Friday, 11 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 6

Essential Wolverine volume 5 consists of issues #111 to #128 including the oddly numbered #-1 issue from "Flashback Month" and also "Wolverine '97", that year's annual. The writing sees the end of Larry Hama's run, including #-1, followed by stints by Warren Ellis, Tom DeFalco and Chris Claremont with the annual by John Ostrander and Joe Edkin. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu, with contributions by Anthony Winn, Cary Nord, Denys Cowan, Stephen Platt and Angel Unzueta plus issue #127 by, get ready for it, Leinil Francis Yu, Carlos Pacheo, Cary Nord, Jeff Matsuda, Melvin Rubi and Mike Miller. The annual is by Leonardo Manco. With lots of creators, naturally there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains a five issue run consisting of issues from one event and then one crossover, coming at an unfortunate moment for the title. "Flashback Month" was a curious event run by Marvel in May 1997 whereby nearly every title had a special issue set way back in the pre-super-hero days before Fantastic Four #1, with the logo, art, lettering and colouring all adopting a simpler form reminiscent of those days, Stan Lee introducing each story in person and the regular numbering being set aside in favour of "Minus 1". The odd numbering alone has made these issues rather a pain to find at times and it wouldn't have been to surprising if this one had been left out of this volume by mistake. But the event is also remembered for the way it backfired heavily on Marvel with sales actually dropping and many retailers finding even their caution was insufficient with some regular buyers rejecting the Flashback issues as out of continuity and out of sequence and thus easy to ignore. The event seems to have put off special odd numbering for a good while but otherwise carries a reputation for retro set issues that rudely interrupted series mid-story, random continuity based adventures featuring characters with no powers interacting with odd combinations of guest stars, dodgey continuity by newer writers not yet up to speed on the rather random histories of certain characters, and the seeding of big plans by writers who would be off the title before they could get round to following them up. It was further hampered by most of the Marvel titles at the time not actually featuring characters who had been around in the Silver Age - a big chunk was temporarily absent due to the Heroes Reborn experiment - and so the stories would be even more strained.

The Wolverine #-1 issue is a mixed offender. It actually came out between storylines, with "Operation: Zero Tolerance" starting the following month, and is written by the series's long term writer who by now was very familiar with the character and what had been revealed of his background. It also has the advantage of being set after Wolverine acquired the adamantium and claws and so provides a suitable dose of nostalgia as we see an amnesiac Wolverine on an early adventure encountering Sabretooth and not knowing him, then facing off against Hydra agents amidst a backdrop of various agencies of various governments all having their own agendas for Wolverine. There are cameos by James and Heather Hudson, Ben Grimm, Nick Fury, Carol Danvers and the Black Widow, all trying for false nostalgia but not really generating the spark. Ultimately tales of sinister government agencies are a more recent phenomenon and rather undermine the attempts to create a pseudo-1961 style whilst most of the cameos have been thrown in for the sake of it. There's no real revelations in this story beyond showing how Wolverine came to like cigars - hardly the most pressing thing needing an origin - and nothing set up for the future. It doesn't even serve as a good introduction to the series for any readers drawn to the special issue. All in all this is one of the worst examples of event comics.

After such a long run, it's a pity that the last five months of Larry Hama's time on the title are taken up with one event or another. "Operation: Zero Tolerance" was the big X-Men crossover in the summer of 1997, seeing the mysterious Bastion utilising a new type of Sentinel/human hybrid to bring mutants under control with government backing. A number of the X-Men get captured and taken to the old Hulkbuster base where they seek to escape, rescue other captives including Jubilee and fend off another round of Sentinel hybrids. It's rather dragged out over four issues that at times feel like they belong more in the pages of X-Men or Uncanny X-Men than in Wolverine, though at least this part of the storyline doesn't weave in and out of different titles and thus slow down this collection. What makes the story hard to follow here is that it starts with the X-Men already captured and arriving at the Hulkbuster base and then after four issues it ends on a cliffhanger involving Cyclops that is resolved in another title and thus not in this volume. It's a pity as this series has normally managed to stand pretty well on its own without needing lots of additional comics just to understand what's going on but here it rather slips up and the result is four inconsequential issues that make for a very disappointing end to Larry Hama's run.

It appears this wasn't planned, as Hama's last non-event issues seem to be building up both a new status quo and long-term threads. After coming back to the X-Men's mansion Wolverine decides he is better heading out on his own elsewhere and settles in a suburb of New York, taking a job at a construction site and developing a friendship with his female foreman. At the same time, Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman and Lake entrusts Wolverine with protecting a mysterious cube. The spirit of Wolverine's old mentor Ogun attacks, possessing a succession of Wolverine's friends and the affair also attracts the interest of Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. All in all it's a very so-so take that is clearly meant as the foundation for something bigger, but as is so often the case with a change of writers, and particularly with fill-ins between them, both the new status quo and the grand plans are abandoned amidst the changeover. As a result even Hama's last non-event storyline is a disappointment and so he leaves the title with his best days clearly behind him.

Hama's departure is followed by a variety of fill-in writers, none of whom lasts any distance of time. The most common feature is a resort to Wolverine's past to pull out a previously unmentioned character to drive the story, starting with the annual in which he revisits the time he was on a mission to aid a scientist defecting from the Soviet Union only for the Soviet agent "Wolf" to intercept them, killing the scientist but letting Wolverine and the scientist's daughter escape. Now the Wolf has returned, having been genetically enhanced with the DNA of his animal namesake and seemingly seeking revenge on Wolverine and the daughter. Over in the regular series there's a four-part epic involving a mercenary known as McLeish or the "White Ghost" from Wolverine's time in Hong Kong who killed Logan's girlfriend's father for the Triads and in return Logan believed he'd killed him. Now it seems McLeish has survived and is subjecting Wolverine to a gauntlet of hire killers in revenge. It's a tough thriller but it's also about two issues too long for all that it actually does.

There's another encounter with Roughouse and Bloodscream from the Madripoor era, followed by a team-up with Captain America against a bunch of killers using invisibility technology. The final showdown takes place before an audience at a time when Cap is experiencing a huge surge of popularity to almost religious levels, making for quite a contrast between his reception and the way Wolverine is normally responded to, if at all. But both these tales are simply marking time.

The final four-part storyline in this volume sees the return of Chris Claremont to the series, after having been away from the mutant titles and Marvel as a whole for nearly seven years. And it's a story arc that suggests that his absence was for the better as we get a storyline packed with guest appearances, silliness and unexplained developments. The anniversary issue #125 brings together a wide range of Wolverine's female allies from over the years, serving to underline his ties and also to allow for a passing back of the torch from Jubilee to Shadowcat as the innocent youthful sidekick. But the whole thing gets messier and messier as the Viper brainwashes many of the women and both Jubilee and Wolverine are forced to relive past actions by both themselves and others. Most of this part of the plot is ditched once the anniversary issue is over and the focus turns to the wedding of Wolverine and the Viper for frankly incomprehensible reasons. Just to add to the mix, Hydra and the Hand team up to take over Madripoor whilst Sabretooth, now enhanced with an adamantium skeleton, shows up to attack Wolverine but then unites with Shadowcat to save Madripoor from take-over. It's a tangled web of shifting alliances, complicated further by a protracted sequence in which Wolverine seeks to pick off Hydra agents by convincing them the Hulk and members of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men are all in town, simulating various heroes' powers with movie effects. The whole thing reads like a mishmash of various Claremont obsessions over the years that have been shoved in a blender and poured out in an incoherent whole, made worse by some rush work on the art including issue #127 having no less than six different artists. The one good idea in the whole mix is Sabretooth being enhanced and deadlier than ever, making for very tense encounters between him and Wolverine, but it is sidelined in the rush to get through everything else. All in all it's a rather messy ending to the volume but a symbolic sign of the incoherence that has plagued it.

This volume is a classic example of how a series can get into a mess when a long term writer moves on and there's no clear plan in place for what to do with the series, resulting in a protracted set of fill-ins and overlong storylines that meander about, doing nothing to develop the character or take the series forward. What should have been a triumphant return by Claremont, and which was doubtlessly highly anticipated as such, instead turns into an incoherent mess as far too many elements get chucked into a single storyline without proper explanation. The volume is also let down by having to contributed to the overlong "Operation: Zero Tolerance" crossover and the "Flashback Month" event where neither of these contributes anything of significance to the series. Overall this is quite a poor volume.

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