Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

14 October 2011

The Three Stages of Man: Stage Three: Wolverine First Class, v. 4: Gods, Ninjas, and Divas

Collects: X-Men and Power Pack #1 and Wolverine First Class #13-6 (2005, 2009)

Released: August 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $12.99 / ISBN: 9780785135357

What is this?: In this non-continuity book, Wolverine serves as mentor to young Kitty Pryde.

The culprits: Writer Peter David and artists Ronan Cliquet, Scott Koblish, and GuriHiru

Continuing from Stage One and Stage Two, I present:

Wolverine First Class, v. 4: Ninjas, Gods, and Divas coverStage Three: The Old Man, represented by Wolverine First Class: Ninjas, Gods, and Divas.

There comes a point in every man’s life — a sad, soul-battering, inevitable moment — that proves that he is no longer the best at what he does and will most likely never be again. The man must learn to accept his lesser status or else find some other activity in which to find meaning. Youngsters will rise to the top, pushing out the old guard. Age will rob us all of our mental and physical abilities. The symphonies will begin sounding the same as your previous efforts or sound like everyone else’s. Machines will begin adding more and more of that damn technology you don’t understand or don’t want to take the time to futz with. Or changing cultural mores and the whims of corporate masters will change your entire raison d’ etre. As I said, it happens to all of us, if we live long enough.

For Wolverine, he gets to be a mentor to Kitty Pryde. This is a thankless task, as many fans (mostly from the ‘80s) would want a relationship with comic-dom’s mutant sweetheart that is more amorous and less skeevy. Still, someone has to do it, and when you’re no longer the best, you get stuck with such jobs.

Peter David writes these stories as he writes pretty much all his comics, with a humorous bent. This being an ostensibly all-ages title, he doesn’t layer on the angst or darkness, which is a welcome break. And he’s consistently funny, weaving running gags throughout the stories. His humor is gentle and not in the least cutting, with Wolverine giving Kitty the sort of ribbing a father or fond older brother would. It’s pleasant, it’s inoffensive, and it’s funny. What actually happens in this non-continuity book is irrelevant.

The artists are a mixed bag. All of them have trouble making Wolverine look old — and by old, I don’t mean ancient, I mean like he’s in his 30s. All three — Ronan Cliquet (#13-4), Scott Koblish (#15), and GuriHiru (#16 and the Power Pack issue) — make him look like he just dropped out of college. GuriHiru is the worst in this regard, as pretty much every adult looks college age. On the other hand, his Kitty and Siryn are excellent, so it balances out. (Someone should give GuriHiru Studios a title with an all-child or adolescent cast.) Koblish is my favorite of the three, as his work has a definite Art Adams influence that fits the Thor / Ulik fight perfectly. Cliquet gets a lot of action sequences and pulls them off well, but the lone Asian face in the story looks about as Japanese as Angelina Jolie.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (4 of 5)

Is there another stage of life that is yet to be revealed through our emissary, Wolverine? That remains to be seen. Wolverine: Enemy of the State would argue the next stage is self-parody, which I believe will have to be integrated into the clinical discussion at some future point in time. It remains to be seen, however.

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07 October 2011

The Three Stages of Man: Stage Two: Wolverine: Not Dead Yet

Collects: Wolverine #119-22 (1997-8)

Released: April 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785137665

What is this?: Wolverine must confront an old friend / threat from his past. Shocking, right?

The culprits: Writer Warren Ellis and artist Leinil Francis Yu

Continuing from the last post, we move on to the next stage in the three stages of man, as exemplified by Wolverine:

Stage Two: The Badass, as represented by Wolverine: Not Dead Yet.

Wolverine: Not Dead Yet coverAfter discovering who he is, it is time for man to be the best he that he can be at what he does, even if it isn’t pretty. If that means composing symphonies and choral works, so be it. If your burden is that you have an outstanding mechanical aptitude, it’s up to you to embrace, not shirk, that destiny. If, like Wolverine, killing a lot of people is what you do, then you need to do it, and do it as often as possible.

Striving to reach the pinnacle of your profession is not without its dangers. If you are one of the greatest composers of your time, a rival might try to drive you insane and then kill you with rheumatic fever. If you are a great mechanic, a rival might decide to crush or lop off your hands. And if you are one of the great killers of the world, well, another great killer might decide to end your life, especially if you left the man alive after trying to kill him.

I mean, it just stands to reason.

Yet another old acquaintance coming back into Logan’s life to kill him / get killed is a hoary trope that was getting old even when writer Warren Ellis and artist Leinil Francis Yu collaborated on this four-issue storyline in 1997. Somehow, though, Ellis makes this idea work. Wolverine is the X-Man best suited to Ellis’s approach, a low-power hero with a boost from weird science and haunted by a conspiracy. Ellis doesn’t touch upon either of those elements, but they are still in the background, in their way.

Not Dead Yet comes at an odd time in Wolverine’s history. After finishing the main story of the Operation: Zero Tolerance crossover in Wolverine, Larry Hama ended his 80+-issue run on the title. His last storyline was cut off in the middle — not that it looked very promising, to be honest — and suddenly the man who had defined what kind of stories the book would tell was gone. The luster gone from Hama, whose stories had been going downhill for a year or more, Marvel went for their newest badass, Ellis.

It wouldn’t be an Ellis story without a character from the British Isles; in this case, it’s McLeish, a Scottish killer from Logan’s past. In four issues, Ellis has to establish McLeish as a threat and disguise that most of the story is just faceless mooks trying to kill Wolverine. (Not faceless as in “wearing ninja masks,” but faceless as in “not very important” — an important distinction in a Wolverine story) Ellis does this masterfully, alternating between flashbacks to the charismatic but evil McLeish in Hong Kong and rapid action in the present. The middle issues are either fight scenes, with adamantium bullets and auto accidents, or McLeish ranting about killing. OK, there’s also a love interest who buys it, but that’s fine: Logan is also probably the best there is at getting former lovers killed,61 which we must agree isn’t very pretty.

Still, if Yu wasn’t an excellent with action scenes, then there’s no way this storyline works. Fortunately, Yu is up to the task, with action shots that seem to pop off the page. (A little bloodless, though.) Yu’s first American professional comic work was Wolverine #113, and I remember Usenet going crazy for him at the time. (I remember Usenet. I’m old.) His McLeish is threatening, despite not doing anything violent on the page, and slightly deranged without being cartoony.

My main complaint with this story is the price. Twenty dollars for four issues? Even if it is a hardback, that’s much too much. This Marvel Premiere Edition adds almost an issue’s worth of Yu’s other Wolverine covers, which does help — but it doesn’t help that much.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (4 of 5)

Next: Stage Three: Wolverine First Class: Ninjas, Gods, and Divas (forthcoming)

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04 October 2011

The Three Stages of Man: Stage One: Weapon X

Collects: Weapon X stories from Marvel Comics Presents #72-84 (1991)

Released: 1994 (Marvel)

Format: 226 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785137269

What is this?: Logan gets adamantium bonded to his skeleton by the Weapon X project, the first step down the road that leads to Wolverine.

The culprits: Barry Windsor-Smith

Willy Shakespeare might have been a great writer and all that, but his “seven ages of man” stuff doesn’t really hold water. I mean, I’ve never been a soldier, justice, or pantaloon, and I don’t know too many people who fit those roles. (A few soldiers, a few lawyers, but I’ve never met a person who was also a pair of pants.) No, the Great Shakes had an ear for what sounded good, but he wasn’t about to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Therefore, I would like to suggest my own examination of the path of human life, using the greatest fictional character ever, Wolverine. Therefore, I give you, The Three Stages of Wolverine:

Weapon X coverStage One: The Enigma, represented by Wolverine: Weapon X.

In this stage, man must begin to grapple with important questions of our times: who am I? Am I a moral being? Am I a being of instinct? Are my sensory observations real, or are they merely being fed to me through clunky ‘80s computer technology powered by batteries large enough to give Arnold Schwarzenegger a hernia? Can I take control of my life, or am I doomed to constantly be manipulated by vast international conspiracies of megalomaniacs and supervillains? Although everyone must examine these questions for themselves, Logan answers them, according to his own peculiar circumstances, in Weapon X.

The late ‘80s / early ‘90s was the era in which a straightforward story such as, “Who decided it would be such a great idea to turn a mutant into ‘the ultimate killing machine’ and then never do anything with him?” was so important it couldn’t be answered — well, it couldn’t be answered in Marvel Comics Presents, in which this material originally appeared. So, the Enigma. Writer / artist Barry Windsor-Smith shows how Logan became Wolverine, transforming from a burned-out and falling apart government agent into the feral, adamantium-laced killing machine that is Wolverine. Ultimately, Logan doesn’t learn much about himself in this one, other than he’s a man, not an animal (important), which is good, because Logan is hell on wild animals (not important). But I suppose it would have started him on the path of self-revelation if it hadn’t been for those pesky memory implants.

Weapon X is surprisingly seminal despite its lack of revelations and slight plot, the former dictated editorially and the latter by the eight-page format of stories in MCP. We have the Professor employing disgraced doctor Abraham Cornelius; while starting up their experimentation facility, they hire Carol Hines to run operations. After they abduct Logan, they implant the adamantium onto the bones, and they begin to brainwash him into being a killing machine. And then he kills stuff, in both reality (mostly animals) and in virtual / hallucinatory realm (everyone). The Professor inadvertently reveals he’s answering to someone, someone powerful, but that’s about all we learn.

Despite the eight-page per story format, we do get a good bit of development on Hines and Cornelius. They aren’t shadowy villains; they are scientists down on their luck. Cornelius has legal problems in the U.S. Hines worked for NASA at one point. How do they rationalize the horrible thing they are doing to another human being? It’s an interesting question, and Windsor-Smith does explore the idea, but the lack of a true payoff to the story keeps that angle from being fully fleshed out.

Unsurprisingly, Windsor-Smith’s art is what sticks with the reader. Several panels are iconic, known to just about every comic reader of the last twenty years: the full-page shot of Weapon X atop a pile of soldiers, slicing up more; Weapon X in the snow clad only in batteries and the control helmet / VR gear; shots of Logan in the adamantium tank. The art nouveau elements from his Conan work are gone or muted; the work is bloody, brutal, and dynamic, but it still looks unlike other artists before or after. (Although his characters have a tendency to have eyes like Little Orphan Annie.)

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (4 of 5)

Next: Stage Two: Wolverine: Not Dead Yet

Stage Three: Wolverine First Class: Ninjas, Gods, and Divas (forthcoming)

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