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Wolverine by Jason Aaron Omnibus, Vol. I (Review)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

Wolverine shouldn’t be a tough character to get right. He’s a fairly simple archetype, one often seen in the annals of pulp fiction history. He’s the Man With No Name, the ronin, the warrior who has lived through the war. He’s a man who is a weapon, even if he doesn’t necessarily want to be. He’s badass, he’s a loner, and he doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone or anything. It’s easy to see why the character is one of Marvel’s most iconic fictional creations, right up there with Spider-Man in terms of recognition. However, it seems that many writers struggle in characterising the most famous mutant. Arguably the writer with the best handle on Wolverine since Chris Claremont left Uncanny X-Men was Mark Millar, who wrote two of the character’s more memorable stories (Enemy of the State and Old Man Logan). However, this collection makes a nice argument for Jason Aaron as the logical successor to the writer who defined the bladed Canadian.

It’s hardly cutting edge, but it is good comics…

By the way, before I discuss the contents of this omnibus, I really must take a moment to remark upon the cover. It is terrible, really terrible. There are any number of better covers for a collection of Aaron’s work, but Marvel somehow managed to pick the ugliest cover in the entire collection. I know that you should never judge a book by its cover, but it’s ridiculously off-putting and something that made me think twice before picking up the book, despite the fact that I quite enjoyed Aaron’s pulpy run on Ghost Rider. Indeed, if the book didn’t sell well, I suspect the cover might have played a significant part in that. Ugh. I don’t normally comment on covers to collections, but just… It’s not a nice cover. To say the least.

But enough of that. On to the stuff that actually matters: the content!

Bloody good fun…

The Wolverine by Jason Aaron Omnibus collects quite a lot of material, but most of it is incredibly random. It’s essentially a collection of Aaron’s work on the character before he relaunched Wolverine and started writing Wolverine and the X-Men in the wake of Schism. There’s a fair amount of it, and it comes from multiple sources. There are back-up stories and one-shots and even a miniseries, as well as the entirety of Aaron’s Weapon X series, which was published through to the end of X-Men crossover Second Coming.

Not only are the formats of the stories different, the genres also bend and warp. Aaron gets to write everything here from high-concept science-fiction (revisiting Grant Morrison’s concepts from New X-Men) through to straight-up schlock horror through to action adventure, even throwing in a fair bit of character development. Those looking for consistency in tone might have to look elsewhere, and there’s little sense that Aaron is really mapping out a long-term plan. He seems to be writing by the seat of his pants, but having great fun doing so. It’s not the most structured collection of work by one author that you’re ever going to read, but what it lacks in direction, it makes up for with enthusiasm. Lots of enthusiasm.

Looks like Roxxon took a bath on this place…

It’s hard to hate Aaron’s approach, which is comics! in a style that demands to be written with an exclamation mark. He has a firm grip on character, but he’s not going to wallow in Wolverine’s centuries of angst or insecurity. He’s going to throw the character into a variety of incredibly brutal and surreal situations, involving all manner of unashamedly comics! storytelling, like cyborgs and time-travel and mystical ninjas. It’s hard to take too much issue with a writer who ends his charming introduction with the observation, “Now excuse me while I get back to writing more comics where Wolverine stabs things. I love my job!”

More than that, though, I think Aaron gets that he’s writing an unpretentious and relatively uncomplex superhero. I like comics, and I have no problem with Wolverine himself, but I’ll concede that there’s not too much complexity to a character whose primary abilities are (a.) his ability to stab things and (b.) his ability to take a beating. Yes, he had a mysterious past, but only as an allusion to other pulp mysterious figures like the typical “stranger” from Westerns or the wandering samurai. Hell, Aaron acknowledges that the two biggest influences on the character are those old samurai films and the old Westerns.

Wolverine and Spider-Man walk into a bar…

All the while, Aaron takes great pleasure in pointing out that Wolverine is very much a comic book character, and there’s nothing to be a shamed of in that. Modern comics seem a tad insecure or uncomfortable in their skin, as if embarrassed by their goofy past. Aaron, on the other hand, plays up Wolverine’s mixed and surreal history.

“I was raised by wolves,” he tells a psychiatrist at one point. “Or no, they were badgers. Or maybe weasels? I fought in the Spanish Civil War. I was a samurai in Japan. I fell in love with a beautiful Indian Princess once we lived in a cabin. But then she died. And then she came back. But then she died again. I have friends who can fly. And teleport. I’ve been to the moon. I’ve seen the future.” He then concedes, “It sounds like I’m crazy.” Of course it is, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

High-energy stabbing!

High-energy stabbing!

Similarly, Aaron’s Get Mystique features a similar moment where Wolverine outlines how varied his life has been, by reference to the many types of firearms discharged against him:

Believe it or not, I’ve been shot a lot over the years. M1 Carbine. M16. M79. Blop gun. AK-47. Luger. Walther PPK. Tommy Gun. Uzi. Carcano bolt-action rifle. Howitzers. You name it. I been shot with ’em all. Been sprayed with buck shot by the Punisher. Been trapped in a pit and strafed with a .50 caliber machine gun for weeks on end. Been blasted by sentinels and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and all sorts of aliens with their fancy ray guns. Even been shot by a guy who can change his hand into a gun and fire ‘biomatter projectiles’ at ya, whatever the hell that means.

It’s an interesting use of continuity by Aaron, one that acknowledges the past without lingering too much on it. He doesn’t bring up too many stray plot threads from earlier stories, and there’s nothing here that requires too much prior knowledge of Wolverine’s complex history.

Don’t let the champagne go to your head…

It’s a good approach to history, as Aaron keeps his Wolverine stories accessible. I’ve always felt that it was important when dealing with a particularly iconic character to make sure that a new reader could pick up and engage with a set of stories from a particular author with a minimum of fuss.

Instead of lingering on particulars, he gives us the broad strokes, demonstrating a wonderful fundamental understanding of how the character and his world works. “I remain a simple man,” Wolverine states. “I just got more history than most is all.” Aaron shrewdly makes sure that we get a sense of that, without needing a degree in the School of Wolverine to keep up. Although apparently Wolverine has his own school now, so it’s not a big deal.

Together, they can tackle anything...

Together, they can tackle anything…

Instead of a rigid continuity, Aaron seems to keep a broader and more thematic continuity between his books. So, for example, events aren’t always directly referenced from one story to another, but other works help provide context for character decisions. The most obvious example is how his run on the later Wolverine book (not collected here) played into the gigantic crossover Schism.

Here, we also see thematic continuity between Aaron’s Weapon X and Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, both of which subtly tie into Schism itself, as around Wolverine’s attitude towards the justification for murdering children. When a time-traveller protests she must have been sent back in time for reason, Wolverine insists, “The reason wasn’t to kill a child.” It certainly makes The Apocalypse Solution a more interesting story, which itself makes Schism somewhat more fascinating.

Taking a stab at catching Mystique…

As an aside, I do hope that Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force gets an omnibus soon. His Punisher run is getting a nice collection, so perhaps that’s a prelude – sort of like how Aaron’s Ghost Rider might have set the path for this nice and more mainstream collection. I think Marvel’s Omnibus line is superb to representing old and respected runs, but I’d like to see a few more modern runs included in the line as well.

There are a few problems with Aaron’s run, as collected here. I think that his second arc of Weapon X, Insane in the Brain, was perhaps a bit too strange and disjointed, and especially gratuitous. As much as I love Aaron’s pulpy mentality, I am not convinced I needed to see Wolverine strangle a guy with his own intestines. Although maybe I am just a little bit prudish, I don’t know. While the whole Manifest Destiny miniseries feels a bit pointless, I think Insane in the Brainis perhaps the weakest story arc in the run.

I guess we’ll see who is made of sterner stuff…

While I quite like Tomorrow Dies Today, it doesn’t really feel like a Wolverine story – which probably wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t close out the run collected in this omnibus. There’s a lovely one-shot that follows, illustrating Aaron’s skill with Logan, but it seems like Tomorrow Dies Today would almost work better as a New Avengers story arc rather than a Wolverine collection. I certainly wouldn’t object to giving Aaron a shot at an Avengers book, although I am dying to get my hands on Wolverine and the X-Men.

Some readers might take a bit of bother with the relatively derivative nature of the run, as Aaron effectively channels pop culture to construct his stories. Tomorrow Dies Today is structured as an affectionate homage to The Terminator, while Get Mystique features a reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark as a character counts on orphans to protect them in a seedy bar. In fact, the character of Yuen Yee reminds me of Short Round from Temple of Doom, even though I’m not particularly sure why – beyond the fact that I was already thinking of Indiana Jones and they are both wise-ass Chinese kids helping the American protagonist. I don’t have a problem with such affectionate and obvious references from Aaron.

Morrison mania!

You could argue that it’s derivative and that Aaron is just copying the work of more popular writers and storytellers. I don’t think that’s fair, as he very clearly has his own rich storytelling style. However, I think that his manner of incorporating all these references demonstrates a sharp understanding of the nature of Wolverine, who was developed by Chris Claremont as a hugely derivative character in his own right – he’s pretty much Clint Eastwood with claws.

More than that, I subscribe to the idea that comic books represent a pool to which writers and artists can contribute or draw from according to their own needs or ideas. These are all iconic properties that have been around for decades operating in a shared universe that is the product of countless competing imaginations. I think that this sort of cross-pollination is natural and wholly appropriate. Comics are very much a stew of influences, defined by an almost meta-awareness. These are narratives that have been running for years, so there’s already a sense that the walls of fiction might start to bend under the weight – that you can really create an interesting result by throwing pre-existing high concepts into a blender to produce a fascinating result.

Elf help…

Aaron’s Dark Reign: The List one-shot effectively takes a bunch of abandoned Grant Morrison concepts and makes them work for his story. I’m honestly glad to see it. Morrison wrote those toys to be used. I know that very few writers can handle Morrison’s devices as well as Morrison himself, but that’s how you get concepts to stick around in a shared universe – it’s a giant sandbox, and you need to be willing to let people play with their toys. Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men run might not have used Fantomax particularly efficiently, but I was glad to see him because it made it more likely that character would be used in future.

Jason Aaron, on the other hand, actually makes good use of Noh-Varr, Fantomax, and the World. I quite like his Morrison-ian suggestion for Weapon XVI: “It’s a living religion. A virus that attacks the faith reserves.” Is it just me, or does that sound like an affectionate reference to “Religimon” from Mark Millar’s The Authority, from an issue that was ghost-written by Morrison himself? It’s a goofy little adventure, but I like it – if only because it demonstrates that Aaron doesn’t feel confined by that chalk outlines of earlier writers.

Don’t lose your head…

However, the very best part of this run, with its many different genres and many different stories, is how clear and consistent that Jason Aaron’s version of Wolverine appears. I think it’s safe to say that Aaron understands Wolverine and the archetype, and how the character works. He understands the internal logic that drives the character, but is also able to rationalise the external aspects of the character.

To clarify, I mean that Aaron is exceptionally good at explaining the seemingly contradictory facets of Wolverine’s characterisation. After all, Wolverine is a “loner” – that’s what makes him seem cool, after all. However, he’s also on countless teams within the Marvel Universe, appearing in Avengers, New Avengers, X-Men, Uncanny X-Force and Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, among others. That is, of course, because putting Wolverine on the cover of comic books helps sell them. Because, as noted above, Wolverine is cool.

Wolverine is so hot…

However, Aaron does an exceptional job reconciling his existing categorisation with the demands of the company’s marketing department, all while making it flow rather smoothly. His two-part short story, A Mile in my Moccasins, actually does a great job explaining a problem I never thought would be addressed, suggesting that Wolverine is doing all this stuff out of a sense of guilt and responsibility, and to avoid thinking too much about the horrible things in his past. “It hurts like hell being me,” he tells Spider-Man. “I spend every moment of every day now trying to make up for those mistakes.” And that is a nice character moment.

There are more deft touches, offered by Aaron as relatively sophisticated observations on Wolverine, rather than anything that overwhelms or steals focus on the narrative. In Get Mystique, his first full story arc, Aaron shrewdly has Wolverine project a lot of his self-loathing on to the fugitive shape-shifter. “No more of her betrayals,” he insists. “No more skipping out before facing the music. No more leaving innocents behind to take the fall. Nothing left for her to do now, but die.” This is a Wolverine who has a habit of “skipping out.” Indeed, Aaron’s first arc on the next run of Wolverine sees the character “facing the music” with his own illegitimate off-spring. Mystique is smart enough to see Wolverine is merely projecting, and observes, “He’s the one who doesn’t have the guts to face up to who he really is.”

Deathlokked and loaded…

As I noted, these character moments are cleverly inserted and unintrusive. After all, Aaron seems to suspect that you are hardly picking up the Wolverine comic book for the subtle and nuanced character development – instead, it’s a wonderfully crafted extra served alongside the high-energy action adventure that Aaron is presenting to us. They suggest a sophisticated understanding of the character, but one that doesn’t pretend he has too much depth.

Aaron’s run never descends into full-blown angst, which seems to be a weakness of more than a few modern comic book writers. Instead, it’s just good characterisation in a good run of stories. Hell, Aaron even explains away earlier writers’ fascination with Wolverine’s healing ability by suggesting that Wolverine himself is keen to suffer in combat. As his mentor teases him, “Perhaps you think this is somehow an honourable trait, to needlessly absorb punishment so?” It’s a nice observation, one that explains a lot, and fits comfortably.

Captain America, %#&! Yeah!

Indeed, Aaron does a great job with most of the characters he features, even in small roles. After reading the final chapter in the run, for example, I am more than a bit disappointed that Nightcrawler won’t be on the staff for Wolverine and the X-Men. Similarly, I think that Aaron does a pretty wonderful job of welcoming Captain America back to the Marvel Universe following The Death of Captain America and Captain America Lives!

It’s nice touches like these that make me regret that Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, Aaron’s miniseries featuring Marvel’s two most iconic characters, wasn’t included. At a mere six issues, it hardly would have burst the omnibus, but it would have made a nice little sampling of another wonderfully absurd comics! story from Aaron. On the other hand, it does make Wolverine by Jason Aaron Omnibus, Vol. II seem a little bit closer – if Marvel include the six-issue miniseries, I’m fairly sure they’ve already got enough issues published to fill that book all ready.

Let’s sea what the future holds…

Most of Aaron’s run is illustrated by Ron Garney, with assistance from various other artists. As I explained, this is a collection pulled from a wide variety of sources, so it isn’t necessarily a continuous “run” per se. However, Garney works well with Aaron, with his artwork clear and concise, but capable of illustrating nearly infinite carnage, which suits Aaron’s version of the character almost perfectly. As I noted above, I’m disappointed that Marvel didn’t opt with one of those wonderful Ron Garney Weapon X covers for the collection.

Jason Aaron’s run on the character of Wolverine is just a bit disjointed to be considered a classic, but I think it’s well on the way. I think this might be the most fun I’ve had reading the character since… well, ever. I think that Aaron balances character and action quite well, aware of the character he is writing without trying to make a man with knives coming out of his knuckles seem pretentious. I’ll definitely be here for the next collection.

4 Responses

  1. I loved Aaron’s Wolverine stories too – especially the Kill Mystique and Weapon X ones. He’s even better on Wolverine and the X-men, which is currently the best read of any X-title.

    • Have to say, I am eagerly looking forward to (a.) the second collection of Aaron’s work with Wolverine, which better contain the Spider-Man team-up and (b.) the inevitable oversized collection of Wolverine and the X-Men. That said, I’d also love to see Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men get the same treatment, a nice oversized hardcover or omnibus.

  2. You are right about that cover. I just click on your link and saw that they could have picked better cover art than that one. Love Logan. He’s awesome.

    • I think Logan can be awesome in the right hands. For all people groan about over-exposure, he works very well in the hands of both Remender and Aaron. (And I don’t mind Bendis’ take on him either, as a sort of world-weary atoner, even if we see relatively little of it.)

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