Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Wolf 8, originally released June 8th, 2016.
Man is a symbol-making and -using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.
Drew: I distinctly remember asking my high-school English teacher if she really thought writers consciously employ symbolism. In 1963, Bruce MacAllister had a similar question, but rather than pose it to his teacher, he sent a survey to 150 of the most famous living writers asking them about their use of symbolism. I’m less enamored with the emphasis on authorial intent, but I’m absolutely in love with the audaciousness of that move. Or, rather, I’m in love with the fact that so many writers responded — including Ralph Ellison, whose own use of symbolism so frustrated me when I was in high school. Ellison’s comments stood out to me particularly for the allowance he makes for the symbols to take primacy over other elements, turning a literary device into the very point of the work in question. In short, turning prose into poetry. Ales Kot often attains a similar poetic quality, weaving symbols deep into the fabric of his comics. Wolf 8 finds both new and old symbols once again taking the center stage.
It’s jailbreak time! Only, you know, not so fast. Anita et al aren’t exactly prepared for a siege — let alone a knock-down, drag-out with a bunch of un-men-inspired abominations. They manage to hold their own for a little while, but not before the purpose of Antoine’s imprisonment is ultimately revealed: the resurrection of Sterling Gibson.
That’s a twist I did not see coming, not because resurrection is an unlikely event in this series, but because Kot seemed to have moved on from the racial commentary of the first arc to focus on issues of rape and consent — both of those summaries are steamrolling the bulk of the themes of this series, which are also in flux, but they’re undoubtedly key elements in Antoine’s narrative.
I’m struggling to form a coherent read of this sequence. Antoine’s speech is powerful, and seems to have an impact on his tormentor — note those tears in that final panel — but it doesn’t change anything. Perhaps that’s a commentary on the irreversible nature of rape, but I find myself struck at what it might mean for her allegiances going forward. If she’s truly remorseful, maybe she’ll do something to help Antoine and his friends?
Maybe I’m just thrown off at the final reveal of Sterling Gibson. It makes plenty of thematic sense that Antoine’s struggles against racism would prove as unkillable as he is, and that I wouldn’t see it coming. Racism, as it turns out, can rear its head at any time, even long after it seems to have gone away permanently. I should have known that Kot wouldn’t simply discard a theme that has cropped up so often in his recent work, but it still caught me off guard.
But, as I suggested earlier, this issue is about a lot more than Antoine. Anita’s makeshift family with Freddy and Isobel has played out largely under my radar, but I was actually touched when Anita referred to Freddy as “dad” and both Freddy and Isobel call Anita “daughter” during the fight. These emotions bubbling to the surface in stressful times feels appropriate, and lends valuable context to the moments in previous issues where Freddy and Isobel take on more traditional parenting roles.
There’s one other symbol that I’m not sure what to make of: Renfield’s name.
Having never read Dracula, I didn’t even know Renfield was a reference, which seems to be what this sequence is addressing. Duane isn’t just hanging a lantern on some foreshadowing, he’s making it explicit that it is foreshadowing for those of us who haven’t picked up on it. Message received: we need to consider his true purpose. Of course, I don’t know any more than that — if there’s an obvious conclusion to be drawn from this foreshadowing, it’s utterly lost on me.
Did you have any better luck with that, Patrick? Also, was that twist as effective for you? I think there’s a lot to unpack in the notion that Wolfe (and his suffering) is somehow what brought Gibson back from the dead, but I’m not sure I can articulate it any more precisely than that. What are your thoughts?
Patrick: I think my thoughts are similarly scattered. But I’d be disappointed if I could string anything much more coherent together than that — Kot’s narrative skips so freely back and forth between Antoine and his rescuers that I believe disorientation is the name of the game here. The only thing that we can reliably anchor our read by are the recognizability of those various symbols you mentioned above. I love that there are two strong (and particularly American) themes wrestling for control of this issue — both rape and racism are impossibly intimidating topics, and it only makes sense that they’d both be drowning in a sea of other meaningful signifiers.
I’m also sorta fascinated by Kot, artist Ricardo Lopez Ortiz and letterer Clayton Cowles choices for those symbols. Drew, you mentioned “Renfield” was not necessarily a reference that you were going to get without having your attention drawn to it. I’ll confess the only reason I got it was because I played a lot of Castlevania games when I was a kid. But I think it’s meaningful how spectacular that reference is. Not only is it too bold and weird not to be noticed, it’s not even really a classical reference. On the first page of the issue, Isobel drops a reference to MacBeth, albeit in her adorable accent: “sometheeng weeked thees wey comes.” I have to stop and read all of her dialogue a second time (accents are hard for me on the page!), but I think this one is supposed to sound wrong. It’s too stuffy, too formal of a reference. “Renfield” is a much more on-point reference for this series to make — it’s a genre book, written within the last century-and-a-half and feels pointedly more modern than fucking Shakespeare.
I don’t know who to credit this next symbol too, but here’s an even more modern one:
There might an extra letter in that sound effect, and Anita might be jumping away and not teleporting, but the similarity to Nightcrawler’s “BAMF” is sort of unavoidable. We may as well stay on Freddy as long as we have him in these panels. I’ve always love his Lovecraftian be-tentacled face, partially because it wears its influences right out in the open while still being something very much of Kot’s own creation.
Once our heroes enter, they’re treated to… well, I’m not quite sure how to describe it.
I’d describe the aesthetic of the inside of this thing as a cross between David Cronenberg and H.R. Giger, though I could just as easily settle for Isobel’s “gross.” This too is another symbol of modern storytelling, especially within the relatively new genre of body horror.
So what’s that all add up to? Comic books plus Lovecraft plus Dracula plus Cronenberg? And why have these symbols be in play while the intractable, horrible themes Drew identified above stomp around the page? I see it as Kot insisting on a new way of thinking about complex emotional concepts like racism and rape. He is part of a new generation of artist, so he needs to participate in a new generation of art to actively engage ideas and concepts that were insufficiently tackled by the classics — even Shakespeare.
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