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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Erik Evensen and the Curious Case of the Slaughtering Sasqui: A Review of _The Beast of Wolfe's Bay_

Erik Evensen’s latest graphic novel, The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay, is part rural legend/supernatural adventure story, part romance, part parody of academic life. Brian Wegman, struggling doctoral candidate in Anthropology, is called upon to help small town cops in rustic Wolfe’s Bay solve a murder mystery, despite many considering him unqualified for the job. Along the way, he reunites with childhood acquaintance Freddie Roth, an attractive comparative literature professor as comfortable talking about folklore as she is making pop culture references. The two become fast foils, then friends, then more than friends as they fight Wegman’s severe career fatigue, a jealous investigator, an army of wendigos and their unhinged human leader, Dr. Greta Wendel.

References to the epic Beowulf are interlaced throughout the story; for example, Dr. Wendel’s character is a Grendel analogue. “Hwait!” begins the tale. Wolfe’s Bay is in Heorot County. In the closing notes, Evensen, a Xeric Award winner for his graphic novel Gods of Asgard, suggests that the book was planned as a more direct retelling but ended up as a sort of half-baked Beowulf, and while it is true that the text runs less than a hundred pages and is not an exact adaptation of the epic set to contemporary times, it doesn’t have to be for uninformed readers to enjoy it on the surface as a fun, thrilling narrative or for the more literary-inclined to appreciate the numerous interspersed allusions.

                                     The first page and invocation for The Beast of Wolfe's Bay

Indeed, high school teachers could use the text to help explore differences between adaptations and stories that are “inspired by” other texts. Intertextuality is comprised of ranges, after all. Readers in college – especially those in graduate school – and more than a few doctorates should get a kick out of seeing professors and university cultures take a few pokes and jabs. Unless they’re sensitive like Dr. Wendel, in which case I’d advise them to take field work in a remote location and never return to “normal” life, as does she.

Quirky, quixotic, and upbeat, The Beast of Wolfe’s Bay asks readers to balance between anticipating new love and anticipating criminal resolution, between jokey asides and literary subtexts. Often the plot-driving presence of hulking, killing sasqui is just a strange after note. Embedded within is a subtle critique of the problems associated with high cultures vs. low cultures arguments and their inherent notions of “worth,” and Evensen seems to suggest that no matter what one values and thinks is “real” or important, time, literatures, and life choices always push against the boundaries of normalcy – and accepting that might be the key to ending one’s quest happily.

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