Wolfskin is a Role-Playing Game
by Travis Hedge Coke
Wolfskin, the comic, its sequels, its world is a weird beast weirding. A slew of sword and sorcery tropes, barbarian swordsman tics, and high fantasy guts, but the thing with those guts is that, ever since Robert E Howard died, they have had to be gilded or crystal to be acceptable. A shiny magic Europe cut off from the rest of existence, where true princes are real and one ring to rule them all.
The first comic begins with a white foreigner come to town, but immediately it is acknowledged that nonwhite foreigners came before him. This is still, non-bathing and green of the valley, crystal guts Europe. But, crystal guts Europe is just a place in a world of places. Not themed lands, like science fiction land and Roman gladiator land, which highlight the realness and sacred proof for crystal guts, but Earth, neighboring nations have a history as old as anything, next town over, bad and good side of town, is this coin good around here Earth.
The town our hero enters, and the cities he later visits, like all towns, all nations and tribes are curated beasts. Any town is a painted and repainted picture.
Did you expect a comic about a big man in an un-scraped hide, living on jerky and deep woods philosophy to be about the nature of cities and city-states? Barons and serfs? Fathers and mothers? Sexism, mysticism, and the good drugs? Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp dig deep in the skin for this one. It is a comic of sweat, politics, whole lives. A world-building experiment that remembers worlds have histories, worlds have cultures and conflicts, mountains, woods, and people. Individual people. Individual trees in every wood.
Wolfskin comes in like a thirteen year old’s fantasy and gets adult, and crassly adult, real quick. A funny animal with bones of thatched roofs and eyes and mouth made from articulated cultures. There are lions and liars and the big man from abroad who is not exactly Beowulf. There are child soldiers, grieving wives, tired old landlords, anxious soldiers, and everyone is hungry, everyone has aches or urges, and when people get paid right or stabbed up, they tend to stop their moving around so much, even if only for the time being.
Our hero, also called, Wolfskin, though it is a kind of title more than a personal name, and in a way an epithet, racial and derogatory as well as objectively descriptive, takes baths. He shaves his pubic hair. He makes jerky. He’s a man of the world in a world that does not much think of itself as a world. Cosmopolitan barbarian. Which, “barbarians” often are, let’s not pretend. The grunts and lusts conqueror from afar may have a little truth in it, but it is greatly a political creation to disguise the smart fucker from over there who can take your stuff.
It is incredible, to me, how the drug trip takes us strongly into another feel, more than almost any high fantasy magic scene in comics, thrusting our hero and us, too, from the warm valley and the immediacy of bleeding out, to the cold forever of a godly place, big and cold and white and ever.
Gianluca Pagliarani, Mike Wolfer, Juanmar, Jacen Burrows all enhance and develop further what Ellis and Ryp set down. The world gets bigger, the world gets tighter as it wraps around our man, our big man from afar.
Wolfskin has much more of the anxiety of Robert Howard’s Conan stories than any Conan adaptation, since, by that name. Conan, in his creator’s tales, was increasingly philosophical, ideologically driven, and bugfuck insane. Conan was throttled by gods for trying to rape a goddess while bored on a mountainside because his allies ditched him there for being an irrationally impulsive and needy weirdo. When he rejoins them, minorly humbled, their response to basically, “oh god why?” and they tramp off with him because he wants to be with them and who will refuse to his face?
Our hero, Wolfskin, who is Beowulf, is though, a wolf. Not a classic magic werewolf, but the historical antecedent transferred to a less real realm. The get high in a wolfskin and get blood all over wolf-man. He is the scary Conan of the mind and typewriter of a ripped, self-educated Texan bored in a bigoted town.
Robert Howard committed suicide, possibly from being too much in his own head and not enough looking around. But, he also had lightning reflexes and grit like you would not believe, and he saved lives and made very direct political stands, including shitting on a racist kingmaker or two in his professional field. Howard was racist and anti-racist, sexist and anti-sexist by turns and all at once.
Our aristocrats are not literal dragons, our ugly lords are not real leeches, but they live on blood, they hoard. They can be stabbed just right in the belly if you’re good. They can be the head of a river of blood. They can be a good start.
Wolfskin never stops being political, and it is unkindly political. We, distanced from the mud and hovel or the walled little empires of pretense, as these are couched in this semi-fantastic Earth, are lauded by our distinction from them, and we are indicted in our inaction, our own small, meager, or grandiose tolerations. I mean, it begins with world-building its ecology of animals and plants. It ends its last day with, “Fuck god,” and dead towns.
We may have the benefit of not looking, but so do many of ours.