Friday, 5 December 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 3

Essential Wolverine volume 3 contains issues #48-69. Nearly all the issues are written by Larry Hama bar a couple by D.G. Chichester and another by Fabian Nicieza. The early art is mainly by Marc Silvestri and the later by Mark Texeira. Other issues are drawn by Andy Kubert, Darick Robertson, Dave Hoover, Mark Pacella and Dwayne Turner. Bonus material nestling at the back of at least the first edition consists of a two-page pin-up and a one-page gag strip by Chris Giarrusso.

Curiously the second cover for the volume reuses the art originally used for the first cover of volume 2. It's a surprising choice, even though Wolverine does briefly reuse his brown costume in this volume, as by this stage it was more common to reuse the cover of one of the issues in a given volume. Although a lot of the issues have over specific covers that may not have been suitable, either issue #64 or #67 would have done the job, both depicting sufficiently generic scenes.

One of the slightly irritating features is that, in the first edition at least, the covers sometimes appear at the end of an issues instead of at the start. The cause is the widespread use of double page splashes that was a popular trend in the early 1990s, even though printing was often prone to misaligning the pages so the two halves didn't always sync up and/or dialogue could get lost at the page fold. (Fortunately the double page spreads here manage to keep the dialogue in places where it can be read.) The approach here may be a necessity to avoid blank pages and squeeze one further issue in, although as discussed below there would have been good reasons to leave #69 out. But one consequence is that it is sometimes easy to miss the change between issues (and the title page isn't always the first one) and it's also harder to locate an individual one. Another, minor, problem of the era was the tendency to occasionally use colour for some words in speech bubbles; the early editions simply display a few blank spaces as a consequence.

This volume builds heavily upon the revelations in the "Weapon X" storyline in Marvel Comics Presents to the point that I feel that that should have been included in the run (and may well have been if the Essentials hadn't got to Wolverine until about a decade later but then they needed the most popular series to establish themselves with). However even without direct experience of the storyline or characters such as "the Professor" or Carol Hines, both of whom reappear here, it's fairly easy to follow the flow of events. Almost all of this volume covers a period in which Wolverine is struggling with implants in his mind that have created false memories. His searches bring him to the sets on which these memories were acted out and he's left wondering just what, if anything, actually did happen with his relationship with Silver Fox by far the most uncertain and painful of the memories. Several other Weapon X participants - Sabretooth, Maverick, Silver Fox, Mastodon, and Kestrel/John Wraith - appear throughout the run and they've all had similar implants, which are ultimately traced to Psi-Borg. At one stage an attempt to undo the blocks leads to Wolverine believing it's 1968 and going to a former Soviet republic in order to carry out a mission once more and it's hard to tell when it's the present day and when it's 1968 until he puts on his costume. Although the implants are ultimately removed from Wolverine's mind, a major consequence is that a lot of the small revelations about his past are now suspect, thus restoring mystery to the character.

This brings up the basic problem with keeping characters enigmatic in the long run. Either their past is kept an overall mystery forever, resulting in confusion and contradiction as little pieces slip through without due regard for one another, or else big revelations have to be undone to throw the past back into the melting pot. Whilst the basics of how he acquired the adamantium and claws or his work for the CIA are retained, enough question marks are opened up to make most of his previous specific memories now questionable. And it's not just Wolverine alone who is put through this - Sabretooth also has his past challenged and so now it's even more open to question whether or not he is Wolverine's father. Silver Fox also finds some of her memories have been constructed and it adds to the tension as we slowly discover just how much of her and Wolverine's remembered past actually happened.

The Weapon X project and his time as a government agent aren't the only parts of Wolverine's past to be touched on. We get a return visit to Japan which brings conflict with both the Hand ninjas and Cylla, one of the Reavers' cyborgs, as well as old friends such as Yukio and Mariko. There's a moving end to the story of Mariko as she agrees to a deal to end the illegal operations of the Yashida clan but one of the terms is that she cut off one of her fingers. She agrees only to discover the knife is poisoned and in order to avoid a painful death she begs Wolverine to use his claws to kill her quickly. Silver Fox also comes to a nasty end as Psi-Borg makes Sabretooth recreate the murder Logan remembers, only this time it is for real. On a more general X-Men level there's an encounter with Mojo who is once again trying to exploit events to generate profitable entertainment, this time trying to tamper with the Big Crunch at the end of the universe. The last issue begins a storyline in the Savage Land where Sauron has taken the leadership of the Mutates but the volume ends after only the first issue.

The volume introduces a number of new foes, some of whom offer greater staying power than others. Shiva is a robot controlled by a computer program and sent to dispose of Wolverine and other products of the Weapon X project. Every time the robot is destroyed a new one is dispatched with knowledge of past defeats. The robots the program is limited but we don't see a definite ending to the supply. Also coming from the project is Psi-Borg aka Aldo Ferro, the crime boss who invested in the Weapon X project in the hope of prolonging his life and who has the power to manipulate minds and memories. From Wolverine's past missions comes Epsilon Red, a Soviet super soldier very similar in appearance to Omega Red (the main difference is in their colouring which is lost here) who was meant to be the first man on the moon but the project was abandoned and he was left unable to fulfil his dreams of the stars. Some more mundane foes have been lifted from contemporary trends, such as the Vidkids, a gang of youths who are murdering the Morlocks merely for kicks, or the Nature Defense League, a team of radical eco-terrorists. The most significant member is their leader Monkeywrench with his explosive spikes; curiously he debuts in an issue by D.G. Chichester when the reuse of a name from G.I. Joe suggests Larry Hama's hand in his creation.

This may be one of the most recent runs to have appeared in the Essentials but there are still moments when it shows its age. In issue #50 Logan obtains a file on him from the National Security Agency which Professor X estimates to have over 50,000 pages of words and just as many visual pages. It has had to be stored on no less than two shoeboxes worth of floppy disks. Even by the time the volume was first printed in 1998 this was almost ancient computing history as larger memory formats such as writeable CDs and Zip disks were already around, although neither drive was standard issue with computers available on the high street (though you could usually read a writeable CD on a standard CD-ROM drive) and there was a bit of a format battle amongst industry and niche users. What's even more amazing is that this file has been sent over a modem, which makes me suspect that Larry Hama was not terribly familiar with either the terminology or the contemporary capacity as Logan has the full file by the next day but in reality this would have taken a bit longer. Elsewhere Wolverine's 1968 mission revisited takes him to the country of "Kazakh" - I'm not sure if this was a thin attempt to disguise a real country or an alternate name proposed for Kazakhstan in the early post-Communist years that never caught on.

On a more general level the volume shows the era's predilection for long running storylines in which individual issues can be read quite quickly instead of intense one-off storylines. And often the comics are exceptionally art heavy, most obviously seen with the heavy use of double-page spreads, stemming from an obsession with art over plot that infected part of the comics industry in the period. This makes for a fast read in collected form but originally these issues came out over a space of nineteen months (with a couple of periods when the series went semi-monthly) and it must have been maddening to readers to have such a detailed storyline drag out for so long, made worse by the occasional fill-in issues.

I don't normally comment on pin-ups included in these volumes but the one here is an awful example of how comics in this era sometimes let the art take priority over basic reading. In order to appreciate it one has to turn the book on its side for an excessive two pages when the same could have been achieved in one. Luckily none of the issues in this volume fell for this reader unfriendly practice. The gag strip is an early example of the Mini Marvels feature (though it's branded only as "An Untold Tale of Wolverine") that rips into the "Patch" disguise of just an eyepatch, especially compared to other such paper thin disguises. It's okay for what it is but the target of the joke is dated as Wolverine hasn't used the "Patch" identity since midway through the previous volume.

Issue #69 is the first issue of a multi-part storyline and the result is that this volume ends on a cliffhanger. It took only eight years before volume 4 came out, a rather longer wait than that for the same numbered Spider-Man and X-Men volumes which also deployed this approach (at least in the first editions). Thankfully the Essentials subsequently adopted more flexible lengths to ensure the volumes end at neater points (though it's also a relief that they didn't start putting out new editions of the Wolverine volumes with the contents shifted about).

Overall this collected edition has been to the issues' benefit. Individually the main storyline may have run on for rather too long and also suffered from a perceived need to spotlight the art above all else, but when brought together the whole thing makes for a strong coherent read. It's almost a pity that issue #69 was included, not just because of the cliffhanger but also because issues #48 to #68 make for a broadly complete package with only a few side-shows and interventions (issues #58 & #59 not only feel like fill-ins but explicitly interrupt the ongoing narrative and say so) and this would have been one of the rare times when an Essential volume maps exactly to a major epic storyline.

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