Wild! Or So I Was Born to Be, Vol. 1. By Cristian Castelo. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1637150931, 2022. US$29.99. 208 pages, oversized softcover.
Wild is a delightful yet frustrating comic. Delightful because artist Cristian Castelo cartoons the hell out of it, with an energetic, superflat, ultrabright style. The pages sing. The story's 1970s roller derby milieu and fearsome all-girl cast (reminding me a bit of Jaime Hernandez's wonderful luchadores) grant him license to do colorful, braggadocious roller rink action and cartoon violence. It's a gas, full of fierce posing, trash talk, and big, mythic characters. The sizzling red/orange/gold palette, outsized format, and inventive layouts practically gave me a contact high!
So, yeah, I enjoy rereading and poring over this comic.
OTOH, Wild is confusing as hell. Beyond protagonist Wild Rodriguez and a couple of hard-bitten, superheroic roller divas, the cast is indistinct. Supporting characters blur into each other, and everybody lurches off-model. In fact, some characters don't seem to have a consistent model (in one scene, a very minor bit player ends up looking like four different people). The settings lack a 3D sense of habitable space, and action does not flow logically from panel to panel. Locales are gestural at best, and the high-throttle action scenes don't actually communicate anything about roller derby as a game. There is snarling and there is hitting, but what else is the sport about? The plot lunges here, then there; eccentric narrative doglegs turn out to be crucial (the accumulated effects of serialization are all too easy to see). Cross-cutting between different locales and different bouts makes the book's home stretch dizzying, and not in a good way.
Castelo's elastic cartooning works somewhat against narrative coherence. His style has shifted a lot since this project began. In 2019, I bought one of the riso-printed, handbound collections of the unfinished Wild (then a work in progress) at comicartsla.com, and I can see remnants of that draft here, in panels that are not quite as crisp as the rest of the book. The newer style is razor-sharp and fairly staggering. At times, Castelo seems to have worked over (and around) the older stuff, punching it up, adding new connections, rethinking and complicating the story — but the end results don't add up narratively. Problems in simple legibility are made the worse by Castelo's expressionistic, ever-shifting use of his limited color palette; the characters' costumes are not taggable by color, because a yellow outfit in one panel becomes a red outfit in another. That may sound like a petty complaint, but it becomes a problem due to the sheer density of the pages, indistinctness of minor characters, and ill-advised cross-cutting between scenes. The book is just plain hard to follow.
But man, what cool things are hiding in here: Wild Rodriguez's mixed family and ambivalent ethnic identity; the roller divas' complicated, nuanced backstories; the way the major characters bear the weight of cultural politics; the sheer unabashed ass-kicking comic fury of the story. One aspect that makes the reading even harder — the difficulty of parsing "dream" from "reality" — strongly appealed to me. So did the overwhelming style. I'm glad to see such a vaulting, ambitious, and, yes, wild comic touted as a YA book.
Castelo may yet deliver a great all-around comic. I bet he will. In any case, I'll happily queue up for the next volume of Wild. My complaints notwithstanding, Volume One is a gorgeous, headstrong, gutsy experiment. I think it fails narratively, but it fails in such a way that I long to see what Castelo does next.