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Revisit:

Wolverine

By Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

1982

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

It was one of the more baffling announcements of this year’s Oscar season. Darren Aronofsky, enjoying the greatest critical success of his career and bound for a near-sure Best Director nomination with Black Swan, was tapped to helm the next cinematic outing of comic book superhero Wolverine. Why would this director, who brings the arty crazy like few others, be interested in a project that was seemingly so conventional, especially since the character’s first solo outing in theaters was bad enough to demolish any lingering goodwill from director Bryan Singer’s strong, moody X-Men films after journeyman hack Brett Ratner drove the franchise into a ditch with the third installment?

Once the shock wore off, and Aronofsky assured his agitated fans, “I’m being hired to do what I do,” an intriguing wrinkle to the project emerged more clearly. As opposed to previous films featuring the claw swinging hothead that were warmed over mishmashes of a wide array of comic book tales, the announced plot of Aronofsky’s film – with ninjas, samurai swords and a trip to Japan – sounded suspiciously like a far more direct take on one of the most pivotal tales in Wolverine’s history. Specifically, it was packed with elements integral to the character’s first solo title, a four-issue limited series written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Frank Miller in 1982.

While modern superhero event storylines typically use a limited series as their foundation, a title with a predetermined short run was a new concept at the time. Marvel had just put out their first such endeavor – the loopy good guy free-for-all Contest of Champions – a few months earlier. There was also some concern as to whether or not the diminutive Canadian scrapper could carry his own book away from the soap opera comfort of his honored place in the mega-selling Uncanny X-Men, a worry that seems foreign now that Wolverine is the Ryan Seacrest of the Marvel Universe, tiresomely everywhere.

The pedigree of the book couldn’t be beat. Claremont was the scribe who’d made Marvel’s anguished mutants into a sensation in the first place, and Miller was writing and drawing the tail end of his name-making, character-redefining run on Daredevil. It was a fortuitous creative pairing, but not necessarily an opportunistic one. Miller, in particular, didn’t need the boost of being involved in a quick cash-in project, so the two worked to find a story worth telling. As Claremont put it in the introduction he wrote for the first trade paperback collection five years later, “The only story parameter we acknowledged at the time was that we wanted to utterly, ruthlessly and seemingly irrevocably destroy him. And then, maybe, make him better.”

Wolverine had long run the risk of becoming a sadly one-dimensional character, defined only by a cool toughness and savagery. Marvel was known for letting its heroes reside in a murkier moral universe than the truth, justice and American way adherents of their primary rivals, DC Comics. Still, there weren’t any other costumed adventurers in their stable who might dispatch a foe by slicing directly into them with unbreakable blades. To add complexity, Claremont looked back to a grace note afforded the character in an earlier X-Men storyline: a sweet, tentative romance with a woman named Mariko Yashida.

The story begins with a preface set in Wolverine’s Canadian homeland that involves him hunting down and killing a murderous rogue bear and then going after the careless hunter whose poisoned arrow had set the creature into its rage in the first place. This is the fierce, unapologetic Wolverine that fans loved, boasting in the opening line “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn’t very nice.” Upon coming home to New York, he discovers all his letters to Mariko have been returned unopened. When he gets the runaround while trying to get a hold of her directly, he takes matters into his own hands and flies to Tokyo, where he discovers that her mob boss father has forced her into an arranged marriage with an abusive business associate. The remainder of the story involves Wolverine wrestling with his own emotions in the wake of this information and, eventually, traversing the dangerous landscape of criminals and bulky ninjas to win her freedom.

One of the most notable elements of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil was the way he laid out a page, expanding the white space of the borders to make his individuals panels more dramatic, a technique he uses here to heighten the high emotions of Claremont’s script. The story hinges on matters of passion, betrayal and, above all else, honor. Claremont always preferred grander, more florid emotions in his writing, and he could find few paths that played to that more than exploring how Wolverine’s personal ethos overlaps with ancient samurai codes. The respective styles of the two creators combine to make the whole story feel woozily tragic, and it’s appropriately rendered in the deep colors of a dusky sky at sunset.

Notably, the story is narrated by the title character, told entirely in his voice. That’s the norm now, but it was unique for the time. Most comic stories still turned over their captions to omniscient unseen narrators, many of whom were apparently trying to mimic Stan Lee’s voluminous vocabulary and alarming alacrity with alliteration. Nowadays, the first person narration is primarily a means for comic book writers to distance themselves from their own medium, abandoning the conventions of panel-by-panel storytelling in favor of a style that’s ripped from the movies and, therefore, more legitimate. In the case of Wolverine, it genuinely provides greater insight into the character, burrowing deeply into his psyche as it’s battered around by his troubled allegiances.

The grim and gritty approach to superhero stories that overtook the genre in the 1990s is usually traced to Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Miller, both first published in 1986, but an argument can be made for Wolverine as the source of that particular murky river. It is grim and serious, clearly enamored with its self-contained bleakness. Its celebrated hero is willing to seal victory in combat by placing his knuckles against his adversary’s Adam’s apple and extending his claws with a piercing, bloody “Snikt!” There’s an offhand brutality to it all that was almost unheard of at the time, yet seems tame now.

That darkness may be the key to what drew Aronofsky to the project, and a faithful adaptation would come surprisingly close to fitting a superhero movie squarely into the director’s downbeat oeuvre. Then again, Wolverine’s uniquely flared hairstyle does make his head look a little like it’s sprouting black swan wings. Maybe it’s just that.

by Dan Seeger

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