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Spider-Man vs. Wolverine (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Well, at least it’s honest. Spider-Man vs. Wolverine doesn’t promise a superhero team-up so much as a comic book bust-up. Many comic crossovers open with two characters throwing down, perhaps playing to the geekish fanboy fascination with the idea that “my hero can beat your hero.”

Such brawls are so common that Marvel’s recent span of blockbuster events has been based around the idea of heroes fighting one another. Civil War pitted Captain America against Iron Man. Secret Invasion saw heroes fighting aliens impersonating heroes. Siege was about heroes defeating supervillain imposters. Avengers vs. X-Men… well, exactly what it says on the tin.

So the title of Spider-Man vs. Wolverine is refreshing frank, opening acknowledging this tendency and going so far as to make it the centrepiece of the book.

"So, um, when does the team-up start?"

“So, um, when does the team-up start?”

Jim Owsley (who would later write under the name “Christopher Priest”) tends to write comics with his heart on his sleeve. It’s very hard to read anything that Owsley has wrote and leave with any doubt about how the author felt on the matter. Sometimes this can be effective, allowing Owsley to write from the heart. However, it can also be distracting, turning his comic books into filibusters on topics of interest to him.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine is – in many ways – as explicit and as candid as its title suggests. Both Spider-Man and Wolverine are two Marvel comics icons, arguably amongst the most popular and easily recognisable characters in the company’s stable of superheroes. It’s a small irony, then, that the movie rights for both characters have wound up at companies that are not part of Disney of Marvel. One suspects that’s part of the reason Marvel Studios has shown such interest in developing its second-tier characters, as several “big guns” are off the table.

Sealing his tomb...

Sealing his tomb…

However, Owsley very shrewdly recognises that Spider-Man and Wolverine are the product of two very different eras. Spider-Man was one of the characters (along with the Fantastic Four) who helped Marvel become one of America’s largest and most successful comic book publishers. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original run on The Amazing Spider-Man casts a pretty impressive shadow, and Spider-Man arguably embodies that early Marvel superhero archetype so perfectly. He’s a little guy who is put upon by the world, but who uses his gifts to make New York a safer place.

In contrast, Wolverine is a completely different animal. He began as a supporting character, appearing as a villain in The Incredible Hulk before being made part of the ensemble in Len Wein’s Giant-Sized X-Men. Chris Claremont developed the character over his extended run on Uncanny X-Men, and he became a breakout character in a breakout comic. However, he only got his first solo comic (the Wolverine miniseries from Claremont and Miller) in 1982. However, there was no stopping him from that point on.

Fists of fury...

Fists of fury…

Owsley cleverly throws Wolverine and Spider-Man into conflict as representatives of their eras. It’s very clear that Owsley sees the late eighties – an era dominated by nihilism and cynicism and deconstruction – as a period belonging Wolverine. It’s no coincidence the book opens on Wolverine gleefully hacking and slashing unapologetically. Indeed, Owsley doesn’t even write Wolverine with the same existential angst that Claremont brought to the character. “I am what I am. I like what I am. End of story.”

The most complaining that Wolverine does over the course of the story concerns the new Burger King open in Potsdammer Platz, or the price of the dinner that his psychotic murdering ex-girlfriend buys for him. This is Wolverine’s time now, and history seems to support Owsley’s position. Wolverine’s popularity would continue to grow exponentially, to the point where joking about how Wolverine finds the time to appear in every comic is an easy joke.

Holding on in there...

Holding on in there…

In contrast, Owsley puts Spider-Man through the ringer. This is no loner Spider-Man’s era. In one rather ham-fisted scene, Peter and MJ come out of a thinly-veiled version of Cobra (“Silvester Rambone in PYTHON”), only for Peter to complain. “I’m sorry, MJ. I just don’t think some guy with a machine gun mowing down people is a good time.” Slightly more effective is the fact that Owsley features Mary Jane “looking through an old photo album”, evoking memories of times past. Or the decision to put Spider-Man in his classic uniform, rather than the all-black leotard he wore during the eighties.

Owsley does raise some interesting questions about Spider-Man’s place in this grim new comic book world. He questions the ethics of Spider-Man exploiting his costumed career to make a quick buck, and has Peter acknowledge the cynicism. “Every day it becomes easier for me to reach for that blasted camera,” he admits.“I’m turning into a check-cashing ghoul.” On visiting the site of a brutal murder, he tries to convince himself that taking photos can be justified. “I tell myself the publicity will help bring their killers to justice. I tell myself I’m doing the right thing. I reach for my camera.”

Slice of life...

Slice of life…

Owsley suggests that perhaps Spider-Man is out of place in the modern world, that he doesn’t belong in any sort of comic book where you can justify killing the two old people running a small grocery store. “What am I doing here?!” he laments as he follows Wolverine around. “I’m so blasted useless.” He almost gives up entirely, lamenting about the grim nihilism of it all. “Killers killing killers. Who’s right? I want no more of this.”

It’s not a bad premise. The problem, however, is that Owsley doesn’t really have too much subtlety. It’s on the nose and more than a little blunt. Then again, Owsley was writing this three years before the nineties began, pushing this cynical and nihilistic perspective into overdrive and creating a comic book market where the Punisher and Lobo were hugely popular mass-market books, and Venom could hold down a series of perpetual miniseries. So the clunkiness of Owsley’s delivery can be forgiven.

They really bounce off one another well...

They really bounce off one another well…

Tellingly, Spider-Man’s big heroic moment comes when he decides that he has had enough of Wolverine’s crazy hyper-macho grim nonsense. After all, the climax of Wolverine’s story features the hero attempting to murder his ex-girlfriend to spare her the KGB “torture camps.” The darkness has gone far enough. Asking us to cheer for a man who would murder his lover without a moment’s hesitation suggests that maybe these anti-heroes aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

“You’re crazy,” Spider-Man cuts in, rather bluntly. “You’re absolutely nuts. You’re killing your own girlfriend?!” Wolverine responds, as you might expect with a half-baked attempt at condescension. He argues that this is true angst beyond the capacity of the simple-minded Spider-Man to comprehend. “This is too deep for you,” he offers, as if only dark and depressing things can be “deep.”

Holding on in there...

Holding on in there…

Later on, he falls back on a half-hearted appear to relativism. “Your principles don’t apply here. There ain’t no right or wrong. There ain’t no law.” Wolverine is falling back on many of the knee-jerk defences of these sorts of bleak comic books, suggesting that somehow violence and death are more meaningful and more profound than optimism or hope. It doesn’t sound convincing, and it’s clear that Owsley doesn’t mean it to.

That said, it’s interesting how Spider-Man vs. Wolverine has wound up being completely overshadowed by a bit of an editorial and continuity misfire. Spider-Man vs. Wolverine features the death of Spider-Man supporting cast member Ned Leeds. This rather famously de-railed one of the long-running story arcs in Amazing Spider-Man, as it turned out that Ned Leeds may have been originally intended to be the sinister new Hobgoblin.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

Killing off Leeds threw that pot-boiling mystery off a bit, and many fans and critics blame Owsley’s Spider-Man vs. Wolverine for the somewhat contrived and disappointing resolution to that particular story thread. It’s a rather convoluted and complex chain of events, which culminated when a later editor decided that all the early evidence pointed to Leeds as the Hobgoblin and was left with a mystery where the criminal had been unceremoniously killed off in an unrelated one-shot.

In a way, it’s a perfect demonstration of the perils of comic book shared universes if ever there was one, a demonstration of how dangerous having those sorts of threads running through a universe directed by a variety of writers and editors with different storytelling needs at any given moment. It’s almost a shame that this is pretty much the defining attribute of Spider-Man vs. Wolverine whenever it is discussed.

Throwing him off the scent...

Throwing him off the scent…

Still, it’s not a bad one-shot. Owsley is occasionally just a little too heavy-handed, and his criticism a little too blunt, but it’s a well-observed little book that offers a clever take on the intrinsic conflict between Spider-Man and Wolverine, and what that means to the publisher.

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