Ben, the young hero of Jason McNamara and Tony Talbert's First Moon (AiT/Planet Lar), is a Boy with A Problem – the nature of which the savvy reader will quickly deduce based on the book's title and the picture of a wolf's gaping maw on the cover. Like the teenaged heroine of McNamara & Talbert's debut graphic novel, Continuity, Ben is adolescently chafing against his Berkeley parents (who happen – horrors! – to both be English teachers), but when he surprises them in an unguarded moment, the true sight of his parents is enough to send him running away from home. Scripter McNamara holds off the specifics of that particular reveal to the end of the book, but we're pretty sure it's something lycanthropic: especially after we've been treated to a dinner table sequence where Ben's parents tease him for being vegetarian.
First Moon's big storytelling conceit is to link this tale of family ties and adolescent change to a moment from America's early days: the story of the Roanoke, Virginia, colony that mysteriously vanished in the 1600s, leaving the word "Croatoan" carved into a post as its final epitaph. The Croatoan mystery has – like the story of the Marie Celeste – served as a source for dark fictions in the past (perhaps, most memorably, in a Harlan Ellison short story), though here the creative team's treatment of the material is appealingly moody. Opening and then flashing back regularly to the Roanoke colony, represented by two of its more arrogantly racist leaders, Dare and Cooper, we're shown how the entire colony is cursed and cut off from our plane of existence after they capture and torture the member of a mysterious tribe known as the Mandoag.
Runaway Ben, of course, winds up getting closer and closer to the Roanoke settlers, who when we finally meet them turn out to be more knowledgeable about our world than you'd expect a bunch of cursed shutaways to be. (One of 'em makes a reference to cell phones.) Unlike the dystopian s-f story, Continuity, Ben's coming-of-age doesn't end grimly for all concerned, though there's plenty of room left for a darker follow-up, if the creators are so inclined.
I generally found the contemporary sequences more effective than the settler scenes – in large part because the modern characters are more distinctly established – though you can definitely see artist Talbert enjoying himself with the period imagery. His art heavily recalls Spain Rodriquez in places, though I could also detect the influence of another sixties undergrounder, S. Clay Wilson, in the battle scene tableaux – especially the frenzied half-page panels where settlers and native creatures fight to the bloody death. A few of the panels with Ben and his parents also have an old-fashioned children's book appearance: a Turn-of-the-20th-Century picture book rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, say. It's effectively expressive, even when the wolf heads are rendered larger than they by rights ought to be.
Removed from its historical/mythological underpinnings, First Moon reads like a family-sized updating of I Was A Teenage Werewolf – with a slice of Harry Potter thrown in for good measure. (Ben's travels to the land of his ancestors partially involve riding a frontier version of the Hogwarts Express.)
If McNamara & Talbert's treatment of their material is more calculatedly domesticated than I'd like (the contemporary story is book-ended with discussions about Ben getting a dog to ironically punctuate this emphasis), well, perhaps I'm being the hard-core horror fan here. Taken on its own terms, First Moon is a well-charted graphic story that makes smart use of its historical back tale. Though how our lupine hero and his parents get from Berkeley, Ca., to a curséd settlement originally placed off the Virginia coast is beyond me.