I adore the concept of found family. Found family is, without a doubt, one of my favorite narrative tropes. The concept of people from different walks of life coming together and forming a connection so deep that they think of each other as siblings, cousins, or paternal figures is such a heartwarming lens through which to tell a story. Artie and the Wolf Moon takes that trope and expands it in a fresh way that couldn’t have come at a better time.
Story and Characters
In the debut graphic novel written by Olivia Stephens (The Final Girls, Wild is the Wind), Artie and the Wolf Moon focuses on Artemis “Artie,” Irvin, a precocious Black girl in eighth grade who has a passion for photography. She lives with her mother Loretta, a single mom who works as a park ranger for the trails by their house in the Pacific Northwest. One night, while Artie is photographing the full moon with her late father’s camera, she encounters a massive wolf, gets spooked, and runs back home, only to discover that the wolf that spooked her was her own mother, shifting before her very eyes. Through her mother, Artie learns that she is also a werewolf – albeit a late bloomer – which send the two off to Willow Ridge, an old town where every resident is a werewolf. While there, Artie tries to get the hang of her werewolf powers, meets more of her extended chosen family, learns the town’s history, and slowly discovers more information about her late father. If that wasn’t enough, she also deals with bullies, a deadly supernatural threat, and works through her crush on the daughter of an old family friend, Maya.
Artie is a real delight through the whole book — she’s independent, inquisitive, and incredibly witty. She is always eager to learn things, whether it’s how to use her wolf powers, where her family came from, or how to take better pictures. I really enjoyed seeing an excited Black girl as the protagonist, one who is bright eyed and determined to do well at something. I also appreciated that she expressed every emotion; Artie had moments of immense joy, seething anger, crushing sadness, and bashfulness whenever she saw her crush. I am not surprised Artie got to be a fully realized human…well…fully realized half-human half-werewolf, as this is an Own Voices work, but it is always nice to read a story with Black characters that are not always smiling from ear to ear in support of another – often white – protagonist.
Loretta is warm and supportive of her daughter from page 1, and it’s clear through every decision she makes through the book that she wants what’s best for her. There is a particularly touching scene towards the end of the book where she defends Artie in front of the administrators of her school that hasn’t left my head since I first read it. Loretta is allowed some complexity as well, through really lovely flashbacks of her and her late husband, you see every event that led up to the choices she made and, while I don’t have a daughter who is half-werewolf, I would have made the same decisions she did. It was also refreshing to see a parent actually listen to her child and apologize for things as opposed to one that was strictly an authority figure and nothing else.
The members of the Willow Ridge town are a joy to watch, too. From the get-go, they are fiercely protective and loving of Artie, taking them under their many wings to help her hone her wolf powers and not feel so alone. I was a bit worried that there would be some kind of initiation or gatekeeping, that she had to “prove” she was good enough as a werewolf to earn their affection and care. Nope! This is a really wonderful way to show a “pack” of werewolves in fiction, not one based on competition or getting a leg up on someone else, but from a place of “we all have something in common and we all have to look out for each other. It’s what we do; it’s what we’ve always done.”
While I enjoyed learning about these characters, there are a whole lot of them, and I would have really appreciated a character breakdown page of some sort, either at the beginning or the end, just so I would have been able to keep track of them all easier. Perhaps this was just a “me” problem, but I would have had a slightly easier time following if I had that resource. It didn’t detract from my ability to read this book, however.
Art and Visuals
Stephens also did the illustration for this book and the art style is stunning. The linework is dynamic, the faces are expressive, and the colors are sumptuous. While the art is stellar through and through, Stephens excels when it comes to illustrating atmosphere; she uses rich, blazing hot reds for scenes that take place in the school’s darkroom that provide a vague, yet threatening, claustrophobic feel, and warm, comforting purples and oranges for a sweet scene between Artie and her crush Maya. The illustrations of nature are also gorgeous, full of rich and crisp greens so vivid I can almost smell the woods.
The way lighting is done is also excellent; there is a big festival scene toward the beginning of the book that uses warm oranges against muted blues to show the food vendors and houses against the nighttime. The effect makes the scene look like something out of old photos or in flashback, giving a sense of nostalgia, like the community has been holding festivals like this for hundreds of years. It took my breath away.
The “horror” scenes are where the atmosphere is the illustration truly shines. Where the colors are bright and saturated throughout the majority of the book, the scenes of peril and horror take a dramatically different direction; the lines are harsh and grisly, and the colors are muted blues, grays, and blacks to the point where its reminiscent of an old, black-and-white horror movie. Those scenes are also littered with onomatopoeias of cars revving, glass breaking, and creatures howling, which add to the suspense each and every time.
The cast is predominately Black, and it was really affirming to see so many different hairstyles and skin tones on the pages. Artie sported puffs while Loretta had long, thick dread locks; others had looser curls while some had slick ponytails. There was even a sew-in! And of course wide noses and full lips are throughout the whole book. A lovely touch was seeing the characters in satin bonnets and du-rags at night, because those are staples for a Black person’s bedtime routine. Photography is used as a narrative device throughout the book, each chapter introduced with a picture that hints at what will happen in it. The photographs are grainy and black and white, which gives them an air of being old but well-loved and well taken care of.
Artie and the Wolf Moon is, first and foremost, about family, both biological and chosen. Artie is trying to uncover information about her late biological father while also getting closer to her found family. While Artie is the protagonist and the story focuses on her, I was quite touched to see that Loretta was shown to have the closest relationship with the folks of Willow Ridge — it showed me that everyone has and is benefitting from a chosen family. It was very pleasant to read a story of found family that formed its ties not from rejection, but out of pure, unconditional love and the desire to protect one another.
In a beautifully illustrated sequence, we find out that this portion of the population can turn into wolves because a mother escaping slavery with her children encountered a mother wolf who, after feeling the maternal connection, taught her and her children how to transform and the werewolves have looked out for each other ever since, like it was the instinctual thing to do. Seeing what the family turned into and how it expanded was truly heartwarming, especially because I saw things from that family that I have with mine; we’ve had karaoke parties and dances at the cookout and taken a picture at the end. I even have that bougie relative we hardly see cause they’re off in the big city!
On a personal note, I was glad to read a book centered around Black people and Blackness that did not sink too deeply into doom and gloom and trauma. This is a story set in the modern era and no one’s life is threatened by the police or other form of systemic racism. Yes, there is pain, there is heartache, and there is grief, but those are just everyday emotions here; they are not a result or side effect of being Black in America. Though the origins of the werewolves stemmed from an escaped slave, the book focuses on the freedom and agency of the mother and her kids — not once is the violence she was dealt depicted, because it doesn’t have to be. That’s not what this book is about. It is not about the strife, it is about the triumph and love, about the strength and support that comes from being around people who love and care about you.
This book was a treasure to read, and I cannot wait to see what Stephens does next.
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