(Michael Kogge/Dan Parsons/David Rabbitte/Chris Summers/Marshall Dillon/Doug Beekman; 125 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2014)
EMPIRE OF THE WOLF is a four issue limited series – collected here in one place – that explores historical aspects of the Roman empire, melding realities with the mythological story of Romulus and Remus, which, naturally, leads to the introduction of another European legend into the mix – the werewolf. Overall, the story is well constructed, though I did find it a bit confusing differentiating between the characters. I found myself re-reading pages and going back farther into the story to catch up on who was doing what and where they were doing it (and to whom); that problem, I feel, has more to do with the artists’ designs and execution than a jumbled script. If you’ve been around for as long as I have, then you probably remember Barry (Windsor) Smith’s early work on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN and some other Marvel books, as well as Mike Grell’s earliest efforts at DC with THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, GREEN ARROW and, of course, THE WARLORD; while I have come to appreciate the art and storytelling prowess of both of these gentlemen, those early works featured rather stiff figures, with odd angles and extended torsos and faces. Dan Parsons, who pencilled the first two issues, has those same tendencies; David Rabbitte, penciller on the final two issues, suffers the same malady, though to a lesser extent (maybe that similarity is an attempt to retain continuity throughout the series). The colorists (Rabbitte on the first and fourth issues, Chris Summers on the middle two) worked directly over the pencil art, giving the pages a cool painted look, which smooths out some of the problems already alluded to. Don’t get me wrong… while the artwork may be an acquired taste (at least, for me), it is in no way inferior. In fact, both artists prove they are not without talent, as there are several absolutely brilliantly illustrated pages in each of the four issues (plus, Parsons handled the original cover art, which is certainly of a high standard). Also, special mention must be made of the other member of the original artistic team, letterer Marshall Dillon, who was handpicked by Kogge to give the pages the look and feel of those early ’70s Marvel books by such greats as John Costanza and Sam Rosen. His work does, indeed, add a special touch to the book.
The first issue (or Book I, to be more accurate) is sub-titled “The Savage North” and introduces the two protagonists, centurions of the Second Augustan Legion, Canisius Sarcipio, a former slave, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, nephew to the emperor, who are leading their forces through Britannia, convinced that the only way to civilize the Celts is to conquer them; failing to civilize the Celts, nothing less than their utter destruction will do. As their general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, joins them, it would seem that their decision has been made for them: Genral Vespasianus has discovered the eviscerated body of a fellow soldier, the work of a Druid sect under the leadership of a giant named Caradog. As the general and centurions lead their armies, intent on destroying everything in their path, they encounter Caradog, a killing machine who quickly dispatches over a hundred Roman soldiers as well as Vespasianus, all in the name of his ancestor, Remus. As the general lies dying of his wounds, he gives his command to Canisius; Lucius and Canisius pursue Caradog, eventually catching up to… something that definitely isn’t human. At home, in Rome, Canisius’ beloved, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta, is troubled by dreams and visions of death and defeat. Her visions prove to be right; as Lucius is bitten by the monstrous Caradog, Canisius forces the fight, allowing his friend to escape back to the Roman encampments. Meanwhile, Lavinia, cursing Vesta, vows that if Canisius does not return, Rome will burn. There’s a lot of groundwork to digest in “The Savage North,” and much that needs to be explained. The story is off to an action-packed start but, for it to be told properly, it cannot maintain this break-neck level.
However, with Book II, “The Mark of the Beast,” even though the action doesn’t slow appreciably, the story does advance nicely… so, what do I know, huh? Canisius’ battle with the beastial Caradog leaves them dead or dying – the former from a vicious bite from the latter; Caradog from his own weapon, a mystical sword called “Moonblade.” By now, we all know what’s happening here, right? Caradog and his followers are werewolves, a fact that can only mean… Canisius isn’t dead, just weak from loss of blood, with the added bonus of the lupine infection passed on from his foe’s bite. In the meantime, Lucius (who is also infected) claims sole command of all Roman forces in Brittania, seeking the glory that will make it possible for him to ask for the hand of the lovely Lavinia; he didn’t necessarily seek the death of his friend but, he certainly intends to take advantage of it. Canisius awakens, naked and freezing, as a Druid sorceress named Ambrosia appears. Ambrosia, knowing the warrior’s fate, has purposed to bring out the beast in Canisius, thinking that he may be the chosen one, who will lead the Celts to ultimate victory. Upon Lucius’ homecoming, he is – naturally – rebuffed by Lavinia. There’s a nice bit of Royal Court intrigue, as the “conquering hero” is feted by his uncle, the emperor, and his ambitious mother. I guess if you wanna call the last few pages of this chapter a “surprise ending,” that works as well as any. Differentiating between the two primary characters is a lot easier in this issue, mainly because they’re never together. Again, the writing is crisp; the artwork features flashes of brilliance but, still, the characters occasionally suffer from a… uh… stiffness, I suppose, is the best word. Parsons’ action scenes seem to be more fluid here than in Book I, so that’s a definite plus.
An origin story of sorts opens Book III, subtitled “The Blood of Remus.” The legend of Romulus and Remus, sons of the Roman god of war, Mars, born of a virgin, unfolds in the first six pages of the chapter, offering insight into the main tale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF. Mythology buffs will remember that the twins were raised by wolves and, eventually, Romulus’ lust for power led to the death of Remus at his brother’s hand. David Rabbitte’s art and Chris Summer’s use of subdued earth-tones to color these pages are the best of the series so far; the opening splash page alone is a thing of compositional beauty, boding well for the rest of this book, as well as the final chapter of the series. As the Druid Ambrosia relates to Canisius the legendary tale, he begins to understand and accept what has happened; his memory also returns and he is determined to return to Rome and Lavinia. Upon entering a Roman outpost, he is met by an old friend who is surprised to see him; it seems that Lucius has declared him dead and has become the cruel emperor Nero. Now, Canisius has another reason to return home: To liberate Rome and his beloved and to seek revenge on his traitorous friend. As his plans now seems to dovetail with that of the Druids, a plan is formulated and the group boards a Roman galleon returning to Rome. While on board, a Roman officer attacks Ambrosia, triggering the lupine change in Canisius. Meanwhile, back in Rome, the desire of two great leaders, Lavinia, witnesses a brutal attack by the beastial Lucius, sending her fleeing from the city. From that point, things get a bit muddled, with shipwrecks, vengeance-seeking corpses and some very confusing scenes taking place in a cave; originally, Canisius appears to be under the thrall of a sibyl who has taken the form of Lavinia but, suddenly, the scene shifts to another cave where Lavinia is hiding from the wrathful Lucius, who has managed to hunt her down. As long as you pay close attention to the captions, you’re gonna know what’s going on but, now that both Lucius and Canisius are basically in the same situation, the identity problem has, again, reared its utterly confused head. Our heroes simply look too much alike for a casual reader to browse over this part and not come away scratching their head. The pencil art throughout the cave scenes would have benefited from some inks, as the shading leaves the faces looking a bit muddy; other than that minor complaint, the artwork is, overall, a vast improvement over the first two installments. With a little more exposition mixed in with the action, Book III has set up what should be an exciting and eventful finale.
Book IV is “Empire of the Wolf,” an epic culmination of Michael Kogge’s two decade journey to tell this story. It begins with Canisius’ journey through Hades, searching for the soul of Ambrosia; the Druid, however, did not perish in the shipwreck and she – and several surviving members of the sect – are saved and brought to Rome… entertainment for the emperor. Lucius, allying himself with Lavinia’s father, has taken her as his reluctant empress and, as the brutal Nero, sends Ambrosia and her companions to certain doom, facing a menagerie of wild beasts in the gladiatorial ring. When Canisius appears from the depths of Hades, the two old friends battle for supremacy, with a fight that rages throughout the city. With Rabbitte now coloring his own pencil work, the art takes on a more atmospheric tone, especially the scenes at the River Styx and in Hades and the fight scenes. I’m really not the type of person who enjoys delivering spoilers, so… I’ll just tell you that, in this version, the historical burning of Rome definitely does not happen while Nero fiddles. The finale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF also features reversals of fortunes, acts of revenge, scenes of comeuppance, historical references that give the story a vibrant ring of truth and a very satisfying ending. I don’t know if Kogge has any plans for a sequel, but if he does… sign me up. By the way, how about that brand new, awe-inducing Doug Beekman painting that appears on the cover of this collection? I would stack that up against any (non-Frazetta) cover to ever grace an issue of CREEPY or EERIE.