Koike Kazuo, Koji Kengo, Paul Smith, Brad Anderson
Marvel Comics, 2003
Koike Kazuo writing Wolverine is a thought too good to sound too good to be true. You have to believe in it, before you read it. You need to believe that good things can come from good ideas.
But it was not good. It was “fine,” but had some fairly pressing questions about sequence and investment, as well as behind the scenes production issues, that made the experience more annoying than disappointing.
With Kojima Goseki on illustrative duties, Koike was the scripting powerhouse behind Lone Wolf & Cub, the primary source of, “hey, lads, how can we make Wolverine really work, though?” inspo throughout the eighties and beyond. A state executioner is politically betrayed and framed for murder and conspiracy; he goes on the run with his infant son, taking several years and many volumes to slowly earn enough money, experience, and opportunity to exact his revenge and return self-respect to the office he once served. It’s a masterpiece, in both original manga form and film adaptation (which Koike also scripted), and an international cultural linchpin. The credit does not go entirely to one man, but Koike’s name has undoubtedly become strong in its own right.
Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine 1982 miniseries is reliant on Lone Wolf and Cub — it’s not the only western comic to owe this debt, but it’s perhaps the most prominent, especially considering how it resounded in subsequent Wolverine stories. Claremont and Milgrom’s Kitt Pryde and Wolverine, too; Gruff Man and Girl became his stock in trade, and thank goodness for it. Not only Kitty Pryde, not only Rogue and Jubilee, not only Armour, but X-23 too, the heir to the legacy, the All-New Wolverine. All of these hardy perennials are rooted in the power of that “(not-so) mismatched duo” story. So it should have been a no brainer: let’s let Koike write Wolverine. Let’s beg him to — I’d do it myself. I’d have offered him fifty ryō.
But 2003’s X-Men Unlimited #50, story by and script co-written by Koike Kazuo, does not feature Lone Wolv & Bub. It features Logan and some adult strangers. GUYS!!!!!! Look the bloody gift horse in the bloody mouth — check what the great man is offering! Edit him, ask for what you need. Don’t squander this incredible opp. Aaaah. Aahhhhh lads. Why’d you fail to capitalise?
As Jog pointed out at the time, Koike’s actual input is hard to evaluate. Kaji likely undertook the bulk of the on-page word application. It can’t, even probably shouldn’t, be assumed that this script is Koike’s ultimate responsibility. But that simply compounds my question. If it’s an in-name-only job, why not make it clear what that name means to the company buying its prestige? The buck stops with editorial; if Logan befriending (sort of) an adult woman of at least thirty and fighting off the influence of Soul Edge is the premise you’re running with under the Koike banner — and might I point out that this has happened before — then teaming him and his co-scripter with Paul Smith is a poor choice. Smith’s work on the X-Men (also in collaboration with Claremont) was seminal and will always be on-brand for the property, but his art holds little similarity to Kojima’s, or even any other of Koike’s most famed collaborators, like Ikegami on Crying Freeman, or Kamimura on Lady Snowblood. Scripters become known for and associated with the art of their most successful line artists; seeing their words and beats with new artists of the same artistic tradition can be unfamiliar enough, but collaboration on an existing property with an artist expected on that property destroys the essence of familiarity. Especially on such a short piece — this is a whole adventure in single issue. The aesthetic mismatch between Smith’s linework and Brad Anderson’s colouring would be an problem in a regular issue, as the pearlescent vagueness that Anderson brings works against Smith’s strong command of shape. Worse, Koike’s comics are almost never in colour, and the product gets further and further away from the educated expectation. English-language audiences’ nearest association will be the Lynn Varley’s superb colour work on Frank Miller’s Lone Wolf covers (a contemporary omnibus release from Dark Horse). That’s a hard act to follow.
Smith’s linework, in its own right, is also far sloppier than expected. Though it retains all of the energy, his work on this issue is a far cry from the neat, precise lines of his 1980s X-Men heyday. The nuance of lineweight is so far reduced that without knowing his schedule of the day (it could just be overwork with evil deadlines, a la Kordey’s artistic demise of around the same time) I’d speculate that this work is first produced on a much smaller scale, perhaps printed 1:1. The Paul Smith Wolverine of 2003 doesn’t reliably resemble the Paul Smith Wolverine of 1983. He’s lost internal structure, lost facial mass, and the hardbitten dignity of 80s-Logan’s “outdoor skin”. That tightness of face above, do you see it? You could say “of course, people change with time” — but Wolverine’s gimmick is that he barely ages, barely changes. With Claremont, Smith drew vital appearances of Mariko Yoshida, Wolverine’s first Japanese bride in print chronology, and drew her carefully to appear facially East Asian. Here Smith’s Japanese woman looks like Jennifer Connelly on one page, Mila Kunis on another. The story is not situated in time, but one of her outfits suggests some stolen moment of the 1970s whilst a crop top and rolled pants pajama combo is clear about when the comic was published, at least…
Wolverine, at some point in time, is in an alley. He sees a woman attacked by “three samurai wannabes.” This is Renge, who carries an ancestral sword called Mikage. An old man, Azuma, appears as Renge bests the three, and he steps in to murder her. Wolverine makes it his business, and after escaping together and holing up in her room Logan learns that Mikage is a powerful sword full of the souls of those killed by it, which Renge protects as her birthright (Azuma having previously tried to take it from her dad, his master, whom he also offed). Azusa is one bad dude and if he gains the power of Mikage he’ll obviously take over the world. Logan steps outside to try out the sword while she’s asleep, Renge is kidnapped, Logan saves her. In gratitude, and freed from the duty of protecting it, Renge gives Logan the sword and a kiss on the cheek. He keeps one; drops the other in a steelworks. That’s one cursed sword that won’t be back.
It’s not clear how long is supposed to have passed between Renge fleeing from her father’s killer with an ancient sword in flashback, and his finally cornering her in an alley Logan’s also hangin’ in. She’s a child in her memories, and a woman when she meets him, but Azuma changes from a strong man with a full head of luscious black hair to somebody Logan (Logan!) calls old man, entirely bald on the top half of his head and hair snowy white around the rest. At very least that’s the toll of twenty years, surely. So why is Renge so easily bested by him — if she knows there’s a man tirelessly searching her out to kill her and take her heirloom sword, hasn’t she been training? Twenty years of training and an old man beats a woman in her prime, who has use of…a magic sword…? With fewer obvious signs of aging this would be acceptable. Far less exasperation in seeing a teenaged, orphaned swordswoman on the run losing to a man in his forties. And far more joy in seeing Wolverine mentor a displaced teen girl. That’s what he does! And he’s the best at it.
X-Men Unlimited #50, Koike’s Wolverine, is not terrible, but it’s pointless. A comic that happens, relates to nothing, fails to use the multiple available points of reference that could so easily have guaranteed it classic status in the Wolverine canon, and is barely a smudge in comparison to the great works that both primary creators have as a baseline in their respective histories. All in all, just one snikt amongst many — and one of those many for which Logan won’t spare much memory. It could have been good. Oh so good! But it was fine.