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Civil War: Wolverine (Review)

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.

A lot of the recent big Marvel events, stretching from Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled through to at least Avengers vs. X-Men, can be read as commentaries on post-9/11 America. In particular, they focus on questions the relationship between the power and trust held by various authorities, and how those are earned or abused. Perhaps Civil War was the most overt of these, with the conflict in the comic coming down to the clash between the demands of liberty and security.

So, I suppose, at least Marc Guggenheim’s Wolverine tie-in to the event is explicit about what it’s trying to do. It’s any even more explicit 9/11 parable, casting the famous mutant as an investigator looking for his own kind of justice in the wake of a horrifying terror attack.

Talk about seeing eye-to-eye...

Talk about seeing eye-to-eye…

Guggenheim isn’t even subtle about it, although I suppose Wolverine probably isn’t a character built for subtlety. The comic opens with Wolverine tackling some religious extremists who have hijacked a plane. Guggenheim’s careful not to play into ethnic stereotypes, so they turn out to be dressed like crusaders. As I noted above, subtlety is not one of his strong suits. In case the reader hasn’t noticed the parallel, Wolverine explicitly narrates, “At some point, I really gotta read some of this religious stuff. Find out how books written thousands’a years ago have somethin’ to say about crashing planes.”

Guggenheim’s Wolverine isn’t out-and-out terrible. Doesn’t turn out as ridiculously malformed as the Civil War: X-Men tie-in. Guggenheim knows the basics of comic book storytelling, and he knows how to make a comic accessible to a new reader. It’s easy enough to pick up Wolverine‘s Civil War tie-in. The only real question is whether you’d want to. Guggenheim has a fairly juicy idea here, with the superhero cast as vengeful pursuer.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Guggenheim’s story isn’t the “hero vs. hero” knock-down brawl that you might associate with Civil War. Indeed, he picks up a loose thread from the event, and advances his own plot on a tangent from the main crossover. It’s a clever way of allowing Wolverine to retain its own identity in the midst of this big universe-shattering event. And it’s actually a clever hook. Civil War moves so fast that a whole mess of plot threads are rapidly cast aside and forgotten about.

Guggenheim picks up on one of the larger of these threads: what happened to the bomber who killed all those people to spark off the event? It’s a pretty juicy set-up, and it might provide an avenue for clever self-criticism of Civil War. How come it seems Wolverine is the only character interested in blaming the person actually responsible? Why is everybody else so intent on going at one another with a minimum of provocation. However, Guggenheim ignores that opportunity.

Floating in a most peculiar way...

Floating in a most peculiar way…

There’s an interesting opportunity for exploring the gut reaction to such atrocities. After all, superheroes are aspirational figures, larger-than-life embodiments of various ideas and thoughts and subconscious concerns. Exploring the anger in the wake of terrorism through a comic book character might allow for some distance, some thoughtful and insightful commentary that could feel ham-fisted or overwrought in other circumstances.

The problem is that – when Guggenheim does hit on these ideas – he’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer. “S’funny,” Wolverine muses. “I been an Avenger for a couple’a months now. And I finally got something to avenge.” When he is assured that a hunt is on-going for the mass-murderer, Wolverine’s response is a fairly two-dimensional impression of visceral outrage. “And what happens when you get him? Some kinda super-villain prison with three squares and a cot? Or ten years’a appeals before a needle puts him to sleep? What kinda punishment they hand out these days for vapourising 60 kids?”

Cut it out...

Cut it out…

But Guggenheim doesn’t even stick to his guns. Wolverine quickly tries to deflect attention away from the implications of Wolverin’s manhunt, with Guggenheim offering a cut-rate impression of the post-9/11 politics of 24. I actually loved 24, finding the second season (and on) an insightful glimpse into the American psyche in the wake of those terror attacks. There was something very raw and visceral about that; it wasn’t always pleasant, but it was unflinching. However Guggenheim’s Wolverine feels like a cold and calculated imitation of 24, right down to the convoluted plot twists and the misdirection.

It turns out, as it always does in conspiracy thrillers like this, to be a bunch of white guys in business suits who are responsible for such large-scale loss of life. It’s telling how, in so many of these post-9/11 narratives, there’s a desperate desire to believe in a conspiracy – to accept that this isn’t the work of a few crazy individuals, but the work of an incredibly competent committee working in the shadows. There’s something comforting in the idea that we aren’t vulnerable to the whims of disaffected individuals, and that our society is under threat by something larger and more impressive.

Plane sailing...

Plane sailing…

“This is way bigger than me,” our killer assures Wolverine when the hero catches up with him. “And I’m the guy who killed a town.” Because we don’t want to believe that it’s just a small number of lonely and hateful individuals. Guggenheim’s Wolverine isn’t smart enough to question or to challenge that conspiracy mentality. It doesn’t dare probe why it’s more comforting to believe in those sinister monsters wearing business suits and controlling the system from outside.

So it turns out that Civil War is just the result of some sinister scheme by corporate America, which feels dangerously like all those crazy “truther” theories. “He gave this stuff to the guy who blew up Stamford,” Wolverine explains, uncovering the role that Mutant Growth Hormone played in the whole thing. “And your company got the cleanup contract. Didn’t it?” Apparently a joke organisation from a string of eighties comics is cleaning up on superhero brawls. “The point being, more fights, more mess, more money.”

A cutting rebuke...

A cutting rebuke…

It’s not a bad idea. In fact, it’s a clever twist on superhero story logic, suggesting that the damage caused by the latest throwdown between Iron Man and the Mandarin is benefiting the balance sheets of various corporations. “Saw this kinda thing in ‘Nam,” Forge observes. “First Gulf War and Iraq, too. Where there’s war, there’re war profiteers.” It’s a fair point, but Guggenheim’s Wovlerine falls down because it meshes this interesting idea with a bunch of conspiracy theory nonsense.

It feels like a contrived twist, a cheat to avoid exploring the ideas that the opening issue promises. Then again, Darwyn Cooke already handled this idea relatively well in his Question story from his issue of Solo. Still, Guggenheim sets a bar for himself that he can’t reach, and falls back on the easiest tropes associated with these sorts of stories to avoid offering anything profound. Wolverine manages to remain an unambiguous hero, despite his brutality and his rage and his anger. There’s never a moment of introspection. The questions facing Wolverine are only tough because Guggenheim makes them unnecessarily complex.

Tackling the issues...

Tackling the issues…

To be fair, Guggenheim’s last chapter isn’t half-bad, as he explores what death means to Wolverine. It steers clear of offering anything too profound, and it’s occasionally too overwrought, but it’s a novel approach to a character who has been over-exposed for quite a while now. It’s a sweet one-issue story that would benefit – like the rest of Guggenheim’s Civil War tie-in – from being a bit more introspective or thoughtful.

Civil War: Wolverine is not a classic Wolverine story. It doesn’t even rank among the best of the event’s myriad of tie-ins. It isn’t as terrible as some of the other crossovers, but that’s hardly a defence. Civil War: Wolverine feels like a wasted opportunity, a great idea hampered by the most mundane of executions, and an unwillingness to offer anything but the easiest of answers.

2 Responses

  1. ““This is way bigger than me,” our killer assures Wolverine when the hero catches up with him. “And I’m the guy who killed a town.” Because we don’t want to believe that it’s just a small number of lonely and hateful individuals.”

    It occurs to me too that the kind of unreasoning hatred that drove the 9/11 killers would be very much at home in the X-Men universe, which brought us characters like Reverend Stryker (who appropriately would get a revival in the 2000s) and, well, every other anti-mutant fanatics. Just to drive in the “missed opportunity” point.

    • I actually really like that Stryker’s been a big deal in both Ultimate and mainstream titles. I love Wood and Spencer’s “ghost in the machine” approach because it (a.) feels like a nice metaphor for the whole “spreading hate via technology” thing that the Western world is dealing with, where you can plug directly into all manner of crazy hate speak, and (b.) it plays into the whole “building something inhuman to preserve his idea of humanity” thing which made the Sentinels so appealing in the first place.

      (I also like the decision to cast Cyclops as a religious extremist. I know it’s polarising, but Cyclops is much more interesting broken than he is in any way functional. I blame Chris Claremont, but there’s something so great about Cyclops as “the broken boy scout.”)

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