Monday, June 25, 2012

Some disjointed thoughts on Wolverine By Greg Rucka Ultimate Collection


I saw this big, fat, somewhat absurdly-titled trade paperback sitting among the new ones in the young adult section of my library a few times, but I didn't actually pick it up and take it home with me until I was heading out of town for a few days and knew I'd have plenty of down time to kill. In other words, this wasn't a book that screamed "Read me!" so much as a book I looked at and thought, "I'd read that."

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It collects the first 19 issues of the Wolverine title that was launched in 2003, spanning three story arcs within a larger story arc all written by Greg Rucka and drawn primarily by Darick Robertson. It was likely a relaunched version of whatever the Wolverine title had going on before 2003, and it resumed its existence as a more straightforward superhero story with that twentieth issue, in which Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. took over and turned out a story arc with no more plot than this: Wolverine, now wearing his yellow costume and calling himself Wolverine again, fights the entire Marvel Universe.

That was probably regarded as something of an antidote to the Rucka run, during which Wolverine never wore a costume, his affiliation with superheroes or the Marvel Universe in general was only occasionally and seemingly reluctantly referenced, and he never went by anything other than "Logan."

In the rear-view mirror, the run was quite an aberration, a rather realistic take that eschewed pandering to the regular Marvel Universe audience in order to seek out potential readers who liked what they saw in the X-Men movies, or were intrigued with the idea of a stoic bad-ass type who could summon knives from his knuckles to kill bad guys in need of killing.

I guess Rucka and Marvel never found that audience, or didn't find them in sufficient numbers to keep this take on the character and the book going; in the third and final story arc of Rucka's run, Wolverine's archenemy Sabretooth re-surfaces, and there are riffs on the old "Weapon X" aspect of Wolverine's fictional history, making it the most Marvel-ous of the three. When Millar came aboard, his first issue had Wolverine bouncing around panels filled with Nick Fury, Elektra, Kitty Pryde, The Hand and SHIELD.

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Rucka's Wolverine launched during what was a pretty exciting time for Marvel, when the publisher seemed to be trying new things on the regular, with those new things often designed to appeal to people who didn't already read Marvel comics religiously. It's hard to even imagine today, but it wasn't that long ago that Grant Morrison was writing one X-Men comic, while Peter Milligan and Mike Allred were creating another X-Men comic.

I read this series as it was published serially for a story arc and a half; it was one of the many examples of the time of Marvel hiring creators who worked primarily at DC, DC's Vertigo imprint, and/or indie comics to come on board and breathe fresh life into their characters. Whiteout, Queen and Country and Batman writer Greg Rucka teaming with Transmetropolitan artist Darick Robertson for a new series starring the coolest X-Men? Hell yeah, sign me up!

Serially, the series was a real drag. This was during the period in which Marvel went out of their way to make their covers as bland and indistinct as possible—the idea was to shoot for "iconic" poses on every cover, the result being that the cover for any issue of a particular comic could be swithched out for any other.

On Wolverine, it meant painted images of the character by Esad Ribic (although Leanardo Fernandez would later take over), posing with his claws before a generic or minimal background, generally looking taller, slimmer, more handsome and with longer hair than Robertson's squatter, hairer more trollish character within. The guy on the cover looked like Hugh Jackman with better hair, the guy inside looked like comic book Wolverine (which I suppose is apropos...whenever they make films based on a real person, the actors in the films are generally better-looking, right...?)

A side-effect of this, however, was that I would often see issues of the book on the shop rack and neglect to pick them up because I thought I had already read that issue, or I wouldn't even notice it there. This happened a lot with Marvel's back then, with Timothy Bradstreet creating a new cover of Frank Castle standing there holding a gun each month for the Garth Ennis-written Punisher books or Utlimate Spider-Man, the first few years of which had practically identical covers month in and month out.

The interiors of Wolverine were similarly similar each month, and sometimes a flip-through wouldn't reveal whether or not you had already read the issue. The writing was of course de-compressed, and whether Rucka was necessarily writing for the trade or not, his pacing was slow and deliberate.

I dropped the book an issue or two into the second arc, "Coyote Crossing," out of boredom with it.

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At the time, I assumed the book was going for a filmic feel, given how the character was redesigned to match Jackman's portrayal in the X-Men movies (The second X-Men film opened the same year the book was released), but rereading it now, it seems more like it was written so as to resemble a television drama, of the hour-long sort you might see on a cable or premium channel. Unfortunately, it's paced so that every story arc would be an episode of the Wolverine television show that existed in Rucka's mind, rather than every issue, so it would take six months to "watch" each episode, with the only really complete stories being the little epilogues between them, during which Logan meets Nightcrawler, who is also out of costume and never referred to as "Nightcrawler" in a mutant bar with the unlikely name of The Box to talk about the action of the previous arc and weigh in on the issues that troubled Logan's soul—was he more animal than man, basically.

The budget seems television-low; there's some action in the first two arcs, but it's just gun-play and stabbing, nothing very dramatic. I don't even recall anything in the way of an explosion (Contrast that to Millar's first issue which, if I recall correctly, involved ninja fights, a flying aircraft carrier and an underwater fight to the death with a Great White shark).

It's not until the third arc that Wolverine fights anyone with super-powers, or fights army helicopters.

In live-action, you wouldn't need much in the way of special effects.

His opponents are realistic, power-less guys who don't need spandex or capes. There's a cult-leader with a soul patch and teardrop tatoo named Cry, a Mexican drug runner and people smuggler, and a couple of corporate suits, who hire actual super-villain Sabretooth, but who is only referred to as "Victor" or "Creed" and who wears street clothes (I never understood Sabretooth's costume—was it a fur-collared spandex bodysuit, with a Gambit-style built-in head-band....?)

There's also a new, original supporting cast, which include a guy who owns a gun shop that Wolvie goes to to get information from, and The Generic Greg Rucka Woman, a hard-man law enforcement/military type who just so happens to be a woman.

In this iteration, she's an ATF agent named Cassie who has a chance encounter with Logan and spends the first two story arcs trying to figure out who he is, what he's all about and, eventually, bedding him.

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These read much better in trade, where one need not wait a month between story beats, and run the risk of forgetting half of what's going on in each issue. It may feel like a paper version of Wolverine: The Series, but at least you get to watch the entire episode—or three!—in a row. Removing Wolverine from his usual trappings is also surprisingly refreshing, and Rucka's aversion to showing Wolverine-being-Wolverine comes off as purposeful, tasteful restraint when read all at once like this.

For example, his healing factor is teased in the first issue, as are his senses, and while he pops his claws a few times, Robertson doesn't drawn them on panel for a few issues; we only "hear" the SNIKT sound effects, and see the effects of his claws. For example, in once scene, he takes a crooked gun-dealer's pistol from him, turns his back to him and, a SNIKT later, hands him back the pistol in neatly cut pieces, like some sort of magic trick.

It's not until the climax of the first story that we see Logan with all his claws out, and leaping into action; it's a striking use of a splash, with a spread featuring 13-panels giving way to a double-page splash, featuring a huge image of an animalistic, screaming Wolveine leaping claws-first at the viewer, teh background a solid field of red.

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The stories are these: "Brotherhood," "Coyote Crossing" and "Return of the Native."

In the first, Logan's next door neighbor, a troubled seventeen-year-old girl, is gunned down by automatic weapon fire, and, when he steps in to intervene, so is he. He tracks her killers, eventually finding a weird cult that has taken over an entire town, and crossing paths with Cassie for the first time.

In the second, he stumbles across a human smuggling operation, which sends him south of the border to find the monster behind it, and the identity of the head of the criminal organization was a nice, effective twist that made for a dramatic moment for the character.

In the third, Victor Creed is hunting "The Native," a Weapon X alum who has gone feral in Canada, and some people seem to think she's some kind of Bigfoot now. Handily defeated by her, Creed sends Wolverine looking for her, and follows Wolverine, as he's easier fro Creed to track. Wolvie and the Native fall-in lust—amusingly, going feral means she has waist-length dreadlocks and dresses in animal skins, but she still shaves her legs and armpits, as the sexy feral wolf lady still has to meet the traditional Madison Avenue standards of beauty—we can't have Wolverine copulating (and impregnating!) a woman as hairy as he is!

As I said, this is the most superhero-y of the three, with three super-powered characters, and the most supervillain-y of the bad people Wolverine encounters, a mad scientist lady named Vapor who wears spandex in one scene and may or may not be a recurring X-Men villain (If an X-Men character wasn't prominently featured in more than one episode of the 90s cartoon on Fox, chances are I won't recognize them in a comic book).

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They're pretty good action genre comics, made with a high degree of craft, and they were enjoyable read in this particular package. Rucka finds a character hook to Wolverine, one that's or more less essential to the character—am I man or an animal, does doing bad things make me a bad person, will I ever learn to control my animalistic berserker rage, etc—and has him wrestle with them more or less subtly (few of the issues are narrated by anyone, and none of them are narrated Chris Claremont style).

This, and the relationship with Cassie, is the one constant in the book, although the Cassie plot disappears in the third story, perhaps to make room for the other characters.

De-coupling Wolverine from the X-Men (for the most part) and the Marvel Universe in general (again, for the most part) made for an easier, less new-reader hostile experience, but it was also somewhat surreal.

It would be understandable in a Wolverine TV show or movie, but it was strange reading a Wolverine comic book in which a federal agent spends so much time trying ot figure out who the short, hairy, wolfman guy with Civil War sideburns driving around on a motorcycle righting wrongs by stabbing dozens of bad guys to death might be. Was he man or animal? Did he even exist?

Maybe Wolverine usually wore a mask when the X-Men or Avengers were on the news or whatever, but still, there can't be that many guys with knuckle-knives, can there? And certainly mutants and super-people have to be a pretty common thing in the Marvel Universe of the 21st century, right?

It's also pretty jarring because Rucka sets the stories in this story-universe apparently devoid of knowledge of Logan, Wolverine and mutants and superheroes in general, but then we'll get an issue like #6, wherein Wolverine has a drink with Nightcrawler in a mutant bar and they talk about Colossus and Kitty Pryde and so on. The book thus had a very convenient relationship with continuity and the Marvel Universe as a shared setting, which I found fairly amusing.

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Also amusing? The cover for Wolverine #6?

Why is Nightcrawler naked? Why does it look like the cover of a romance novel? It looks like this would be the cover to some X-Men yaoi/slash fiction paperback novel that exists in an alternate universe.

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Also convenient? In the first issue, Wolverine is unable to protect the teenager girl he spends the first story arc attempting to avenge. Even though he lives right across the hall from her, and even though that very night she warned him that she needs protection, two guys with automatic weapons shoot her to death through her door and, when Wolverine comes out of his room, they shoot him to death too.

Well, he lives because of his healing factor, but he totally let the girl get killed. Later he would kill those same two dudes...plus 25 other dudes, all at once.

I realize the girl had to die and he had to fail to protect her in order to move the story in the direction Rucka wanted it to go, but it was hard to reconcile the unstoppable killing-machine with super-human senses version of the character to the one who lets a girl get chopped up with bullets right under his super-nose, and gets filled full of lead himself.

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What's the closest close-up you've ever seen of Wolverine's nipples? Is it this scene?



Robertson drew the hell out of Wolverine's nipples, didn't he?

Oh, and if you're wondering what the hell is going on in that completely out-of-context series of three panels in which we see Wolverine's nipples up close, this is the morning after he has been shot to death (or what would be shot to death if he didn't have a healing factor), and apparently his skin has healed up over some of the bullets, so he's cutting open his skin in order to pop the bullets out of his body.

That guys is so gross.

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Please note that while the only artist I've mentioned doing interiors was Robertson, Fernandez actually draws the "Coyote Crossing" storyline. His art is fine, and while it doesn't mesh as well with Robertson's as would be ideal, he's a good artist who doesn't clash with Robertson's art style either.

If you need more than one artist on a superhero monthly, that's the smart way to do it, have the artists each draw distinct story arcs.

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Here's a badly-scanned page form the final story arc, in which Wolverine fights a bunch of black helicopters to try and save his new feral girlfriend.

Do you remember that part in X-Men Origins: Wolverine where Wolverine fought a helicopter? That was my favorite part of the movie. In fact, it was the only part of the movie I liked, except for the part where the kindly old couple that adopted Wolverine over night gut killed, which was pretty funny, not because I am psycho who thinks it's funny when kindly old people get murdered, but because the film took such pains to force them to be Wolverine's surrogate parents for, like, one scene before killing them off just to make Wolverine slightly madder.

Anyway, that movie came out in 2009, and this story took place in 2004 or so. Did the people who made the movie steal Wolverine vs. Helicopter from this old Greg Rucka comic, or is Wolverine fighting helicopters, like, a thing? A thing that's been going on for years and years, like Daredevil beating up bar-goers?

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So, Wolverine By Greg Rucka Ultimate Collection? You could read it.

2 comments:

A Hero said...

I imagine the first line of dialog from that X-Men yaoi/slash fiction would be: "Unglaublich mein freund, I seem to have teleported out of my clothes!"

LurkerWithout said...

Vapor is one of the U-Foes, a group who gained powers in the same way as the Fantastic Four but became mid-tier crooks instead. They're originally Hulk enemies IIRC...