Sunday, 9 November 2014

Review - Empire of the Wolf (Graphic Novel)

Written by Michael Kogge
Art by Dan Parsons, David Rabbitte and Marshall Dillon
Published by Alterna Comics

‘During the Roman conquest of Britain, a werewolf’s bite re-ignites the legendary feud between the wolf-brothers Romulus and Remus. This curse of the full moon pits two centurions against each other in an epic battle of werewolves, placing not only the life of the woman they both love in mortal peril, but also the fate of Roman Empire itself. Empire of the Wolf is the saga that reveals the myth behind the history of ancient Rome.’

This is possibly one of the best things you could ever put in front of me – I have a very healthy interest in Roman history and I have an even healthier interest in the supernatural and the folklore that comes with it, so to drop a graphic novel on my desk that involves the Roman Empire and werewolves is going to not only grab my attention, it’s going to make me drop everything I’m doing and dive in head-first.

Empire of the Wolf is a graphic novel that collects Michael Kogge’s four-issue run of the same name. We like Michael Kogge – he gave us lots of Star Wars Insider stuff and, more importantly to me, he also gave us some Star Wars roleplaying game goodness, from the West End Games days right up to the present incarnation. In fact, his association with Star Wars is lengthy and varied, so it was interesting to see what he was going to throw at us with this new creation.

Now, I’m not fussed about the direction supernatural lore takes as I see every interpretation of it in books, movies and TV shows as a different take on a similar theme. I also don’t take umbrage with small changes to Roman history as long as it’s telling a compelling story – I love the movie ‘Gladiator’ even though it’s about as historically inaccurate as you can get - so stepping into this graphic novel was both exciting and intriguing. What would Kogge do with both these angles?

What he does is weave a story about two centurions in Britannia in the middle of the first century AD, Canisius Sarcipio, an ex-gladiator who won his freedom, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the nephew of the Emperor Claudius. They are fighting against a tribe who defy them and put up a bloody fight but it is their leader, Caradog, wielder of the Moonblade, who is their greatest threat and not only does this man pull them into the dark magics of his kind, he bestows on them a legacy that they will take to Rome, and perhaps beyond. It doesn’t help that they are both after the attentions of a woman back in the Eternal City, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta. Although the men have fought hard together and consider themselves brothers in arms, there is already a division between them that indicates that there is trouble to come.

Kogge’s writing is detailed and captures a great sense of the time period. There’s a gravitas to it that lends little to no time to merriment so you’re continually plunged into a dark, brooding tale of mystery and despair, with powerful stabs of violence and intrigue. It’s a good read and there’s plenty of text to sink your teeth into. The story is complex so Kogge uses a narrative style, with boxouts for description and information that‘s written in a flowing dramatic style. It’s necessary as it helps to set scenes and draw you into the world he has created. The dialogue is good but sometimes feels a little flowery, like an attempt to recreate dialogue from classic Roman epic movies, but that actually works in the story’s favour, in some respects, as it’s how we as the audience have come to expect these people to speak thanks to those every same films. It’s a great story, nonetheless, and it’s holds the attention all the way through and doesn’t really give you any reason to put it down for long periods of time.

I can’t say that the Roman setting is completely accurate; an image of what appears to be the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Coliseum) on one page is telling as the structure wasn’t built until after this story’s time. This isn’t an issue, to be fair, and if I were reading a novel that had stated ‘This is what happened in the Empire!’ then it would have grated, but we’re talking about a story involving werewolves and ancient magic, here, so it hardly matters. Nitpicking over things like this, things that do not directly affect the story as a whole, is pretty futile and it really is that; nitpicking.

The art is by Dan Parsons (books 1 and 2) and David Rabbitte (books 3 and 4) and, while it did throw me a little bit as the artwork changes mid-story, it’s of a high standard and really well lettered and coloured. It captures the feel of the period well and certainly sets the atmosphere for the story. It’s dynamic when it needs to be and delightfully gory when necessary. There are times when dimensions get a little skewed or the proportions of a body may seem more than a little out, but both artists do a great job of depicting the action. There’s very little to criticise with the artwork although I did notice that while the Roman costumes are very well done and look the part, some of the people of Britannia were dressed a little too ‘high-fantasy’ for my liking, with sexy slits down the dress for the leg to appear or what appeared to be a 60s go-go skirt, but in tartan. The scenes in Britannia are set in the cold of winter, but it seems to be fine for the ladies to be wandering around with very little on. It’s a design choice and I can respect that, and I suppose that helps illustrate the divide between the reality of the Empire and the perceived fantasy of the northern borders. Regardless of that, the artwork is really very well done.

Empire of the Wolf takes the classic werewolf story, the history and birth of Rome and the grandeur of a Roman Epic and creates a well-realised and entertaining story that fans of both the period and the supernatural will enjoy. I’m a lover of both and I enjoyed the book, so I have no problems recommending this.

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