Book Review: “Werewolves – An Illustrated Journal of Transformation” by Paul Jessup

Werewolves – An Illustrated Journal of Transformation is the tale of Alice, a young woman who gets attacked by a pack of wolf-like creatures and then documents her changes (and those of her brother Mark, who was attacked too) over three weeks with journal entries and evocative illustrations. Writer Paul Jessup and artist Allyson Haller have created a teenaged femme werewolf tale that stands shoulder to shaggy shoulder with Ginger Snaps.

It seems like there a lot of ways a journal-style project like this could go wrong: clumsy narrative info-dumps, poor pacing, inauthentic voice, incidental or uninteresting illustrations. Werewolves suffers from none of these problems. The events we expect to read about – the attack, the mysterious symptoms, the strange people following her and wooing her brother – are detailed but not belaboured. Alice is clearly frightened but there’s no overwrought hand-wringing or dire pronouncements. The entries do a wonderful job of conveying Alice’s emotions and the increasing tension and danger of the story – but there’s also a melancholy sort of sweetness, too, and a real sense of sisterly concern when she writes about Mark. The writing is intimate without feeling voyeuristic, which is quite a feat considering we’re reading a teenager’s private thoughts.

The text in Werewolves is balanced out with an abundance of beautiful illustrations, rendered in what looks like graphite and watercolours. The palette is predominantly a range of warm greys, with one or two bright colours picked out as highlights. In the first half of the book, these bright colours are lively, but as the story progresses, the highlights become increasingly sanguine. Given the subject matter of the book, much care and attention is given to drawing werewolves in various stages of transformation, in styles ranging from portraits of Alice’s new “friends” (and an amazing double self-portrait) to anatomical studies of werewolf hands, feet, jaws and the like. Although Haller (or should I say Alice?) has drawn some of the most ferally gorgeous werewolves I’ve seen, her portraits of humans are stunning. As with the writing, so much of Werewolves‘ art is about conveying a mood rather than action, and there are some real successes – the drawings of those kids snarling and grinning in their hoodies, for instance, or an achingly sweet image of Alice and Mark’s mother.

I have just one complaint about Werewolves, and I’m laying the issue at the feet of the book’s designers, Kasey Free and Katie Stahnke (if you don’t know what the word “kerning” means, you can skip this paragraph). The journal entries are set in a clumsy handwriting font with perfectly regular leading. The writing style and illustrations are organic, but the machinelike regularity of the lettering goes a long way towards trashing the verisimilitude so carefully crafted by the words and images. I appreciate that books have to be produced on a timeline and under budgetary constraints, but seriously, Chronicle Books, you should have allocated the funds to get this thing hand-lettered. Design nerd rant: over.

Werewolves came out over a year ago, and I’ve been in love with it for nearly as long. It’s a nearly-perfect blend of emotionally authentic teenage anxieties and chaotic scenes of lycanthropic carnage. I highly recommend you pick up a copy – Amazon has it for stupid cheap at the moment. Read it a dozen times and you’ll still find yourself leafing through it to admire a passage or drawing. I certainly did – that’s why it took me a year to finally write this review!