Well paint me pink and call me silly, for some odd reason I guess I thought roller derby as we play it now was a more recent invention. Apparently I never saw Mickey Rooney’s 1950 drama The Fireball, which according to Wikipedia contained the eighth screen appearance by Marilyn Monroe. Or even 1972’s Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch. Rollerball was a fictional sport, right?
But seriously, folks - roller skates scare the hell out of me. I’ve only been on them a few times, and even that was a few times too many. I much prefer ice skating, an occasional PE activity since I grew up in snow country. Having wheels on your feet just strikes me as unwise. That’s a good way to become acquainted with the floor at high speeds. I’m a coward!
Our story today takes us back to the halcyon days of yore, 1975 - only 48 years ago. Seems remarkable to me, but I guess that’s just how time works. Wild Rodriguez is just starting high school and just starting in another arena as well: the roller rink, where she aspires to follow on the wheels of her aunt Rosie, once-upon-a-time derby champion and all around generally disreputable roll model. Now, the outlines of the plot here are familiar, if you’ve ever seen any kind of sports story at all. By sheer chance I’ve been watching sporting anime lately, getting a hang of the warp and woof of the genre: the initial struggles; subsequent leveling up over a series of competitions; ever more eccentric opponents and entrenched rivalries. Familiar in broad shapes, at least. That’s the plan.
It’s in the details that WILD! soars. The story is quite dense, nothing but details - specificities of character, place, and style, lots of little nooks in which to fit visual flights of fancy. The look changes to fit the mood. Even though this is a generally naturalistic narrative, it has the same relationship to light fantasy as a lot of that aforementioned sports anime - where it's not uncommon for intramural opponents to preen and declaim like Frieza, right down to the crackling nimbus of cosmic power, before serving the shuttle in a game of badminton. To judge by Cristian Castelo’s narrative, epic trash-talking is three-quarters of the battle for roller derby.
As with the best sports stories, the crux of it rests on the psychodrama of the main players. WILD! (both book and person) are concerned with not merely the trials of mediated combat on the roller rink, but mediated identity as well. It comes up throughout that Wild doesn’t know how to speak Spanish, not even enough to order dinner; that lack seems to fester as a source of embarrassment and shame, but also indignation on behalf of a character trait which she regards as having been largely out of her hands up to that moment. Given that she’s just barely starting high school, and all. One of her fiercest foes in the arena is Samantha, a Mexican patriot and roller matador who feels nothing but disgust and disdain for such a thoroughly deracinated specimen as Wild. The confrontation between these two makes up the climax of this first volume, and appears as a long dialogue during a roller derby match. There’s a bit of dramatic license, I think, in just how long some of these trash-talking soliloquies can run.
Stylistically, Castelo is endlessly inventive. Sometimes even to the detriment of the story, it must be said - some scene transitions or physical relationships are difficult to follow, given the highly volatile artwork. There’s a flatness to the approach to the page that harkens back at times to Ron Regé or Kevin Scalzo, but seems more likely to have descended from Junko Mizuno. At times the precision of Castelo’s abstract objects brings Michael DeForge directly to mind - there’s a sequence at the very end of the book, set inside a salon, featuring a character’s hair being cut with such attention to communicating activity through design it could have been a vignette off DeForge’s last collection.
But then, Castelo is also capable a more organic line, or a more dense hatch. Rippling muscles or pomaded hair sometimes rate a close-up zoom to delineate such gruesome detail to make a young Dan Clowes blush. There just isn’t a bad-looking page or panel in the whole book. There’s a striking sequence during the climax of Wild’s first ever match, after she’s been flattened by a villainess, the leader of the Cult Catastrophe, who seem to have stepped right off the cover of the debut LP of some kind of mid '70s heartland proto-punk glam also-rans who cribbed the look off a Kirby comic they found in the garage. Like I said, a story filled to the brim with evocative detail. In her mind, Wild is washed up on the shore of a beach in California, her ink black hair flowing like water into the Pacific Ocean. That’s the site of another pep talk from the hero of her dreams, a version of Rosie that exists in her mind only. There’s a degree of projection here, patently obvious to Wild’s mother as well as the reader. We know, of course, that Rosie didn’t come to a good end, although it’s strongly implied she's not actually dead - perhaps future volumes will explore the grisly details.
For all that WILD! is stylistically a tour de force, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that it’s also aimed directly at a broad audience outside the circle of people who are going to be scratching their chins and muttering "yes, yes, of course" when I name-drop Michael DeForge. It’s a comic with definite appeal to younger readers - readers who frankly might not be used to seeing comics that make these kinds of weird choices regarding moving the eye around the page. Not that the large majority of comics intended for the YA demographic are stylistically conservative to a fault or anything. *cough* Anyway. That strikes me as a good thing - if, of course, this volume can get into the hands of those who would appreciate it most. Forget ancient losers like me, this book deserves to fall into the hands of kids who can disappear into the universe of these pages. Y’know, people who aren’t afraid of roller skates.