Hardcore comic book readers may think they’ve read it all, but books like Wolfpack come along that totally take you off guard. Why it’s being collected is beyond me (maybe for licensing reasons?), but it’s an interesting slice of comic book history from the late ’80s. It’s like the famous 1979 film The Warriors mixed with strong social messaging. And, in a lot of ways, it foreshadows the indie boom of creative stories that are grounded and a little bit different.
So what’s it about?
The official summary reads:
They are Bronx teenagers chosen for their extraordinary abilities, trained in hand-to-hand combat by the mysterious Mr. Mack until their strength and courage are forged as hard as steel. They are…the Wolfpack! According to legend, they’re part of a millennia-old order that serves as righteous balance to the villainous Nine – a group completely devoid of compassion, mercy or charity. And together the ‘Pack will fight to save their home from anything the Nine can throw at them. They are martial artist Rafael Vega, bruiser “Slag” Slagley, ninja-skilled Slippery Sam, speedy Sharon and master-planner “Wheels” Wolinski -heroes for the mean streets of the 1980s! But with guns blazing and swords clashing, will all of them survive all-out war for the South Bronx?
Why does this matter?
This book collects the original graphic novel and also the twelve issue run on the series. For an industry where “complete” may not actually mean everything, this book actually has it all. It’s a story younger readers can relate to and inner-city kids might just love.
Fine, you have my attention. What’s good about it?
This is a story that’s tied to the inner city in a very real way. Larry Hama created these characters with social commentary in mind. We’re talking prostitutes on the street giving our high schoolers lip, drug dealers ruining neighborhoods, and drunk drivers mowing down little kids. It’s serious stuff and it’s all being witnessed and processed by the youthful main characters. All of these characters are hardened in some way by the run down nature of New York City, but within each one is a calling to do great things. A calling that is literally tied to an ancient group who fights against a merciless group called The Nine. In a lot of ways, these characters are heroic because of their empathy and good nature, not just because they can scale a building and kick a ninja’s butt.
One of the characters named Samuel is an interesting one. He always has a smirk on his face, is very good at fighting, and wears the fact that he’s Jewish on his sleeve. He pops in and out of the story and has a Daredevil vibe that’s quite cool. With him are other characters of admirable strength, and they’ve all got a level of resolve that’s impressive. This is a story about strong youthful characters doing what they can to change the world. The second half of this book is much more of a straight action story, but it never loses its street smart charm.
Ron Wilson draws the original graphic novel which is heavy on close-ups and moody, dark lighting. The kids have a natural look that’s believable even if one of them has his jacket open like he belongs in Street Fighter. The visual storytelling is quite adept and keeping things moving along and keeping the action interesting. Take for instance a sequence where the characters are scaling a building. You get the sense that they are in danger while also following the fact that a ninja attempts to pull them down. Later, when that ninja gets thrown from the building the blocking of the sequence is quite brutal. This book doesn’t hold any punches and feels quite gritty.
It can’t be perfect can it?
It’s quite admirable there is a wheelchair clad kid (named Wheels) in the bunch since it shows kids even if you’re handicapped you can be a hero too, but for the most part, his contributions are rather silly or require a bad guy to literally walk near him so he can karate chop him. I don’t think he’s supposed to be comedy relief, but he comes off as such and that’s unfortunate. The last issue in this collection gives him a closer focus which is good (and his family life is interesting), but I couldn’t shake how he seemed lesser tier in his place on the team.
Another element that doesn’t quite work is the tears that pop up from time to time. The Samuel character has tears streaming from time to time and it never seems genuine. It reminded me of those old commercials with the Native American. Again, it comes off as somewhat comical and ridiculous.
Is it good?
I haven’t read too many street gang sort of comics, but if I were to guess this might be one of the best ever. It’s definitely an obscure series and one that can be melodramatic and over the top, but I could easily see a teenager loving this. It gives younger people a pack of city kids who have a strong sense of making the planet better even though their world is broken around them.