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Jason Aaron’s Run on Wolverine & The X-Men – #1-8, 17 (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.

Superhero comic books have had a somewhat rocky relationship with the concept of “growing up” since the mid-eighties. Books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen proved that it was possible to craft mature tales with incredible depth using these icons. However, it seemed like the industry learnt all the wrong lessons from the success of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. For the past couple of decades, it seems like the ideal for superhero comics is grim and nihilistic nonsense, that “maturity” is measured in blood and bodycount.

There was a sense that the comic book industry was afraid of being seen as childish or unsophisticated, which created an ironic situation where the industry’s immaturity was on show in its fixation with adult material. “When I was ten,” C.S. Lewis once mused, “I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men feels like it subscribes to this philosophy. It’s an incredibly silly and  goofy piece of work, revelling in the clichés of the superhero genre, but it’s also a surprisingly sincere and intelligent one.

It's a bit of a gamble...

It’s a bit of a gamble…

The entire X-Men line was reinvigourated by the events of Schism, which effectively served to push the franchise back to roughly where it had been before editorial decided to “trim” the X-Men publishing line with House of M. The two flagship books launched in the wake of Schism – Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men and Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men – were effectively positioned as spiritual successors to two very popular X-Men books from the early years of the twenty-first century.

While Gillen wrote Uncanny X-Men as something of a follow-up to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, Aaron crafted Wolverine and the X-Men as the next generation of the experimental off-kilter books that dominated the X-Men publishing line almost a decade ago. It’s a heady cocktail mixed using ingredients culled from Grant Morrison’s controversial New X-Men run and even Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s under-appreciated X-Statix.

Rock on...

Rock on…

This is apparent in several ways. Most obviously, Aaron carries over several major cast members from both of those runs. Doop, the most iconic member of Allred and Milligan’s X-Statix, works at the school and gets an entire issue devoted to him, pencilled by the wonderful Mike Allred. That issue also features cameos from various other wonderfully bizarre Marvel characters like Howard the Duck and even Man-Thing, which really should give the reader a sense of just how far Aaron is going off the reservation.

Among the students, Aaron borrows a few of the cast from Morrison’s New X-Men run. Most notably, he heavily relies on the character of Quentin Quire, Morrison’s rebellious would-be Phoenix host. Rather pointedly, Wolverine reduces Quire’s supervillain career to “one measly little riot and a single international incident.” It pretty much glosses over his appearances between New X-Men and Schism.

Come the Apocalypse...

Come the Apocalypse…

However, Aaron also borrows heavily from the themes of Milligan and Morrison, exploring the idea of what being a mutant means beyond “you get to go to a posh school with rockets and aliens and robots.” Morrison and Milligan dared to develop an entire mutant subculture, branching out beyond the idea of mutants as superheroes who happen to share an origin story. Aaron’s cast might be anchored by Wolverine, but most of them aren’t superheroes. They are teachers and students and janitors who just happen to live inside a comic that operates according to superhero comic conventions.

More than that, though, Aaron works to push the franchise past its comfort zone. Morrison had Xavier “out” the school to the world, and had the book take the next logical step in the development of particular characters. The marriage between Jean Grey and Cyclops eroded and collapsed. Wolverine discovered everything he needed to know about his past. Weapon X was recontextualised as “Weapon Plus.”

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

Wolverine and the X-Men represents a similar attempt to push the franchise past its comfort zone. On one level, relocating the X-Men to a school can seem like a regressive step – an attempt to revisit past glories. However, Aaron makes it clear that his characters are going to grow and evolve as a result of this change. “This is your time now,” Xavier tells Wolverine, and Aaron returns – time and again – the absurdity of Wolverine as a principle in charge of the lives of countless students.

Indeed, as one of the best writers to ever work on Wolverine, Aaron has great fun with the notion that Wolverine has moved on quite a bit. Despite his characterisation as a loner, the character has been put on several high-profile teams to boost sales. The character has been somewhat over-saturated. Not only does the character hold down multiple solo books, he appears on quite a few team books to boot. He is the only X-Man to have a solo blockbuster to his name, let alone two. He’s gone from being a quirky outside anti-hero to being one of the faces of Marvel comics.

Meet the staff...

Meet the staff…

Aaron has fun with the idea. The cover to the third issue of the comic cheekily asks “Remember when Wolverine was cool? Me neither.” Xavier, the most respectable member of the entire franchise despite his fondness for putting teenagers in danger and covering up past misdeeds, advises his former student, “You’re a headmaster now, Professor Logan. Best accept the fact that you will never again seem even remotely ‘cool’ to any of your students.” One of the joys of reading the first few issues is seeing Wolverine putting on a suit and tie to meet school inspectors.

This is about pushing the character forward, and one of the great things about Aaron’s Wolverine work is that his character arc always seems to have forward momentum. It might not be in the most predictable of directions – although I think there’s something wonderfully optimistic in the idea that Xavier could have helped Logan enough to lead him to establish a school – but it’s there. One of the comedic highlights of the first three issues comes when Wolverine responds to a supervillain attack in the most mature way possible. “I’m being sued… by Wolverine?!” the baddie protests. “This is ridiculous!”

neXt men...

neXt men…

Experience has taught readers that it won’t last too long after Aaron inevitably departs, but there’s something charming about watching Wolverine and his colleagues all grown up. Recruiting Iceman, Wolverine remarks, “Everybody likes you, Bobby. They always have. You’re a fun guy. You’re everybody’s favourite uncle. But I’m gonna need you to be more than that now.” In a way, “be more” might as well be a tagline of the X-Men books, and Aaron taps into that quite astutely.

The X-Men have generally done well when they are focused on the future. Part of that is down to the fact that Stan Lee and Jack kirby created a comic about a school populated with teenagers, who went on to grow up. Part of that is due to the way the franchise seems to collect dystopian futures and time-travelling bad-asses. The recurring theme of evolution – the very idea of widespread and inevitable change over time – plays into it. So Aaron works that theme into Wolverine and the X-Men, suggesting that this is the next stage of evolution for many of the characters.

It's the X-Men movie directed by Scorsese that you never knew you wanted...

It’s the X-Men movie directed by Scorsese that you never knew you wanted…

Of course, it’s also about the future of a younger generation. When Deathlok treats the school students to predictions about their futures, his percentages are almost always roughly equal. Every child at that school has the potential for greatness, or the potential for disaster. Wolverine asks Captain America to entrust Quire to the school because the kid might be redeemable. “But you lock this boy in a cell somewhere, you’re only gonna create a monster.”

Again, this is solid character work, behind all the sentient grass and flame-thrower-wielding Frankenstein monsters. Wolverine is a character who knows what it’s like to be a monster. He also knows what it is like to be partially redeemed. Although there may be aliens and laser guns and invasions, Wolverine and the X-Men feels like a strange celebration of the innocence of childhood, which may also explain why Aaron’s wild imaginary tangents work so very well. It’s a rejection of the idea that things need to be grim or dark in order to be intelligent or sophisticated.

Going through a phase...

Going through a phase…

I like the idea that Aaron doesn’t limit the X-Men to character born with x-genes. Broo the Brood claims to be a mutant, despite the fact that he wasn’t born on Earth. “I’m rather unlike any of my kind.” He is presented as an anomaly. “The Brood who does not kill. The Brood who was born with compassion. The cutest little Brood who ever lived. The Brood who would destroy us all with his kindness.” Aaron broaches the topic of evolutionary forces and nature-against-nuture.

“There is a precise order to the universe,” Broo is warned at one point. “This I am sure you know.” The Brood are supposed to eat the lesser species, so that other species may eat them. It’s a biological imperative, although Aaron suggests – in a theme that links his work here to that of Rick Remender on Uncanny X-Force or Kieron Gillen on Uncanny X-Men – that true evolution is more than just an ontological force. It is growth. The team even welcomes the sentient landmass Krakoa, despite the fact that it was bread in captivity and taught to hate. “He’s asking if he can be an X-Man now?” Rachel asks.

Suits him well...

Suits him well…

Okay, Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men can be a tad disjointed at times. It doesn’t so much go off on tangents as it tends to live on them. Aaron throws out all these wonderfully silly comic book high concepts, without any real grounding or any attempt to ease the reader into them. Crazy stuff happens, and it’s just accepted as part of the day to day reality of being part of the X-Men. It’s very hard to tell where exactly Aaron is going to go next at any given moment. It’s breathtaking, but it can also occasionally be a bit frustrating.

There’s a sense of wonderful abandon to how Aaron writes, where the book can go from “school inspection gone wrong” to Casino in outer space” in next to no time. There also any number of recurring story threads and hints that Aaron drops into the narrative that are designed to pay off over time. If the “bamfs” aren’t quite what they appear to be, what are they? Where is the teen-tiny Hellfire arc going? Aaron seems to be settling in on the title for the long-haul, and Claremont pretty much established that long-form storytelling is one of the essential ingredients of the franchise.

Not bad for a first day...

Not bad for a first day…

Wolverine and the X-Men is great fun, and marks the rebirth of the X-Men franchise that felt rather tired and lifeless for the better part of the last decade. It’s absurd and high-energy fun, gloriously and unapologetically silly. It’s also wonderfully well-constructed and well worth the time of anyone who appreciates a bit of high-concept vigour with their comic books.

You might be interested in our reviews of Jason Aaron’s other Wolverine work:

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