Thursday, 25 July 2013

Essential Wolverine volume 1

Today sees the release of The Wolverine in cinemas. So it's a good time to look at his debut in the Essentials.

Essential Wolverine volume 1 contains the first twenty-three issues of Wolverine's ongoing solo series from 1988. The writing is by first Chris Claremont and then Peter David then Archie Goodwin, whilst the art is mainly by John Buscema and then John Byrne with one issue by Gene Colan. Before anyone asks, there's no reunion of Byrne with Claremont here. Nor for that matter does David work with Byrne.

Back in 1996 when the Essentials were launched the initial strategy was to focus on the big name best selling titles. Three series were picked, one from each of the Silver Age, the Bronze Age and the Modern Age. Wolverine was the most recent of these and over subsequent years his series has consistently remained as the most recent Essential material, always ahead of other series reaching the Modern Age (mainly X-Men, Punisher and X-Factor) with the seventh and latest volume now up to the end of 2000. It's odd to think that this collected edition is now over twice as old as the contents were when it was first published.

Coming out so early in the Essential programme, it seems this volume missed a couple of tricks and there are some obvious absentees. Wolverine had had a couple of earlier mini-series, one solo (on which the movie is based) and one with Kitty Pryde, and 1988 also saw the launch of Marvel Comics Presents, which was a fortnightly anthology that carried a Wolverine story in most issues. Given later practice on the likes of Essential Punisher volume 1 it's likely that had this volume come out later it would have included at least the solo mini-series. Continuous collected editions haven't always worked out the best strategy for handling characters appearing in multiple ongoing titles though, so maybe one day we could see the Marvel Comics Presents material in its own Essential. (The Omnibus edition includes both limited series, early Marvel Comics Presents stories plus the origin saga and various other bits and pieces, with the most interest for this site being the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot from 1986.)

This series is surprisingly self-contained. It's always difficult to take a character from an existing team and give them a solo title without risking either producing rather light-weight tales that try to shift around developments in the ongoing team title, or else produce stories that are effectively just special focus issues of the main title. With Wolverine there's the additional problem that at this stage very little had been revealed about his background and origin beyond the occasional detail that popped up in specific stories. Much would change in the following thirteen or so years, so the early issues of this series would turn out to have been Chris Claremont's last opportunity to set down the character's full origin before others would start fleshing it out. Instead the mystery is broadly maintained with the occasional flashback and hint. One story is a flashback itself - presumably an emergency fill-in structured this way to minimise the amount of tweaking to fit it into the title when used - in which Wolverine tracks down a mercenary who had raped and killed a Canadian nun when attacking and seizing the American embassy in Iraq. Wolverine had been sent in by the Canadian government to rescue their citizens but was too late for some and now seeks revenge. Other issues hint at Wolverine's longevity, such as a moment in issue #5 when Jessica Drew spots a photograph of Wolverine and Chang, but then realises it's a 19th century tintype. Issue #10 contains a flashback to the Canadian frontier when Wolverine's girlfriend, the First Nations woman Silver Fox, was killed by Sabretooth. These various jigsaw pieces hint at a bigger tapestry yet to be revealed.

Instead the focus of the series is very much in the present. I'm only vaguely familiar with X-Men continuity in this period but this volume comes during the time when they had faked their deaths and relocated to the Australian outback. We very occasionally see glimpses of this setting and the other team members, but Wolverine is spending a lot of time away from there, in the east Asian island nation of Madripoor. With one large city by the same name, Madripoor appears to be based on Singapore. The city is full of contrasts, with the Hightown end a wealthy, sophisticated developed city ready for the twenty-first century, and the Lowtown ridden with poverty, crime and decay. "Gomorrah on the Pacific Rim" as Wolverine describes it in issue #17, the city provides a unique backdrop for the series and allows it to go its own way.

Interaction with the wider Marvel universe is surprisingly limited for a late 1980s title. The series launched a couple of months before the beginning of the Inferno crossover that ran in all the other X-Men books and many others in late 1988, but Wolverine side-steps it even though the character took part in the events over in Uncanny X-Men. It undoubtedly helps a new series to establish its own ground by not diving into such giant crossover events so early on. However the series wouldn't stand completely alone for long as issues #19 & #20 are part of the Acts of Vengeance crossover that ran in nearly all the Marvel titles at the time. But it's not too major an interaction with the overall plot as it merely amounts to the Kingpin having sent Tiger Shark to the Latin American country of Tierra Verde to kill the hero La Bandera. It's almost a classic example of how inconsequential many a crossover tie-in issue can be. Otherwise the issues are the middle parts of an ongoing storyline exclusive to the title. Beyond this there are no other crossovers contained here - for some reason Wolverine didn't get any annuals until 1995. Given the series's popularity that's a surprising omission, but it may have been a blessing given how many annuals in this period weren't by the regular creative teams, often contained some awkward continuity and were frequently part of convoluted crossovers.

Guest stars from other titles are rare, unsurprisingly given the series's location, with even the X-Men confined to the occasional cameo. However issues #7 & #8 guest star the Hulk, an appropriate early visitor as Wolverine first appeared in his series, but the Hulk in this era is one of the most unusual depictions of the character of all time. Instead of a stressed Bruce Banner turning into a rampaging green monster, he now turns into a normal intelligence giant grey-skinned man at night (per the very original stories) with the Hulk and Banner each trying to take action to restrain the other. At night, the Hulk works as "Joe Fixit", an enforcer in the Las Vegas underworld, complete with oversized suits. This incarnation can't really remember Wolverine, who finds the situation strange and funny. Amidst the broader backdrop of the criminal struggle in Madripoor we get more comedy as Wolverine manipulates the Hulk into various actions, including being forced to wear nothing but traditional purple trousers and arranging for Banner instead of the Hulk to receive the rewards from grateful women the Hulk has saved. (I've no idea if the Hulk's own series showed Banner - by this stage a married man - partaking in such actions but I guess if it was a problem then Peter David would have retconned it away.) The New Mutant Karma also shows up briefly, drawn into her uncle's criminal business.

But there are two characters added to the supporting cast who had been little seen for some years since the ending of the original Spider-Woman series, namely Jessica Drew and her friend Lindsay McCabe. Jessica has lost most of her powers, though can still stick to walls, and is now working as a private investigator in tandem with Lindsay. The latter is at times used as slight comic relief, but her acting skills are often pushed to the fore. There's no explicit referencing to Jessica's pheromone problem that attracts men and repulses women, or that the effect is reversed with Lindsay, but the two are shown as close and it's good to see characters who had a lot of potential squandered rescued from limbo. It staggers belief that Jessica doesn't recognise "Patch" as Wolverine and it's not until issue #14 that it's explicitly confirmed she's known all along, explaining in the following issue "When somebody with claws and a temper wants to believe he's fooling people, well... no one wants to be the one to say, 'Hey, Wolvie what's with the stupid eyepatch?'" Although a convincing explanation, it takes a long time and a change of writer to appear, suggesting it may not have been part of the original plan. Until then Jessica's failure to state this, even to herself, has made her look particularly foolish given her profession.

Madripoor attracts a wide variety of types that produce an interesting and diverse supporting cast for the series, such as O'Donnell, the co-owner of the Princess Bar frequented by Wolverine, Tai, the Chief of Police, Archie Corrigan, a freelance pilot with an interesting brother, Tyger Tiger, a woman struggling to be the new crimelord of Madripoor, and Prince Baran, the island's ruler. The island's criminal underworld is in a state of flux with General Coy, an ex-Vietnamese general now one of the rival contenders to Tyger. At a lower level the island also attracts various pirates, mercenaries, thugs and enforcers like Bloodsport and Roughouse. On a higher level a major epic struggle for the pieces of a special power source brings conflict with "Ba'al", another demon who gives the impression of being the Devil, and his followers in the form of vampires. A search for a powerful sword brings conflict with the Cult of the Black Blade whilst there are also a few existing foes such as the Silver Samurai. Going global, the trip to Tierra Verde brings conflict with Geist, a cyborg who has advised and manipulated dictators over many decades, including President Caridad, the military dictator (oh what a surprise) of the Latin American country. This also brings Wolverine's first conflict with Tiger Shark, as part of the general Acts of Vengeance theme of heroes battling other heroes' villains for the first time. The climax sees the revelation that tainted cocaine carries Spore, a living ancient biological weapon that enhances bodies before destroying them - the message about the effects of regular drugs is none too subtle.

Sabretooth appears in a flashback and makes his presence known in the present when he disposes of some thugs who attacked Wolverine and leaves a note making it clear only he will get to kill Wolverine. The idea of an unseen foe lurking about and actually saving the hero's life from rival threats is not original but can make for long term fear and anticipation. But it's best not to drag out such a theme for too long - we see the message in issue #10, Claremont's last, but by issue #23, and two writers later, nothing has been done with it. However we do know that Sabretooth was never fooled by the eyepatch.

The aforementioned eyepatch is Wolverine's attempt at a disguise and he uses the alias of "Patch" throughout his time in Madripoor in order to maintain the illusion that he and the other X-Men are dead. His costume doesn't appear until issue #14 and he genuinely believes he's maintaining a semblance of cover, even worrying about using his claws around Jessica and Lindsay lest they realise who he is. Taking heroes out of costumes rarely works for long and so eventually it's no surprise to find he's willing putting it back on. (Incidentally the costume is his second, the brown and orange affair he wore throughout the 1980s. The two pieces of artwork showing him in the yellow and blue costume on the first two covers to this volume are thus seriously inaccurate; the third cover reuses the art from issue #17.) Wolverine is a savage anti-hero and the series doesn't hold back in this regard. Like his contemporary the Punisher, who also only got an ongoing solo series that year, Wolverine has no qualms about killing foes to permanently end their threat. With his claws, metal skeleton, enhanced senses and healing factor, little can stop him.

This is appropriately quite a gritty series that doesn't hold back. Madripoor, or at least the Lowtown, is a dark, seedy world populated by the desperate and Wolverine does what he has to do. The series does spread its wings a bit with two epics, one that includes a brief visit to San Francisco and the other to Tierra Verde, but always the anchor to these tales is Madripoor and it's clear Wolverine enjoys it. Although it could have given a slightly more detailed explanation of the whole situation with the X-Men faking their deaths, this series doesn't rely on any others in order to advance its own stories and even the crossover issues manage to limit the main event to little more than a page that tells us everything we need to know and nothing superfluous to Wolverine. It's good to see such a strong, self-contained series from this era that really succeeds in doing something different from the norm whilst not straying too far from the general conventions.

And although the movie released today is based upon the earlier limited series, there's plenty in this volume that could be the basis for a sequel...

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