Zombies, mummies, vampires, werewolves; these terror-creatures of the horror canon have been with us now for generations, a constant presence in fiction of all forms. If like the moon their respective cultural dominance can be said to move in cycles, then now is surely the hour of the vampire, resurgent if neutered in Stephanie Meyer’s enduringly-successful Twilight franchise. By contrast, the werewolf is in those books and films relegated to a secondary role, believed by critics to serve a function based more around hunk appeal to tweenagers than as a furry icon of fear and rage.
There will always be creators and audiences of fiction who will attempt to return a character or an archetype to its dark roots after a softer, brighter interpretation has been popularised. Take James Bond, for example – those people who were turned off by the humour and gentle surrealism of the Roger Moore-starring films became magnetically attracted to the later, harder-edged incarnations of the character exemplified by Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig. Harbor Moon is a new, original graphic novel which can be interpreted as an effort to do for werewolves what License to Kill did for 007, and perhaps to tip the horror-cultural Zeitgeist back in favour of our furry fiends. Unfortunately, however intriguing and noble this intention, its accompanying efforts are severely let down by muddled storytelling and characterisation.
The story is set – in fine Stephen King tradition – in the closed rural atmosphere of a contemporary Maine. A warm welcome is nowhere to be found as our hero, war veteran Tim Vance, arrives in the titular town. He is seeking both answers and a man named Andrew O’Callaghan, but instead finds a community simmering over the flames of suspicion and xenophobia. Vance doggedly refuses to heed any advice that he should call off his search, and duly stumbles into the town’s dark secrets, leading him to find that he “may have more in common with [Harbor Moon’s] residents than he could ever imagine.” As such a synopsis snippet may imply, the book’s diversions from conventional werewolf lore and horror convention are fairly modest. This, in itself, is far from being problematic – it’s the way the story is told by which its creators have let themselves down.
Unfortunately, these narrative issues pervade all aspects of the book; both writing and art, as well as both the micro- and macro levels of the tale. The first several pages are genuinely incoherent, with the minimalist dialogue, total lack of boxes for exposition, and hugely erratic art by Pawel Sambor conspiring to deny the reader any chance to anchor themselves within the story until a fair portion of it has already elapsed. Things scarcely become any more intelligible when audience surrogate and hero Vance is introduced. Writer Ryan Colucci has explained that the central character was inspired by the “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of spaghetti Westerns, but in practice Vance is closer to a “man with no personality”, making do with a shallow veteran conceit where genuine depth could be.
Werewolves, surprisingly, take quite some time to appear explicitly, but happily their portrayal is one of Sambor’s artistic strengths. His beasts are voluminous and feral; wherever the darkness is, they seemingly are as well, vibrant eyes aglow in the gloom. It is a shame, then, that many of the action scenes featuring these creatures are too confusing to truly excite, their panels working more effectively as standalone pieces of art than as a genuine sequential narrative. The book’s final conflict, in which Harbor Moon plays host to a decisive clash between man and wolf, simply fails to have its desired impact because of this fundamental disjointedness between panel and panel, page and page.
Harbor Moon is not an abject failure. At times, it comes close to achieving the sense of small-town unease it aspires to, and it has its fair share of striking single panel splashes. But in the end its characters are too shallow, its plot too confused and scattershot to be the powerful love letter to the wolf it could have been. The sheer scale of the creative team – six people were involved, all told – and the relative inexperience of those creators with the sequential art medium are probably the root causes of these deficiencies. Most likely consigned to being a curio for the werewolf-obsessed, Harbor Moon does at least provide its creators with a stepping stone towards more accomplished and confident work.