The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 181 | Less is more: Wolverine MAX goes back to the basics

Leaving Proof 181 | Less is more: Wolverine MAX goes back to the basics
Published on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 by
Writer Jason Starr brings Wolverine back to the basics in the “mature readers”-rated Wolverine MAX. ALSO: Check out a list of some of our favorite Wolverine comics.

Wolverine MAX #5, cover-dated May 2013, released March 2013.

With the conclusion of the first story-arc of Wolverine MAX—the relatively new “mature readers” title starring the eponymous (and ubiquitous) mutant superhero—coming with last month’s issue #5, now is probably as good a time as any to take stock of where writer Jason Starr (Twisted City, The Chill) is headed with the character and the book’s premise.

Like most MAX-labeled titles, Wolverine MAX hews to its own stand-alone continuity, one informed by the broad strokes of the character’s history in the “regular” Marvel Universe but set in a world where traditional superheroes and supervillains don’t exist. (Two major exceptions to this rule include Alias and The Hood, and it’s interesting to note that the protagonists of both books ended up “migrating” to the regular Marvel Universe.) There’s some storytelling risk inherent in Starr’s decision to situate his Wolverine in a world without X-Men (so far): The argument can be made that the character works best when his “lone wolf,” take-no-prisoners, anti-hero tendencies are played against the more temperate attitudes of his teammates, and that any extended solo Wolverine adventure can quickly descend into the monotony of violence for violence’s sake.

Page detail from Wolverine (Vol. 1) #1 (September 1982).

Page detail from Wolverine (Vol. 1) #1 (September 1982).

In the five-part opening story “Permanent Rage,” Starr takes Wolverine back to his spiritual home of Japan—the hirsute brawler maybe the most popular Canuck on the Marvel Universe superhero roster, but it has long been part of the character’s lore that he spent a significant portion of his life in Japan prior to becoming a costumed crusader. This connection was crystallized in the 1982 Wolverine miniseries written by Uncanny X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, the character’s first solo title. When Wolverine’s friend Asano tells him in Wolverine (Vol. 1) #1 (cover-dated September 1982) that he is “more truly Japanese than any Westerner [he has] ever known,” Claremont isn’t just tossing out some throwaway line. Not only does Wolverine share many of the traits of mysterious rōnin protagonists of beloved Japanese entertainments such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, his character arc to that point also handily fit as a metaphor for Japan’s post-World War II history: Both the man known as Logan and the former Axis Power were on a decades-long journey to redeem themselves from a violent past and redefine themselves as a positive peacekeeping  influence on the world, the former emerging from his shadowy background in the lethal world of cloak and dagger to join the superheroic X-Men (that also doubled as an effort to find telepathic help to control his homicidal berserker rages), the latter firmly turning its back on a national legacy of militarism and an ingrained culture of martial conduct.

But while Starr maybe revisiting a classic theme in Wolverine canon, he also uses the opportunity to insert more contemporary metafictive commentary of his own. “Permanent Rage” starts out with an amnesiac Wolverine (or a Wolverine that is more amnesiac than usual, at least) being rescued by a ship off the Japanese coast, the sole survivor of a plane crash and the primary suspect for what the local authorities suspect is a case of airborne terrorism. Eluding his captors and finding a safehouse stocked with fake passports and falsified IDs he apparently set up for contingencies in a prior trip to Japan, Wolverine asks himself “Why do I need so many identities? What am I?” He could just as well be asking the reader to make sense of the inscrutable patchwork mess that is his fictional biography—accrued over four decades of publication and pieced together from the (occasionally contradictory) works of a platoon of writers and editors—and his simultaneous leading roles and guest appearances in multiple on-going titles and miniseries.

Page detail from Wolverine MAX #2.

Page detail from Wolverine MAX #2.

Starr gives enough details about his Wolverine’s past without spoiling the mystery that contributes significantly to the appeal of the character, although it’s still early days for the title and how long the book can go on without the kind of short-sighted and mystique-robbing revelations (“James Howlett?” Really?) that have plagued the character’s development in the past two decades remains to be seen.

Page detail from Wolverine MAX #4.

Page detail from Wolverine MAX #4.

Wolverine MAX‘s “Permanent Rage” does away with the excess baggage that has been weighing down Wolverine’s regular Marvel Universe incarnation in recent years. Oh, the story has its own problems: The swearing and a few flashes of bare breasts may have been enough to justify the title’s MAX label and mature readers rating, but beyond that, one would be a little hard-pressed to say that it has any more depth than a standard, no-swearing, no-nudity Wolverine tale unless one counts the rather unsubtle suggestion of a one-sided, quasi-sexual obsession the piece’s main villain has with the hero. (I’m not going to spoil who it is, but any Wolverine fan should be able to nail the villain’s identity with a solitary guess.) One could probably even describe the story beats as somewhat rote in their timing, delivery, and execution. But by and large, Starr—a relative newcomer to comics—has demonstrated a solid grasp of what makes the character work in a solo adventure setting, perhaps even more so than some recent Wolverine comics writers who have had much more experience with the character, his milieu, and the superhero comics genre, and I do believe it’s worth sticking around for now to see what Starr has in store in future installments of Wolverine MAX.

Some Wolverine favorites

Writing the preceeding paragraphs has me in the mood to list five of my favorite comics and storylines featuring Wolverine. Here they are, in no particular order:

Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #129–138 (“The Dark Phoenix Saga”)

As I’d mentioned above, an argument can easily be made that Wolverine functions best in a team setting, where his idiosyncrasies as a superhero are highlighted by contrast with the personalities and abilities of his peers. This was never more true than in the classic “The Dark Phoenix Saga” storyline (Uncanny X-Men #129–138, January 1980–October 1980) by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. The “Saga” has many of Wolverine’s classic tough-guy moments, such as the following:

Page detail from Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #133

Page detail from Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #133

And of course, who can forget the final panel on the last page of Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #133, with Logan getting wound up for Round 2 against the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle:

Oh, it's on now mother****ers!

Oh, it’s on now!

Wolverine (Vol. 1, miniseries)

Wolverine_(vol._1)_1I’ve already explained above how this four-issue miniseries published in 1982 fleshed out the Wolverine-Japan connection. Written by Chris Claremont with art by Frank Miller, this is the first published extended solo Wolverine adventure. The story is relatively low-key in its stakes and action quotient (fighting against ninjas and bears seems rather unspectacular after tangling with a primal cosmic force) and this was also the first time, really, that Claremont expounded on the character of Wolverine beyond being the X-Men’s resident bruiser and loose cannon. Here, Wolverine plays the part of the tragic romantic, and is actually a bit more restrained, circumspect even, and at-times approaches the task of lethal violence with an almost philosophical detachment.

Marvel Comics Presents #72–84 (“Weapon X”)

Marvel_Comics_Presents_79A tour de force by British artist-writer Barry Windsor-Smith, the “Weapon X” storyline that ran through the Marvel Comics Presents anthology in 1991 provided the first detailed look into the incident that gave Wolverine his unbreakable adamantium skeleton and the period between his being an agent for the Canadian government and a volatile wanderer with no memory of his past—the only one we really needed in my opinion. Brilliantly illustrated by Windsor-Smith, the characters and elements he introduced here have become fixtures in Wolverine canon just as much as Claremont’s earlier creations.

Wolverine (Vol. 2) #35-37 (“Blood and Claws”)

Wolverine_Vol_2_37This three-parter from 1991 written by Larry Hama and penciled by Marc Silvestri has Wolverine traveling back in time and halfway across the globe to the Spanish Civil War with Alpha Flight’s Puck in a story that wouldn’t be out of place in DC’s classic Weird War Tales. A real genre-bender of a story that combines superhero, sci-fi/fantasy, and war comics elements in an action-packed, self-contained story-arc.

Wolverine: The Jungle Adventure (graphic novel)

Wolverine_Jungle_AdventureWolverine going native in the Savage Land, fighting dinosaurs and robots, as drawn by Mike Mignola. What else do you need to know?

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