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Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine by Jason Aaron and Adam Kubert (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.

Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is a beautifully absurd comic book. Writer Jason Aaron and artist Adam Kubert keep the comic moving at a frantic pace, twisting and turning as they introduce crazy concept after crazy concept. There are enough brilliant over-the-top ideas in Astonish Spider-Man and Wolverine to sustain an on-going for years – and yet the duo tear through them with a speed that makes all of Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine seem like a delirious blur.

And yet, despite that, Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine reads like a tribute to the glorious ridiculousness possible within the confines of mainstream comic books – giant metal-faced sentient planets! robotic dinosaurs! guns that fire the energy of creation! a diamond-encrusted baseball bat as a means of time travel! There’s a surreal magic to Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine that marks it as one of the highpoints of Jason Aaron’s work on Wolverine. It’s funny, awe-inspiring and even occasionally moving.

Blood brothers...

Blood brothers…

Towards the end of the comic, Peter Parker reflects on the crazy time-and-dimension-spanning adventures that the two heroes have had together. “All this stuff that’s happened to us lately,” he reflects, “none of it ever made any sense. There was no point to any of it. It was all just… random craziness.” On a surface level, Peter is entirely correct. Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is a comic that moves at an incredible pace through a wide variety of situations, firing off any number of high-concept ideas. And yet, underneath that, it seems to be about something more.

At its heart, Aaron and Kubert’s Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is an affectionate tribute to the insanity of superhero comic books, of the way that superhero comics can take the absurd and build more absurdity on top of that – of the freedom the genre allows to tell just about any kind of story. The storytelling potential inside a superhero comic book is limitless. Writers and artists can throw out crazy ideas that simply would not work in any other context, and sew them into the fabric of this world.

To Doom the world...

To Doom the world…

There’s a wonderful romanticism to the work of Aaron and Kubert here. One of the recurring themes of Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is the idea that the characters living in this fictionalised world have come to treat the crazy as the mundane. After so many decades of publication time dealing with gods and aliens and the end of the world, it must be hard to really appreciate the quirkiness of the universe they inherit.

At one point, Spider-Man pauses to reflect on his life. “When I was a kid, I dreamed of going to the stars and fighting to save the world,” he confesses. “Now when I dream, it’s of being a nerdy little kid whose biggest problem is getting picked on at school.” He has been living a life so full of absurdity and heightened drama that the novelty might be wearing off. The exotic has become mundane and the mundane has become exotic.

It's hip to be... cubed?

It’s hip to be… cubed?

And that feels like the point that Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is trying to make – that there is always room for more novelty and more wonder and more magic. Such things are not finite, even after years of stories featuring Spider-Man and Wolverine. Even the choice of characters seems to reflect this – Spider-Man and Wolverine are among the most iconic and popular characters published at Marvel comics. It’s hard to believe that you can do anything new with them.

Indeed, even pairing up the two characters for a gigantic crossover feels somewhat cynical. It would be easy to treat Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine as little more than an excuse to print money, a fairly standard and cliché crossover story. In contrast, the six-issue miniseries feels like a wondrous off-the-wall adventure, revelling in introducing the characters to new experiences and situations.

All fired up...

All fired up…

“I’ve done it all,” Wolverine reflects in the opening pages of one issue – running through a very Aaron-esque catalogue of surreal adventures the character has enjoyed during years of Wolverine and Uncanny X-Men. As such, it’s nice there there’s still some novelty in the world. Such a character can still be surprised. “Being ripped apart by the Phoenix Force while shooting a gun the blows up planets? That one never crossed my mind.”

Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine leans rather heavily on the fourth wall. It basks in superhero storytelling tropes and conventions, with the characters frequently pausing to point out either the familiar story beats that are playing out or to hang a lampshade on the absurdity of it all. Aaron even draws in the dimensional executive Mojo in Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, a character defined by his domination and exploitation of narrative.

Crazy old spider man...

Crazy old spider man…

There are points in Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine where characters inside the story are effectively writing and commentating on the events of the story, employing various writing tricks and techniques to fashion character arcs and set-up later pay-offs. At one point, Mojo wonders idly about a minor female character who has been haunting Peter Parker’s dreams, “the one we were hoping to introduce down the road as a possible love interest.” Mojo is setting up foreshadowing and development.

As a tribute to superhero storytelling, Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine skilfully transitions through various pulp narratives – the kind of cheesy adventure genres that informed and shaped the conventional superhero story. It’s no coincidence that Wolverine and Spider-Man don’t find themselves transitioning through time as much as they do through stories – they get to play cowboys and pulp heroes across familiar settings from cavemen times to post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Number one with a bullet...

Number one with a bullet…

Aaron and Kubert are clearly having great fun with the story, which transitions almost effortlessly between ideas. Looking at the events as they unfold, it almost seems like Aaron is making it up as he goes along – that he’s just writing the next crazy concept that comes into his head. And yet, once the story is finished, it becomes quite clear that the story was never out of his control – that it was always unfolding according to a particular plan or objective.

It’s also interesting how Aaron uses Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine as a character study. This is a ridiculously over-the-top comic book filled with crazy ideas; and yet, at it’s heart, Aaron never loses sight of the characters. While Aaron has been writing Wolverine for years and has effectively defined the current version of the character, it’s also surprising how much Aaron seems to understand Peter Parker as a character.

He's still got his Mojo...

He’s still got his Mojo…

In one delightfully touching sequence, facing death and refusing to give up, Peter’s last words are “Uncle Ben, I’m sor–” At another point, we get a short sequence of Peter Parker as a teacher, building off one of the better (and forgotten) aspects of J. Michael Straczynski’s divisive run on The Amazing Spider-Man. However, Aaron gives Peter his most heroic moment towards the climax of the story, as Wolverine is possessed by the Phoenix – an organism capable of devouring worlds.

The entire X-Men have struggled against this creature, and Peter faces it alone. And he doesn’t win through force. Instead, he tries to talk with the creature, to reason with it. He shares his own experiences and insecurities in an almost innocent manner. “He talked me down,” Wolverine recalls. “He saved us all.” Peter Parker is presented as something approaching a heroic ideal, a character whose basic decency and empathy shines through.

Things are about to get heated...

Things are about to get heated…

There’s also some interesting reflection on the infamous marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, erased from continuity after years of development and growth. Marvel wiped the marriage out of existence in the controversial One More Day, a story that marked a major devolution for the character of Peter Parker and some rather ham-fisted comic book storytelling. The story – or the vacuum created by that story – echoes and reverberates through the Spider-Man line to this day.

In Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, Jason Aaron teases the reader with the possibility of another marriage for Peter Parker, with a woman he has come to know for decades. The character is planning to propose to her when the events of the comic are all conveniently reset. In the end, she has no memory of him. It’s as if it never happened at all, much like Marvel decided that the marriage to Mary Jane never occurred.

A jewel in the crown?

A jewel in the crown?

And yet, despite that, Peter Parker remembers it. He mourns it in a way that he cannot mourn the loss of the Mary Jane Watson marriage. He acknowledges and confronts the cruelty of the reset, the laziness of that particular resolution. It’s a beautiful piece of meta-commentary from Aaron and Kubert, turning what had been a meta-tragedy that existed outside the comic narrative into a heartbreaking story inside the comic book. The best part? The engagement ring itself is the reset button.

However, Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine also marks some forward progression for Jason Aaron’s version of Wolverine. It is amazing how much of Aaron’s vision of the character was carefully seeded in his earlier work. The idea of Wolverine heading up the Jean Grey School in Wolverine and the X-Men may have been particularly surprising to some readers, but Aaron’s work on the character was consciously building to that point even before Schism.

Swing and a miss...

Swing and a miss…

Here, Aaron confronts Wolverine with the idea of legacy and leadership, thrusting that character into unfamiliar territory and challenging his self-image as the rogue loner who plays by nobody’s rules but his own. A near-death vision of his mother even reveals something Wolverine would never admit under any other circumstances – his desire for a family despite all the discord that exists among his biological relatives. “Come here and let me hold you,” Wolverine’s mother offers. Surprised, he admits, “That’s… that’s all I ever wanted.”

Living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, unable to face the consequences of his earlier actions, Wolverine refuses to involve himself in the task of rebuilding society. Despite Peter’s best efforts to convince him, he won’t engage with the world outside his own hideaway. “I can’t be no messiah,” he confesses to Spider-Man, with no small measure of self-pity. Peter responds, “I get it. It’s easier to kill than inspire. What a stellar legacy you’ll leave.”

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

It’s easy to see the seeds of the Jean Grey School in these interactions, as Wolverine faces the reality that his approach to the world is very narrow-minded and destructive. His reluctance to step into a leadership role, despite his profile and experience, is ultimately self-indulgent; it is glorified self-pity and meaningless angst. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Jason Aaron’s approach to the character; trying to spur the character forwards, to build on what came before instead of luxuriating in the status quo.

Kubert’s artwork is outstanding, as it always is. Adam Kubert has a great sense of space and pacing, but also a wonderful ability to make his central figures expressive and engaging. Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is a staggeringly beautiful comic book, and Aaron really gives Kubert a wide range of material to convey. There are sprawling and epic panels juxtaposed against quiet conversations – splash pages and meticulous panel compositions. Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine is the work of two creators at the top of their game, and that shines through.

Not-so-Great Bird of the Galaxy...

Not-so-Great Bird of the Galaxy…

Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine could easily have been a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of two of the most popular characters at Marvel. instead, it plays out as an affectionate tribute to the romance and variety of superhero comics. It is a staggeringly beautiful piece of work, and something everybody should be proud of.

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