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Chris Claremont’s Run on Wolverine (Vol. 2) (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.

Although his extended run on Uncanny X-Men is one of the most renowned runs in comic book history, it’s easy to forget just how massively Claremont developed the X-Men franchise beyond that core book. He did, after all, launch spin-off titles like New Mutants or X-Calibur. The writer also shepherded the development of Wolverine outside the Uncanny X-Men book, producing the original Wolverine miniseries with Frank Miller, Kitty Pryde & Wolverine with Al Milgrom and even Save the Tiger in Marvel Comics Presents. Claremont also drafted nine of the first ten issues of Wolverine’s first on-going solo title and, while not the writer’s finest work by a significant stretch, it is a pulpy and entertaining read – one more firmly grounded in pop culture conventions than grim violence and anti-heroic nihilism. The issues are a light, fun collection of stories featuring the character, nothing more and nothing less.

A cut above the rest?

In fairness, I can imagine that the series actually served as a nice counterpoint to the work Claremont was doing concurrently in Uncanny X-Men. Claremont had broken up the team, and embarked on a series of plot threads following each of the characters in their own new realities. I am quite fond of the period, but even I will concede that the execution is far from perfect. It was essentially a superhero team-up book without a superhero team, and many of Claremont’s plots would not reach fruition for years (if ever). In contrast, Wolverine is a much more straight-forward book. Wolverine is the focus of the plot. There is action. There are supervillains. There are impressive set pieces illustrated by a somewhat out-of-place John Buscema.

Claremont had a fairly unique perspective on Wolverine, one quite distinct from many of the writers who followed. Mark Millar treated him as a bad-ass anti-hero with blood of his hands as he wrote Enemy of the State and Old Man Logan. Brian Michael Bendis wrote him as an atoner trying to make up for a life of sin in New Avengers and Ultimate X-Men. Only Jason Aaron’s Wolverine has really captured the pulpy spirit of Claremont’s Wolverine. To Claremont, Wolverine was a mutant, an evolutionary leap forward for a fairly conventional archetype. He was the next generation of cowboy, which had been the spiritual successor of the samurai. While writers like Bendis and Millar respected that aspect, they generally didn’t contextualise it the same way that Claremont did. To Claremont, Wolverine is best used as a protagonist to decidedly pulpy tales.

A cut above?

And Claremont deploys all the storytelling conventions one expects from a pulpy adventure – pitching Logan as some unique combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones. The first two stories open with Wolverine finding an old friend murdered. For a guy with a mysterious past, he seems to be tripping over dying friends. Both deaths lead him to sinister and slightly surreal cases. The first involves a warning about a mysterious cult (“fantatics… stop at nothing… to regain their… sacred talisman”), an ancient relic (a “sword of evil” or “the black blade”), demonic possession, human sacrifice and various other trashy plot devices.

There’s even a sword fight through an exploding building, featuring Wolverine using has claws against the Silver Samurai’s sword. “Warehouse is piled high with flammables,” Wolverine tells us. “When they catch, place’ll go up like a bomb.” So, of course, the pair fight through the building, up and down stairs like the most wonderfully typical action set piece ever. Claremont isn’t exactly shy about his influences, either. On stumbling across the cult’s headquarters hidden amongst ancient ruins, Lindsay observes, “You were right — it’s the kind of place Indy Jones would love.” The pop culture references keep coming. “To paraphrase an old army buddy: ‘I do so love it when a plan comes together,” Wolverine observes. It’s official, at least in my head. Wolverine served in Vietnam with Hannibal and the A-Team.

That’s just not (blood)sporting…

The second arc offers something quite similar. When the body of an old buddy washes up, Wolverine and his pals find themselves smack-bang in the middle of a gang war on the fictional island of Madripoor. There’s criminal warfare, government corruption, drug smugglers, aerial combat, the golden triangle, tentacles (“no sign of what they’re attached to”) and super-powered assassins to boot. None of this is exceptionally deep or well constructed, Claremont seems much more interested in barreling along from one pulpy adventure plot device to the next, seldom leaving the reader a chance to dwell too much on what has transpired.

He even manages to insert an Asgardian vampire into the mix without missing a beat. Indeed, you’d be liable to miss the origins of Bloodsport and Roughouse, if only because their diction (“Ymir’s icy breath!”) and Roughouse’s build and beard are the only real hints of their origin. I believe that the pair have been used a few times since, and their origins have been the subject of some confusion among other writers.

He’s got the matter in Hand…

There’s a strange sense of fun to these stories, perhaps at odds with the somewhat darker tone we’ve come to expect from Wolverine. Indeed, Claremont’s penultimate story, appropriately enough, reunites Wolverine with the Hulk. It’s easy to forget that, despite his role as a member of the Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine originally began his existence as “Weapon X”, a foe of the Incredible Hulk. Claremont’s two-part story re-teaming the characters seems like an affectionate reflection on those days, while illustrating how far both have come from their earlier and relatively simplistic stories.

Pairing the two characters up once again would seem to be set-up for a match-up. A chance to wallow in nostalgia by replaying that initial confrontation time and time again. Indeed, the businessmen witnessing the scene leap to that conclusion immediately. “Forty says there’s  fight!” one offers, but Claremont is wiser than that. Both Wolverine and the Hulk have evolved past the point where their differences are resolved with simple fisticuffs. Instead, the pair manipulate one another, engaged in a series of playful practical jokes rather than out-and-out conflicts, a game of wits rather than strength.

It’s a bit of a grey area…

Wolverine, in fairness, takes the win for gleefully needling the Hulk. Sneaking into the Hulk’s hotel room, he makes fast work of the Hulk’s luggage. “Every stinkin’ bag — full to bursting with purple pants!” the Hulk yells. Wolverine then manipulates the Hulk into doing his own dirty work, demolishing the drug and sex trade on the island of Madripoor. It seems that Claremont is keen to establish Wolverine as a character smart in his own right, rather than some beserker animal to be unleashed.

It’s an interesting approach, telling conventionally comic-book-y stories with the character, in light of the character’s success as something of an anti-hero. Indeed, Claremont emphasised Wolverine’s role in his Uncanny X-Men run as the anti-hero of the bunch, and later portrayals tend to emphasise the character’s darker attributes – his willingness to kill, for example. I suspect that Wolverine’s anti-heroic credentials played a large part in the explosion in his popularity that we saw during the late eighties and early nineties. Much like the Punisher, he was a darker and edgier hero for a time when those characters saw their stock on the rise.

The best he is at what he does…

This aspect of Wolverine, while being one introduced by Claremont himself, doesn’t perfectly gel with the decidely hokey storytelling at play here. Sure, Claremont references it. The first issue opens with a scene that serves no narrative purpose other than to confirm that Wolverine is a bad-ass willing to cross a line most heroes wouldn’t contemplate. The series opens with Wolverine launching a bloody attack on a bunch of pirates, engaged in modern slavery and sex trafficking.

This allows Claremont to demonstrate Wolverine’s willingness to kill, without any of the moral questions such an approach would normally raise. Even Wolverine himself acknowledges that these pirates pretty much deserve whatever happens. He discusses his sharp claws, remarking, “Usually, I’m restrained about using ’em. Not tonight.” In fact, the extended sequence allows Claremont to clearly outline Wolverine’s moral compass, emphasising his darker morality against the more virtuous ideals of his traditional team mates:

I’m an X-Man. Mutants like me, band of super heroes. Good people. Idealists. Dreamers — forever looking for the best in others. With them, killing is a last resort. With me, it’s second nature. I take the world as it is, an’ give better than I get. Come at me with a sword. I’ll meet you with a sword. You want mercy. Show a little, first.

However, despite this postering, Claremont’s Wolverine seems particularly tame – even after the introduction that explicitly establishes him as somebody who kills by “second nature.”

A cut above?

I suspect that John Buscema’s art plays a role in this as well. Buscema was, after all, one of the oldest and most respected of the Marvel artists, working for the company back when they were Timely. His work can’t help but feel a little out of place here, a little bit too much like a seventies comic book, rather than one reflecting the late eighties. I quite like Buscema’s work, but Wolverine seems a bit of an awkward fit. He feels much more comfortable once Claremont settles into traditional pulpy superhero conventions. He’s less comfortable with the sequences that require a more violent or visceral approach.

Still, Claremont’s writing is also the cause of this surreal tonal dissonance. We frequently get captions informing us that Wolverine is indifferent to the potential deaths of his opponents – claiming he doesn’t care if they live or die. Methinks he doth protest too much, seen as Wolverine is only shown to kill in the most dire of circumstances – more “last resort” than “second nature.” I don’t mind that, to be honest. It fits Claremont’s characterisation of Logan, as a man trying to be better than he is. However, I can’t help but find it a little funny that the book opens with a scene designed to prove Wolverine is a bad-ass killing machine, before Claremont spends the rest of his run treating Wolverine as a more conventional superhero.

Blades of glory…

Claremont’s writing quirks are in full throttle here, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Claremont’s grand melodramatic tone might not work well with a more stoic or serious on-going series, but they fit the pulpy adventure remarkably well. Claremont’s Wolverine is far too eloquent to ever take seriously as an unstoppable killing machine, and he’s far more effective as a more stoic observer who divorces his emotional interior with his bad-ass exterior. Claremont’s Wolverine has at least as much angst as Scott Summers, but he never throws tantrums or acts out on them. He internalises, which makes him much more fascinating.

This allows Claremont the best of both worlds – a verbose (and almost poetic) internal voice with a hard and cool exterior. As a result, his own angst never feels overblown, but somehow appropriate. He’d never say it, but he’d think it. So the sight of him reflecting on the lives he failed to save seems strangely sincere rather than overly manipulative. “I wish I’d been able to save ’em all,” he thinks, “instead of avenge them. But, in my line o’ work, wishes don’t count for much.” That’s the point at which Claremont’s over-angsty Scott Summers would destroy a wall or knock down a building or something. Claremont’s Wolverine just deals with it, and he’s easier to respect for that.

A Fixer-upper…

Unfortunately, some of Wolverine’s actions seem a little too morally ambiguous or pragmatic, despite Claremont’s attempts to portray the character as hero, albeit a more cynical hero. At one point, talking with Tyger, Wolverine seems too quick to accept the drug and sex trade on Madripoor. “Consider the Prince’s angle,” he tells Tyger, “you won’t touch drugs or slaves, two primo lucrative markets. That leaves a vacuum. If Coy doesn’t fill it, someone else will.” He urges Tyger to sue for peace with a known criminal trading in two vices Wolverine himself seems to have little time for. I suspect it’s intended to portray Wolverine as a pragmatic realist, but it seems like a far more cynical and anti-heroic move than one motivated by simple indifference to the lives of murderers, rapists and slavers.

There are other problems. Claremont’s continuity here is quite like his continuity in Uncanny X-Men at the same time. His Wolverine run isn’t the most tightly-plotted story Claremont has ever constructed, and it becomes quite obvious at several points. Claremont seems to float some interesting ideas, but never returns to them. There’s no structured approach to set-up and pay-off. In fact, Wolverine seems to exist to collect Claremont-ian narrative loose ends from other books. Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman, pops up and joins Wolverine on the fictional island of Madripoor. Karma of New Mutants plays a significant role as well.

A beast of a man…

At one point, we get the glimpse of metallic battle armour that Wolverine had produced. Tyger ends up wearing it to protect her from the vampire Bloodsport, but it seems to heavily implied to be intended for the mutant Psylocke, even if her name is never explicitly mentioned. Its design resembles her original battle armour and the armour is shaded blue and purple – Betsy’s colours. It’s also suggested that there’s something special about it. “Yo, vampire!” Lindsay taunts, “Whoever said that outfit was made by human beings… or even mortals, for Pete’s sake!” Naturally, this is not followed up during this run, nor does it carry over to Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. I don’t recall seeing Psylocke wear it, either.

Indeed, even the plot involving the gang warfare on Madripoor doesn’t seem quite resolved. The Hulk has smashed Coy’s operations, but it seems a rather anticlimactic conclusion to the story. Part of me wonders about the wisdom of anchoring the series on Madripoor, the fictional Asian island Claremont had earlier created for New Mutants. I appreciate the set-up allows Claremont to craft all manner of pulpy and trashy stories, but it still seems like a slightly surreal locale to base Wolverine.

A smash hit…

I’m not a massive stickler for continuity, but the fact that Wolverine is constantly going on and on about the X-Men does make me wonder how Wolverine tends to commute. I know the team had disbanded by the time of this series, but Wolverine was putting them back together. I don’t normally worry about fitting continuity into itself, as long as the series is fun on its own merits, but it just feels strange Wolverine seems to consistently reference the X-Men while not having any access to them.

Of course, continuity also gives rise to one of the series’ most awkward conceits. “Patch.” For those unfamiliar with the concept, Wolverine “invented” himself a secret identity after the X-Men faked their death in Inferno. Given Claremont would disintegrate the team only a few issues later, I can’t help but feel that particular plot thread was a bit of a waste of space – there’s never any tangible pay-off for the X-Men faking their own death. Anyway, that’s for discussion another time.

Smokin’…

The effect of Inferno here is that Wolverine has to operate incognito. He does so by wearing an eye-patch. He keeps his hair in the same style, still uses the word “bub” and Claremont makes a recurring joke of how useless this disguise is. (While out superhero-ing, Wolverine seems to apply make-up like a domino mask around his eyes.) The only thing I can think of is that Claremont is gently spoofing Superman’s secret identity, one of the most awkward set-ups in mainstream comics.

However, even if it is a joke, it feels a bit strange for Claremont to return to it time and time again. He over-eggs that particular pudding, which would be grand if it were ever of any importance. However, every time any character reveals they know Wolverine’s secret identity, absolutely nothing comes of it. There’s no pay-off to the set up, just this really long and tangential plot-thread that never actually goes anywhere.

Oh, shoot…

Still, despite the fact that these aren’t the strongest issues Claremont has ever produced, they are easy enough to enjoy on their own terms. Particularly towards the end, it seems like Claremont is feeling a bit nostalgic, as if he knows that these will be the last Wolverine solo adventures that he will write. So he gives us a two-parter featuring the Hulk, the first character to appear with Wolverine. He also takes an issue to explore the relationship between Wolverine and Sabretooth, the character’s arch-enemy.

I’m a bit disappointed that we didn’t get more of Claremont writing Wolverine and Sabretooth, as Sabretooth makes a very effective counterpoint to Claremont’s Wolverine. While Claremont’s Wolverine tries to embrace his own humanity, a humanity stripped away from him, Sabretooth instead embraces his more animalistic urges. Revealing the source of their feud, Claremont makes the conflict seem almost timeless by revealing that Sabretooth is an apex predator – continually hunting and stalking Wolverine, much like the character’s mysterious past. It’s here that Claremont introduced the wonderful idea that Sabretooth always hunts Wolverine on the latter’s birthday, despite Wolverine’s attempts to escape the animal pursuing him.

Just claws…

Sabretooth isn’t a complex character, but neither is Wolverine. However, Claremont allows Sabretooth to represent Wolverine’s fundamental internal conflict, and so it seems appropriate to close on an issue exploring their dynamic. No matter how far Wolverine might run, the beast chasing him will follow – Logan can never escape Sabretooth any more than he can escape his own more violent impulses. It’s a clever idea, and a fitting thought for Claremont to finish on.

Okay, so Claremont and Buscema’s Wolverine run isn’t Claremont’s best work – nor is it his best work on the character. However, it is a set of pulpy and fun comics that celebrate Wolverine as more of a pulpy character than an out-and-out anti-hero. It’s interesting to compare these stories to a lot of the Wolverine stories that followed. Even after all these years, I still think Claremont probably had the best grip on Wolverine. As such, even these non-essential stories are still an engaging read – if you can overlook the somewhat obvious flaws.

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

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2 Responses

  1. Maybe I’ve missed something in this article but I just have to say this! Chris Claremont NEVER,EVER wanted “Wolverine” to have his own on-going series! He ever said he felt like the character BELONGED to him even though Lein Wein created the character!!!

    IMAO, Claremont secretly loathed Wolverine once he realized how popular the whole “Anti-Hero” had become. He never meant for this to happen! Usually he has his female characters out perform his males & act quite condescending towards them.

    So what did he do then? He basically made Logan/James the world’s greatest MUTANT PUNCHING BAG!!! He also made sure the hero’s face was absent from a ton of face pictures on the comics’ cover corner page! Claremont has said he was asked to kill the character several times but been turned down by Marvel executives! He said this in a “Wizard” magazine interview years ago! He even wanted to abort Wolverine instead of “Thunderbird” ASAP!!! And finally, after given a chance to finish where he left off in his (3?!!?) issue run on a new at the time “X-Men” book, what do you think was the very FIRST thing he did to Wolverine? Yeah, he just wasted him using a worthless clone hoping to cheapen Logan’s death as if he were cannon fodder. This would be a lot like the “Incredible Hulk” being completely obliterated by “Paste Pot Pete”!!!

    Claremont you’re not fooling EVERYONE anymore. LOL, You did indeed say you were AGAINST a “Wolverine” series at first just like Peter Jackson declared he would never do a “Hobbit” movie immediately after making the “LOTR” films.

    • No, no. Claremont’s always been a fan of the character. I remember an interview on Newsarama’s old site where he was being asked about each character he was going to use when he returned to Uncanny X-Men in 2004 and he spoke about Wolverine with much fondness. It’s just Logan’s overexposure that seems to bother him. Whenever you hear him talk about Wolverine’s series in interviews, he usually says the same thing– that Wolverine doesn’t need one. Apparently, the decision to have a Wolverine ongoing was made by editorial, and upon learning that it was going to happen whether he was onboard or not, Chris decided the best thing would be to write it himself, presumably to ensure Logan’s portrayal would remain consistent with how Chris had been writing him in Uncanny. I suspect Claremont’s decision to em, remove Wolverine early in X-Men Forever was his attempt to show how the X-Men might go on without him. Didn’t quite work out, though, as a certain Wolverine-related character Claremont introduced to the team essentially became a stand-in Logan.

      Anyway, Claremont’s first run on Wolverine has always been a favorite of mine. It’s just a lot of fun and I thought setting up Logan as basically Rick Blaine from Casablanca was an inspired idea. I wouldn’t have minded Chris sticking onboard a few issues more, at least so he could tie up the subplots about the armor and the origins of Roughhouse and Bloodscream (the former went in quite an unexpected direction after Claremont left the series).

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