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Chris Claremont & Frank Miller’s Wolverine (Review/Retrospective)

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.

It’s almost hard to believe that Wolverine only earned his first solo miniseries in 1982. The character had first appeared as a foe in The Incredible Hulk in 1974, and was coopted in the X-Men with Len Wein’s Giant-Sized X-Men #1 a year later. During Chris Claremont’s celebrated Uncanny X-Men run, Wolverine emerged a hugely popular character. In fact, I think you could make the argument that Wolverine and Storm were the central protagonists of Claremont’s epic X-Men run. Still, given how ubiquitous the character has become in recent years, it’s impressive that it took so long for him to get a solo adventure. The four-part Wolverine miniseries, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller, is generally regarded as one of the best miniseries that Marvel ever produced, and I think that it provided a lot of the momentum and characterisation that would sustain the character over three more decades of solo appearances.

Get some…

I’ve remarked before that Wolverine isn’t the most complex of comic book characters. I tend to think that, as a rule, the character is well-served as part of a group dynamic, where he can define himself in opposition to other members. I think that a large part of his appeal in Uncanny X-Men was the fact that he was the most flawed member of the team, the resident “bad boy.” While I’d be very reluctant to describe Chris Claremont’s Wolverine as an “anti-hero”, he did have a bit of an edge to him, something lacking from most comics at the time.

In many ways, he evoked the sort of Clint Eastwood archetype, the rough and ready macho icon, ready for whatever the world could throw at him. Although Claremont’s somewhat over-populated word and thought balloons meant he wasn’t quite the man of few words, he did have an air of mystery about him, being far more likely to face the world with snark and cynicism than wide-eyed optimism. He’s a fairly conventional genre character, and I think he appeal comes from how carefully Claremont defined him within that mould. I don’t think he’s exceptionally deep or complex, and I’d argue that Claremont himself would concede that.

A cut above the rest?

In fact, Claremont seems to do that in the introduction to the collection of the four-issue miniseries. “For the most part, you see,” Claremont candidly explains, “Wolvie had been portrayed as a terminal psychotic, akin to human nitroglycerin, ready to explode into a beserker fury without warning, as likely to attack his friends and teammates as his foes. The problem is, that doesn’t leave you – as a writer – many places to go.” So, then, it’s to the credit of Miller and Claremont that they were able to so skilfully reposition the hero, turning that shallowness into an emotional anchor itself – exploring Wolverine’s own insecurities about being “a beast clad in human form who knows nothing of honour.”

It is worth acknowledging the connection between Frank Miller and Chris Claremont. Reading a large portion of Claremont’s epic run, it impresses me just how keenly aware of popular culture Claremont happened to be. I think that the writer had a massive impact on how writers produce long-form stories, even if he didn’t fundamentally affect the medium or genre in the same way that Alan Moore or Frank Miller did. However, I don’t think that Claremont gets enough credit for having his finger so finely on the pulse of the genre, recognising the works that would become influential and iconic, and incorporating them into his own on-going narratives.

What dreams may come…

Towards the end of his Uncanny X-Men run in particular, in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, one could see him affectionately referencing the two masters of the genre. The smiley-face icon from Watchmen turned up in a panel or two, but he also borrowed some of the book’s deconstructionist commentary about superheroes and geo-politics, widening out his portrayal of public uncertainty to include not only mutants but all superheroes. Jubilee seems like an affectionate homage to the Robin from The Dark Knight Returns. He redesigned Psylocke to fit a mould quite similar to Elektra in Frank Miller’s Daredevil, making her a ninja trained by the Hand and giving her a blue swinsuit to match Elektra’s red swimsuit.

So one can detect a synergy between Miller and Claremont, and the two fit each other quite well. This Wolverine miniseries immediately ties into several different threads from Frank Miller’s celebrated Daredevil run, which was winding down at approximately the same time. In the opening pages, Wolverine finds his way to a “Josie’s Bar ‘n’ Grill”, which shares a name with the night-time haunt Daredevil used to frequent. The plot extensively features the Hand, and would tie them to Wolverine’s personal continuity quite firmly, as well as establishing them as one of the many elements of the shared Marvel Universe that Claremont would draw on from time to time.

Quite a Handy little fellow, eh?

However, the most lasting impression that the series made on Wolverine’s character, and probably the single smartest connection that it makes with regards to his character, is entwining Wolverine within Japanese culture. “Logan, you are more truly Japanese than any Westerner I have ever known,” his old friend, Asano Kimura, suggests. It’s actually a beautiful metaphor, as Claremont portrays the central character struggling with his warrior instincts and his attempt to be something more than that.

Japan had a long military history. As of 1982, the country had most recently been involved in the Second World War. It managed impressive colonial expansion during that conflict, but also drew upon a rich military history before that. This was a nation famed in popular culture for samurai and ninjitsu, known to produce warriors of all kinds. However, that culture had been dramatically changed after the Second World War. The army had been replaced by the “Japan Self-Defense Force.” There was still a strong antimilitarism sentiment in the country by the time this comic was published. (That political philosophy would arguably weaken in the late eighties or early nineties, but the point stands.)

A slice of married life…

Claremont alludes to this fundamental internal conflict within the Japanese character. “Our family is as old as the Emperor’s, with as legitimate a claim to the throne,” Mariko’s father tells Wolverine at one point, reflecting on the old ways and traditions. However, he must bring himself back to the present-day, the realpolitick of the situation. “But I forget. We live in an age where such precepts have become as ephemeral as the morning dew.”

No matter how peaceful it may seek to be, “the land of the rising sun” will always be associated with timeless warriors like ninjas and samurai. These eternal and iconic archetypes adhere to their own internal sacred codes of honour, masking the savagery of combat and murder with the civilised framework of ancient oaths and codes. Wolverine reflects on a staging of the 47 Samurai, musing, “It’s a tale of honour, of loyalty, of the samurai determination to see a course through to its end, regardless of the cost. It embodies all the qualities the Japanese revere most in their national character and heritage.”

He’s a beast of a man…

In fairness, it also betrays a rather wonderful pulp culture synergy. American readers would undoubtedly associate Wolverine with the lone cowboy archetype. Reading his narration as written by Claremont, it’s not too difficult to imagine a young Clint Eastwood taking the role, and playing him in the style of “the man with no name.” Of course, many of those iconic westerns were themselves heavily influenced by classic samurai films. The Magnificent Seven was The Seven Samurai. A Fistful of Dollars was Yojimbo.

In a slightly clever, post-modern way, it seems like Wolverine is these tropes and conventions twisted back upon itself. There’s a splendid sequence where Wolverine chases a fleeing Yukio through Tokyo at night, and Miller skilfully silhouettes the pair against the bright neon lights of the Japanese capital. American comic book panels are rendered as flashy pop art. It’s brighter than Los Vegas. Japanese consumption of American pop culture seems like a full circle, based on the massive impact that Japanese storytelling conventions had on American narratives. Hell, even “the children of the atom” probably owe something to Japanese atomic-era pop culture like Godzilla. Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine seems like a clever reflection on that, illustrating the strong links that bind American and Japanese pulp fiction.

He’s the best at what he does…

It’s also interesting in how Claremont and Miller manage to tap into the essence of the character without resorting to a large number of the clichés and story-telling crutches that a lot of the more recent work involving the character have fallen prey to. While the story does resort to the tried-and-tested “old history from Wolverine’s long personal history” plot device in order to get the story flowing, there’s a minimum amount of angst over how little Wolverine might know about his own past. While Claremont and Miller weave Japan into the character’s history, they don’t play up the mystery of his origin like so many later writers and artists would.

It’s also worth noting that this was written back when Wolverine was a mortal character, rather than when his healing factor rendered the character virtually unkillable. These days, it takes a world-ending threat to even give the hairy little mutant pause, given how radically his regeneration power set has evolved. Here, however, Miller and Claremont instead create a great deal of tension from a relatively banal and street-level threat. This is a Wolverine who can still be killed by ordinary ninjas. “The stuff they used was potent,” he remarks at one point. “I barely made it.” It’s rare to see that sort of basic dramatic tension or high stakes involving the characters these days.

Bear with me…

This is a character who is in the middle of his own character arc. Wolverine was still evolving under Claremont’s pen, and the writer seems to embrace the idea that Wolverine might grow into a character quite different than the one who first appeared in The Incredible Hulk all those years ago. Wolverine seems to argue in favour of that sort of bold and evolving approach to comic book writing, as Claremont seems to condemn lazy attempts to adhere to the status quo. “Sure,” Wolverine remarks, “it’s scary, but what’s the alternative? Stagnation — a safer, more terrible form of death. Not of the body, but of the spirit.” Comic books are an inherently static medium, but I’ve always respected how much Claremont’s characters changed during the writer’s tenure.

There’s something tragic about the character arc the pair give Wolverine, as a character struggling to be more than he has been in the past. There’s something strangely noble in Wolverine’s attempts to improve himself, especially given his own sordid past. He’s genuinely trying to be a better man, which I think sets off a beautiful internal conflict, as Miller and Claremont force the character to choose between two stunning Japanese women: Mariko, who speaks to his better nature; and Yukio, who appeals to his baser instincts.

Quite a view…

“You should have slain those men,” Yukio insists after Wolverine knocks out too guards. Wolverine assures her, “Killing them serves no useful purpose.” However, he can understand her reasoning, perhaps because it occurred to him as well. Like Miller’s Elektra to Matt Murdoch, Yukio represents pure and unrefined id, the “bad girl” or the “temptress” in the noir setting. “Bloodthirsty lady,” Wolverine thinks to himself. “Reminds me of me. Maybe that’s why I like her.”

Wolverine is still a wonderful read even thirty years after it was first published. While it’s not the best work that either Claremont or Miller might have ever produced, it does feature two very skilled creators working at something approaching the top of their game. It’s a simple story, free from the sort of narrative convolutions that many of use expect from a Wolverine story, but I think it’s still a great read – perhaps precisely because of that simplicity. It suits its lead character, drawing tragedy from the most straight-forward of stories.

Not just a pretty face…

It feels strangely appropriate that Hugh Jackman’s next adventure as the not-so-merry mutant will be an adaptation of the story arc, as The Wolverine could certainly find far worse source material as it tries to understand its lead character.

You might enjoy our looks at Chris Claremont’s other Wolverine-related work:

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3 Responses

  1. This sounds good so far, hopefully they stick honest and true to the Claremont/Miller take and not transform the story into “the last samurai” or “avatar” where the “white man” learn the ways of the “oriental” crap hollywood has been feeding us, which in my opinion is very offensive to asians.

    I hope we willl see the Wolverine we all know and love who in his own right I quote the Claremont/Miller comic “the most Japanese Westener I have ever known.”

  2. The coloring on some of the images here is very different from that in the original books. Where did this come from?

    • Yep, they are. I’ve no idea. I googled the series on-line and these were the images that came up. I’ll try and fix them tonight.

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