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.



  1. I'm not sure I understand your criticism of tone. How should the scene in the airplane have been drawn?

  2. No, I understand that in the abstract. I do. What I don't understand is what you consider a "twinkle in the eye", or a style suited to this material. Something more old-school in coloring and composition? Less old-school with stranger color choices and figures? Something which plays with the page, a la Marcos Martin? Something more rigid in its design? I just don't understand what you're looking for because these pages mostly seem to be perfectly competent in every way. Generally when you don't like something, you pick it apart and show what it is it's doing that you don't like. But here you're being very vague, and I don't understand your criticism at all.

  3. Hello Mory:- Well, the scene on the airplane is deliberately daft. It has to be, from Wolverine's presence there to the Hand's absurd ambush, from the "stewardess" handing out weapons to the rows of identical passengers to the presence of Wolverine making himself a sitting duck on the toilet. I loved it as a script, actually, it was a lovely parody of what's Wolverine's so often become. But it is daft, and so the art needed to have a sense in it that this scene wasn't being played in an entirely straight fashion. Without that, it reads as if the writer is playing the scene entirely straight, and that can't be so. There has to be a sense of humour there, a subtle sense that the creators and the audience are both in on the joke. But the art here was really no different to an absolutely bog-standard story. There was no twinkle in the eye, no playing of the scenes so that they were as funny as they were mock-serious. And so, Wolverine sitting on a toilet waiting to be attached is played entirely straight. That makes the story look stupid, when it's actually very much anything but.

  4. Hello Mory:- I think the issue to my mind was not how the scene should be played, but how it shouldn't. There's so many options that could be taken with it, from the absolutely serious to outright farce. In that, my problem is with the basic lack of humour in the art rather than the infinite ways in which humour might be displayed. But I'd have loved to see Howard Chaykin draw that scene, because he always a way of presenting heroic leads as being both substantial and yet somewhat silly. In fact, chapter one's something that I'd love to see a whole range of artists take a crack at. All I'd ask of them, if I could ever afford to do so, would be that they didn't play the scene straight, because that just leaves Wolverine and the Hand looking stupid. And that's where the chapter's art falls down. It plays it largely straight and it leaves the characters behaving absurdly, destroying the reality of the scene without adding anything to compensate.

  5. Oh noes! Sabertooth is eating a steak! Off a plate! With a knife and fork! That MONSTER!

    And aside from issues of tone, why depict an aeroplane toilet in a wide panel rather than a tall one? It doesn't fit at all.

  6. Hello Mark:- It's a $*!£ing terrying steak, isn't it? And I bet that plate didn't get cleaned up afterwards. Somebody who was really into that script could've done wonders with the scene, although a 2-panel page is rather cheeky. But that looks phoned in.

    You're quite right about the use of our old friend the widescreen panel for a scene of a bloke on a toilet. Laughable actually, in a not-very-funny-I-paid-for-this way.

    I have a friendly and computer-competent neighbour helping out this week with formatting a certain logo for TooBusyThinking. I've been constantly defeated by the simplest of tasks, but pride has been overcome by commonsense.

  7. I disagree that the tone of the ninja fight needed to be drawn with some measure of awareness of how ludicrous it was, as Wolverine being stuck in the lavvy all Passenger 57-ish is a clue to the nature of this story's internal logic: the logic of the 1980/1990s martial arts movie, which would never stoop to self-awareness to acknowledge its own ridiculousness partly because that would impugn the mystique of the gruff be-stubbled head-puncher as he went about his ninja-y business of consequence-free mass murder in various locales, but mainly because the audience of such films was adolescent boys who are traditionally repelled when being mocked by their macho fiction. Such films are also not too big on making narrative sense as long as the head-kicking scenes are shoved in at the appropriate junctures (though seeing as this is comics we're talking about, replace "action scene" with "splash page" and/or "misanthropic soundbite" and/or "shocking reveal") so W#300 arguably makes itself bulletproof in playing the homage card.

    I can absolutely see the story of Wolverine #300 as a Michael Dudikoff movie freed from the constraints of budget, but what I can't see it as is a comic I'd want to read, as it has Wolverine in it: a character designed for the express purpose of growing out of. I honestly can't think of a single story off the top of my head where he was actually interesting rather than ridiculous.

  8. Weirdly enough, Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, which finished not even a year ago, featured the same writer, the same artist, and the same character, and Kubert was perfectly capable of adding a visual sense of humor to Aaron's wacky script. It's not that Kubert can't do it (he did it over a decade ago on Peter David's Hulk), so I wonder why he didn't do it here (and I haven't read the issue, so I'm trusting your take on it, sir!).

  9. Hello Brigonos:- That's SUCH a depressing thought, isn't that? That sense might be absent from any kind of entertainment because it might upset the absence of irony from whatever Rump that's concerned. I really do hope that that's not the reason why, because that means that the writer just didn't care to make things work in any kind of careful if still amusing fashion. I'm of the old school, in which ridiculous ideas get worked and reworked until they retain their absurdity and yet still make sense too.

    Ah, the bulletproof homage card. Also know as hyper-reality in post-modernism, where nothing makes sense because it's just a reference to something else for effect.

    I must admit, the number of great Wolverine stories is remarkably small. I was actually more fond of the guy when he was the X-Man that nobody cared for and Cockrum would've happy to kick off of the team. (If memory serves.) But solo Wolverine stories? I enjoyed quite alot of the last Millar summer popcorn Logan epic. The Claremont/Miller mini, though it's abit creaky now. Crikey. That's a tough one. Great Wolverine solo stories?

    I would have thought - and here I'm not being sarcastic - that there'd be dozens that would come to mind. But I can't think of any. That can't be right ...

  10. Hello Greg:- Yep, "wacky" is a word that I should've used in the above. And there's very little wacky in said artist's work. The scene of a stewardess handing out swords is amusing in a not-particularly amusing way, but overall, there's an absence of zest and invention. That's particularly odd given what you say, although I suppose I might just have even more limited powers of perception than I fear.

    To be honest, it looks incredibly rushed. I've no idea if that's so. But it's a big'n'expensive anniversary issue. It shouldn't ..

  11. "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." Maybe a minority in the group of people who reviewed the book, but that's your own fault for involving your brain in reading it, but having flicked through it in a Comic Shop I'd like to think you were part of the majority who didn't purchase it because it felt intrinsically like a lazy rip off artistically or did purchase it and felt disappointed.

    I fear you may be right though and the beast that is comics has changed its nature to something beyond our recognition. Maybe growing up in the Seventies when creative folk in the "mainstream" were so much less one note and comedy and tragedy could live side by side in an entertainment on a regular basis has made us unprepared for the the niche market nature of modern mass entertainment.

  12. Hello Peter:- I bought Wolverine #300 blind, as it were. A diet that's absolutely free of the fizzy drinks and the sugars'n'saturated fats leaves a little disposable income open, and I suspect that a body who's writing about comics really ought to try to replicate that buying-blind experience. And nothing helps see why comics are dying on their knees as a pop art form than the Russian roulette of picking up a book at random. The odds really are against a fine comic ending up before you, although I did end up with 2 rather fine books this week, which I'm writing about at this moment.

    I think your hypothesis about cultural change is undoubtedly true, in that all cultures change, and ours often does so hysterically. I'd also add the fact that comics have chosen to whittle down their audience, leaving those relatively few folks who like their present form & those who can't bear to opt out. (Well, there are of course splendid books as well, but very few of them.) It's a self-pertuating cycle of wearing away at the audience, until we'll left with creators who've learned to produce pap and think it wonderful.

    Peter, if only everyone would just listen to me ...

  13. I am curious, since your writing is focused largely on superheroes and 2000ad, do you read anything outside those areas? I only ask because of your comment "(Well, there are of course splendid books as well, but very few of them.)" I find myself reading more and more after a period of years with virtually nothing to interest me. Perhaps it was the arrival of kids but I wanted less and less to read the mean spirited comics the big four gave us. Now, wealth of reprints aside, I find myself surrounded by books I want to read and pamphlets from people like the good folk at Nobrow and others. There's a wealth of quality creators, Luke Pearson for instance that fills me with hope for comics as a medium. I read Pearson's Hilda and The Midnight Giant straight after picking up a handful of New 52 no 1's and being downright depressed. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on such books as Pearson's book was every bit a pop book in a pop medium.

  14. Hello Peter:- Most of what I read isn't super-person stuff, Peter. It's something which will become apparent, for whatever's that's worth, in the Year In Comics pieces for Sequart. I deliberately choose a narrow focus for the blog, for a variety of reasons, and I do love the superhero book. But I've never been good at reading exclusively in any particular genre.

    However, by the mention of splendid books, I was indeed referring to superhero books. For all that the sub-genre can seem moribund, there's some absolute super-people gems around. In the past year, comics such as Phonogram, Daredevil, Knight & Squire, Low-Life and Nikolai Dante have really made my comics reading an absolute pleasure. In fact, I'm pretty sure every genre and sub-genre is mostly pap, and everything's a murk lit up by a few excellant examples of splendidness. Or something like that ...

    I will check out Nobrow and Mr Pearson's work on your good recomendation. Thank you for suggesting I head out that-a-way :)

  15. Pearson's book is very reminiscent of both the Moomins and, if you remember it, the Pogles with Pippin and Tog. You're so right about Knight and Squire. Beautifully English in every sense. Going to check out Sequart now.

  16. Hello Peter:- What could be a more interesting recommendation than one which references both Moomins and Pippin & Tog. How splendid!

    I only mentioned the Sequart pieces as evidence that the superhero isn't my sole source of graphic nourishment. But it's a good site, to say the least, and you'll find lots of stuff by a host of folks over there for those blog-filling moments there.

  17. Hmm, I could've sworn I already sent in something about this, but maybe I just intended to. Anyway, if that airplane scene were in a Deadpool comic, it would have been hysterical. Wolverine's appearances in Deadpool are always spot-on parodies of the guy. Kirby could have drawn that scene with the appropriate ridiculousness.
    And I think that's the thing. I don't think you're trying to say the artist should be winking at the audience, saying "isn't this silly?" I think you're saying that a scene like that has an inherent ridiculousness, and not acknowledging it at all just robs it of any vitality it could have had.

    Re: that scene as Hong Kong action homage, I'm imagining it in a Tarantino movie, and even if it were played completely straight, he would have found a way to make it appropriately ridiculousness.

    In my own work, I've been wrestling with how to approach copying of/learning someone else's style. There's a great interview with jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson where she says that her guitar teacher never played guitar in their lessons, only bass, so she wouldn't just pick up his style unthinkingly. On the other hand, I consider it my goal to learn as much about someone else's style, then integrate it into my own, hopefully effectively. But when you reference a style or genre, it's your responsibility to have some awareness of what the style represents and means.
    In the same Deadpool comic I'm thinking of, there's a page where the artist replicates the Wizard of Oz art spot-on, with him, Daredevil, Spiderman, and the Punisher in place of the usual cast, and it's so silly because of the contrast between the whimsy of those stories and the brutally ridiculous seriousness of the Punisher.

  18. And, with all respect and good humor, and knowing absolutely nothing about them, Moomins, Pippins, and Tog seem like the most Scottish character names ever.

  19. Hello Historyman:- That first scene in Wolverine #300 operates according to different standards of story logic to much of the rest of the book, and to most of what we see in Western comics. The problem is that the same type of action and setting means quite different things at different moments despite there being no real clues for anyone not in the homage-elect as to what marks out the absurd and the serious scene. Follow that logic through and writers can do what they want when they want to without ever having to make sense in a way that communicates to anything but the Rump. To my mind, there has to be ways of signalling that the writer and artist have a deliberate purpose rather than lazy methods. It might be said that a plane full of identical businessmen who pass unnoticed by Wolverine indicates that the ridiculous is being acted out, but that scene was so underplayed that it might as well have been by an artist who just couldn't be bothered to make folks look any different to each other. And so on. There's so many things that could've been done to make it make sense. A voice-over indicating that we shouldn't be taking it as the literal truth, the section being marked off with a specific art style, or whatever. But, as you say, if you have a ridiculous scene which seems to playing everything absolutely straight, then you've just got another typical superhero comic, and one which veers from tone to tone in a totally indulgent fashion. A very post-modern conceit of course, but not good comics if anyone but the Rump is to be involved in reading comics.

    And so, the options were many. A wink, if somebody wants, the pretense that a participant was viewing events through the prism of a Tarantino-esque prism, whatever. But something other than more of the same was needed.

    I think there's absolutely nothing wrong per se with producing work which reflects the achievements of other creators. But in general, comics tend to homage style rather than substance. The recent OMAC was constantly being referred to as being in a Kirby style, and yet that was all surface. Kirby just didn't construct his work in that way. To lift the ticks of Kirby's work while leaving the depth strikes me as a waste of time. It certainly didn't impress even the Rumpified market. If you're going to homage, then you ought to really cut to the core of the artist whose work you're appropriating. If you don't, you run the risk of seeming as if you're copying without understanding. I would find it hard to believe that Keith Giffen doesn't get everything there is to about Kirby's storytelling, but the question remains; why produce a work which used the King's work so poorly?

    Say high to the Moomins @ and Pippins & Tog too Not a Scot among them, I fear. Splendid stuff all the same :)