling rapidity. The new warriors organise none too soon as Lamarr graduates to attempted murder by destroying the store owned by Slippery Sam’s dad.

The Nine now make their move, recruiting Lamarr to their inner circle, but the wicked, Old-World Machiavellians have no idea how modern inner-city depravation can shape the nature of evil. As the death-toll mounts and the Pack strike back, events speed to a violent conclusion in ‘Transfiguration’ and The Nine realise that they might have made a terrible mistake with Lamarr…

Harsh and uncompromising, this introductory tale (I can’t shake the feeling this was originally scheduled as a three-part story-arc and “bumped” into a more high-profile graphic novel at the last moment) effortlessly compels with a dark mix of telling social drama, dark wit and superlative action-adventure that is far more hard-hitting than most comicbook tales even today.

The workmanlike Ron Wilson is probably nobody’s favourite artist, but he is a solid dependable illustrator with a good line in brooding brutes and inner city landscapes. Here, inked and augmented by such diverse budding stylists as Whilce Portacio and Kyle Baker his art takes on a moody realism that complements both the harsh environs of the plot and mystical martial arts elements with striking effect. The letters are provided by Joe Rosen and the somewhat hit-or miss colouring is by Petra Scotese, Max Scheele and Glynis Oliver.

Ugly, uncompromising, breathtakingly hard, this is the kind of book to show anybody who thinks that comics are all about men-in-tights and written for powerless sissy-boys…
© 1987 Marvel Entertainment Group. All Rights Reserved.