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Wolverine: Old Man Logan (Review)

What is it about the X-Men and crapsack futures? Mark Millar has taken everybody’s favourite feral anti-hero and dropped him in his own particular horrible future. Old Man Logan takes a familiar Millar conceit – “what if the bad guys won?” – and applies it to the familiar Marvel Universe. Of course, this being Millar, he’s piled even more horror and crappiness on top of that, giving us an inbred Hulk family and wild dinosaurs, but it’s an idea that many will recognise from his own Wanted, among other works. Of course, this being a Wolverine book, we follow the familiar antihero as he attempts to navigate post-apocalyptic America (divided into four kingdoms) while delivering a mysterious package with former Avenger Hawkeye.

A hulkin' good time...

Wolverine is a character typically written with varying degrees of complexity by different authors, but he can essentially be boiled down to Chris Claremont’s conception of the character as a ronin, or a masterless samurai. In Western culture, perhaps the most obvious comparison is with a cowboy (The Seven Samurai itself being adapted into The Magnificent Seven as an idea of how the two are interchangeable – A Fistful of Dollars itself was a remake of a Japanese original). Here Millar proposes Wolverine as a cowboy. Specifically William Munney, the character played by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Indeed, the title is alluded to in a scene featuring “the Hulk gang” riding around in a vandalised Fantastic Four hovercar, featuring “Un-4-Given” scrawled on the side.

I have to admit to being a bit disappointed by Old Man Logan. It had been somewhat hyped as a deconstructionist look at the superhero genre – hell, I even heard some ridiculous comparisons to The Dark Knight Returns. Those are, aside from being more than a little unfair, entirely inappropriate. The two works share the central plot element of a former superhero emerging from retirement, but The Dark Knight Returns was centred around placing Batman in something resembling (at least in an abstract way) the real world, with political concerns and youth out of control and political correctness (all, of course, absurdly exaggerated – like Batman’s body image). On the other hand, Millar here revels in the tropes of the superhero genre, pitching his idea as a fun and zany “what if” featuring mole-men (okay, moloids), kingdoms and a Fourth Reich.

The death of Captain America?

Again I read it and I find myself doubting Millar’s credentials as a deconstructionist writer. Much like his run on Marvel Knights Spider-Man, there’s a lot of nostalgic romance here. Sure, he’ll throw a menacing curveball now and again, but his Wolverine is more hero than anti-hero and his story ultimately seems to focus on how entirely pointless “the good guys lose” is as a core concept. You can tell that Millar is a romantic at heart simply because he has Hawkeye and Logan embark on their roadtrip inside that most kitsch of superhero accessories – the Spider-buggy. How truly grim and gritty can a story featuring that little nod truly be? However, it’s in his deconstruction of his core concession that he defines the work – he picks apart a typical ‘edgy’ superhero deconstruction. He deconstructs a deconstruction, as it were.

Supervillains, he suggests, need superheroes to define themselves. Otherwise they are just despots. And despots are much more boring and unfulfilled. There’s a moment early in Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen where one of the original superheroes, Hollis Mason, reflects that the costumed heroes felt a bit awkward without costumed villains to play dress-up with. As we dwell on the image of the Red Skull spending his days in a mausoleum erected to honour his fallen adversaries (wearing his foe’s uniform), mumbling to himself about how he could still beat Steve Rogers even in his old age, it’s hard not to get the image of a small child whose best friend no longer wants to play. “I doubt the President would be happy with all this superhero memorabilia,” Logan suggests as they pass through the last resting place of Thor. Some how I can’t help but imagine the Skull smiles at it, remembering his glory days. Here, Millar suggests, the villains – living in a world without heroes – aren’t so much evil as apathetic.

Red and blue go together, right?

Our sole glimpse of Doctor Doom is a shot of him watching from a height, disinterested in whatever is occurring. We’re informed earlier on that he didn’t even get the personal pleasure of dispatching his chief opponents. Magneto died after securing his own fiefdom, replaced by an upstart Kingpin. It’s no coincidence that the closest thing to old-school villainy (feeding captives to some dinosaurs) is provoked by a bunch of kids wearing costumes. Supervillians inherently need heroes – it’s a codependent relationship. Millar’s premise skilfully argues against itself. He doesn’t need a timeloop to tie events back to the present to stop the horrors unfolding (as in the countless X-Men stories of terrible possible worlds which undoubtedly influenced this tale). It simply can’t happen, because it would ultimately be so pointless – it disproves itself, as it were.

I can’t decide if Millar was being smart or simply cheeky in refusing to provide any more than the basic details, hinting at various things. The Venom symbiont, for example, shows up for a few pages, controlling the body of a T-Rex. We aren’t sure if the creature has gone feral or if it’s even still aware of anything before it is swiftly vanquished. There are other interesting ideas just thrown out there – the fall of Magneto is an interesting idea, particularly if, as Emma suggests, mutants turned out to be a genetic fluke. The small glimpses we see of the past are pretty nifty, just enough to tease. Perhaps it’s best to only show a little – but it does leave a huge amount of potential to the side (like how Magneto would have reconciled himself to the Red Skull’s Nazi regime sitting just over from him). Ah well. There are teasing hints of atrocities and other details sprinkled over the work, not least of which is the Skull’s cryptic remark about the rest of the world, “Who’d want it now?”

Marvel's heroes got hammered...

It’s a fun romp. That’s really it. There’s nothing particularly special here, or insightful. It’s set-piece driven, with little insights into all sorts of “end of the world” type clichés. It’s Wolverine does Mad Max, basically. Not that there’s anything remotely wrong with that – Millar writes great set-pieces and works well with spectacle. Steve McNiven’s artwork captures the scene near perfectly, drawing a wonderful barren wasteland of what used to be the United States, and all manner of horrible creations lurking in it. His Red Skull looks incredible, it should be noted.

The book is entertaining and fun, which is enough. It breezes by and probably does exactly what it says on the tin. It isn’t a classic, or an essential, but you could do a lot worse.

You might be interested in our other reviews of Mark Millar’s Wolverine work:

8 Responses

  1. K, I’ve skimmed this – but I won’t give it the full read until I’ve actually read Old Man Logan. If only it were being made into a movie, I could totally expense it. Instead I’ll have to siphon off some diaper money.

    BTW – If you have any other suggestions of must reads, I’m all ears. I don’t promise I’ll read all of them, but I will do my due dilligence.

    • Coulda sworn I replied to this yonks ago. Getting forgetful in my old age!

      I’m not a Wolverine expert, so I’m reluctant to recommend stuff – though if you’re looking for a general Marvel Universe recommendation, Brian Michael Bendis had a great run on Daredevil (succeeded by at least an equally great run from Ed Brubaker).

      I’m working my way through the Wolverine Omnibus now – it’s slow going, with over 1,000 pages. Chris Claremont’s writing style hasn’t aged too well.

  2. Just finished reading it and I was seriously disappointed – and I was especially reminded of Return of the Dark Knight, most especially with th inclusion of Hawkeye in comparison to the Green Arrow. Seriously, what the heck was that about? The entire pantheon of Marvel heroes to choose from and Millar lands on an archer? Lame.

    I didn’t even consider Magneto’s objections to the Skull’s Reich, but you’ve really got something there. The whole thing seemed like a missed opportunity, and also seemed like I was watching a Wolverine puppet being handled by an unfamiliar hand – and not just because of the context.

    • Yep – it’s just a little too self-consciously important. It’s grand as a throw-away tale, but it seems to have this cult following built up around it I just can’t explain.

  3. “A Fistful of Dollars itself was a remake of a Japanese original” … which was in turn based on a Dashiell Hammett original (Poisonville 1927-1928).

  4. Hey man, first piece I checked out on your blog. I like your writing, never thought of how similar westerns and samurai films were, I’ll be back for sure.

    I can see what you mean about the story but I did find some parts of it very well written and memorable, especially what drove Wolverine to exile. I loved the concept as well, of the villains realizing how much they outnumbered the good guys (which makes sense since each hero has their own rogues gallery, although some rogues overlap) and deciding to band together instead of going it alone or in smaller groups.

    There are a lot of things seemingly just thrown in but some added to the atmosphere for me e.g. Loki’s body, Pym falls. It came across as great world building.

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