Switzerland is a curious place. Land of banks and Toblerone, content to laze in the hills nonchalantly twiddling stems of edelweiss while history just rolls on by. Orson Welles in The Third Man infamously dismissed the country with Harry Lime's ironic insight, "Italy had thirty years under the Borgias and produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. Switzerland had five hundred years of peace and democracy and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!"
Harry Lime might have embellished the truth a little there, but he was right enough in saying that Switzerland has not fought against a foreign enemy since 1516. Both Kaiser and Fuhrer were left well alone and during the Napoleonic Wars the Swiss were largely spectators as French and Austrians wheeled around their fields. For five hundred years then Switzerland has been a peaceful land... but before that? Well, they brawled with the best of 'em! It's that history of medieval might which this manga is seeking to manipulate. Has it inspired a stirring legendary romance, or inflicted a sad lame ramble?
In the 14th century AD, the mountainous cantons of what would one day be Switzerland have become wealthy by controlling the trails through which trade must pass across the Alps, the formidable mountains that split Europe in two. However, that very wealth has caught the eye of Europe's greater powers who desire such riches for themselves. Knowing this, the cantons banded together into a momentous Eternal Alliance to protect each other from rapacious outsiders, but this alliance was unable to prevail against the unstoppable juggernaut of the mighty Hapsburgs, who have conquered the cantons. The Swiss are bluff and hardy folk though, and the soldiers of the Eternal Alliance are continuing to secretly fight the brutal and oppressive Habsburg domination over their homelands. In a cruel irony though, the mountain routes that were once the cantons' fortune are now their cage - the only way to move funds and weapons to and from their allies in Italy is through the St. Gotthard Pass... now gated by a formidable Habsburg castle. The bailiff of the castle is Wolfram, a man whose young fresh face and gentle smile mask a carnivore's savage teeth - with his piercing and seemingly preternatural ability to see the miniscule tells of sedition and treason, many rebels trying to cross the St. Gotthard Pass have been revealed to Wolfram's gaze... their rotting corpses now bat in the breeze from the gallows outside the gate like some grotesque charm. Given how many of the Eternal Alliance have vanished down its throat behind its sharp portcullis, Wolfram's bleak castle has come to be known as the Wolf's Maw - Wolfsmund.
Grete, the landlady of the inn outside the castle - also a secret waystation for the Eternal Alliance's underground railroad - lives a dangerous life in Wolfsmund's very shadow, but her spirit is undaunted. The mountains outlasted Rome, and they'll outlast the Habsburgs too - the fury of the oppressed Swiss is mounting like a windblown slope loaded with snow, and when the stresses have grown too great a rebel yell will set off the avalanche that shall sweep the Habsburg empire and Wolfsmund away... but with Wolfram padding around seeking new prey, will she and her compatriots live to see it?
Wolfsmund began in 2009 as the first serial manga from a female mangaka using the male pen-name Mitsuhisa Kuji. Although Wolfsmund is her first major work, Kuji is not by any means an untried novice, with an anthology of short manga Luminous & Brightness (not yet released in the UK) and previous credits working as an assistant on both Kentaro Miura's Berserk and Kaoru Mori's Emma, giving her an ideal experience of drama & romance on the one hand and detail & rigour on the other, an encouraging sign that the reader does not need to indulge still-learning amateurishness of the sort seen in manga like the early volumes of Attack on Titan... and it gives us something to do while we wait for Miura to stop playing iDOLM@STER for long enough to write a new Berserk chapter, anyway!
This manga is not an especially historical drama - although it is set in the past and has a sense of authenticity in the armour and equipment used (one good touch is showing the often-overlooked technique of knights holding swords by the blade with chainmail gloves and using the pommels as clubs) events themselves do not follow the course of what we know. The St. Gotthard Pass exists in real life (with a fair resemblance between aerial photos and the maps shown in the manga) and it was indeed coveted by Habsburg Austria leading to the Battle of Morgarten in 1315; but the pass was the site of a hospice for the sick and destitute rather than a brutal garrison, and the Swiss of the time had actually already been given letters patent granting them local independence for decades beforehand. Still, as the first historian Herodotus himself says, never let the truth get in the way of a good story! Kuji has pushed the truth aside, but can she now step forward past it and deliver the story?
Kuji certainly approaches her art with a lot more confidence than many other first-published mangaka. The architecture is quite bland - the Wolf's Maw itself does not appear too imposing - but it is set into an impressive situation. Kuji depicts the mountains with a striking blend of etching and hatching that can suggest entire ranges rising from the mist with just a few strokes, becoming denser when you're taken into the precipitous heights of the jagged and barren peaks - it might lack classical drawn detail (and it does look odd in panels where a mountain path is a diagonal line which juts horizontal for a moment) but it is a distinctively economical and effective way of evoking environment's in the mind's eye; when Jewel is talking to the friar, a shadowy evening room that's half-lit by the fireplace can be realised with a single line. It's also used to great effect in the mountaineering scenes where a thickening line as the perspective changes reveals the crucial finger-holds the carry them up the dizzying perspective. Scrapes and rough swipes of charcoal become scudding clouds and sheeting winds, used to remarkable and dramatic effect when the heroes take to snowy caps above the Wolf's Maw, where flurries have stinging sharp edges and you can well imagine strong gusts swatting you off like the sweep of a sword, fog blowing out like explosions - realising the power of Wolfram in an affecting and theatrical way as he emerges out of the core of these windy blasts, a straight pole against the buffeting blows.
The sharp lines also help a lot to distinguish the gaunt and runtish features of the character Hans in the second volume, although for the most part the men are either rugged and square-jawed, classically manly, or smooth and narrow-chinned, an effete effect - Wolfram's hair even changes colour from black to white after chapter one and his liege the Duke of Austria is literally a long-haired bishounen (this isn't necessarily a criticism, it does give the Duke a sense of cold, icy grace befitting his station ). Females, raven-haired Grete especially, tend to wear long but silky and slinky dresses that flatter the contours of their figures. It may be a little too clean for the setting - a disguised daughter still looks quite comely even with horse manure rubbed into her face. Kuji's characters are quite expressive beneath that - Wolfram's thin, creeping and condescending grins are practically a trope of course but other characters run a broad range from indulgent sighs to smug grins, gasps of realisation to glares of rage - and there is an interesting and novel way of depicting blood-splatter as little dark holly-thorns stippling the panel.
Blood marks an appropriate point to turn to Wolfsmund's content and story. The promotional material for Wolfsmund is very keen to associate the manga with Game of Thrones, and it's a reasonable comparison. Not so much for the political intrigue - the plot is ultimately a straightforward rebels-against-the-evil-empire affair - but even without magic Wolfsmund is cut from the same cloth of downbeat bloody medieval 'low' fantasy. There is a great deal of uncompromising brutality in this manga - not just in hard-hitting action scenes but in frequent bouts of sex and murder. Beheadings, lashings, drownings, the tearing of tunics, dismembered bodies on display with the crows picking at their slumping opened guts - it doesn't leave much to the imagination. A man gets a masturbation scene with droplets of fluid that could be sweat or something else because his frigid wife won't put out; a rebel escapes captivity by imploring a guard to 'scratch her back' while her pubic hair needles at the hem of her shift. In the manga's most extreme scene, while Wolfram's soldiers are searching for contraband a naked girl of ten is tied down, spread-eagled and has her vagina probed with tongs - this is shown fully-frontal with screams and weeping, the only concession to propriety being that the girl's genitals are whited-out. It's certainly gritty, no doubt about that... and when a character looks horrified at seeing someone being hanged, you're not sure whether he's moved with compassion or just frustrated at having missed out on a good lay.
Now, it must be emphasised that this sort of material does not dominate every page of each volume, so it's not gruellingly unremitting - and the odd smiles of tenderness are all the more melancholy for being so fleeting - but each chapter in one way or another is edged with a stand-out scene of sex, violence, or sexual violence. I love a good chunk of blood'n'guts, and we do need to make the stakes clear in the desperation of the Swiss rebels' plight, but titles of this sort have to take care when colouring their forbidding cloaks of drama that they don't lay it on too thick with smears of lurid adolescent shoe-polish darkness. As much as Wolfsmund's extreme scenes come across as little more than torture-porn, I'm willing to say that they stay on the right side of the line and that they're not so overwhelming as to over-exaggerate establishing horror and threat into indulgent gratuitousness.
What helps keep the manga tasteful is its strong sense of setting. Central to Wolfsmund is a strong focus on the Wolf's Maw castle and the St. Gotthard Pass itself - even in scenes away from the mountains, all paths eventually lead to Wolfsmund. The pass becomes a playing board between Wolfram and Grete as their pieces try to manoeuvre past each other, an arena in which we do not merely read but resonantly spectate at the ringside. From a meandering list of disconnected episodes, the appearance of the legendary Swiss hero William Tell (of the apple on the head fame) with his confidently insouciant slouch in a chair suddenly gives the story a potent jolt and a real backbone with scale and place. In the first volume each chapter ends with a list of the executions held at the castle that day, like reading the football results... but interestingly, their businesslike text also rings hollow. Wolfram might be scoring goals but he's not winning points.
Wolfram himself an awkward figure, and despite his centrality he's one of Wolfsmund's biggest problems, but also one of its best opportunities. He plays strongly to type as the gently mocking intellect, the cool condescending customer and falsely ingratiating host, but I don't think he's earned that presentation. Even if Wolfram is the villain I would quite happily enjoy the successes of a "Magnificent Bastard" who skilfully uses his insight to see through the rebels' disguises... the problem is, though, that this isn't what he does. Most of his accusations have no apparent basis to justify them and seem like random speculation, hoping that the accused will then panic if he's a rebel. It's attributed to his 'intuition', which I don't find terribly satisfying when the visual medium of a manga would make it a good place to introduce interesting detective work by showing what gave the game away. It's an opportunity wasted. Most of the time it seems that he's just fishing and every so often manages to hook one. While this does grind into you the brutality of the Habsburgs - better than a thousand innocents be punished than one guilty man go free - it does lead to a creeping dissatisfaction in the story as a voice in your head tells you that Wolfram isn't as smart as the manga insists that he is.
Then again, maybe that's the point. This is what redeems Wolfram as a character if not as a person - there's a bleak but telling irony in the storyline that, however vigilant Wolfram is, however many rebels he captures, and however vile the tortures he metes out to them are, by some method or another the crucial messages still get through. One important item in particular could have been intercepted with a single simple question that I'm harassed by every time I visit an airport - has anyone given you anything to carry? - but apparently didn't occur to our hunting apex predator of a baliff to ask. Like quicksilver in your palm, if you clench your fist it only slips out between your fingers. At the same time keeping a balance to the challenge - the Eternal Alliance isn't cartoonishly running rings around the cat, there's a price exacted for their victories - there's also some vicarious satisfaction in thinking how Wolfram's castle may well be built on sand, and how his confidence could well just be blithe ignorance. How long until that smile is wiped off of his face?
I do think that I'll stick around for future volumes and see how long it takes, too. In a number of places Wolfsmund's drama is almost stupidly overcooked, but a bit of charring on the edge adds flavour to the steak (and then again, Berserk began with Guts screwing a demon right on page one so Kuji's, with a decapitation on page three, is definitely more restrained in comparison!). There's a lot to chew over here and the promise of more interesting developments to come, although you will need a stronger stomach to let the harsher parts of this story settle. it will be interesting to see whether Wolfram can retain his composure in the face of mounting threat.