The Undiluted Promise of Comics as Vanguard for 21st Century Media

Sometimes, rarely, a work is so good (so well-conceived, so well-executed) that it simply breaks our traditional expectations of comics literature. And this breaking allows us to glimpse the true, rare promise of what the industry can achieve. Davids Lapham and Aja's Wolverine: Debt of Death is this work.

Wolverine: Debt of Death one-shot

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 36 pages
Writer: David Lapham, David Aja
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2011-09

There's no doubt about it; beauty is complexity. Fibonacci conceived of this when he first articulated his eponymous Sequence, a mathematical array that articulates the so-called Golden Ratio. Once noticed, the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio are everywhere. They appear in Euclid, Archimedes, Plato, Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Verdi, the Stones, Angelina Jolie. But if beauty is steadily increasing complexity, then elegance is the ease with which artists are able to layout this complexity.

Wolverine: Debt of Death is that rare work the is both deeply beautiful and hauntingly elegant. Played out in the 60s, Debt is the story of Japan on the cusp, but also the Marvel Universe (Earth-616) on the cusp, of undreamed of things. As RHCP crooned on their Californication album: "The story of a woman, on the morning of a war".

Lapham juggles unyielding death-robots with ninja hunting-packs with Star Wars-style single-person attack craft with yakuza with S.H.I.E.L.D. with Nick Fury and of course with Wolverine. Aja's art is clean and crisp and above all emotionally engaging. His capacity to elicit the emotional response of an entire genre from the angle in a single panel is underlined in this book.

The real story of course, is (playing out in the 60s as it does), is the cultural ascendancy of Japan. This is a Japan where a generation of austerity and reconstructing the economy following WWII is just about to pay off big. This is the Japan just before Sony and Betamax, just before Nintendo and Mario, just before Manga. Shaping the story of Wolverine and the story of 616 around these events shows a depth and a vivacity that is seldom found in "mainstream" comics any more. And yet, ironically, this kind of story was inherently the fare of comics that made the medium a literary staple in the 40s and 50s and 60s.

The really interesting response to Debt though, comes from the fans and the numerous reviewers in the appreciation industry. Far and away the public outcry seems to be; Why is a work of this quality relegated to non-continuity?

This question just feels wrong, like we've missed the point in some Stockholm Syndrome-induced mass delusion. Asking this question, it seems our values might be off-center.

Continuity's great (maybe) but with large-scale books like the X-books it seems unwieldy. Like a noose are my neck, and yours. Where do you begin reading X-Men? Is one book enough? Are the issues self-contained, are the series?

An engaging interest in continuity is just another way of proclaiming you're less interested in the characters and the stories than you are in the company itself. Obsessing about continuity is obsessing about stars to the point where TMZ becomes more interesting than stars' next movies.

And ultimately continuity is the codified expression of single-state expression; communication without a feedback loop. We've seen these kinds of communication systems fail time and again. Mao could not sustain his pogrom to re-educate the Chinese people in what was the correct thing to believe. Stalinomics ran perhaps the largest economy of the 20th century into the ground. And in the late 1700s, a group of farmers had a thing or two to say about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Lapham and Aja's Wolverine: Debt of Death is above all else, the story of the democratization of literature by its injection into the realm of popular culture. Or to put it in the elegant way that William Gibson does in his most recent novel, Zero History, it is "this world without the bullshit".

Writing in the chapter "Ichinomiya" for Meredith, a model turn fashion designer, Gibson offers: "She got what I was trying to get away from. The seasons, the bullshit, the stuff that wore out, fell apart, wasn't real. I'd been that girl, walking across Paris to the next shoot, no money for a Métro card, and I'd imagined those shoe. And when you imagine something like that, you imagine a world. You imagine the world those shoes comes from, and you wonder if they could happen here, in this world, the one with all the bullshit. And sometimes they can. For a season or two."

There is a promise to Wolverine: Debt of Death. A promise that comics may once again be relevant to our portable, digital, highly-mobile lives. And freed from a 224-issue run on Cyclops' secret battle with Magneto which lead to Wolverine being able to sniff the number of people in a room, Debt is as good as it gets. It is simply, the kind of comics we deserve.






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