Review: Wolf (SelfMadeHero)

Wolf is our first time reading the work of the incredible Rachael Ball, who is best known for creating The Inflatable Woman. Despite the overtly lupin name, it is actually a nostalgic look back at a childhood summer from a non-specific time in the 1970s and mixes what feels like very personal reflection on grief and loss with the tale of a bunch of kids creating a go kart and hiding from a creepy neighbour.

Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Writer: Rachael Ball
Artist: Rachael Ball
Price: £15.99 from SelfMadeHero

Wolf starts as a sweet story about a father and son’s adventure in the woods (where they find a wolf and also count the rings on a giant tree trunk), but it soon takes a turn for the darker when the father manages to lose his keys, just a bit too far out of reach on a tall building. It’s a moment that has far reaching consequences to all the characters, as son Hugo and his brother and sister struggle to come to terms with the loss and the move to a new houses a result – but it also has an element of farce and surrealism which keeps you off guard even at this early stage.

These opening scenes with the father feel almost like prologue (albeit an integral one), as the main portion of the story see Hugo’s family arrive in a new house packed full of angst at the loss of their dad. As they move in, the kid next door, Icky, tells them the story of the creepy neighbour (aka The Wolf Man), who has become something of an urban legend in their street. He also encourages them to watch HG Well’s The Time Machine which leads Hugo and his brother to build their own in go kart form.

Set in a vintage 1970s, that again feels very personal, Wolf reads like a period piece and is almost told through the rose tinted lenses of a lost childhood summer. The kids play outside without parental control and are left to build go karts and take them out without the constant presence of a neurotic guardian. However there is that element of threat, with the enigmatic ‘Wolf Man’ being the kind of urban legend that children create because they are incapable (or too self absorbed) to deal with the more complex issues of the world. Certainly when Hugo has a run in with The Wolf Man he learns that he is much more than the boogie man he was led to believe.

As well as the period setting, Ball’s incredible artwork also gives the book a timeless quality. Drawn in pencils it feels very reminiscent of Posy Simmonds or Raymond Briggs, and the working class setting and informal panel designs certainly continues comparisons to the latter. Her artwork is just wondrous throughout, and whether it is the woodland scenes at the beginning, the children’s back garden or the loving recreation of The Time Machine it is done with this really accomplished style which mixes expressive faces and characters with masterful levels of detail and accuracy. Her shading gives everything phenomenal depth of tone, and you soon forget that it is told entirely in greyscale – but which in hindsight aids the vintage tone. While her characterisation is almost cartoonish in places (especially the Dad who looks like he has stepped out of Nick Prolix’s Sheep And The Wolves), while the Wolf Man, his mother and the wolf in the opening pages have this dark and foreboding quality to them which are almost sinister and like something from a 70s horror movie.

If, like us, then this is your first time reading Rachael’s work then Wolf is definitely not going to be the last Rachael Ball book you read. Wolf is a truly wonderful book that mixes childhood nostalgia and beautiful artwork in equal measure. The story telling is subtle and un-flashy, but packed with pathos and real emotions. While the story switches from childhood adventure to kitchen sink drama and almost into horror at times, it never loses sight of where it is coming from, and always has this emotional depth that underpins it, and the relationships between the characters and their world feel very real. This is masterful work from Ball and feels like the kind of high class, timeless graphic novel which people should be reading for many years to come.