Comic book author, novelist and screenwriter Steve Niles is one of the driving forces behind horror’s renewed popularity in the comic book industry. His hugely influential 30 DAYS OF NIGHT miniseries, painted by talented Australian artist Ben Templesmith, spawned a slew of sequels and a hit movie (itself a franchise), and led to a series of high-profile horror gigs, many of which have been adapted to the big screen (DARK DAYS, REMAINS, the forthcoming WAKE THE DEAD). When Atlas Comics, which enjoyed a brief heyday in the mid-1970’s publishing the likes of IRONJAW and PLANET OF VAMPIRES, announced it was staging a comeback, Niles, a childhood Atlas fan, was tapped to helm their flagship title, WULF. Containing elements of fantasy, crime and horror, and featuring several Atlas favourites, the inaugural six issue run has just concluded.
Wulf is a noble barbarian living in the ruins of a dying world. When his arch-enemy, the dark mage Sanjon, makes a deal with demonic forces to escape to another world, Wulf attempts to follow. Sanjon finds himself in New York City, where the creatures to whom he sold his soul inform him he must take a life for every day he wants to live. When Wulf tries to access the portal through which his nemesis escaped he fails, and ends up dragging NYPD Detective Sam Lomax back into his doomed dimension...
Despite being a hybrid, as much fantasy as horror, WULF is pure Steve Niles. It’s fast-paced and action-oriented, with outlandish characters and lashings of excessive violence. It’s also distinctly superficial, lacking anything but surface gloss. Some writers are effortlessly able to imbue depth of context and characterisation, even in comic books (Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Scott Snyder, John Wagner, the list goes on), but Niles isn’t one of them. Thankfully, that’s not an issue here, as the material doesn’t exactly lend itself to in-depth character studies or big-brained existential musings. What it does lend itself to is strapping great barbarians beating seven shades of shit out of each another and various Lovecraftian fiends from the bowels of hell. It’s not exactly highbrow, but it is entertaining, and Niles even manages to include a welcome seam of fish-out-of-water humour as the Conan-esque Wulf, with all his exaggerated fantasy trappings, is introduced to the prosaic world of contemporary New York. Thankfully, no punches are pulled, and the barbarian is allowed free reign to toss cars like they’re children’s toys, and tear antagonistic drug dealers (and pretty much anyone else he encounters) limb from limb. I can’t comment on how these most recent iterations of the Atlas characters (including Lockjaw, another noble savage, this time sporting an alarmingly impractical metal jaw, and NYPD Detective Lomax) stack up against their classic counterparts, as I’ve never been exposed to them, but as far as the limited characterisation extends, they’re presented as sympathetic and recognisable tropes.
The art, by previous Niles collaborator Nat Jones, is standout. The prolific artist, who often works in the horror genre, has a characteristically scratchy, pulpy style that’s perfectly suited to both the grungy fantasy of Wulf’s home world and the seedy New York underbelly. He’s a master at conveying motion – his kinetic, frenetic panels leap off the page – and he clearly relishes the more gruesome aspects of the story, revelling in the vivid bloodletting. As such, WULF demonstrates that curiously schizophrenic prudishness that’s so common these days across the comic book industry and beyond. There’s no nudity and the few examples of profanity are censored, but the violence is of the most extreme and graphic variety.
When they’re done well, horror and fantasy are natural bedfellows (a few years ago a rumour circulated that Rob Zombie was being considered to helm the then-pending CONAN reboot. It turned out not to be true, but for a time it was a tantalising prospect. CONAN’s lurid pulp aesthetic filtered through Zombie’s ultraviolent grindhouse lens would have been something to behold. Especially when you consider the tepid, tedious bilge director Marcus Nispel ended up churning out). That’s the case here, and the introduction of the crime element (which essentially boils down to Detective Lomax) is also an acceptable fit. Niles’ writing is crisp and quick, propelling the story at breakneck pace, and Jones’ atmospheric, gory art is easy its equal. Wulf as a character is somewhat insipid (good guys often are), but there are enough scenery-spitting demonic bad guys, and tentacle-hacking, blood-spewing brawls, to distract us from the main character’s essential blandness. It’s far from cerebral, and represents a relatively fast read, but WULF is an engaging, entertaining slice of satanic/barbaric hokum.