Eight issues in, Wolverine reminds me of the most overlooked part of the action movies era of the 1980s—the questions asked by veterans, by survivors, of the wars they were lied to about, and the silence that continues in lieu of an answer.
Viktor Bogdanovic (Artist), Antonio Fabela (Color Artist), Adam Kubert (Artist, Cover Artist), Frank Martin (Cover Artist), Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writer), VC’s Cory Petit (Letterer & Production), Matthew Wilson (Color Artist)
December 30, 2020
It’s an aspect that slipped away, as the genre proved massively successful and the commodification of it took precedence. Common lore is that while he would survive for a full quintet of movies, action hero Rambo died in the original First Blood novel, succumbing to the trauma of a war he could never leave behind (he also, of course, succumbed to the trauma of being shot multiple times, but that’s neither here nor there).
Wolverine’s creation came in 1974—early enough to predate the First Blood movie by a decade, but not the book it was based on, which released in 1972. He’s not really built on the template of Rambo, in the way that other X-Men beats would be built on pop culture hits during their 70s and 80s heyday, but they share some similar DNA. Both are soldiers who have outlived their war, suffering from PTSD, attempting to isolate themselves rather than face the difficulty of integrating into societal norms that they don’t really understand anymore.
Of course, as a character, Wolverine has persisted on page for much longer than Rambo, and it’s fascinating to track his history as it proceeds through the 1980s and into the 90s. He grew and grew in popularity and ubiquity, but to diminishing returns overtime; what had been moving and resonant in 1982 (the year of his first-ever miniseries) was overbaked by the time his ongoing solo series hit issue number 100 in 1996. He’d been everywhere—cartoons, lunchboxes, action figures, video games, and all still functioning under the illusion of change that continued to hang about comics like a shroud. There have been stories aplenty that have developed and added to his trauma, but precious few moments where the consequences of that trauma have actually been examined.
This brings me to the first story of this issue; a ten-page standalone guest-starring the CIA agent from earlier in this same run, Jeff Bannister. It’s a quiet story, wherein Logan pays Bannister a visit, and they discuss old war wounds—the things they did and the stains those actions left on their consciences. It’s a story steeped in grief, the revelation of being lied to, manipulated, of admitting one’s own moral culpability despite that. I’ll be the first to join the chorus that we have seen entirely too much of James “Logan” “Wolverine” Howlett, but if he must appear (and, tediously, he must), then these are the kinds of stories I would like to see about him; stories that address the weight of his guilt, and the work he does to be a better man. Stories that do not absolve him of his actions, but give him time to examine them. I deeply enjoy a flawed character, and for all that he is a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, he has a great many flaws.
Art for this story is handled by Wolverine mainstay Adam Kubert, with colors by Antonio Fabelo. I understand the draw that Kubert has had over the years, but his work has never really sung to my eyes; there is a kind of coordinated messiness to his style that I don’t prefer. Still, his ability as a storyteller is without doubt; in the feature panel at the top of this article, immediately on the heels of a reverie about his past with Team X (the mutant covert ops squad assembled by the CIA), he pops his claws in response to a mere touch on the shoulder from behind. Wolverine has always been presented as short-tempered, but with the context of that reverie, this panel felt less like another depiction of that and more like the instinctive reaction of a man too used to combat, unable to relax even in the backyard of an acquaintance, sharing beers. It felt, in other words, sad, in a way that made me as a reader care about this man’s pain, however briefly. This is strongly down to Kubert’s skill as a storyteller, and Fabelo’s colors accentuate that further, as the earlier reverie’s golden, sandy haze dissolves by the end of this panel into a greyish, weighty sludge. We know already that they are in Jeff’s yard, and so it’s not necessary to depict that here for the sake of grounding their discussion in space and time; instead, we’re given an impressionistic background that matches the mood. It’s strong, evocative work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what resurrection means for the X-Men. The promise of living forever as a means specifically of outlasting one’s oppressors certainly has an appeal, but in this issue, as when I read X-Force, I find myself asking, “what is the cost?” What does it mean to endure, to carry that weight, not just over the course of a lifetime, but several? Wolverine makes the most sense in the current paradigm as a model of this; a man who has lived, and continues living, when so many around him have died. His past finally can be useful as more than simple tragedy to fuel his angst, but as a mirror for all mutants as they stride into the future, of how to live, and how not to. I hope for more stories like this, stories that unpack the ways in which he copes with his trauma because I think it is a side of him that we as readers need to see, especially following the traumatic year that has been 2020.
The Kubert/Fabelo chapter of this issue is, of course, only prologue. Prior to the detour of X of Swords, Wolverine had been dealing with the spectres of both Dracula and Omega Red, corporeal avatars of death to haunt the man who lives forever. In the last issue of X-Force, we were privy to Beast’s plans regarding Omega Red, and here we begin to see them play out; as Gabby and Akihiro assist Logan in confronting his longtime nemesis, we see that he has no memory of his prior attack on Wolverine, nor his association with Dracula. I like that Wolverine and X-Force are staying in this closely linked relationship for now; it’s a clever arrangement. Percy’s plotting and work for the two books uses linked events to tell two different stories with two different focuses between them; there in X-Force, the story of Beast and his plunge into a frankly fascist level of espionage and information control, and the story of Logan, who has been there, and attempts eternally to return from it.
For this second story, art is handled by Viktor Bogdanovic, with color work by Matt Wilson. Wilson is a known quality in coloring; his work and reputation precede him, thanks to works like Wonder Woman, Daredevil, and of course The Wicked + The Divine. Here, his color work is subtler than Fabelo’s earlier in the issue; instead of an intense and very forceful riot of shades, Wilson uses large swatches of color to set atmosphere. Characters themselves are colored almost perfunctorily; they appear in their uniforms and look accurate, but the strongest work is in the detail of the backgrounds. When Logan and family ambush Omega Red, it’s in the forested areas of Krakoa, and the life of that vegetation is palpable. When, later, Logan is introduced to Sage’s new technological toy, the Shadow Room, everything is bathed in the cool, darker blues of dim light cast in blackness. It’s enjoyable to flip through this issue because of this; to compare Fabelo and Wilson’s color work. It’s not that one is more correct than the other, but instead that two very different styles are used with care and purpose to tell two different stories, and the entire book is buoyed up by that care.
That’s not to say that the issue is without its flaws; I don’t particularly enjoy either Kubert or Bogdanovic’s figure work, specifically with Logan. I’ve registered my complaints with the grittiness of Kubert’s work above, but Bogdanovic has a different problem. There’s a looseness to his figures that doesn’t so much read as a kind of cartoony expressiveness so much as it does a lack of care with anatomy and proportion, and that lack of care extends to his visual storytelling, as well. Witness the above; while it’s easy to understand that the soldier character crouching in the top center panels is brushing away dirt, the effect nonetheless feels clumsily executed; it’s not something that needs two separate panels, and the gutter running between both depictions of his left arm breaks the flow of motion. Between the two panels, the arm seems to be different thicknesses, despite being the same arm, and by the last panel, lower right, it appears to have suddenly grown in proportion to the rest of his body. Meanwhile, the goggles of his mask appear to not so much be fixed over his eyes as floating free across the general surface of that mask. In fact, given the shape of his head in the top center-left panel there, the curve of his skull’s crown and the angle of his chin, not only do the lenses seem too close together, they almost appear to be twisted sideways somewhat, as though the entire mask is sideways.
Aside from these sorts of technical things, the entire issue is just…well, it’s very masculine, isn’t it? That’s to be expected, given it’s a solo book about an archetype of action hero, but all the same, it’s overwhelming at times. There are no female-led solo titles under the X-line umbrella currently; we’ve had teases before of a book centered around Moira, but those promises have yet to be fulfilled. It’s true that, as a general team (and found family) focused franchise, most X-Men characters don’t do a great job of supporting solo titles beyond a miniseries here or there, but all the same, when was the last time a woman’s story was told with this level of depth and gravitas? When was the last time a woman was allowed to feel this kind of pain and angst, to not just feel it but to really unpack it and examine it?
This is an issue that also runs back to the action movies of the 80s; it’s not that I expect a woman to repeat Logan’s story verbatim. It’s that, culturally, we venerate this kind of male hero, the man who does violence and feels remorse, in a way that we almost never do with women. We lavish attention on a character like this, on a Rambo or a Logan, in a way that doesn’t carry over to our examination and treatment of women in fiction. To his credit, Percy has done some of this with Domino over in X-Force, but there she is a castmate among many, not the sole focus of the book. Her solo title, prior to the era of House of X and Powers of X, certainly dealt with some weighty concepts but did so in a flippant, cartoony style, both through the line art and the actual writing. That’s not to say that it was bad (as I said back in my review of X-Force #7, I pulled the whole series), but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here: We don’t get to see a female character sitting with the weight of her hurt in the same way that we do male ones, in her own book, focused entirely on her. I’d like a book like that, I think.