Comics Primer: Wolverine

Posted: July 26, 2013 in comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
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Here’s the thing about Wolverine: It’s actually pretty hard to do an outright BAD story with him, because as a W - Millercharacter, he is remarkably easy to get a handle on.

A lot of writers get these weird anxiety attacks over how “hard” it is to write Superman, which is basically how things like Man of Steel happen. They cite the issue that a man who has as many abilities as he does, and is as steadfastly moral as Superman is, can beat any challenge (this is, by the way, a dumb notion, so if there’s a writer out there who’s in the midst of this dilemma, may I offer this starting point: Come up with a threat that can’t be ended by Superman putting his fist through it or hurling it into the sun, and work from there).

But while Wolverine has a few things in common with Superman – nigh-invulnerable, capable of outfighting just about anyone, and already the subject of thousands of stories, raising the question of what new can be said about the character – they’re never seen as story-hurdles because the core engine of Wolverine offers so much fertile ground. It’s been articulated a lot, and I’m pretty sure Braak wrote a piece to this effect a few years ago, but basically:

Wolverine is a living weapon that wants to be something better.

And if you can’t come up with a story that addresses that core idea…well, you’re probably also someone who thinks “Having too many powers” makes Superman an impossible nut to crack.

All of this is to say, there are a LOT of really good places to start if you’ve never read a Wolverine comic before. 

The character may never have quite the Iconic Story in the same way Superman does – a “For the Man Who Has Everything,” or an All-Star – but having a wealth of very good options isn’t too shabby either.

And unlike, say, Iron Man, who has a few iconic stories that haven’t necessarily aged that well, something about Wolverine stories’ focus on western and wilderness surroundings, or exotic made-up locales like Madripoor, gives them a somewhat timeless quality. Wolverine’s solo stories usually take place Anywhen.

But of course, there are always exceptions. In this case, it is the case of a high-profile writer who just gets it Wrong, one guy who has actually written more Wolverine comics than all of these COMBINED, and of course, Mark Fucking Millar. But let’s start with the good stuff.

If you like…
W - Dangerous GamesQUICK READS:
Dangerous Games and Flies to a Spider – These caught me completely off-guard, as I hadn’t really heard of them – both a collection of various back-ups and one-shot specials from the last few years – upon release, and just grabbed them for some quick reading, not expecting much. But each story’s by some top-notch creators, including Rick Remender, Chris Yost, Greg Hurwitz, and the character’s ability to fit into a variety of stories, from straight-forward “One guy vs. a pack of bikers” to “Eerie, twisting noir” serves this format well. There’s also probably my favorite, “Killing Made Simple” by Yost, a story where Wolverine puts to rest the misconception that he’s immortal, by outlining to one of the young X-students just how many ways there theoretically are to kill him.

If you like…
The first Wolverine Mini-Series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller – Technically, Claremont’s florid writing style is a bit passé, as he tends to explain exactly what’s happening in each picture, and relies on some purple-prose narration, but it’s pretty much THE Wolverine book, the one where a lot of his tropes were set up, right down to the “I’m the best there is at what I do…” line. It’s also the primary basis for this month’s The Wolverine.

Logan's cunning disguise, everyone.

Logan’s cunning disguise, everyone.

Wolverine Vol. 2 by Chris Claremont & John Buscema – Wolverine’s first ongoing series is actually a lot more

entertaining, not least of which because it’s not as rooted in melodrama and tragedy as his initial miniseries. Adding to that is a new location and supporting cast largely divorced from the X-Men that makes it very new-reader-friendly, and a new wrinkle (Logan, along with the other X-Men, are supposed to be dead at this point in time) designed to keep Wolverine out of his costume and popping claws, lest he blow his newfound anonymity, while still handling very Wolverine-ish stories involving ninjas, mystical swords, secret agencies, etc.

If you like…

Wolverine: The Best There Is At Being Nude

Wolverine: The Best There Is At Being Nude

Weapon X by Barry Windsor-Smith – AKA, “The Wolverine Origin Story Before They Went and Overcomplicated The Hell Out of It.” Beautiful art and spare scripting by Windsor-Smith shows the excruciating process that turned a burnt-out operative into a half-feral killer with metal knives in his hands, against the backdrop of the Canadian wilderness. The visuals have been used in the movies a couple of times, but they’re so much more effective here.
Wolverine Vol. 3 by Greg Rucka & Darick Robertson – No costumes, no superpowers, just flannel-shirted Logan hunting down bad people. The stories are quite simple and naturalistic, but the decompression (19 issues makes up about three stories, with a couple palate-cleansers in between) lends a lot more weight to the somewhat inevitable conclusions (do you think Wolverine is going to have a nice chat about responsibility, once he tracks down a bunch of assholes who shot him with machine guns?).
Wolverine: Not Dead Yet by Warren Ellis & Leniel Francis Yu – As with most of his work-for-hire stuff, Ellis finds a simple hook that minimally relies on continuity, and uses the basics of the character to set up a fast-paced story. In this case: What if an old, presumed-dead enemy started gunning for Logan, using tactics designed to test him at the peak of his abilities – not knowing that his healing factor is severely limited and he no longer has unbreakable bones?

If you like…
Jason Aaron & various: Weapon X, Wolverine, Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine, Wolverine & The X-Men – I can’t really overstate this: Jason Aaron’s Wolverine stories are nuts. His first couple efforts (“Get Mystique” and “Adamantium Men”) read as fairly straight-forward action stories, but pretty soon he plows into insane-asylum horror stories, future-dystopias and demonic possession and alien casinos. Oh right, and there’s that time he and Spider-Man got transported back to dinosaur times because of The Orb, who is a dude that wears Evel Knievel jumpsuits and has a giant eyeball for a head. It’s all a lot of fun, but there are some incredible surprises and a late-series twist that serves as an impressive gut-punch to the character.

Was not joking.

Was not joking.

Enemy of the State by Mark Millar & John Romita, Jr. – This one came about after Greg Rucka’s more grounded run, and it’s basically just a chance to have Wolverine play with a bunch of Marvel’s toys again. So there’s brainwashing and ninjas and SHIELD and Elektra…it’s big, poppy and loud – empty-calories entertainment.

Wolverine: Evolution/Return of Sabretooth by Jeph Loeb & Simone Bianchi – Oh man, Jeph Loeb. Loeb

So pretty. So dumb.

So pretty. So dumb.

writes, bless his heart, some of the nicest-looking, dumbest comics you’ll ever read. This is a man who has pulled the same red-herring mystery (“Haha, the culprit CAN’T be the most likely suspect because I’ve just killed him midway through the story…or HAVE I?”) at least three times now. But his Wolverine stories are a special kind of dumb. This is essentially six issues of Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting, which on the face of it isn’t a terrible idea, though obviously it’s a bit repetitive. THEN, Loeb introduces the idea that the  two characters, along with a few other more animalistic mutants, are all descended from a line of “Lupine-sapiens,” who evolved from dogs, not primates. Yeah. THEN, when it appears Loeb’s just gotten kind of bored with the whole business, he introduces a special sword that, for no actual stated reason, can kill Wolverine and Sabretooth. Then he kills Sabretooth. And then, of course, he brings Sabretooth back a few years later. It is so dumb, you guys. So so dumb.
Essential Wolverine by Larry Hama & Various – Eight years, Larry Hama was on this book. EIGHT YEARS. That’s got to be impressive, right? Unfortunately, those eight years were from 1990 to 1997, AKA, “The Worst Decade For Comics,” and it suffers every indignity that decade had to offer, including Liefeld knock-off art, storylines constantly interrupted by never-ending X-Men crossovers, Kewl, Edgy (and totally forgettable) antagonists, and Hama’s piling on of Logan’s fairly simple amnesiac status quo with memory wipes, memory implants, memory tricks and…sigh. At one point Logan “devolves” into a more feral version of himself that, for reasons that are beyond EVERYONE, had no nose. This shit is rough.

Wolverine: Origin by Paul Jenkins and Andy Kubert – Yeeeeesh. You may not know this, now that there has been an entire goddamn movie called “X-Men Origins” that covers pretty much every little thing, but Wolverine’s origin used to be more or less unknown – to the point that “mysterious past” ended up being something creators added into every single new character in the 90’s to make them seem cooler. When Weapon X came out, that was a big deal. Then Larry Hama cluttered his origins up by adding in all the memory implants and out-of-nowhere “forgotten” allies. So when Origin came out, a lot of the question was, “What else can you add?” Well, you can add in extended scenes of Wolverine as a wheezy little boy in a night-dress in the early 1900’s. Because that is definitely what people wanted to know about. Other Midichlorean-esque additions: young Logan adopted all his tough-guy mannerisms from an actual tough-guy he hung out with when he was young; Logan’s memory-loss problems are the result of his brain having its own “healing factor” to block out traumatic events for him.

Yes, that is a Hulk with a mustache and a trucker hat. No, it is not as entertaining as you'd think.

Yes, that is a Hulk with a mustache and a trucker hat. No, it is not as entertaining as you’d think.

Old Man Logan by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven – Meanwhile, as always happens when you find yourself

recommending a Mark Millar book, you must also balance the scales by warning someone away from a Mark Millar book. In this case, it is Old Man Logan, a beautifully illustrated, tonally ugly book that is basically Unforgiven in a dystopian Marvel America where all the heroes are dead, the villains have divvied up the country into a series of desolate fiefdoms, and the Hulk has a bunch of inbred hillbilly children because Mark Millar has an astonishingly juvenile sense of “edgy” humor. It is a dumb, mean-spirited comic book that thinks it’s being clever, and again mirroring Unforgiven, it’s five issues of Wolverine NOT DOING Wolverine-things, but without any of the insight or grace of the Clint Eastwood film.

  1. Carl says:

    How I wish I’d listened to you on ‘Old Man Logan.’ I like a good dystopian future as much as the next guy and figured Logan in THE UNFORGIVEN sounded like a natural fit. Plus, I’d just finished the HATFIELDS & McCOYS miniseries, so I was game for hillbillies. You were correct, however: dreadful. Now, I guess, I have to read ‘Weapon X’ or something just to get the taste out of my mouth before I see THE WOLVERINE.

  2. braak says:

    I feel like the only thing that Mark Millar does well is consistently create a world populated by such digusting, hateful characters that it becomes really satisfying when the asshole anti-hero finally snaps and kills everyone.

  3. braak says:

    Also, in what possible stupid mark Millar future does Doctor Doom decide to SHARE territory with other villains like Magneto and the Red Skull and Abomination?

    I mean, seriously. Doctor Doom would sign that treaty and then put the Abomination on a rocket into space like, ten seconds later.

  4. braak says:

    And MAGNETO is somehow allies with the RED SKULL? Magneto, noted Holocaust survivor, and the Red Skull, who tried to take over the Third Reich because Hitler wasn’t evil enough?

    Mark Millar, you are so fucking stupid.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    All that AND She-Hulk rape/forced pregnancies in the backstory!

    Seriously, fuck Mark Millar so much.

    But I hope this is a lesson to everyone, when I write these. I’m not doing it for my health. These are PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENTS.

  6. Carl says:

    Nothing establishes your credentials in ‘edgy’ like caricature-driven incest-rape among cannibal white trash, I guess. That’s a very good point about Red Skull and Magneto that hadn’t occurred to me, because I was too busy wince/eye-rolling at the awful syrupy mess that was being made of characters at nearly every turn. I thought he’d really run out of places to go in that regard until the dyspeptic climax. Here was what struck me as odd, though, if believability is our beef: Magneto– one of the villainous masterminds who orchestrated the dissolution of the American government and murder nearly every superhero on the continent, as well as, of course, generally having the loyalty of all of the gonzo, off-the-wall super-villains mutants with the insane powers– is undone and replaced, somehow, by Kingpin? I dunno. Maybe I haven’t read enough comics to comment, but is Kingpin anywhere near on par with Magneto in any conceivable way? Also, was it intended as lead in to a full run, because there were a lot of red herrings– dinosaurs, mole men– that kind of went nowhere.

    Anyway, the whole notion that you guys advance about Logan being a killing machine that wants to be, you know, more than just that (and particularly one who doesn’t just get angry and shred things for the sake of visceral release) of it was inverted here in a way that I found distasteful. So on top of being generally nauseating, I didn’t like the moral, I guess.

    Yes, I shall henceforth heed your warnings, Mr. Holland.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    Let me share a quick fun story about Magneto and the Red Skull. During a late 80s/early 90s crossover called “Acts of Vengeance,” all the bad guys decided to switch off who they were fighting with, in hopes of some kind of across-the-board defeat.

    Except Magneto, re: partnering with the Red Skull, was having NONE of that shit, and so instead kidnapped the Skull and locked him in his basement to die slowly. When he was just about to die, Skull was rescued by one of his men, who then called Captain America to look upon his enemy one last time.

    And when Red Skull saw Captain America, it made him so mad he up and decided NOT TO DIE simply out of spite.


  8. braak says:

    @Carl: It’s hard to tell whether or not that was meant as a lead-in to a new series, or those red herrings were just Mark Millar having half an idea and deciding to throw it in without thinking about it for more than ten seconds because “I AM MARK MILLAR AARRRLAAAGGLEBUGH!”

    On the other hand, though, Mark Millar will write any stupid thing, so he probably wouldn’t have turned down Old Man Logan 2: 2 Old, 2 Logan if someone had offered.

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