Wolf Boy portrays children on the threshold of that crossing over into the far less interesting concerns of adolescence, capturing the last golden summer of weird, perfect youth. The circumstances into which he places his characters, however, are neither perfect nor golden.
Perhaps a person is never so much themselves as in the years before puberty. Shaped by nature and nurture, we develop the strange sets of childhood habits and traits that forge our personalities. And then we spend our teen years smothering anything about ourselves that made us unique.
Evan Kuhlman's Wolf Boy portrays children on the threshold of that crossing over into the far less interesting concerns of adolescence, capturing the last golden summer of weird, perfect youth. The circumstances into which he places his characters, however, are neither perfect nor golden.
On a seemingly ordinary January morning in 1993, the Harrelson family sends its eldest and most beloved son, Francis, off to a mycology conference, and their lives change forever. On the way, Francis and his fiancée, Jasmine, hit a patch of ice and skid into oncoming traffic. Jasmine is driving; Francis is killed.
The Harrelson's are devastated, though each responds differently to Francis's death. Gene and Helen Harrelson's satisfactory, though loveless, marriage crumbles as Gene retreats from his family and locks himself in his furniture store, pretending to be swamped in work. Helen is left alone to deal with her grief, feeling that she gave up her life to become a wife and mother, and failed at both. Crispy, the youngest child, fantasizes about escaping her sad, weird family once and for all, and running off with Marky Mark.
However, the book centers around Stephen Harrelson, the overlooked middle child. Stephen throws his sadness and anger into the pages of a comic book called Wolf Boy that he writes with his girlfriend, Nicole. The comic mirrors Stephen's life very closely, and is about a superhero family that fights crime together until Wolf Brother dies, Wolf Daddy loses his powers, and Wolf Mom is revealed to be an android who packs up and moves to the Where Dreams Come To Die Trailer Park.
Wolf Brother dies in the second issue, and when Nicole complains that it's too early to kill off a major character, Stephen responds, "That's my point. He just started out. That's why it's so tragic."
Drawn by Brendan and Brian Fraim in a charming, campy style, reminiscent of both Archie and Silver Age Marvel comics, these comic book interludes are perhaps the most satisfying part of Wolf Boy. However, it is the sweet, tender relationship between Stephen and Nicole that makes up the emotional core of the book. Although their friendship is characterized by an understanding and respect that seems impossible for adolescents, Kuhlman balances this unusual maturity with just the right touch of playfulness and spontaneity. Whether they're breaking into the local newspaper offices to retrieve Francis's obituary photo, or collecting artifacts for Nicole's side project, The Museum of Fucked-Up Things, Kuhlman's portrayal taps into a side of childhood that is ruled by imagination, whimsy, and somehow, a deathly seriousness.
Because they are so young, there's also a sadness to Stephen and Nicole's story that Kuhlman hints at. Despite the traumatic events that permeate their lives, the two children are happy together. Together, and separately, they fantasize about their lives together and plan for the future. Yet the reader knows how unlikely it is that Stephen and Nicole will weather high school, and emerge with their relationship and their beautifully screwed-up selves intact. In a perfect world, their kind of happiness should be able to last, but most likely, it won't.
Wolf Boy is a small story about ordinary lives that feels much bigger. This is due in part to its epic superhero story; however, it also has a great deal to do with the way that Kuhlman takes the universal experience of a death in the family and makes it intensely personal. Helen rankles when a counselor tells her about the five stages in grief, offended that her response to Francis's death could be so predictable. Yet, as events play out in the book, Helen's actions become anything but predictable. By teasing out the mundane details of the Harrelson family's everyday life, Kuhlman draws attention to what makes all loss the same, and all loss different.