Kevin Wolf, a St. Louis native and award-winning cartoonist, died this weekend. He was 36 years old.
A graduate of Kirkwood Senior High, Wolf attended Webster University, where he earned a degree in photography in 2005. It was while attending Webster that Wolf began creating sketches, woodcuts, and etchings featuring a menagerie of simplistic yet oddly off-model animal characters: square-eared monkey Zephyr Amazon, lightning-bolt-armed koala Henry Kagera, boxy all-head-and-teeth-and-tail alligator Kyle Quagmire, and more. Shortly after graduation, “the drudgery of a full-time retail position” led Wolf to keep his mind occupied by illustrating the (mis)adventures of these characters in four-panel comic strip form, first under the title Phylum and then, once the characters’ personalities had congealed and the strip’s format had solidified, as Pangaea.
Wolf’s best-known work, Pangaea was serialized in the “Graphic Ink” section of this site’s predecessor, PLAYBACK:stl, where he continued to draw the exploits of his “absurd, emotionally unstable animals” for several years. While many Pangaea strips followed the format and themes typical of the daily funnies (its closest kin on the funny pages being Stephen Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine), Wolf would also frequently take things in an absurdist direction, or to lengths no newspaper would ever let fly. Kyle the alligator frequently attempts to hide the severed heads of celebrities in his mouth. Kyle gets a job watching a “fact tree” that spouts out useless facts; when it reveals Zephyr’s mom had an affair with a lemur, the annoyed Zephyr counters with his own “lie tree.” (Sample lie: “The government has your best interest in mind.”) Henry badgers Zephyr to play a game with him; when chess and Scrabble get shot down, he draws a pistol and says matter-of-factly, “Then Russian roulette it is.” Garfield this definitely ain’t.
Wolf’s work caught the attention of the Riverfront Times, which granted Pangaea their “Best Local Comic Book” award in 2008. “There’s more than merely a sense of humor at work here,” Paul Friswold said in his write-up on the strip. “Some strips deal with a very adult sense of disappointment: Zephyr isn’t succeeding as a writer and Kyle’s beloved vegetable garden doesn’t win the award he craves. But the two are still friends, encouraging one another to believe that someday they will make it. And so they go on dreaming. It’s this humanity that makes Wolf’s work worth picking up again and again.” Wolf continued to draw Pangaea for several years, ultimately collecting the book in a pair of volumes (Pangaea and Pangaea: The Mongoose Phalanx) which are both still available as print-on-demand books and free-to-download ebooks via the links above.
As part of the crew working on PLAYBACK:stl’s Graphic Ink section, Wolf, fellow cartoonist Nick Kuntz, and Graphic Ink editor (and, at the time, Pretentious Record Store Guy writer-artist) Carlos Gabriel Ruiz began monthly gatherings to meet up at a local bar on an off-night, eat cheap food, drink cheap beer, and talk about their projects. Soon other St. Louis-based comics creators were added to the fold, the group expanding until ultimately these monthly “ink and drink” sessions birthed a publishing company, Ink and Drink Comics (which, full disclosure, I serve as both editor and contributing writer). The collective’s first group anthology, 2010’s Spirits of St. Louis, closes with a Wolf-crafted Simpsons-esque reinterpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” using Pangaea characters for the spot illustrations. (He would go on to adapt Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” using the Pangaea cast in Mixed Feelings 3, an anthology from another local comics group dubbed the Urchin Collective, the following year.) The success of that first volume led to the group publishing two genre-themed anthologies per year (something that continues to this day), with Wolf contributing to four of the first five volumes. Wolf once again used his Pangaea characters for 2011’s crime anthology Shots in the Dark, this time as pseudonymous stand-ins for the breweries around town in the tongue-in-cheek murder mystery “The Beer Barons of St. Louis.”
But it was in “The Son I Never Had” (from 2011’s sci-fi anthology Blasted) that saw Wolf expand far outside the setup-punchline and absurdist humor of Pangaea, following a crew of space soldiers dispatched to a distant planet and the one scientist who feels unnaturally drawn to the mysterious, indestructible alien baby that her crew encounters. Teaming with Urchin Collective founder Matt Bryan on art, Wolf crafted a tale whose more straightforward sci-fi trappings were tweaked by horrifying twists, capturing the feel of films like Alien and Event Horizon within a taut eight pages. (Wolf’s script included a page with a nightmarish 22 panels; when asked if the artist Bryan was going to murder him when he got to that page, Wolf responded with a smirk and a fake-nervous laugh.)
Wolf once again teamed up with Bryan on what would be (in this writer’s opinion) his finest work, “Elephant Graveyard Blackjack.” Penned for the fantasy anthology Hammered, the surrealist story follows a man wandering a graveyard full of elephant skeletons who finds himself playing blackjack against a dead elephant with their last remaining flesh as the stakes. Based, according to Wolf, on an actual dream, the story flows with the kind of surreal shifts in tone and ephemeral plot that only real dreams can have, while also dripping with pregnant meaning. In his mass review of the first five Ink and Drink books, The Comics Journal’s Rob Clough highlighted Wolf’s work on “Elephant Graveyard Blackjack,” calling it “both viscerally unsettling and visually striking with its thick linework and scratchy details.”
In his Ink and Drink bio, Wolf self-deprecatingly described himself as “a decent enough guy,” but from the outpouring of memories following his sudden death, and the ongoing creative energy fostered by the collective he helped found, it’s clear he was much more than that. May he rest in peace. | Jason Green
Read Kevin Wolf’s Pangaea at his Flickr page.