He’s the best he is at what he does. But what he does best isn’t very nice.
That’s how we’re introduced to probably the definitive entry on everyone’s favourite dude-slicing, beer-swilling Canadian. Ever since he rose to higher popularity by having Hugh Jackman portray him on the big screen, Wolverine’s been the X-Man most people easily recognise and love (or hate) to death. Before his popularity really took off he was given a miniseries back in 1982, penned by legendary X-Men scribe Chris Claremont (who you may know as the man who first killed Jean Grey in 1980’s The Dark Phoenix Saga) and drawn by equally-legendary writer/artist Frank Miller (who you’d know from Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns, 300 and a bunch of other stuff…but not All-Star Batman and Robin. He didn’t write that, it was his similarly-named doppelganger from Earth-2).
With the impending release of The Wolverine, the latest entry in Fox’s extensive X-Men film canon, I thought it’d be worth going back to the beginning of everyone’s favourite animalistic mutant killing machine. Well, almost the beginning. Wolvie first broke onto the comics scene in a 1974 issue of The Incredible Hulk, but this is the series that started his meteoric rise to (some would say ‘undeserved’) unending popularity.
It’s a good thing the story wasn’t branded as an X-miniseries like X-Men: Wolverine, since the yellow spandex brigade only show up fleetingly at the end. The narrative follows Logan moping around Japan looking for his long-lost love Mariko, a two-dimensional nihongo lady who’s now married to a scummy Tokyo businessman who may or may not be involved in the criminal underworld (spoiler alert: he totally is, especially with glasses like that). Upon realising he’ll never be able to just kill the husband and take Mariko for himself as any sensible sociopath would do, Logan equivocates by chilling with a bloodlust-filled assassins named Yukio and tries to avoid the attentions of Tokyo’s criminal element by getting drunk and picking fights with sumo wrestlers. Before long, though, Wolverine must decide if he wants to squander his life on such base, animal pleasures or if he wants to be a MAN.
There’s quite a bit of criticism that can be levelled at Wolverine by today’s standards, like the fact that the walls of text (both introspective and dialogic), which are Claremont’s signature writing device, can be off-putting, the art is simplistic and the actual plot is a bit meander-y. The thing is that you’ve got to analyse Wolverine through an 80’s lens, taking yourself back to the days of pastel shirts and flairs and being of the mindset that a story with this level of script density and character development is actually groundbreaking rather than de rigeur. If you read the story as a fan of the old days, Wolverine stands head-and-shoulders above much of the published material at the time.
For starters, the depth with which Wolverine is fleshed out as a human being rather than “SNIKT BUB” is, while being a bit alienating through use of the aforementioned walls of text, quite impressive. Rather than being a one-sided killer with a rabid thirst for beer Logan is instead presented as a lost, sometimes tragic character doing his damnedest to fight the demons inside him that run the animal half of his brain, and his love for Mariko (despite her cardboard-cutout characterisation) seems deeper than one would think at first read. He really asks himself, and by proxy the reader, whether it’s possible to overcome animal instincts and become a MAN, or if one is truly doomed to living with the beast at the core of their self.
Concurrently, effort is made to flesh the villains out a little too. Ok, it was the 1980s so you can’t expect a lot of depth from characters that evoke a mashup of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and the main baddie from the Mortal Kombat movie, but at least Claremont tries to give them a little bit of motivation beyond “I want to control Japan for all of teh monies!” Big bad Lord Shingen seems to be driven by something familial as well as financial, and the morally-questionable Yukio seems torn between following her orders and caving in to her allegedly genuine love for Logan which creates an interesting dichotomy for both. The only villain who fails spectacularly is Mariko’s businessman husband who could only be more cartoonishly evil if he’d been drawn by the illustrators behind Pinky and the Brain.
Speaking of, the art is at once engaging and repelling. Frank Miller does a great job with a minimalist pallet and evocative angles (especially in books like Sin City, whose pallet is so minimalist it only consists of three colours) but here the artwork swings between overly-simple as to be boring, and finely tuned with specific and deft use of striking colour where appropriate. To better explain: a plainly laid out scene depicting Wolverine kicking the ass of a sumo-wannabe, with limited colour and monochrome background, then follows onto a scene depicting the neon cityscape of Japan mixed with the dank blackness of the backstreets Logan and Yukio frequent, where the selective use of pastel colour – meant to evoke Japan’s neon lights – really pops. The book seems to skip between 50% boredom and 50% kickass where the illustration is concerned, even if at times Wolverine looks too much like Lion-O from Thundercats and has the kind of giant, manly Adam’s apple that’d make Morgan Freeman weep with jealousy.
Finally, there is one element of Wolverine that totally stands up regardless of which decade lens you’re reading it with – the fight scenes. Each and every one of them is sublimely illustrated and executed, and the multiple panels showing kick and punch and counter and sword swing really give the impression that we’re looking at the kickass storyboard of a movie battle rather than a comic book. The first and last fights between Logan and Shingen stand out in particular as sublime to look at and genuinely gut-wrenching to experience. There’s no flagrant use of onomatopoeia or absurd character grunting sounds like “Ugh!” or “Yah!”, just blows and weeapon slashes and counterattacks that look like two real people having a bust-up. I’m surprised at the comparative lack of blood given how many limbs Wolverine severs, but I guess they had to find some way to make it at least a little accessible to the under-15 audience.
While it’s by no means a perfect story, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine is still a standout classic with an intelligence belied by its subject matter. While it’s true that a lot of Wolvie-centric stories these days are all about the “SNIKT BUB” and copious amounts of cheap Canadian beer, it’s nice to know there are still older works that better portray the dude as something other than a one-lining grouchy tough guy. There are times it’s great to read books where he’s just a baddie-slashing meme machine, and others where it’s fun to read about him struggling to be a MAN.
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
BEST QUOTE: “The clown on my back’s named Takahashi. He’s a sumotori, a sumo wrestler. He could’a been a champion, but he cheats. Blacklisted from the professional ring, he earns his living in these illegal barroom bashos. In this arena, he’s undefeated. When I challenged him, he laughed. [Wolverine lifts the sumo over his head effortlessly] Sucker ain’t laughin’ anymore.” – Wolverine