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Jason Aaron’s Wolverine – Wolverine, Vol. 4 (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.

Jason Aaron’s work on the character of Wolverine is absolutely fascinating. The writer was written for Logan across a number of different books and in a number of different contexts. Indeed, his first professional comic book credit was on an eight-page story featuring the character. Since the publication of that first story, Aaron has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with Marvel’s most iconic mutant.

He has written Get Mystique for the third volume of Wolverine. He has written a number of miniseries featuring the character – including the tie-in Manifest Destiny miniseries and a six-part Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine miniseries. Along the way, he has provided a number of back-ups and short stories featuring the character. He also secured two different spin-offs for Wolverine –  the sixteen-issue Weapon X title and Wolverine and the X-Men.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

So Aaron and Wolverine work quite well together. It’s no surprise that Aaron was chosen as the writer to launch the fourth volume of Wolverine, shepherding the book to its three-hundredth issue. While his work on Wolverine might not be quite as brilliantly eccentric as Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine or as insanely fun as Wolverine and the X-Men, it does represent a rather thoughtful and insightful reflection on the popular comic book character.

After all, one of the recurring themes of Aaron’s work with Wolverine is the idea that a character who has lived to long – and one who has been published so frequently – must have seen and done almost everything by this point. The trick is to try and find something new and exciting for the character after all these years. In many respects, that is what is most interesting about Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine: how much of the run exists to push the character into position for the next leg of his arc.

Villains of all Creeds down here...

Villains of all Creeds down here…

At one point, about mid-way through the run, various characters pause to reflect on Wolverine. All the stock answers emerge. To some, he is a “cowboy”, to others a “samurai.” The answers range from broad and generic to specific and precise. The second-to-last person to provide an answer is Scott Summers. Given that Jason Aaron was writing Schism contemporaneously, the decision to position Cyclops’ assessment of Wolverine so prominently feels a little pointed.

“He’s the man I know better than pretty much any other man alive,” Cyclops reflects. “But I’ll be damned if he doesn’t still have the ability to surprise me. And not always in a good way.” That is perhaps the most accurate assessment of Jason Aaron’s version of Wolverine. When confronted with all these opinions, Logan himself is sceptical. He dismisses most of them out of hand. Asked to provide his own answer to the question, he responds, “The only thing the Wolverine is… is a work in progress.”

Inner demons...

Inner demons…

That is a rather telling line. Jason Aaron tends to focus on Wolverine’s age and the depth of his experience. His stories frequently contain off-hand references and flashbacks to events that stretch across decades. This is by no means unique to Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine. After all, Get Mystique was juxtaposed against flashbacks documenting the complex and multifaceted relationship between Mystique and Wolverine.

Here, the villains of Wolverine Goes to Hell, the cabal known as the Red Right Hand, are a group of people who were caught in the crossfire of Wolverine’s heroics. Early in Wolverine’s Revenge, Mystique claims that she is trying to save Wolverine’s life because of what he meant to her son. Goodbye, Chinatown is predicated on the rather logical assumption that somebody with a life as long as that of Wolverine will undoubtedly have accrued enough money to fund the founding of a school.

To hell and back...

To hell and back…

There’s a sense that Wolverine is a character who has experienced just about everything. Indeed, Wolverine has been so many different things that he is able to harness a whole bunch of personas and characters to help him fight off a demonic possession inside his own brain. Aaron is able to populate pages of various characters offering their own opinions on who Wolverine is, and the implication is that all of these have been true at one time or another.

While Mystique promises to avenge herself upon Wolverine for his decision to murder her, Sabretooth adopts a more philosophical position. “Sooner or later, we all kill each other, babe,” he reflects. Naturally, the world of Wolverine is so steeped in comic book logic that Aaron doesn’t feel the need to explain or justify how Sabretooth and Mystique could have been resurrected. That’s just par for the course in these types of stories. (Besides, Jeph Loeb will be along to explain that shortly.)

A magnetic personality...

A magnetic personality…

Jason Aaron’s Wolverine is populated with characters who genre savvy enough to recognise the plot beats of a Wolverine story. After all, the Red Right Hand’s revenge against Wolverine only begins when they conspire to send the character to hell. Their plan for revenge counts on Wolverine following the traditional formula of a Wolverine plot. He escapes from his prison and kills all of his adversaries in a blood rage.

The Red Right Hand accept that they will die, because the narrative demands it, and know that the only agency they have is to choose when they die. They subvert the narrative by choosing to kill themselves rather than by allowing Wolverine to kill them as a form of catharsis. “The plan was never to kill you,” one of the would-be assassins explains. “The plan was only to make you hurt.” It’s a very self-aware plan that accepts the confines of Wolverine comic book and plays to them. The revenge plan doesn’t work unless Wolverine prevails.

A bloody mess...

A bloody mess…

(Similarly, in Back to Japan, the head of the Toyko Hand sets the organisation against Wolverine. At first, it appears like your typical supervillain power-play. However, it is ultimately revealed that the villain planned on Wolverine mercilessly slaughtering the hordes of ninja set against him. The point was never to kill Wolverine, but to use him as a tool to break the Hand. Of course, as Sabretooth subsequently points out, this operator isn’t quite as genre savvy as he would need to be; he is very quickly screwed over himself. He forgot that Sabretooth enjoys many of same narrative protections as Logan himself.)

These patterns are so obvious that the ease and regularity with which Logan defeats the Hand is something of a grim joke. “Just once, you’d think I could come to Japan without being attacked by a buncha damn ninjas,” he complains at one point during an obligatory ambush. At various points in the story, Aaron cuts to random slaughter of Hand ninjas. There’s no context for these sequences; there doesn’t need to be. Wolverine doesn’t really need a reason to kill hordes of undead ninjas. It’s practically old hat. “We finally stopped him?” one ninja asks after such a confrontation. “No,” another explains. “He finally got bored with killing us.”

Those ninjas caught the black eye flight...

Those ninjas caught the black eye flight…

Wolverine is a character who has endured almost everything. At the start of Wolverine No More, Jason Aaron portrays a broken Wolverine repeatedly climbing to the top of a mountain and throwing himself off. In a way, that feels like the perfect metaphor for Wolverine’s life – he’s a character trapped in familiar and repeating patterns. He is a character who is stuck playing out the same plots over and over again. (Getting Wolverine a bottle of scotch for his birthday, Luke Cage reflects, “I tried getting him a book one time, but damn if he hasn’t already read everything.” He’s also probably lived a lot of those stories, too.)

Aaron very cleverly plays with this idea in the structure of his Wolverine run. Quite simply, the opening epic of Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine seems designed to consciously evoke Mark Millar’s classic Enemy of the State comic. The gigantic arc is split into two sections: the first section features a possessed Wolverine attacking many of his closest friends and allies; the second section features Wolverine attempting to claim revenge against those who have wronged him. It all feels rather cyclical, a feeling that is enhanced by the revelation that Mark Millar was writing an idea similar to one that had earlier been proposed for the character.

All the best superheroes have daddy issues...

All the best superheroes have daddy issues…

Aaron reinforces this sense of cyclic storytelling by acknowledging Enemy of the State in Wolverine Goes to Hell. Aaron makes all sorts of references to all sorts of continuity and stories, but the final issue of Wolverine’s Revenge contains a splash page that replicates a scene from Enemy of the State. Artist Renato Guedes even channels his inner John Romita Jr. for the framing and character work in that splash page. (Indeed, the earlier Hand massacre may even have been the massacre from Enemy of the State.) It seems like all of this has happened before to Wolverine, and all of this will happen again.

That’s part of the rather brilliant tragedy concocted by the Red Right Hand. The twist about the assassins employed by the organisation is beautiful on many levels, but it works very well from a thematic perspective – the idea of Wolverine cutting down his own children, his own legacy, provides a nice illustration of how the character tends to get trapped in these perpetual cycles.  Killing off his children is a way of killing off his future – trapping him in the same cycle. (After all, if Marvel argues that marriage prematurely ages a character, and wiping out that marriage restores youth, what must killing children do to character?)

Red-hot Wolverine...

Red-hot Wolverine…

Wolverine will never get to leave a legacy if he gets trapped in these patterns, and Jason Aaron’s Wolverine sees the character confronting this reality. At one point, in Wolverine Forever, the character rages against the heavens. “Sometimes I think, if there is a God… somebody oughta punch Him in His face,” he reflects. “What the hell is all this supposed to mean anyway? What the hell are you trying to tell me?” He may as well be directly addressing his writer. After all, the villains in Jason Aaron’s Wolverine run skirt the edges of self-awareness, so surely Wolverine himself must come close?

The implication is obvious. Wolverine must break out of these patterns. Confronted with the reality of his own atrocities, Wolverine regresses back to a bestial state. However, that isn’t the answer. Wolverine must push forward. He must embrace new beginnings and strive to improve himself. Wolverine Forever ends with Wolverine returning to Utopia for the star of Schism. The character’s wounds and tears match up perfectly. It’s no coincidence that the end of Wolverine Forever is positioned so precisely.

Blam Blam Snikt is the name of my next band...

Blam Blam Snikt is the name of my next band…

In essence, Jason Aaron spends the bulk of Wolverine building up towards Wolverine and the X-Men. The series seems to exist as an extended argument for that new series, positioning the character so that placing him in charge of the Jean Grey School would feel like an organic development. It’s a testament to Aaron’s skill that it works very well. Indeed, Aaron’s entire Wolverine saga reads very well in order, with a lot of meticulous and logical character development.

Indeed, once Aaron has launched Wolverine and the X-Men, it feels like his work on the main title is very much a secondary concern. Goodbye, Chinatown is a plot driven by the need to recover the money to found the school. Back to Japan serves to introduce characters and dynamics that are very clearly intended to pay off in Wolverine and the X-Men. In fact, the character of Dog – Logan’s brother – is brought to the present in Aaron’s Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine and teased at the end of his Wolverine run, only to finally pay off in Wolverine and the X-Men.

The many faces of Wolverine...

The many faces of Wolverine…

As such, it feels quite reasonable to argue that Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine reads almost like a prequel and a companion piece to Wolverine and the X-Men. It’s a run that exists primarily to justify the central conceit of Aaron’s forty-two issue Wolverine opus, making sure that everything lines up perfectly and makes a great deal of sense. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, it just seems a little weird that Aaron’s writing on the character has been scattered across so many different volumes and series.

That’s not to diminish Wolverine. It’s a delightful comic. Aaron hits on his core themes rather well. The past is something that can trap us. When Wolverine ventures to hell, he encounters his father. In the present, his time-dislocated brother has sworn to hunt him down. Following footprints in the snow, Wolverine ruins what should be the perfect date night trying to hunt down a bunch of z-list cannibalistic super villains.

On yer bike...

On yer bike…

This seems to be Aaron’s way of justifying his admittedly gonzo plotting. Sending Wolverine into hell is certainly something a bit novel and a bit different from the character’s usual adventures. When Wolverine arrives in hell, Satan himself welcomes the character as a diverse from the mundane familiarity of his daily routine. “I’ve been doing this job for a very long time,” he confesses. “Seems like forever most days, it really does. Truth be told, there’s not much at all that excites me anymore.” Wolverine is a character who is new to this environment, who offers something a bit different ant unique.

Novelty alone is not enough, of course. There is something to be said for looking to the past in order to create a brighter future. Aaron visits the idea of Logan’s birthday twice in the run – which makes sense, given he wrote the title for two years. Using Logan’s birth name, Melita is able to find her boyfriend’s actual birthday and throw him a surprise party. It’s a rare novelty in the character’s long existence. “Now I have seen some crazy stuff in my day,” Luke Cage notes as he arrives, “but this… this I really had to see to believe.” Melita herself reflects, “It’s all pretty corny, I know. But it’s the kind of party Logan’s never had.”

Wolverine never saw that twist coming...

Wolverine never saw that twist coming…

In the final issue of the run, One More Round, Aaron finds a way to put a new twist of a classic X-Men plot gimmick. The character of Sabretooth had made a habit of hunting Wolverine down on his birthday and trying to beat him to a bloody pulp. This year, Wolverine decides to take that tradition and reverse it. Instead, he hunts Sabretooth down and administers his own beating at Sabretooth’s own evil villain get-together – which also serves as something of a wrap party for Jason Aaron’s run.

Aaron’s sensibilities are in full force for the run. Aaron is a writer who revels in the absurdity of mainstream comic books – he embraces the surrealness of it all. He happily invents supervillains who use guns made out of bones, or guns that are also knives. He accepts the reality of comic book resurrection so readily that he doesn’t feel the need to justify the resurrections of Mystique of Sabretooth towards the end of the run.

The devil you know...

The devil you know…

Perhaps Goodbye, Chinatown is the most obvious example of this sensibility – coming, as it does, after a rather heartbreaking epic story. Here, Aaron happily runs with the idea of subterranean tunnels connecting China to San Francisco, with poppy fields the size of Australia and warring factions of dragons. The warring factions of dragons are practically an after-thought, one last detail casually dropped into the sequence at the end of the adventure where our heroes drown their sorrows. It’s a plot twist that is a joke, but still fits perfectly within the context of a comic book like this.

The absurdity of it all reaches such heights that even the ridiculous characters themselves feel the need to comment on it. “It’s official,” Gorilla Man observes during one fight sequence. “Your rogues’ gallery’s just as unpleasant as you are. That guy over there just punched me in the soul.” Gorilla Man is, as the name implies, a giant talking gorilla. Why he feels that a man who can punch somebody in their soul is any more ridiculous is something of a mystery.

I wonder if those are complimentary...

I wonder if those are complimentary…

And yet, despite all this absurdity, Aaron is a writer who knows how to hit an emotional beat using elements that really should be ridiculous. The character who can punch people in their souls should be a one-note joke. While his is a joke, he also serves as a nice way to touch upon all the drama and hurt and growth that Logan has experienced – his soul is much stronger than it might have been at the start of the run. That is one of Aaron’s greatest strengths as a writer. He takes a concept that is inherently ridiculous and comic-book-y, but finds a way to make it resonate – to use it to inform character or to affect the reader.

The climax of Wolverine’s Revenge works very well as a traditional comic book climax. There are gimmick henchmen, sinister plots and big action sequences. However, Aaron is familiar enough with how these elements work that he feels comfortable pulling the rug out from under the reader. At the heart of this comic book climax is a twist, and that twist works as both a piece of comic book plotting, but also as an emotional reversal. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

One microscopic cog...

One microscopic cog…

Aaron’s run on Wolverine might not be his strongest work on the character, but it does demonstrate his strength and his style. It’s a perfect demonstration of why the writer fits so comfortably with Wolverine, and just what he brings to the character.

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