[5 June 2006]
After the House of M story there have been major changes to the Marvel Universe. Some are grand, such as the massive scale-down in the number of mutants, while others are personal and seemingly minor to the Marvel Universe as a whole. Falling into this second category is Wolverine’s delivery from M-Day with his memories restored. The amnesia that has haunted and defined him for decades in the Marvel universe was, in one quick frame, pulled away. Following this, the five issues of his already running title, Wolverine served as a lead-in to the launch of his new book, Wolverine Origins. Both the latest five-part story in Wolverine and the first two issues of Origins deal with the change that Wolverine’s memories brings to him, and both may be finding that it’s a bit more problematic than anticipated.
In brief, Wolverine’s memories are back and that means he knows who done him wrong. He’s gathered his “old” brown uniform, and a sword rumored to be the ultimate weapon, and he’s off to globe-trot and kick ass. Those who are responsible are trembling, and those stupid enough to try and stand in his way are going down hard.
While all of the writing is by Daniel Way the art teams are different in the two books. Most critical to any comic book is a smart marriage of story and art, and Marvel has unintentionally given us a perfect example of why: the art of Wolverine by Saltares (layouts) and Texeira (finishes) is rough, almost pencil sketch rough, and that fits Wolverine and his style. Anyone whose weapons slash and erupt from his skin is best shown with furry edges, a sort of blur as if the drawings are in motion. The look of the five issue story-line entitled “Origins and Endings”, which has just been released as a hardcover collection, does more than just fit the character and story, it improves some of the weaker narrative elements (there are some bits of goofy dialogue and the narration does some unfortunate withholding of information which I’ll address later).
For Origins they chose Steve Dillon, and unfortunately his style does not match the character or the writing. His work is very nice, but somehow doesn’t quite fit Wolverine’s down and dirty reputation. It’s too clean, the characters look too carefully rendered, as if it’s a slightly older book than it really is. It undercuts the hack-n-slash attitude that Wolverine is supposed to have. It’s like seeing Captain America dressed up in a Wolverine costume, it just misses somehow.
Some of what Dillon has to deal with is beyond his control, namely one large change in how Wolverine operates. One of the coolest, and downright scariest, elements of Wolverine is that he IS his weapon. The blades he carries in his forearms have proved deadlier than most every weapon any enemy has dared to bare against him. Only his nemesis Sabretooth ever came close to being as self-contained and dangerous, and they were smartly used against one another. You would think that the new Wolverine outlook—that vengeance is the best and only dish—would go hand in hand with his being the very tool of that vengeance. But oddly, Way has handed Wolverine a sword. This has an unfortunate result of making him seem reliant, oddly dependent on something and someone else (he didn’t make the sword after all) and it is, from page one of Origins, somewhat silly looking. This is not the Wolverine we know, who comes leaping from the darkness, who we hear first with the trademark “snikt”. The book starts with an odd image that looks like an homage to Lone Wolf and Cub, and it doesn’t really work. Wolverine is more about fear of the small nasty thing with sharp teeth, not the man on the mountain with hair blowing as he thinks about the way of Kung Fu. This sword did more to distance me from the book than make me marvel at his new path. He’s out there with one claw tied behind his back.
Another distancing element is the forced and faulty withholding of the story. This is a story of discovery turned on its head and it gives the impression that Mr. Way is having difficulty providing a structure to what is really a rush of the character’s past. At any point in the five-part “Origins & Endings”, Wolverine, who is narrating throughout, could tell us what he’s doing, could tell us where he’s going. Detective stories are built upon the hero finding out with the reader what has happened. Not here. Here we are playing detective with a guy who is coyly withholding information, and it feels like cheating. It’s like a Scooby-Doo mystery: if we’d been given the information that he had at the beginning we’d know what was happening. Not only that, but there are moments where dialog is even withheld. It’s one thing to have someone say, “And the murderer is—HURK!” right before being shot. It’s another to have a panel show the hero getting or giving information, and have the narration tell us, “Then I told him something he didn’t expect” and not tell us too. This is done to keep the writer in a position of control, and it’s unfortunate because there are some noirish, cut-throat elements to Mr. Way’s Wolverine which are very original (Wolverine eating part of his own arm rather than starving was unexpected and effective); to use narration and withhold information to keep the mystery flowing is a glaring weakness.
Finally, while not a major problem, there is a tremendous shift in what Wolverine, as the protagonist, is. Wolverine has now, thanks to his past, lost the usual hero’s origin. Wolverine does not have what Batman, Superman, Spider-man, et al have: a claim to victimhood. In an Oprah-fied world, where everyone gets their 15 minutes to stand up and tell their sad story, the saddest would be told by those with super-powers: “I watched my parents’ murder”; “My inaction led to my uncle’s death”; “My home planet blew-up.” There’s something about the mythic “overcoming adversity” tale that looks remarkably like a path to victory by way of trauma. No one simply decides to be heroic, it’s bled out of them. Cheap or not, it makes them immediately sympathetic.
Not so with Wolverine. So far we’ve been given a Wolverine who has certainly had heart-ache, but he’s not any victim. In fact, he’s the aggressor. He’s chosen the path of revenge, and he’s got the talents and tools to do it. Wolverine has always been the baddest kid on the block, the one who’s not concerned with his rep, and because of that everyone fears and respects him. But now that’s being chipped away at—his rep is more than well deserved, it is under-served. He’s done more than stand up to the bullies, he’s made them. Issue #2 of Origins is especially brutal on his heroic reputation. His past now includes torturing an American soldier in Viet Nam into becoming the “baby-killer Marine” known as Nuke, an insane killing machine whose steroid and machine driven body is secondary to his need to destroy.
This makes Wolverine’s history of being “wronged” by those who made him what he is questionable. He’s introduced into a village where he might find redemption only to have his wife and unborn child taken from him. But the reason he’s in the village in the first place is because he’s trying to reclaim his humanity—he defines himself as outside the world because of the bad acts that lurk in his past. Have we entered a time when American society accepts any bad acts (torture, killing innocents, outright aggression) as long as it’s for a good cause (revenge passes this “good cause” test apparently), and as long as the “hero” tells us he’ll make up for it? The character Batman has always maintained, in his own head anyway, that he pursues justice, not vengeance. Wolverine now simply pursues the latter, and without any plan or hope that it will mean anything; it’s simply being done because he wants to do it.
I understand that we live in a complex world, but something odd has happened. This Wolverine is hard to root for or even like. He always has been the bad man who’s doing good, but this is different. It’s as if there has been an intentional shift to make him Marvel’s version of what U.S. foreign policy seems to have become. The movie Point Blank with Lee Marvin is the vibe they are searching for, yet miss. In that film you root for the bad man, you cheer his bad acts, all because you feel that you are learning what happened to him as he does. Everyone he runs across has a million reasons why they did what they did, and he doesn’t even want to hear their reasons. He just wants revenge. But here Wolverine seems to be seeking answers while holding back information from us and it makes the story seem fake, as if the real point is the violence.
It’s also, strangely, not that original. The character Angel was a man-monster with a horrifying past trying to redeem himself and reclaim his humanity. The fact that he was doing this by trying to help innocents made him heroic. Here we have someone who tells us that he knows who done him wrong, but we can’t find out yet who, even though he could tell us, and we have to watch him kill everyone along the way. It’s hard to root for that in a world with real-life aggression and questions of responsibility and torture that have left dark clouds over much of the globe. For escapist entertainment, that’s not a whole lot of escaping, and barely any entertainment.