...By a Rough Road
Wolverine: Under the Boardwalk is a small tale, that arrives at the perfect time. More hard-boiled noir than superhero adventure, Under the Boardwalk stands as a testament to the consummate skill of not only writer Stuart Moore and project collaborator Tomm Coker, but to the enduring inventiveness of the Wolverine character itself. In its pages, readers are treated to a splendid vista of small-time crime and petty revenge. Coker’s artwork is moody, bleak and wholly immersive. Moore’s writing is sparse and disconnected; exactly the right kind of cheap to illustrate the worth of a human life this capricious dystopia. But beyond even the spectacularly immersive character of noir that Moore and Coker are able to achieve, Under the Boardwalk has a far deeper and profound meaning in the nascent post-Recession America. Wolverine: Under the Boardwalk is a story about us, and how we made it through.
Under the Boardwalk is a small kind of story, about a small kind of crime. Not at all in the regular and expected genre of Wolverine stories, Under the Boardwalk is a chance for Moore to tap those latent strands in the Wolverine mythos, and braid them together in an intricate and vivid tapestry.
A clear example of this is the opening page. In just this one page, Moore is able to elegantly establish the one-shot within continuity, yet slightly at a remove. The story of Under the Boardwalk unfolds in the private moments of Wolverine’s time, and is of no concern to the X-Men or their ongoing struggles within the broader “Dark Reign” continuity of Marvel.
‘Sometimes… you just gotta disappear for a while’, Logan monologues in pristine, white caption-boxes lettered by Jeff Eckleberry. A typical sentiment for the lead character, but also a staging point for the story itself. In the space of just three panels, Moore conspires to sweep readers up in an epic of hidden volumes. The intensity of collaborator Coker’s close-up on Logan’s the garishly incongruent colors of Logan and fellow X-Men in costume, and finally the moodily disorientating cultural insomnia of just waiting in the airport terminal together tell a convincing tale of the very real need for escape.
Of course, the suggestion of Air Alaska in Coker’s brooding backdrop speaks directly to the Wolverine’s character. Logan is the kind of character who would need a direct challenge to overcome on his getaway, not one who would need a tropical resort where he could let his hair down. It is with such subtle elegance that Moore carves out a psychologically absorbing drama that percolates the times readers themselves are facing. Readers will find themselves agreeing, they too need to get away from it all, and they too will want a situation to express their resilience of spirit.
Both Moore and Coker by differing measures, centralize the notions of fortitude and the resurgence of the embattled spirit. Moore’s writing is evocative of what it must have been to see the dome of St. Paul’s Chapel raised in London after the Great Fire of 1666. It is a spiritual yearning to stand tall under dark skies.
But the psychologically engrossing nature of the one-shot never exceeds the narrative constraints. Like all good noir writers (Moore stands shoulder-to-shoulder with such company as Jim Thompson and James Ellroy), Moore’s writing has teeth. Distracted from his Alaskan ‘escape’ by an ID-withheld text, Wolverine finds himself chasing down an old memory. ‘Re: Phil DeBlasio. Come to Casino Alexander, Atlantic City. On the Boardwalk. ASAP’. The text reveals nothing more. And Moore’s scripting leaves Logan’s motivations unbetrayed. Rather than exhaust the mechanisms of explication, Moore offers no motivation at all. This technique is an inherent strength for pushing forward reader attention, rather than having it mired in minutiae.
While Wolverine’s motivations may not be clear, his path however is. The central conceit of the one-shot is to have Wolverine himself act as interlocutor for an imperfect memory he formed nearly forty years ago. This was the high-age of Atlantic City, at a time when the local casinos rose in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution. American money was coming home, and Logan was hemmed in by a gangster’s moll, the thug himself, his goons and a luckless competitor who soon found himself buried Under the Boardwalk. As Logan hunts down a trail already four decades cold, he comes across old ghosts girlfriends, but remains tantalizingly out of reach of the explanation that will finally resolve his memory. When the one-shot takes one final turn, and the final showdown becomes an intergenerational bait-and-switch, Logan is confronted with the sheer meaninglessness of this memory. What was the point of all this? ‘I heal fast’, Logan calls out to the rapidly bleeding-out criminal mastermind as he makes his own retreat. In the distance squad-cars announce their impending arrival.
Moore’s portrait of Wolverine’s resilience of spirit, his capacity to simply walk away from violence, not requiring resolution is key to the success of this one-shot. Under the Boardwalk is not tale of mystery, and while it shares many micro-genre in common with detective fiction, it is ultimately a tale in which the central mystery remains unresolved, and one in which the detective is in fact defeated. Logan has answers for who has orchestrated his appearance in Atlantic City, but the motivating memory that becomes the MacGuffin for both himself and Amber DeBlasio, daughter of the disappeared mobster, remains murky. Under the Boardwalk is not about solving the crime, nor is it about resolving Logan’s memories. What is at stake however, is Logan’s capacity to simply outlast adversity, his capacity to endure.
In a happy but unforeseen twist, this infinite capacity to live through adversity passes from Logan on to secondary character in the one-shot’s concluding pages. Casting the Wolverine in the role of educator-by-example, is one of the most astute moves by Moore in recent visions of Marvel’s most perennial of characters. The exporting of values to the nameless character seems to ring true for further exporting of that resilience to readers themselves. Under the Boardwalk, a title evocative of very Freudian struggles of the unconscious to throw up submerged ideas and images, is narrow kind of resurgence. It is moody and immersive, and wholly reliant on the wonderland of Ben-day dots and halftones that Coker uses. Under the Boardwalk is about how to feel stronger in dark times. With such engrossing set-pieces as a morose pan-out to the final boarding call for an Air Alaska flight, and garish costumes at odds with the overall psychic dissonance of the book, Moore and Coker capture the current tone of a world just crawling back from global recession.
In response to the mystery-text that fires off Logan’s search into his past, the X-Man monologues: ‘Tony Stark would track the message by satellite. Reed Richards would find the sender by analyzing the syntax. Hank McCoy, he’d have their complete DNA profile by now’. As the final boarding call sounds, Moore makes an astounding comment on the capacity for human action. No less than the equal of Tony Stark or Reed Richards or Hank McCoy, Wolverine ditches his boarding pass. ‘My road’s just a little rougher’, he thinks to himself.