Werewolves and vampires have become go-to metaphors for adolescence for good reason: They tap into anxieties about the ways puberty changes minds and bodies, as well as the predator/prey dynamics that can emerge between groups of teenagers, giving creators the opportunity to explore personal and social issues through a heightened fantasy lens. And while Olivia Stephens’ new YA graphic novel, Artie And The Wolf Moon (Graphic Universe), is a coming-of-age tale involving a teenage werewolf and her pack facing off against a coven of vampires, the supernatural conflict isn’t the main attraction here.
The book is strongest when it focuses on family dynamics—both biological and chosen. Before discovering her werewolf heritage, Artie is a lonely teen who hides from racist bullies in her school’s darkroom. But uncovering this new aspect of herself creates a deeper bond with her immediate family as well as a larger community that affirms her identity.
Stephens depicts Artie’s first interactions with other werewolf teens with immense joy and excitement, specifically in a two-page spread showing them running together through the woods. Artie’s connection with her mother is the book’s emotional core, and Stephens succeeds at capturing a sense of parental pride undercut by fear. The world becomes more dangerous as your child grows, and each new milestone for Artie introduces new things for her mother to be worried about.
Stephens makes changes to typical werewolf and vampire mythology that help set these monsters apart from previous iterations. Here, werewolves are descendants of runaway slaves whose bond with nature helps them reach freedom through the supernatural power of transformation. And vampires don’t create other vampires when they bite people; their victims only become vampires if their killer dies, which makes it a lot more complicated to get rid of them without creating a bigger problem. Stephens presents the histories of these creatures in a sequence that evokes the bold graphic design of Harriet Powers’ quilts from the late 19th century, a visually striking tribute to the sequential folk art that is a fundamental part of comic-book DNA.
Stephens’ story ultimately bites off more than it can chew, particularly in the second half as it introduces a new relationship for Artie that takes her down a dark path. Two pages covering multiple months isn’t enough to give this friendship the emotional weight it needs to create genuine tension; and because there’s so little space, Stephens has to condense information in a way that telegraphs future twists. Pacing becomes an issue as Stephens rushes to wrap up every loose plot thread, and the sense of danger would be more palpable if there were more room for Stephens to build suspense. That said, the more muted horror elements make this an appealing read for younger readers who want to engage with Halloween entertainment that won’t give them nightmares.