Vertical had a busy release schedule this year - it genuinely took effort to not review everything they put out for this month, because it's all so different and interesting. Well, I must start somewhere and I might as well begin with a medieval action piece.
WOLFSMUND (Ookami no Kuchi: Wolfsmund), by Mitsuhisa Kuji. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.
Deep in the Alps, in what is now Switzerland, the Hapsburgs rule the land with an iron fist. The main way between the Holy Roman Empire and Italy, the Sankt Gotthard Pass, is ruled just as strictly by the bailiff Wolfram, known locally as the 'Wolf's Maw' or Wolfsmund. He is a man renowned for his ability to see through any disguise and to outwit any plot. He is also renowned for his cruelty, as those who try to defy him are punished severely and displayed publicly.
Pockets of rebels, aided by a beautiful innkeeper who resides near the pass, do their best to defy Wolfram. Some do this through deceit, others through battle, and some even try to bypass him by travelling through the cold, treacherous peaks. Unfortunately for them, the Wolf's Maw is as clever as he is bloodthirsty, and will stop at nothing to preserve what he calls 'peace.'
Wolfsmund is an odd sort of historical drama. It's not bad per se, and I admire its use of very real (if rather obscure) history, but it's often one hell of a downer.
The chapters are very similar in structure. There is one person (be it Lisellotte the aristrocrat's daughter, Johanna the warrior, or no less than William Tell himself) who wants to get through the pass. They in turn must face Wolfram, whose smile never seems to waver in the face of their resistance, and who notes each of his victims at the end of the days as plainly as a grocery list. The only other element tying the chapters together is the unnamed innkeeper, who uses her proximity to the pass, her good looks and willingness to put out, and her connection to rebel forces to get information and to aid others as much as possible.
As such, we don't get a lot of character development for anyone. Our protagonist are over and done in a single chapter. The innkeeper has more screentime and the most complex motivations, but doesn't even get a name. Even Wolfram is a mystery, betraying nothing in his speech and expression about himself. The only hint we get about his are complaints from others that his superiors disapprove of his bloody methods. Wolfram's abilities verge on magical, to the point where he can overtake rebels in the mountains in spite of blinding snow, rugged terrain, and thin air. While such acts do add to his mystique, they also sometimes make him come off like a supervillian. The protagonists themselves range from figures from history (like Tell) or fictional but feasible (like Lisellotte). The most outrageous is Johanna the assassin. Sure, she's a brilliant, crafty, and powerful fighter, but she's rather anachronistic considering women of the late Middle Ages were still viewed as weaker, delicate, and overall lesser beings. She seems like she stepped out of an Assassin's Creed game, and were it not for the fact that she too falls before Wolfram she would be just as unrealistic as a video game character.
There's a certain thrill to each chapter, as a plot is formed and the tension builds with each new step and new gambit. By the end, though, it all becomes a bit monotonous and depressing, as each one seems to end in failure. Worse still, the lack of development for the cast makes it hard to root for either the rebels or Wolfram. Instead, you can only stand back and marvel at the events unfolding upon the page - just don't get too attached.
Kuji has worked in the past as an assistant for both Kentarou Miura (of Berserk fame) as well as Kaoru Mori, and clearly some of their flair for medieval grunge and historical detail rubbed off on his own work. Sadly, that doesn't carry over to the character designs, which are a bit too generic, cartoonish, and even cute for such a grim setting. Expressions are a little stiff and broad, although that may be influence by the fact that much time is spent gasping and grimacing. There are also some odd bits of fanservice, like the innkeeper's lowcut and rather modern neckline, or the fact that Kuji liked showing off that Johanna wasn't wearing underpants during her fight. Sure, it's historically accurate, but it doesn't add anything to the story at large.
Aside from strange moments like that, the wardrobes and setting are accurate to time and setting, although neither are intricately detailed by any means. The action scenes are solidly drawn, with a great sense of fluidity in the images. There's a dynamic quality to the poses and angles, and prudently uses short bursts of short speed lines. Panels are tightly focused, sometimes claustrophobically so. They also tend to be small, save for some one-page spreads to convey the vast scale of the mountains and the pass tower looming tall over the pass.
Kuji might have a great background pedigree, but he's still got a ways to go as an artist. He's good with action and scale, but his characters are a bit too cute for the setting.
Nothing to see here.
This series is published by Vertical. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 4 volumes available so far. 2 volumes have been published, and both are currently in print.
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