Playing the Piper: Wolverine & the X-Men #4

By this summer it will be three summers back now, Jason Aaron’s flawless, meticulous first arc on Wolverine: Weapon X. The shift in the Marvel universe (Earth-616) had kept track perfectly, of the mood of the moment. Psychic devastation at the global financial crisis of 2008 was mirrored in Marvel’s “Dark Reign” books. After their failure to defeat the Secret Invasion, heroes were systematically being removed from their own titles. And impostors, villains parading as the heroes themselves, would adopt not only the mantles, but the comicbook titles of the vanishing heroes. But there will always be a Wolverine, hence the new book, Wolverine: Weapon X (Logan’s villainous son had already assumed the impostor’s role in Wolverine: Origins).

Jason’s writing was terse, elegiac and unbelievably poetic. Somehow he had found that inner noir, that heart of darkness that impels Wolverine. “Seems every few months now, somebody else is setting up some labs, looking to build the perfect killing machine. That’s usually when I show up… And remind them they already did”. There is a beautiful savagery to Jason’s writings, he pushes far past the territory of Chandler, skirting up against Hemingway, flirting with Cormac McCarthy.

But what better way to chart the progress of time than shift in mood? If Wolverine: Weapon X was about always finding that inner noir, the journey of a man, as Greil Marcus artfully describes as one “who no longer has any use for a home”, then Wolverine & the X-Men is about Jason finding that inner pulp.

There’s some backstory you’d need (as there always is with X-Books) before reading Wolverine & the X-Men. The events of Schism exposed a fundamental, philosophical difference in dealing with the next generation of mutants. A difference that saw Wolverine face off against Cyclops for perhaps the final time. ReGenesis saw the permanent split–Cyclops would remain in San Francisco to teach mutants to harness their difference, Wolverine would return to upstate New York and to the roots of the X-Men. In Westchester, Wolverine along with Kitty Pryde, Beast, Iceman and others would open The Jean Grey School for Higher Learning in the hopes of allowing mutant children to one day enter a normal life.

Chris Bachalo was the perfect choice to visualize the zany, crazy, pulp of a school trying to find its feet in that first arc “Welcome to the X-Men, Now Die!”. And the tone of the book is perfect; Wolverine & the X-Men is half the way crisis-comedy (the flawless remastering of a John Cleese comedy like Clockwise), half the way walking back from life-shattering psychological trauma (dig deep and remember why you loved Chris Carter’s Millennium, or have yet to discover it).

Chris’s decades-long refining of his personal art-style was just the perfect note for this book. This magical book about not only walking back from the trauma of needing to enact a great and secret violence, but simultaneously a book about building that world that that violence protects. So there’s a genuine hesitancy when I pick January’s issue four, “Just another day in Westchester County”. I’ve seen these last few years, the greater demands placed on writing with a book like Uncanny X-Force after the departure of an artist the caliber of Jerome Opeña. Esad Ribic did capture some of the visual tone Opeña had in “The Apocalypse Solution”, but only little of the pitch-perfect urgency in Opeña’s pacing. What would Wolverine & the X-Men be this issue with Nick Bradshaw on artwork duties?

Even better.

Nick inducts readers into a secret drama of angles; a dizzying array of close-ups, a frenetic gospel of tilts and worms-eyes and birds-eyes and suddenly we’re there. Chris introduced cartoonish over-coded-ness. There was an intensity to everything–even moments like Bobby Drake’s magnificent line (“Being back here feels right. Feels like… like we never should have left”) is reduced to the briefest of skirmishes. This was the beauty of Chris’s art–that at any moment the hidden magic of a scene could go entirely missed. This was perfect visualization of the mood of a school struggling to recapture a grand legacy. And this is what I feared might go missing.

But Nick is himself pitch-perfect for telling the real story at the heart of Wolverine & the X-Men. It’s not the story about the pitched battle between the students and the newly reformed Hellfire Club. It’s not the faculty finding themselves, some for the first time, in front of the class, rather than behind one of those desks. It’s not the students plotting to cut class or embarrass their professors. In many senses, those are simply misdirection, trails leading away from the core of the story. At its heart, Wolverine & the X-Men is about walking backwards from the damage done in protecting the promise of a better tomorrow. At the core, this book is about Wolverine beginning to understand why it is he runs an off-the-books kill squad ready to confront other mutants with terminal force. Wolverine & the X-Men is deeply evocative of perhaps the most poignant line The Red Hot Chili Peppers ever sang: “Remind me if you will, exactly what we’re fighting for”.

This book represents the very pinnacle of what a mainstream comicbook can be. It demonstrates the immense range of Jason Aaron as a writer, it forms itself flawlessly around the over-coded visual storytelling of Chris Bachalo and then reforms around the beautiful drama of angles Nick Bradshaw brings. My advice is only this; if there’s even the slightest chance you’d be interested in Team Cyclops and the increasing militancy his faction represents, read those books first. It’s hard to imagine any book to be the equal of this one.

RATING 9 / 10