Saturday, 21 January 2012
On Wolverine #300
I'm getting old, I know. The signs are clear. I complain about comic books not making sense in exactly the same way as my father used to bemoan the fact that the lyrics of the songs on Top Of The Pops couldn't be heard for all that other racket. The music was too loud, the musicians were too inept, and my god, that man in the Ramones was wearing jeans so tight and worn-through that he practically had his cock out. Indeed he did, and that was something of why the Ramones were as funny as they were exciting. They really did almost have their collective cocks out there, and I loved them for it. Perhaps what happened to my parents is finally happening to me. Why not? Perhaps I've lost the codes to the culture, and perhaps that's what's obscuring the wonders of so many of 2012's comic-books. Oh well. Perhaps comics just aren't supposed to make sense anymore, or perhaps the definition of what does and what doesn't make sense has fundamentally altered while I've been looking over my shoulder at the long-gone Ramones on the long-cancelled Top Of The Pops.
There's a point at which the distance between my own opinion of a comic's worth and that of the overwhelming majority of reviewers in the blogosphere becomes so great that cognitive dissonance begins to take hold. I'm struggling to believe that the copy of Wolverine #300 that I ordered is the same extra-sized, $4.99 anniversary issue which most everyone else has reviewed so enthusiastically. In fact, the difference between what I'd swear I can see on the pages of Back In Japan Part 1 and what's been applauded by so many different reviewers is so extreme that cognitive dissonance eventually begins to shadow into paranoia. How can I be that far away from the consensus? Why was I given a blogger-conning simulacrum of Wolverine #300, and who is it that wants me to publish a scathing review of a comic book that patently never existed? Who, for example, could possibly have slipped me a comic with the above page stapled into it, in which so much of an entire side is spent showing a super-villain eating a relatively small and inoffensive joint apparently sliced out of an almost-entirely-absent-from-shot bull? (Since we only ever see a single of its horns, I thought for a minute it might be an unconvincingly drawn rhinoceros, but no; it's almost certainly an unconvincingly drawn bull, or at least I think it probably is.) As an idea, I fully accept that it's both absurd, audacious, and telling. But it would have been pretty thin gruel for the events of an entire page even if it had been framed in such a way as to empathise the admittedly splendid gag. Instead, we've got nothing but a sketched-it-over-breakfast shot of Sabretooth, all belly and drool, and just the slightest suggestion of the bull's eye beneath its entirely unimpressive horn buried in the left-hand corner. No humour, no ambition, no obvious effort. It's the kind of page you might expect from a gifted art student who wants to sidestep any problem with unfamiliar anatomy and challenging perspective, and I should know. A great big mid-shot of a generic big bad guy and very little else. Oh well.
But at least that page makes sense, which is more than might be said for the above sequence of panels by Ron Garney and Jason Keith. (The publication date for Wolverine #300 can hardly have taken Marvel by surprise, but there was still apparently the need for three separate art teams to complete a single thirty-page story.) In panel one, we can clearly see Shin smashing his way out of the Hand's skyscraper laboratory, and he's quite evidently carrying his partner-in-crime Amiko with him. Come panel two and Amiko has suddenly disappeared, although this either has to have happened between the second and third word balloons as we're reading them, or we have to credit that Shin in his armour can't feel any weight or pressure from his passenger at all, leaving him unable to realise when she's hanging onto him or not. Whatever, it's impossible to work out what's happened. By panel four, it appears that either Amiko's never left the building at all, for she's being held there by two "techo-organic wall ninjas", or that she's been dragged back into it. It all makes me feel as if I'm slipping into the early stages of mental decline, as if I just can't even manage to recall whatever it was that occurred on in the page before this one, as if I've been reading a telling caption over and over and forgetting it straight away. Whatever happened to Amiko? When exactly did Shin notice he wasn't carrying her anymore? Why doesn't he return to try to save her, since his weapons seemed entirely successfully in holding those hi-tech nasties at bay just a page ago?
I have no idea. I really don't. But I do know that it's a quite mystifying business, and that if there really is a mistake that's been made here, it's hardly Garney and Keith's alone. (Their pages are, despite this particular problem, the most appealing, the most flat-out fun, of all of those on show in Wolverine #300.) Did no-one notice that the artwork didn't actually make sense, did no-one think to have it repaired or some covering dialogue attached belatedly to the page? Shouldn't someone have pointed out that it's incredibly hard to show a person suddenly not being somewhere, suddenly mysteriously disappearing, in a single panel? To be notably there and there notably not is surely something which either takes a visual effect of some kind, or a second panel?
Sometimes the problem is that the storytelling appears entirely transparent and yet, at second glance, it suddenly doesn't make sense at all. The above panel by Kubert and Mounts shows Wolverine being blasted out of a family shrine by a bazooka, or at least that's what I think it shows. There's no surprise that Logan appears unharmed by this immediately afterwards, because that's what a super-healing factor is for. However, I never realised that a super-healing factor could also repair the clothes that were also involved in all that thooming caused by the bazooka strike, for Logan's lovely red jacket and tight manly jeans display not a hint of a burn or a tear in subsequent panels. Perhaps even more puzzling is the fact that that said bazooka had been aimed at Wolverine while he was standing beside the wheelchair-bound Yukio, who remains entirely unaffected by the whole business. I suppose it must have been one of those low impact/high impact, Wolverine-specific, flames-only-for-show bazooka shells then.
The shame of this, and it is a shame, is that Jason Aaron's script for this issue is no throwaway confection. Most of it is marked by the tone of a bleak and compelling black comedy, and some of it, such as the first chapter, is such a cleverly constructed Tarantinoesque farce that it could have been published in a modern-era Not Brand Echh without losing a beat of its value from the change in context. And that would've been something to see, because Aaron's written a thoroughly sharp satire of Wolverine here, although Kubert and Mounts don't seem to have noticed. In providing art that's largely indistinguishable in tone and content from a standard-issue superhero tale, they've created confusion where there ought to be a far more knowing and purposefully humorous - if not cartoony - style being adopted. If that doesn't happen, then the whole sequence leaves Wolverine looking like an idiot rather than the target of a good natured joshing on Mr Aaron's part. After all, only an idiot of a superhero would allow himself to be trapped on a 747 when he'd known that "there was something funny about this flight as soon as (he) stepped on board". Offer this as a playful joke and it's amusing. Dish it up as nothing but another macho Wolverine stand-off with the endless cannon fodder of the Hand and, no matter how the script later refers to such ninja strategies as being " a sad cliche" , it just results in everyone looking rather dumb and somewhat pathetic.The Hand has to know better than this, Wolverine has to have a great deal more common sense.
As drama, the scene of Wolverine wiping out a Jumbo's worth of ninjas stretches a willing suspension of disbelief to snapping point. It's just too silly a concept to buy into, as is the idea that Wolverine can simply walk away from a plane full of mutilated corpses in a major airport without even needing to break into a trot to get away. Homage or not, it's a sequence that makes little sense in the context that it appears to exist in, where the artwork is almost entirely po-faced and yet the story is often anything but. Yet, if presented with a greater degree of tongue-in-cheek, that first chapter would've emerged as a sharp and enjoyable conceit, and it's regrettable that the notable shifts in tone in Aaron's work, from absurd and loving satire to fearsome super-gangster showdowns and back again, wasn't accompanied by artwork which recognised that fact. Instead, most everything with Logan in it is blanded out until it all shares a similarly downbeat and manly air, leaving the comic often reading as if it were actually the writer who wasn't sure about either the characters or the genres that are in play.
I may not be entirely convinced yet by Mr Aaron's determination to pursue a style which juxtaposes a significant degree of the ridiculous with a mass of straight-as-a-die superheroics. Both here and in Schism, there's definitely a series of awkward transitions from the absurd to the exaggeratedly serious which jarringly threaten to throw the reader out of the story. Yet it's an admirably daring technique to develop, and I'm genuinely intrigued to see where the technique will take Mr Aaron's work. Wherever it does, it'll likely require more nimble-minded support from his collaborators than it often receives here. Not to provide slapstick cartoon gurning and elbowing for the cheap seats, but simply to ensure that there's a degree of irony present which would underscore the author's purpose. There are, after all, several panels in which Wolverine is doing little but sitting in an 747's toilet. It can hardly be a deeply serious scene, given that only the least bright ninja-fighter would paint himself into such a corner without even the opportunity to see what's going on around him. Yet nothing is made of the situation at all. Wolverine might as well be spending a free moment or two on a Central Park bench.
I know that the very thought defines me as a member of an insignificant minority here, but Wolverine #300 seems to me to be a carelessly edited comic book. The multiple artistic teams with such disparate styles? The apparently obvious shortcomings in some of the most straight-forward aspects of storytelling? The lack of an appropriately subtle degree of artistic support for the cleverness and innovation in Aaron's script at certain key moments? It all seems to mark an editorial staff which either can't or won't take responsibility for even the most prestigious of the titles for which they're responsible. (We hear a great deal about the crisis of editorial resources at Marvel, so I presume that it's the former situation which applies here.) This recurrent absence of care certainly seems to be an embarrassingly obvious business when it comes to the price-justifying extra content in the comic, which quite frankly displays either a paucity of imagination, a marked contempt for the readership, or a shocking lack of finance. For how can it possibly be that four pages - four pages! - of this value-for-money extra content involves nothing but row-upon-row of itsy-bitsy reproductions of covers from the back issues of Wolverine? The cognitive dissonance returns. The covers are too tiny to take any pleasure in looking at, and it isn't as if all of these images aren't available at the click of a mouse anyway. It all seems to be nothing more than the equivalent of a disorganised student padding out an unimpressive project with a pile of photocopied illustrations taken randomly from library books and a bibliography containing very big writing indeed.
But then, what do I know? Perhaps the music's just too loud for me these days, and perhaps I'm not supposed to be struggling to try to catch a syllable or two of the lyrics.