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Wolverine: Enemy of the State (Review)

Wolverine is a bit of an odd character. He’s a bit of an odd character to have endured the sheer amount of publicity that he has and to remain a big gun at Marvel. He was introduced as an opponent in The Incredible Hulk, before ending up drafted on to Chris Claremont’s revised Uncanny X-Men roster. After that, he was lucky enough to earn his own miniseries (written by Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller), which became his on-going series which led to him featuring as a leading character in multiple team books and a title character in several solo series, all at the same time. Only Spider-Man can compete with that level of exposure, and Spider-Man arguable has a better claim to it as a richly layoured, complex and pseudo-realistic character (in the sense of being “Peter Parker: Schmuck”, rather than “Your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man”… you get the idea). On the other hand, Wolverine’s defining trait is that he is very, very good at killing things.

Even an unstoppable killing machine can stop to pet the dog...

Over the years, there have been various attempts to add complexity to the character. Claremont and Miller considered him a ronin, a samurai without a master – a man trying to be better than he was. Greg Rucka put a leather jacket on him and sent him touring America, finding the soul of the country and himself. Here, writer Mark Millar is having none of that. Wolverine, he would have you suggest, is simply a short, scruffy Canadian guy with razor sharp claws and a sharp temper. There’s nothing more complex going on there, and – as much as we may like to pretend otherwise – his shallowness and corniness is the bedrock of his success.

The first thing that Millar does here is to kill the leather-jacket-wearing social crusader version of the character. Literally. Millar opens the book by running a sword clean through him. And then he resurrects the shallow, straight-to-the-point killing machine. When Joss Whedon took over Astonishing X-Men after Grant Morrison’s fantastic New X-Men run, the first thing he did was reverse Morrison’s costuming changes. Morrison had removed the blue figure-hugging spandex and superhero chic with a more ‘normal’ black leather look, which lent the team a more stylish and almost mature feel. Then Whedon decided that superheroes should wear spandex, so the uniforms came back. Millar makes a similar point here, giving the reinvigourated and brainwashed Logan his old-fashioned (and more than a little knaff) yellow spandex back. “Mutants just look scary in that black biker gear,” a nurse observes. “Dressing up like superheroes makes you so much less threatening to people.”

Jumping on in...

And that’s the paradox of Wolverine here. Even though he wears spandex, he’s inherently toxic and poisonous to the conventional notion of a superhero. His defining characteristic is a moral ambiguity that doesn’t sit well with bright primary colours. He’s indifferent to the death or destruction he causes. He may well be ‘super’ (his advanced healing sees to that), but he’s no ‘superhero’. As they prepare for a violent raid, Wolverine asks, “Any other capes helping out?” “No chance,” comes the reply, as if to explain why Wolverine is helping out, “Gonna be a bloodbath.” Indeed, most of the operational support comes from supervillains. That’s right – Wolverine is more closely aligned with serial-killing supervillains than superheroes. However, Millar revels in that contrast, putting our hero in his traditional yellow attire and having him carve a bloody trail through the Marvel universe. Maybe, Millar suggests, there’s a place for this seemingly counterintuitive hyper-violence after all. At one point, various psycho-analysts in the story suggest violence as a theraputic exercise, exorcising the darkness from within the brainwashing characters, “to the point where the rage is completely out of his system.”

The central plot of the series – Wolverine is killed, revived and brainwashed by the killer ninja sect the Hand – owes quite a debt to the work of original defining Wolverine writer Chris Claremont. Claremont recalls at one point suggesting that Wolverine should have been killed and brought back evil as a great threat to the X-Men. Naturally, that never quite happened, but it isn’t too different from the central plot of Enemy of the State. Still, Millar arguably works best with a wonderful straightforward, almost hokey, premise like this.

The only thing more fun than ninjas: zombie ninjas!

The series is unapologetically wall-to-wall action. It’s the comic book equivalent of Taken. Anybody expecting introspection or an insight into the character’s head will undoubtedly be disappointed. Indeed, the book seems to love the fact that it ignores any chances for subtle exploration of the trauma Wolverine is going through – he’s the kind of rugged action hero who “ain’t got time to bleed”, to quote an eighties blockbuster. He’s made of sterner stuff than that, after all (adamantium). “Oh, please,” Emma dismisses the whiny mopey guilt of the surviving X-Men still in shock two months after Wolverine’s attack on the mansion. It seems like pointed way of contrasting their ineffective self-pity with Wolverine’s more… effective approach to the situation. Which involves “fifty-two thousand” bad guys, and his plan to “head out there and kill them all single-handedly”. Sometimes, Millar would suggest, there’s nothing wrong with being an unstoppable killing machine. It certainly beats moping and whining.

Enemy of the State is a light, easy-to-read blockbuster comic. Millar is clearly having a bit of fun here playing with the wider Marvel Universe and its tropes. It’s fun, for example, to see Wolverine use Daredevil to get to Elektra, rather than the other way around. Or to see the internal dynamics of two of the many, many evil institutions in the Marvel Universe (Hydra and the Hand) explored. There isn’t really any depth to either portrayal, but it’s nice to see some level of characterisation applied to these somewhat nebulous evil organisations. It’s nice that Millar isn’t afraid to offer a pseudo-religious motive for the terrorist actions here (although it’s intentionally meant to echo those Japanese end-of-the-world cults from a few years back, it is a reasonable relevant topic in the context of modern geo-political terrorist groups).

Things could get messy...

The flipside of this particular coin is that… well, there isn’t anything resembling depth going on here. Millar doesn’t really allow Wolverine to ever stop and catch his breath – instead jumping from one action scene to another featuring any number of Marvel royalty (the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Daredevil). That’s arguably the point, and the book never pretends to be otherwise, but it feels incredibly shallow. Even Millar’s central antagonist – the Gorgon – is a poorly-defined villain whose central character quirk is a taste for older women. Given he’s the central foe in a year-long story arc, there probably should be more to him than that.

Interestingly enough, the most fascinating aspect of this particular collection is not how Millar writes Wolverine himself, but the brief insights into other characters. Indeed, his take on the Fantastic Four is fairly compelling – most notably his detached presentation of Reed, clinical and cold to his own children – as is his version of Elektra. These are mainly supporting characters in the arc, but there’s a wealth of fascinating ideas only fleetingly touched upon.

Taking the matter in Hand...

There is, however, a bonus feature included. The final issue here is a stand-alone Wolverine story Prisoner Number Zero. It isn’t an epilogue to the central arc (which probably needed one for Wolverine to appraise the damage he has caused), but is instead a flashback issue to Wolverine’s time in a Nazi concentration camp. He proceeds to “haunt” and play games with the camp’s commander – without even saying a word. Sure, it’s a high concept that has lots of holes (surely he can do something more active and that will save more lives, right?), but it works as a sort of grim ghost story. The white backgrounds and stark contrast from artist Kaare Andrews really help. I’m disappointed to hear that there was a black-and-white varient of the issue which isn’t included here – I think the story would have worked even better in that style. Still, it’s a powerful little story which does something interesting with a character who has been around for a while.

It’s a solidly okay bit of work. There’s no doubting that – if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and just roll with the plot as it comes – you should enjoy this collection. John Romita’s pencils lend a rather wonderfully cartoonish effect to the story, and it works the better for it. There’s no mistaking this for a book with too serious a point or too new an angle on its lead character.

You know, for a badass unstoppable killing machine, he has a fairly camp "I'm gonna jump down and kill you all" pose...

Wolverine is a strange character. He has been around long enough that there have been literally dozens of alternate versions of the character presented, and yet he remains so undefined that none of these has managed to stay with him. Mark Millar is clearly a fan of a simplistic interpretation of the character (though his later work, Old Man Logan, would arguably offer something of a deeper case study of the hero), one whose very existence and appeal is based upon feats of impossible badass-ery. This is a Wolverine who flies a jet into a building shouting “Die, mother-@#$%@!!!” – he’s not particularly nuanced or developed. Granted, there are hints of characterisation peppered through his actions and inner monologue (most of which fall into what Joss Whedon summed up as “a frightened little boy who fancied himself a beast” category), but not too many.

It’s a romp. It’s mindless entertainment. It’s an eighties action movie in comic book form. That’s perhaps the best praise and the most damning criticism I can offer.

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

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