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Weapon X by Barry Windsor Smith (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.

Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X was a fairly divisive comic when it was first published. Tasked with providing an origin for that most popular and iconic X-Men character, Windsor-Smith produced a twelve-part tale exploring the character’s history inside the secret “Weapon X” programme. While most fans would have probably preferred a more straight-forward and accessible exploration of the character’s history and back story, Weapon X is a wonderfully dense piece of work and, I’d argue, a true piece of comic book literature.

A bloody mess...

Windsor-Smith was meticulous in putting Weapon X together. I think it’s fair to consider the story to be his baby. Not only did Windsor-Smith provide the story and the pencils, he also inked it and coloured it. I even heard that the artist carefully chose the inks to be used in printing to get the best possible results on comic book paper. In fact, Windsor-Smith even provided some of the lettering. The end result is a comic with a near-perfect synergy, where every element appears perfectly in step with every other.

It’s hard to think of another mainstream comic book where the creator’s vision has been so efficiently articulated. Every page is constructed in such a way that it’s easy to take in, and yet rewarding. The text boxes are generally easy to follow instinctively, and the space is nearly perfectly use. There’s no bowing to editorial pressure. With the exception of Logan himself, all the other characters are new. The only reference to the wider Marvel Universe comes in passing mentions of “homo superior” or “mutants”, but that’s obviously a necessary part of the story.

Picking him apart...

There are no cameos, no awkward plot points shoe-horned in. There are no convenient expository monologues and no attempt to tie the story in to the greater Marvel Universe in a way that would compromise Windsor-Smith’s story. The story doesn’t get tied-down in continuity references to Wolverine’s numerous past adventures – we’re briefly told he was “a government agent” and that’s about it. Some commentators accuse Windsor-Smith of being wilfully dense, of being indulgent or of side-stepping the subject matter of the arc. Some would argue that there’s no real origin of Wolverine to be found here, and the iconic cigar-chomping character barely appears at all. Instead the focal point is a hunk of meat abused by scientists.

I would respectfully disagree with that rather curt commentary on Weapon X, and suggest that Windsor-Smith is doing something far more compelling than spoon-feeding us the details of the hero’s “mysterious past.” I think there’s a lot of Wolverine to be found in these pages, but that it’s not a story that can be breezed over or idly flicked through. It is “challenging” and “dense”, but I don’t mean those words in a pejorative sense. After all, when did daring to challenge your audience become an inherently bad thing? When did telling generic and conventional stories become an inherently good thing.

It's a scream...

We don’t get much of Logan as a superhero here. In fact, we don’t get and at all. Instead of presenting Logan as a “man of action” or a character living an exciting life, Windsor-Smith takes an all-together more interesting approach. He ignores the bravado one associates with the character and instead brings the self-loathing to the fore. Far from the hero teaming up with Captain America during the Second World War, this version of Logan is a self-destructive loner, fired from his job on the firing range and resorting to living out of Catholic hostels.

He’s also nursing a secret. “I got a doozie,” he confesses, after he imagines telling his mother just how different he actually is. This is Logan as a drifter, a man who didn’t belong anywhere. After all, he had to be abducted for scientific experimentation without anybody noticing his absence. There’s a sense the that the character is somewhat pathetic and small in the grand scheme of things. His “morbid preoccupation with current ‘mutant’ scare” suggests a person trying desperately to figure out what they are. It’s clear that Logan wasn’t comfortable in his skin even before he was taken and experimented upon, which is an interesting angle. There’s a sense of self-loathing in how Logan must see himself, with Doctor Cornelius recognising “his fear of mutantism.”

Just claws?

However, despite these interesting ideas about the character of Wolverine, Windsor-Smith is much more preoccupied with the process and people who ran those experiments on Wolverine. The story is careful not to reveal too many details of the Weapon X programme. We never discover who the “Professor” is or who his unseen benefactors might be. Grant Morrison was able to definitively resolve that thread in his New X-Men run. Even Cornelius is uncertain about the scheme, wondering aloud, “What’s this thing gonna do? Is the weapon gonna protect us from the Commies or something? Like some kind of assassin?” Windsor-Smith never even addresses whether this is a secret government-run project or (perhaps) a privately-funded illegal experiment.

Instead of focusing on that minutiae, and leaving it to writers who would have an interest, Windsor-Smith instead focuses on the kinds of people who must have been involved in Wolverine’s transformation into “the perfect killing machine.” There’s a strong case to be made that Cornelius is the true protagonist of the tale, as he wrestles with his conscience and is effectively “blackmailed” into helping the programme following his exposure as a “mercy kill” doctor. It’s interesting to think about the people running these sorts of experiments.

Pressured into this? Mercy...

Windsor-Smith has a very dark sense of irony as Carol Hines objects to the murder of wolves by a brutalised Wolverine. “Professor… can’t we stop it?” she asks. “Save the animals?” She never expresses a similar sentiment about Logan, the man who is being harnessed into a blunt instrument. Indeed, the story is most interesting in the discussions between the three characters over Wolverine’s behaviour and his potential usefulness. The Professor is completely amoral and actually takes great pleasure in the suffering of others, while Hines is mostly quiet and Cornelius tries to divorce himself from the events he is witnessing on the screens.

Indeed, the Professor makes for an interesting counterpart to Charles Xavier, the mutant telepath who would help Wolverine find his humanity again. Both obviously share an academic title, and are bald older men who tend to delegate to their subordinates. Much like Xavier, the Professor has a knack for disappearing when things get desperate. “We’re in the middle of a crisis and he walks out!” Cornelius shouts. He even has a method of projecting his will into the mind of others – the Professor seems like a very dark mirror to Charles Xavier. While Charles Xavier was a surrogate father to the Children of the Atom, Windsor-Smith casts the Professor as a mad scientist. “Come, come creature,” he declares at one point, like a villain from a fifties serial, “into the pit with you…”

Born free...

However, if there is one problem with the plotting, it’s the surreal dream sequence in the middle of the arc where Wolverine has a fantasy of brutally murdering his tormentors. It just seems rather strange located in the middle of this relatively short little story, especially given how the story actually ends. It makes some interesting observations about Wolverine’s self-loathing and the nature of a shady operation like this, but it just throws off the pacing a little bit.

However, the beauty of Weapon X isn’t necessarily the story that is trying to tell, or the role that it plays in the character’s tangled personal continuity. Windsor-Smith is a great artist, and he is a clear master of form. Given a canvas like this to work on, his construction is practically perfect, as he masters pace. He spaces the panels carefully on the page. They’re all rigidly divided, and yet refuse to conform to standard page structure. Instead, Windsor-Smith puts the pages together almost like a game of tetris, with unconventionally-shaped panels dividing up the grid.

In case of emergency, break glass...

Even reading his caption boxes flows surprisingly smoothly, despite the fact that he doesn’t adhere to a strict format. Some times they bounce across the page, firing back and forth, while other times an entire panel can be read in a “u” shape, starting at the top left, looping around the bottom and back up to the top right. It’s a testament to Windsor-Smith’s technical skill that I was never confused as to which was which.

Weapon X isn’t the easiest of comic book stories, and it’s certainly not the most accessible for those looking to get a handle on that most iconic of mutants. Still, it offers a strangely compelling exploration of the rather sordid part of Wolverine’s history, the moment at which his humanity was so brutally taken from him, and his character arc towards redemption truly began. However, it’s worth a look for those who just like to watch a fine craftsman at work. I think it’s hard to find a mainstream superhero comic that has been as deftly and skilfully constructed as Weapon X.

8 Responses

  1. Probably the best review on the comic I have seen! Great job.

    One comment though since I have a different interpretation of the middle portion, I dont think its a dream. The doctor and professor are actually playing with Wolverine’s mind. However the game backfires when Wolverine hears the recordings repeated and he figures out how to remove his mind control and get his revenge.

    • Thanks Wolvie fan!

      Apologies, I should have been a bit clearer – you’re entirely right, it is a dream controlled by the Professor and Doctor Cornelius. Although I never quite picked up on the backfiring aspect of it. Must re-read! Thanks for the head’s up!

  2. Darren, been reading your X-Men retrospectives with great interest. This was the era I started reading X-Men and obviously I’ve taken them largely at face value. Very good work, Sir.

  3. Great work Darren. Enjoying all the X-Men retrospectives!

  4. I enjoyed Windsor’s Weapon X, too, although I wouldn’t mind reading it again, as there were some things I remember not quite wrapping my head around on the first read. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Morrison may have intended for the “Doctor Sublime” character in his “Assault on Weapon Plus” storyline to actually be the Professor– or at least, a deliberate visual callback to him (as I believe the Professor met his end in an earlier Wolverine storyline). Frank Tieri later retconned Doctor Sublime into being U-Man founder John Sublime with a helmet on, which was a little frustrating, as he and the Doctor were intended to be two separate Sublime hosts…

    … but back to Weapon X! I think Chris Claremont has said in interviews that he was so impressed by the series, that it changed the ideas he had concerning Wolverine’s backstory. It certainly gave the Wolverine ongoing years worth of material to work with…

    • Weren’t there rumours at one point that Claremont was going to reveal Wolverine was actually… a wolverine? Never sure how much stock to put in that.

  5. Ah, my mistake: apparently Barry Windsor-Smith actually was trying to tie the series into Claremont’s plans for Logan! As detailed here:

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