Friday, 27 June 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 2

Essential Wolverine volume 2 consists of issues #24-47. The writing sees the end of Peter David's run plus a later fill-in issue, a brief run by (Mary) Jo Duffy and the start of Larry Hama's long run. The art includes a long stretch by Marc Silvestri, plus individual issues by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Bill Jaaska, Larry Stroman and Gerald DeCaire.

Coming from the early years of the Essentials, it's unsurprising that this volume restricts itself solely to Wolverine's main series and does not include his strips from Marvel Comics Presents, with the most notable storyline, "Weapon X", running during the same period. Understandably there's too much Marvel Comics Presents material for later editions to even try to correct the omission, but nor has the series been touched by the Essentials and given its own volume, so once again key Wolverine material has to be sought elsewhere, including a major part of his origin. Fortunately there are no overt references to the Marvel Comics Presents strip, and Wolverine's mysterious past often allows for introductions out of the blue so return appearances by characters introduced in the strip don't stick out, so on a raw reading it's possible to not even realise there were other adventures published that are not included here. But once that awareness is there the lost opportunity stands out all too well.

For those reading just the issues collected here, Wolverine's background remains mysterious to the readers and, at times, to the man himself, not helped by different writers seemingly taking separate approaches to just how much he appears to remember about it. In issue #25 we get offered a possible glimpse at part of his origin. Whilst guarding and babysitting the son of a crimelord, he tells a bedtime story about a Canadian boy who was cast out into the wilderness for being small and weak, but grew up with wolverines and learned to fight when trappers came. It's clear from the pictures just who the boy is intended to be, but is the story meant to be imaginary or is it in fact a true account of Wolverine's past? Later in issue #34 Wolverine thinks to himself that he can't remember a lot of his past and doesn't know how he came to be wandering around the Canadian wilderness. However an old Mountie slowly realises that Wolverine is both a ferocious corporal he served under in the parachute divisions during the D-Day landings and also a stranger he long ago shot at in the wilderness, mistaking him for the beast known as the "Hunter in the Darkness". Subsequently we discover Wolverine is familiar to some participants in the Spanish Civil War but he can't quite remember it until he and Puck get thrown back in time to it (with the complication that Wolverine starts partaking in events and photographs that Puck can't recall him being originally there for). Then Sabretooth claims to be Wolverine's father though a blood test soon disproves it, yet according to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. the claim is based upon a genuine belief, though he won't elaborate on this. Elsewhere issue #26 sees him relive part of his days in Japan and track down the murderer of an old friend. The whole result is a character who remains an enigma but it's not too clear if there's an actual overall plan that the writers are working to, or if they're just tossing out random ideas that will ultimately not all match up.

Peter David's two issues both have the aura of fillers, rather than any substantial conclusion to his run or latter-day revisitation. The first is a piece of macabre humour as an assassin called the "Snow Queen" finds her plans disrupted when a child steals her briefcase, leading to a chase through the back streets of Madripoor and a grim discovery at the end. The second is at the far end of the volume and sees Logan tackling a drug crazed mad man in suburbia who needs to be neutralised, whilst remembering how he and Silver Fox had a dog which caught rabies and had to be put down but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Jo Duffy's work also starts in filler mode, even though it drops in pieces about Wolverine's past in both Japan and the Canadian wilderness, but then switches into another feature common to the era - the multi-part "biweekly" saga when a book's frequency was briefly increased to twice a month (perhaps that's why there's no annual here). "The Lazarus Project" winds up serving as the winding down of the title's "Madripoor era", throwing in a guest appearance by Karma of the New Mutants and the writing out of Jessica Drew and Lindsay McCabe. The story sees Wolverine briefly lose his memory though in the process he experiences the atrocity of a village being wiped out for an utterly insignificant McGuffin.

The arrival of Larry Hama for what would be quite a long run sees a bold shift in the title's focus, with the Madripoor setting and the various supporting characters rapidly abandoned, albeit with a final brief storyline that also takes in a trip to Japan. Taking their place are adventures set mainly back in North America with an increased use of guest stars. Fortunately there aren't any crossovers within this volume, but it feels like the series is being dragged into being a mere offshoot of the main X-Men titles (the last issue in the volume is from about the time when a second X-Men series was launched) rather than continuing to carve out its own distinctive niche. It's a pity, but perhaps Hama didn't have enough confidence in the Madripoor set-up to make it continue to work. Or maybe reader demand wanted Wolverine on more traditional territory. Equally Hama may have been wary of repeating himself. By this time he had about eight years of the G.I. Joe books under his belt and he may have been conscious of having already depicted a man with ninja connections and a mysterious past so there was a risk of turning Wolverine into another Snake-Eyes. Instead Hama's run, or at least the early part reproduced here, takes the series back into the superhero mainstream.

That's not to say there aren't some occasional detours, such as "Blood and Claws" which sees Wolverine, Lady Deathstrike and Puck (from Alpha Flight) temporarily thrown back in time to the Spanish Civil War, with the complications that they are reliving at least Puck's past. Lady Deathstrike remains a constant theme back in the present day, with her Reavers preparing a trap with two robots, one a duplicate of Wolverine dubbed "Albert" and the other a five year old girl called "Elsie Dee" who is largely comprised of explosives. This leads into a lengthy story as the two robots gain increasing intelligence and start to think for themselves, with Elsie Dee coming to admire Wolverine even though she is programmed to get close to him and then automatically detonate the explosives within her. Both Albert and Elsie survive seeming destruction to keep coming back. Just to add to the complications are the return of Sabretooth and the appearance of Cable which is not at all a sales chaser at a time when he was one of the hottest X-Men characters and giving Wolverine a run for his money as the pre-eminent man with a mysterious past. The whole thing is interspersed with encounters with the Morlocks as well as with various one off killers. There's a mad man who enjoys torturing animals until Logan sets a real wolverine on him, and another who murders several pregnant women having discovered one of them will give birth to a baby who will grow up to be something special. On a different level is Molly Doolin, the vengeance seeking daughter of the Canadian Mountie who died pursuing the "Hunter in the Darkness".

Puck, Storm, Forge and Jubilee all make recurring appearances throughout these issues, but there's no real indigenous supporting cast introduced and developed to replace those from the Madripoor days. We're left with just Wolverine himself, a man with a limited past that generates some interest but which can also limit the opportunity for actual development since the past isn't being properly explored here (or the origin of his adamantium being explored elsewhere referenced here). Instead the main focus is on multi-part adventures with lots of action rather than a great deal of development. It was an early sign of the decompression movement that would see comics drawn out without a great deal actually happening in them. This volume also comes from an era when artists were becoming ever more prominent and at times comics slowed stories down just to emphasise the art. It's hard to resist feeling this was the forerunner of the Image style when Marc Silvestri would be one of that company's seven founders.

These issues were originally published in the early 1990s, which was the time when I first discovered Marvel superhero comics - perhaps a slightly later arrival than many but I plead the mitigating circumstances that Marvel UK had largely dropped out of superheroes for four years, focusing instead on licensed toy and TV tie-ins and that Marvel US titles had no distribution that I knew of in my home town (my local newsagent didn't stock any comics at all). I should in theory take to this volume with all the instinctive loyalty that most people have to their personal "Golden Age" in just about anything, with it being the time when they first got drawn in. But instead I find this volume rather washes me over. Perhaps it was because the comics market was simply so large at the time and Wolverine is a distinct niche appeal that didn't draw me in then and so these issues evoke no nostalgia whatsoever now.

It's a pity because whilst there are some good moments and issues within this volume - my favourite is issue #34 with the hunt in the Canadian wilderness - the overall volume sees the series dump its unique setting and tone in favour of a rather generic style. The result is a rather generic and less than spectacular run. Still it does get bonus points for being a series from the era that doesn't get sucked in to endless crossovers.

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