Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Ever since Naoto Okami's father abandoned he and his mother twelve years ago, all teenage Naoto has wanted to do is get even with him. To that end, he leaves his home in Hokkaido and goes to Tokyo to confront the man. Once there, he finds his dad at the Hirahara Boxing Gym and challenges him to a match. His dad is willing, but when the fight ultimately resolves nothing, the two vow to meet in the ring again – officially.
When we first meet Naoto Okami, he is slouched in a train seat, glaring at the world. His body language screams “angry young man” and when Shota, the boy through whose eyes we are introduced to our protagonist, asks him why he's going to Tokyo, Naoto's response is, “To kill a man.” This is hardly a promising start for a character we're going to follow for over 400 pages, and yet by the end, readers are cheering Naoto on. As far as ringing endorsements of an author's ability to develop a character go, this is a pretty good one. Even better is that Naoto's transformation from malcontent to up and coming athlete is so subtly done that you barely notice the switch. Nakamura works in small scenes of dog saving and calling home, quieter moments in the mad whirl of guys punching each other, that let us know that underneath the hard exterior, Naoto may just be a hurt kid.
With this pleasant subtlety, it seems a shame then that Nakamura included the character of Mayumi, or Yumi as she is more frequently known. The young manager of the Hirahara Gym, Yumi is the first to see that there may be motivation other than rage driving Naoto...and she keeps repeating it. Why does he save the dog? Obviously because he sees himself in the abandoned animal. Why is he so reliant on that one punch? Naturally because of something his father said before he left. Yumi frequently sounds like a pop psychology article in a parenting magazine, and her presence drags the story down by narrating what the reader should be coming to realize for himself. It doesn't help that Nakamura is not adept at drawing the female form – as the bustiest lady in the series, Yumi really just looks like a man with a couple of beanbags stuck under her shirt. High school girl Chisato, who cameos as the representative of Naoto's fangirls, doesn't fare much better in her depiction, coming off as aggressively stupid. Fortunately for the ladies, Nakamura does include one stronger woman – Naoto's mother. While it is easy to damn her for passively waiting for her husband to return, by the end of the volume, we can see a quiet strength in her that makes her arguably more powerful than either of her hard-hitting men. It isn't necessarily a strength that a western audience will immediately relate to, but it is fair to say that Mrs. Okami is in fact the heart of the story.
And Wolf does, for all of its boxing scenes of men pummeling each other, have a lot of heart. Naoto's determination to defeat his father becomes less about revenge as the book goes on, and even readers who aren't fans of boxing can appreciate his growing love of the sport. As his matches become more high stakes, the tension is palpable, and like all good sports stories, we can really get into rooting for the underdog. This is also a case where fight scene narration doesn't detract from the story, although for readers with more of a knowledge of the sport than this reviewer has, that may not be the case. Punches are named and explained by the match announcer and Naoto's coaches – a benefit of having a rookie boxer for a hero. Nakamura does a credible job of depicting movement, and while he doesn't show the brutality of the sport to the same degree as, for example, Baki the Grappler, he doesn't skimp on the bruises or flying spittle and mouth guards. One of his greatest strengths is the physiques of the fighters – the boxers are all leanly muscled and exude a wiry strength that serves to give them an air of tightly coiled power. At times the shirtless men can look a bit triangular with ludicrously little waists, but overall they work.
At $12.95 for the print edition or $4.99 for the digital, Wolf is a lot of book for your buck. Almost 450 pages, the volume contains the entire run as serialized in Gen's monthly magazine, plus a long bonus story taking place between the two final chapters that is only available here. The pages are very thin in the print edition, and the white paper shows some bleed through, although not enough to distract from the page you are reading. Nakamura's 1960s style art looks a bit nicer on paper than a screen, although what format you read this in will really come down to your personal preference. There are fewer type-os than in Gen's previous graphic novel release of VSAliens, and paper thickness aside, the spine is flexible and fairly crease-proof, making this a very nice book. But perhaps Wolf's greatest appeal should be in the fact that this is a sports manga in English, and not only that, but a good one. Even if boxing isn't your sport of choice, Wolf gives us a hero we can get behind in an interesting story with a mix of action an underlying emotions.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Subtle character development, good boxing scenes, and a story with a surprising amount of heart.
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