Friday, 25 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 7

Essential Wolverine volume 7 contains issues #129 to #148 plus the crossover issue Hulk #8. Surprisingly absent is the 1999 annual. Most of the volume, including the Hulk issue, is written by Erik Larsen, at times collaborating with Eric Stephenson or Fabian Nicieza. Early issues are by Todd Dezago with one script by Brian K. Vaughan. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu and Jeff Matsuda, with contributions by Cary Nord, Ron Jensen, Mike Miller and Roger Cruz, with the Hulk issue by Ron Garney.

This is the Essential volume with the most recent material of all, covering the series from the late 1990s. But it also covers Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary and contains a good number of hat-tips to his previous adventures in a suitably nostalgic mode. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans for Wolverine can clash with wider plans for the X-Men family of titles, as we will come to see.

The first few issues show a series in the traditional problem as it looks for an ongoing writer and marks time with a series of rather forgettable fill-in issues. The main theme here is of monsters in one form or another, with Wolverine facing off against the latest incarnation of the Wendigo, an alien spider in the Himalayas and a wife beater. There's a brief nod to the recent marriage to the Viper when she persuades Wolverine to go the Himalayas after a Hydra expedition failed but otherwise this is a plot point that will soon be forgotten. Issue #131 originally had a notorious error when "killer" was accidentally lettered as "kike" but this edition use the corrected version rapidly put out instead. Issue #132 shows that not all monsters are creatures with the return of the Higgins family who live near the X-Men's mansion; when the mother is found dead and the daughter badly injured Wolverine goes in pursuit of the father who has fled, taking the son with him. It's a good focus as Wolverine contemplates how his prior demonstration of his humanity by not killing the father has led to this, but there's a twist at the end. But overall the book has been floundering for ages with no clear permanent writer and that has to change.

That change and more comes with the arrival of Erik Larsen. Right from the outset there's a real sense of a determination to do things differently from the traditional style, with ninjas and the Far East both notably absent during the run. Instead there's a move towards more traditional elements of the Marvel universe, including an issue when it seems just about every second tier hero available in New York goes after Wolverine in quick succession. The idea of Wolverine confronting Galactus seems absurd but it manages to work in its own way. That's not to say there aren't appearances by various X-Men or Alpha Flight in the process but overall we get a different and strong take on the series that seeks to put the hero through different situations from before.

The run kicks off with the six-part saga "The Great Escape" although notably only the first issue carries the banner on the cover. It sees a steadily expanding scope, beginning in a bar with Wolverine and Warbird (formerly Ms. Marvel and Binary and have I left any identities out?) and then steadily expanding through "Too many guest stars to count!" before taking Wolverine out into space to a prison planet run by the Collector and containing both the Starjammers and Torgo, a rarely seen robot from the pages of Fantastic Four. He's aided in all this by Aria, an alien who can possess others' bodies and makes the classic mistake of acting first to grab help rather than seeking to persuade it first but despite this Wolverine comes anyway. However, there's a twist as Wolverine discovers the purpose of Prison World only after he destroys its defences and reveals its location, leading to the oncoming destruction. There's a strong theme of failing to consider and explain throughout the arc with the Collector, Aria and Wolverine all arrogantly thinking they know best and not discussing it with others, resulting in tragic consequences. The battle with Galactus is as one-sided as you'd expect but Wolverine isn't under any illusion that he can do anything beyond buying a little time. His bone claws prove ineffective at a critical moment, reinforcing the need to regain his adamantium and overall it's a much humbler Wolverine who returns to Earth after realising his blundering and weaknesses have had major consequences. This is a very different type of tale from the normal Wolverine saga but it never loses sight of the character regardless of the situation he's in. It bodes well for the rest of the run.

Unfortunately there's not too much space available to do a great deal before the series has to cover two big events that will take in the last third or so of the volume. So in the three issues before that we get a team-up with Cable against the geneticist Arnim Zola, then a team-up with Nightcrawler to battle first some androids and then Cardiac and Solo, two less well remembered mercenaries, and finally a team-up with Jubilee to battle Donald Pierce, with some help from the mysterious Khyber. Spot the pattern? It's as though the title is turning into a Wolverine team-up series without explicitly acknowledging this is where it's going, though at least most of the guest stars and villains so far have a history with Wolverine. But team-up titles are rarely the place to really develop the lead character due to the ever-changing supporting case and demands from other series. And Khyber is poorly explained, appearing to be a cyborg version of Wolverine without any acknowledgement at all of the similar Albert but this isn't explicitly stated; nor does he appear to be a foreshadow of what is to come. As a whole these stories are mixed and not really offering too much excitement or a sense of the way forward for the series. But first it's going to look back a bit.

With Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary falling in 1999 it was inevitable that there'd be some revisiting although to its credit the series doesn't explicitly ram home the point until the main anniversary issue itself. In the meantime the series starts with a two part team-up with Alpha Flight, which primarily serves to undo all manner of changes made over the years, resurrecting characters, killing off duplications, ending relationships and demoting members such that by the end the story has re-established the line-up of the original team plus Puck. Given Wolverine's early history with Alpha Flight it's understandable that such big changes could take place here but a lot of these changes are implemented in a very sweeping manner with a number of the lesser characters written out in a flashback that explains their demotion to Beta Flight, leaving the main story to focus on Wolverine and the restored original team invading an AIM base to rescue Guardian where they battle with Modok and also Kane from the Weapon X programme. It falls to a back-up story in the second issue to sort out some of the detail though not every aspect of latter day Alpha Flight continuity is addressed, leaving this as one of the more blundering retcons ever carried out.

Wolverine's first appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk gets a latter-day revisit in a two-part crossover with that series in its renumbered and (temporarily) renamed form. We get a flashback story set immediately before the first appearance as the Leader kidnapped Wolverine, Hercules and Karkas of the Eternals as part of a plan to use them against the Hulk. It's a suitably nostalgic piece that shows us Wolverine in his first days in the original costume without simply retelling his debut story. This helps set the scene for a modern day rematch as Wolverine once again gets sent by a government agency to tackle the Hulk in the Canadian wilderness, leading to a fierce fight in which both combatants seem somewhat out of character even before Tyrannus takes over the Hulk's mind. Wolverine is especially brutal, temporarily blinding the Hulk with his claws in order to level the odds, as though the battle is a rejoinder to the many past clashes between the two.

And then comes the big anniversary issue but the whole thing is deflected by being caught up in the lead in to the next big X-Men crossover "Apocalypse: The Twelve". Worse still issue #145 opens as though it's flashing back to events in other titles that contain one of the most significant revelations going. Once again this series sees a major event in the lead character's life take place elsewhere. And we get a mind-numbing retcon that can be summed up as "Skrulls? Yeeesh!"

It's revealed that for a number of issues (but just how many of this series is unclear as the revelations are anchored to recent events in X-Men) that Wolverine has been a prisoner of Apocalypse who has transformed him into his new Horseman Death, including restoring the adamantium skeleton and claws by taking the metal from Sabretooth. Wolverine's long-time nemesis is seemingly dispatched in a quick flashback, in order to demonstrate the ruthlessness of Logan's conditioned form. Meanwhile Wolverine has in the interim been impersonated by a Skrull who has been conditioned to subconsciously act and think like Wolverine in every way. The whole thing feels nonsensical and unplanned. It seems to be a way to reinforce Apocalypse as a longer term planner with enough time to carry out the changes but Apocalypse has captured and conditioned Horsemen quickly before so it's more likely a way to paper over any perceived out of character behaviour and negate recent stories. It's a pity as whatever their weaknesses the Skrull retcon just doesn't add anything or even allow the series to side-step a particular status quo. The conditioned Wolverine battles first the Hulk and then the X-Men before steadily overcoming his conditioning; however Archangel in turn seems to be undergoing a relapse and this leads to further conflict. Overall "Apocalypse: The Twelve" this is a convoluted crossover to understand from just the Wolverine issues alone and it feels like a messy intruder on the series despite leaving restoring Wolverine to his traditional form.

But the final issue is even worse for understanding what's going on. "Ages of Apocalypse" seems to be a glimpse of either a horrid alternate future or an alternate reality that has arisen out of the previous crossover but it's not too clear. Nevertheless we get a good little tale of the New Fantastic Four, comprising Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Ghost Rider as they battle against Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Blastaar, the Harpy and Arnim Zola in this dark world. It's a good take on a particular team who have usually been more popular in theory than in practice. But in the bigger scale of things this is a confusing issue to understand because of the way the crossovers have stomped all over the regular series at the end of the volume.

This is a volume that tries to find a new direction for the series rather than endlessly rehashing all the traditional elements of Wolverine and shows some imagination in throwing him into unusual environments. It also does its best to honour the character's history for his anniversary. However at times the series seems to be overdoing the restoration of older status quos and the whole thing is rather blown off course by the X-Men crossovers at the end along with the silly Skrull revelation. As a result this is a volume that all but explicitly says that large chunks of it don't matter which is a pity as it showed the series starting to get its act back together when left to its own devices.

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