Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: Wolverine: Logan

Bryan K. Vaughan and Eduardo Risso’s 2008 miniseries Logan was I think the very first Marvel Comic I decided not to buy based solely on its price. It was one of the earlier $3.99-for-22-pages books, and the only difference between it and all the other 22-page Wolverine comics on the shelves was that it had a heavier cover stock.

I figured that I would just wait a couple months and get the trade—the miniseries was only three issues long, so it’s not like there would even be much of a wait.

Of course, I read reviews of the individuals issues as they came out, and I ended up hearing a detail about the plot withheld from the original solicitation, a detail that made me realize this book probably wasn’t something I wanted to read anyway, no matter how much I may have enjoyed past Vaughan works, or how eager I was to see what Risso might do with Wolverine (that image on the cover sure looks pretty cool).

Apparently, Logan wasn’t just a story set in World War II era Japan, but it was set specifically on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Yes, this is the story about how Wolverine’s healing factor is so awesome that it allowed him to survive one of the most horrific things that human beings ever did to one another. The only less appropriate setting I can think of for a Wolverine story might be a World War II concentration camp, but Mark Millar beat Vaughan to it.

Thank God for public libraries then, the curious but cautious comics reader’s very best friends. Logan was retitled Wolverine: Logan for the trade collection, which makes a certain amount of sense when it comes to shelving and selling it, but also makes the bland, meaningless title seem even blander and more meaningless. But perhaps Vaughan and/or Marvel were just trying to be careful about tipping readers off regarding the content, and thus shied away from calling it Wolverine: Hiroshima or Wolverine: Logan in the Grave of the Fireflies.

I suppose I should point out that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with using superhero characters in stories dealing with extremely grave, serious and real settings, but publishers, editors, writers and artists need to be extremely careful about doing so.

But if you’re going to use one of these guys in your story about one of the most horrific events of World War II, it better be a really, really, really good story. By using a cartoon character like Wolverine at all, you’re already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to gravitas, and putting him at ground zero runs the risk of making light of the event (and making you look like a bunch of assholes).

Suffice it to say that Vaughan didn’t exactly bring his A game to this one.

The tale opens with these two lines of narration:

When you rip a guy’s heart out, the blood inside stinks of hot iron and dead blossoms. After all these years, that’s still what Japan smells like to me.

That’s what Wolverine is thinking about as he trudges through a snowy woods towards a Japanese temple, his goofy blue and yellow superhero costume half-obscured by a trench coat. He walks into the courtyard, takes off his trench coat, puts on his cowl shaped to mimic his peculiar haircut and fights some kind of flaming skeleton ghost.

The title appears at the bottom of a panel revealing his antagonist:

Act One of Three

Oh shit, this is one of those stories. One so important that it can’t consist of something as prosaic as “parts” or “chapters,” but of “acts.” Logan, it would appear, is going to be, like, the Shakespeare of Wolverine stories.

The scene shifts to a tiny prison cell in Japan, where an American prisoner in dogtags is demanding a password from Logan, who was there as a Candadian paratrooper, and was apparently also captured by the Japanese.

Using his mutant powers, Logan busts them both out of the prison, and they escape into the countryside. Meeting a Japanese woman on the road, the American soldier wants to kill her to keep her from reporting them. Our hero refuses and tells the American he’ll kill him if he tries to hurt her, and so they part ways.

The woman, Atsuko, takes Logan back to her place with her, feeds him, strips off her kimono, and then deflowers him (“Guys back in the barracks called me badger, ferret, skunk. Said a real woman would never make time with someone who’s all hair and stink like me.”)

As they collapse into one another on the floor, Logan asks, “What is this place? Where am I?”

Atsuko replies, “Hiroshima,” as we see a V-formation of bombers flying above her shack.

“It was just about the most beautiful word I’d ever heard,” Logan narrates.

Okay Vaughan, points for a great “Oh no you didn’t!” surprise ending for your first issue (or “act,” whatever), but it’s all downhill from there.

“Act Two” opens in the present, with Wolverine fighting the flaming skeleton ghost monster, and still narrating embarrassingly, with lines like “A Little Boy scattered a hundred thousand men, women and children into a hundred billion fireflies…but the next morning, they were back again. Least, their shadows were, still clinging to this rotten world, not quite ready to let go.”

Then it’s back to the past, where Logan and Atsuko are intruded upon by the American soldier, who shoots and seemingly kills Wolvie, fights with and ultimately kills Atsuko, and then, what’s this?, must fight with Wolverine again, because it turns out Wolverine is a mutant with a healing factor!

But wait, there’s more! The American soldier is also a mutant with a healing factor! And so they’re still fighting when the bomb is dropped. You can put the rest of it together for yourself, and from this point on there’s no real surprise or suspense to the story. Logan survived the bomb, obviously, and so did his adversary, who became the flaming atomic skeleton ghost monster Wolverine is fighting in the present.

With his lost memories restored, Wolverine has returned to Japan to put down this ghost. They fight, Wolverine wins.

While a sense of tastelessness hovers around the story, Vaughan is a talented writer, and he chose his words carefully throughout, choosing symbols and parallels that at first don’t seem quite apparent, which makes it all the more frustrating that he’s delivered such a generic, run-of-the-mill Wolverine story.

There are only three characters, Wolverine, his enemy, and the woman, and the bombing is treated only as an interruption in Wolverine’s conflict with his enemy, something that breaks them up in the 1945 and necessitates a 2008 rematch.

Why go to the trouble of putting Wolverine there at that time, and then simply tell one more story about a woman Wolverine loved, a villain he fought, and how incredible his mutant powers are?

Risso draws a nice double-spread splash of a mushroom cloud, with panels detailing effects of the blast on our scene around it, then there are two pages of Wolverine wandering through deserted Hiroshima large parts of his flesh melted off of his skeleton.

Where did he go? What did he do next? How did the bomb affect his body, his brain, his mind? Did he stick around to help the victims? Did he seek vengeance for them? Did he scramble away in fear of another bomb?

Who knows?

That’s the end of the issue, and the third one deals with the fight in the present, the only flashback being to a conversation between Logan and Atsuko.

Vaughan took the risk of interjecting Wolverine into the very real, very terrible events of Hiroshima, but he retreats from the subject matter as soon as he broaches it.

Because the series was a mere three issues long—adding up to less than 70 pages—the trade includes another 50 pages worth of behind-the-scenes type content. There’s Vaughan’s proposal for the series, the entire script for the first issue, and then some sketches and sample pencil pages of Risso’s.

In the proposal, Vaughan writes, “There are three things I’d like to accomplish with our three-issue miniseries,” and the first is to “Create a story what will showcase the considerable talents of Eduardo Risso…There are countless Marvel readers who have yet to be exposed to Risso’s artwork, and I hope Logan will give fans a chance to see what he does best (sophisticated storytelling, visceral action and beautiful women), while also giving Eduardo an opportunity to stretch his muscles…(costumed heroes, misshapen mutants and period drama)."

The other two goals were to tell an a “classic, ‘evergreen’ adventure” that would go on the shelf next to Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s original Wolverine miniseries, and to show the importance of Japan and World War II in a less cartoonish and “more realistic, relevant” version of events than usual.

The book unquestionably fails on that third goal, and I suppose it will be up to readers over the course of the coming years to determine whether this becomes a classic Wolverine story or not, but Vaughan certainly achieved his first goal: Spotlighting Risso’s talents.

And Marvel was certainly on board with meeting that goal. At least the first individual issue of the series was sold in a regular, colored format (and colorist Dean White does a hell of a job, it should be noted) and in a black-and-white variant format, in which there’s no colorist to get between Risso’s line work and the readers’ eyes. Likewise, Marvel published a hardcover version of this story in which the entire contents of the book were in black and white.

Risso’s definitely out of the comfort zone readers likely associate as his—big city urban crime—but he proves to be not only comfortable but quite capable in the snows of rural Japan. His occasionally quite sparse panels reflect the minimalist aesthetic often associated with that country uncannily, and Risso’s a master of getting a lot out of few lines.

It’s just unfortunate that while Vaughan’s heart may have been in the right place, the story he gave to Risso to draw isn’t a very good one, and is, in fact, fairly impossible to recommend.

Flipping back through it one more time, I see that Risso’s storytelling and acting are so strong that the images tell the basic story all by themselves. So if Marvel really wanted to highlight Risso’s work to their fans, perhaps they would have been better off publishing a wordless version of this instead of a color-less version.

That would have kept all of the book’s virtues, and only cost it its flaws.


Josue said...

I hate how Wolverine, like dracula and other shitty vampires, because of being inmortal, have been in every important event in human history. That, my friend, really sucks

bwmedia said...

Don't forget the immortals of the Highlander series. I'm sure a few of them ended up part of the "big events". At least time travelers have a good excuse.

This is one (but not the main) reason for my hatred of Wolverine.

LurkerWithout said...

From what I remember of the Highlander the only EVENT where McLeod or any of the others was really present was the attempted assassination of Hitler. Though Duncan and one of the other Scottish Immies were part of Prince Charles army during his attempted revolt...

Oh and the writing of Frankenstein. But that was because the series made Lord Byron an Immortal. Who later went on to be a Goth-Metal rock star...