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Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

The only way to read Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted is on a personal tablet.

Part of Marvel’s “Infinite Comics” initiative, Japan’s Most Wanted is a comic specifically tailored to the digital experience. Although a print version of the comic is available, it can’t help but seem inferior to the way the comic was meant to be experienced. Demonstrating that digital is not just a new format for comic books, but also a new medium, the work done by Yves Bigerel storyboarding the thirteen-part adventure is nothing short of astounding. It’s a fantastic experience.

A slice of the action...

A slice of the action…

The story Japan’s Most Wanted is fairly light. This makes sense. Japan’s Most Wanted isn’t intended to push Marvel’s continuity forward or to build off a lot of what has come before. Launched in the lead-up to the release of The Wolverine, Japan’s Most Wanted is a rather transparent attempt to appeal to those interested in Wolverine’s second solo trip to the big screen – playing more as a collection of imagery and iconography than a story in its own right.

The adventure is set in Japan and pits our hero against legions of ninja, playing up to Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s iconic Wolverine miniseries. However, it also features action set pieces on a bullet train and in an abandoned village, two of the more notable action sequences showcased in the trailer for James Mangold’s The Wolverine. The story wrapped around these sequences is almost incidental, perhaps the most basic of Jason Aaron’s Wolverine stories, as scripted by collaborator Jason LaTour.

Run and jump...

Run and jump…

This isn’t a problem, of course. Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted is very clearly trying to be an archetypal Wolverine story, the kind of Wolverine story you could give to a new or casual fan with a minimum of knowledge about continuity or character history. Japan’s Most Wanted features only four prominent pre-established Marvel characters. Wolverine himself and Sabretooth will be familiar to most people who have seen an X-Men film or cartoon. Sunfire and Silver Samurai are a little bit more esoteric, but the script is careful to introduce both characters clearly and concisely.

While there are occasional nods to Jason Aaron’s work on Wolverine – including a quick acknowledgement of Wolverine and the X-MenJapan’s Most Wanted is mostly self-contained. You don’t need to know much about any of the characters going into it. The script doesn’t clutter itself with any attempt to explain where it fits in the chronology of various characters or how these events fit in the larger context of the Marvel universe. It’s really just an excuse to tell the most archetypal of Wolverine stories – the tale of a superhero samurai cowboy warrior.

Everything's better with ninjas...

Everything’s better with ninjas…

While the plot doesn’t necessary unfold in the most logical or organic of manners – there are a number of leaps necessary for the plot to get where it needs to go – the comic does offer an effective overview of the character of Logan. Jason Aaron is credited on the story with Jason LaTour, who also provided the script. This version of Wolverine sits quite comfortably with the version of Wolverine who appears in Jason Aaron’s work – the character desperately trying to be more than what people expect him to be.

Indeed, the story juxtaposing Wolverine against the Silver Samurai works quite will in the broader context of Jason Aaron’s work on Wolverine and the X-Men. Japan’s Most Wanted becomes the story of two characters following their father figures in the most unlikely of manners. “The things you can do — ya coulda been anything,” Wolverine lectures the Silver Samurai. “Anyone. Dressin’ up in that armour. Followin’ in your father’s footsteps — those were your choices, son.” There’s a sense that Wolverine is trying to work through his own issues.

Catching the train...

Catching the train…

Even without that particular context, Japan’s Most Wanted plays well as the most standard of Wolverine stories – casting the superhero as the spiritual descendant of a cowboy and a samurai; a man with the ability to endure whatever punishment the world chooses to throw at him as he scrapes pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory. “One thing’s for sure,” he reflects in the opening chapter. “Nobody gets what she deserves.” It’s easy enough to read that in the voice of Clint Eastwood – “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Wolverine is a warrior out of time – a veteran of countless campaigns and murderer of hundreds of foes with “not even a scar to honour their passing.” While other warriors carry the mark of their trade on their skin, Wolverine is not even allowed that. The character famously spent most of his existence wandering around without his memory – the man with no past to match the man with no name – and LaTour cleverly ties his healing factor into that idea. Even Wolverine’s skin has no memory.

He's got some bottle...

He’s got some bottle…

Wolverine finds himself in a world where the only people he can trust are his old enemies. So lonely and so isolated is this character that he can only empathise with the people he has spent years trying to kill. “… You old Hand know me… ya hate me but ya know me… we’ve battled tooth an’ nail… bled out in the muck… We’ve brought out the best in each other… brought out the worst.” There’s something almost mournful in that confession.

Japan’s Most Wanted casts Wolverine as a defender of the old ways, a veteran of old conflicts facing a dark and cynical future. Indeed, the plot pits our hero against “the ninja of the future”, as he fights to stop Sabretooth’s plan to “destroy the old ways.” It’s not subtle, but very little of Japan’s Most Wanted actually is. This isn’t about putting a novel twist on Wolverine, it’s about trying to offer an introduction to potentially interested readers who might want to jump on board.

Tokyo story...

Tokyo story…

That’s not to suggest that the story is bland. As much as all the dynamics feel familiar and the story beats feel well-trodden, there are a number of typically enjoyable touches from Aaron and LaTour. The idea of a member of the Hand retiring as an “unknown ninja chef” is the type of gonzo twist that makes Aaron’s superhero writing so fascinating. Similarly, there’s something quite clever about the Hon – a human character with the history of the Hand printed across her body, existing as a living tapestry.

Still, Japan’s Most Wanted isn’t a particularly innovative story. It’s an attempt to offer a Wolverine comic that touches on much of the hero’s iconography and offers a distilled version of his character. It never peers too far under the skin of any of the characters involved, as it rushes to check off all the necessary plot beats. This is an understandable approach; the only real problem with Japan’s Most Wanted is that it lacks a conclusion.

Taking the matter in Hand...

Taking the matter in Hand…

The story ends with one of the characters bullying an official into clearing Wolverine’s name, which feels like a bit of a copout; why did we have to wait thirteen issues for such an obvious solution? More than that, the story introduces Sabretooth as the primary antagonist of the story, but it ends with Wolverine defeating the Silver Samurai. Sabretooth endures. It’s not the most satisfying conclusion, as Wolverine himself concedes. “An’ at the end of the day what’d I change?” Not too much, it would seem.

This copout of an ending would be less bothersome if the rest of Japan’s Most Wanted was interested in telling a deeper or more insightful story. Instead, Japan’s Most Wanted structures itself as the most archetypal of Wolverine stories… but it just cuts out before Wolverine has a chance to follow it through to the end. It’s a disappointment, and the one thing that undermines the appeal of Japan’s Most Wanted as an accessible story that could be given to newer fans.

Burning bright...

Burning bright…

Still, these problems aside, Japan’s Most Wanted looks absolutely beautiful. Digital comic book readers are a game-changer. Reading a comic book on a person tablet instead of a piece of paper offers a unique experience – not better, not worse, but different. While comics written for print read well enough on tablets, they don’t really push the limit of the digital format. Unhindered by limits on page count and aided with the ability to transition at a touch rather than a more vigourous movement, there’s a flexibility in digital comics that allows for more playful storytelling.

And Japan’s Most Wanted – storyboarded by Yves Bigerel – takes advantage of these opportunities. Transitioning between pages is very clever. At some points, it mirrors the camera work on film or television – the panel pans up or down, or focus shifts from the foreground to the background. These touches are inspired, and make it feel almost like watching a hybrid between a comic book and an animated movie. (Even more than regular comics, these comics benefit from playing some ambient music while reading.)

Swordplay...

Swordplay…

However, while these touches evoke cinema, there are other touches that play exclusively to the format. Panels are overlaid and juxtaposed as with a normal comic book. However, the act of re-drawing the page creates a sense of movement and excitement that simply isn’t possible in a print comic – it’s like reading a comic that is constantly drawing over itself. When it works – which is most of the time – it is absolutely stunning.

Japan’s Most Wanted is a pretty basic Wolverine story, told reasonably well. The scripting is perhaps not as tight as it might be, and the story suffers from an unsatisfying resolution, but the artistry in putting together the digital comic book is outstanding.

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