This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
When Marvel Comics emerged in the 1960s, its editor Stan Lee heavily hyped the notion that its costumed superheroes were more grounded in the real world than those published by other companies. This isn't to say the characters' adventures were any less fantastic--the opposite was often true--but that the heroes' personalities and lives were closer to those of real people. In short, they had the same kind of personal problems as everyone else. Reading the strips, one finds this aspect of the stories was often schtick. It was rarely integral, and the personal conflicts were often too undeveloped and easily resolved to take very seriously. The company's features were generally at their best when they eschewed this material altogether. The one exception was Steve Ditko's Spider-Man. The protagonist's personal conflicts were taken to their logical conclusion, which made the character a more intense, driven, and alienated personality. However, according to Blake Bell's critical biography Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, Ditko's treatment was met with consternation by Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, which contributed to Ditko's departure from the feature (and the company) in 1966. Lee, working with Ditko's successor John Romita, then softened the character's hard edges, which boosted his appeal and set the stage for his continuing mass-media success.
Ditko, though, had sown the seeds of something that would flourish later on. In the late 1970s, a revamped version of Marvel's X-Men strip caught fire and quickly became the company's top-selling title. The feature took off partly because of the crisp plotting of scriptwriter Chris Claremont and cartoonist John Byrne, as well as Byrne's sleek action storytelling. But its staying power was due to Claremont's inclination to give every character the sort of intense, alienated personality that Ditko gave Spider-Man in the mid-1960s. However, Claremont was nowhere as successful as Ditko in this. The characterizations were rarely integral to the plotting, and on the few occasions when Claremont was able to build the stories around the characters' personal conflicts, the results were often hilariously overwrought. The most notorious example is The Dark Phoenix Saga, in which whitebread heroine Jean Grey got in touch with her inner bad girl and ended up threatening the universe's existence. Claremont's scripting was shamelessly earnest, though, and that blinded his adolescent-male audience to the silliness. (I write from experience: I was among them at the time.) After Byrne left the strip in 1980, Claremont got worse in most respects--the storylines meandered on endlessly--but he was occasionally able to improve on the material, such as when he redefined the X-Men's leader, Professor Xavier, and their principal foe Magneto, as former friends who became enemies when their philosophies and goals drove them apart. But this and other revisions were often tangential to the ongoing strip. It wasn't until the first two installments of the movie franchise, both directed by Bryan Singer, that Claremont's retroactive improvements to the feature were effectively integrated into the main stories.
But everything came together for Claremont once. In the four-issue 1982 series Wolverine, he took the title character and substantially reworked him. Claremont was able to successfully build the story around the character's personal conflicts, and better, he managed to successfully redefine the character into the more complex and dynamic personality he's been ever since. Before this story, the character--easily the most violent of the X-Men heroes--was a wild-card supporting player whose main purpose was to jack up the excitement in the strip's action scenes. Afterward, Wolverine was still rash and often murderously violent, but there were now the counterpoints of a conscience and a sense of justice that found such behavior shameful. The creation of this dynamic made him the best realized of the X-Men characters, and he was soon the backbone of the feature. Wolverine is now easily the most prominent character to come out of Marvel since Spider-Man. The film treatments have made actor Hugh Jackman a star, with his fourth go-round in the role due out later this week. In Claremont's introduction to the trade paperback collecting the Wolverine series, he writes that the goal was to destroy the character and rebuild him as something better. He certainly succeeded.
For the uninitiated, Wolverine is a Canadian superhero whose powers include heightened senses and the ability to heal almost instantaneously from any injury. His past is murky; all that's known is that he was once a government agent, and that somewhere along the way he was subjected to a radical medical procedure that coated his skeleton with a steel alloy called adamantium. It also gave him claws: two sets of three adamantium blades, implanted in his forearms, that he can extend through the backs of his hands. He's a surly, roughneck personality, but despite his enthusiasm for beer, cigars, and fighting, he's also quite reserved. He gives away no information about himself without beng asked: it took years for his X-Men teammates to learn that his real name was Logan, or that, among other things, he could fluently speak and read Japanese. He also has a hair-trigger temper, and he has no compunction about using his claws in a fight.
In the regular X-Men series, Claremont gave Wolverine a love interest in Mariko Yashida, a young, tradition-minded Japanese heiress, descended from nobility, who serves her country at their embassy in New York. At the beginning of Wolverine, she has inexplicably returned to Japan. All of Wolverine's letters to her are returned unopened, and his efforts to reach her by telephone go nowhere. Angry at the way he's being treated, he flies to Japan to confront her in person. Once there, he discovers that she is newly married--her father, Shingen Yashida, has returned to her life after many years, and he promised her hand in marriage in order to settle a debt. Wolverine is furious over this, but he resigns himself to the situation and resolves to return to New York.
However, Shingen is offended by Wolverine--a foreigner--presuming that he has any right to Mariko's feelings. After seeing that Mariko still cares for him, Shingen decides to destroy Wolverine in her eyes once and for all. He has a bodyguard ambush and drug Wolverine, and then challenges him to a mock battle with wooden swords so he can demonstrate his worthiness. It's a rout--Wolverine is hazy from the poison, and Shingen knows how to use a sword to strike nerve clusters in a way that disables an opponent. Wolverine tosses away his sword and pops his claws to defend himself, but he can't overcome Shingen's skill. Worse, Mariko watched their combat without understanding what Shingen was doing. All she saw was that when Wolverine was faced with losing a mock battle, he attacked her father with his (lethal) claws in order to turn the tide. In her eyes, he's dishonored himself. Shingen has him dumped on the streets of Tokyo, presumably like the garbage he considers Wolverine to be.
Shortly thereafter, Wolverine encounters Yukio, a female mercenary with Yakuza ties who likes him just the way he is. She is awed by his fighting prowess, which she sees firsthand when he finds himself in the middle of a fight between her and a gang of rival mercenaries. She also loves his impulsive, roughneck manner. If Wolverine wants her, she's his, and he takes her up on the offer. But no matter how hard he tries, he can't put Mariko behind him. Claremont uses Yukio and Mariko to illustrate the two paths Wolverine has before him: should he just accept himself, violent nature and all, and live and let live, or should he strive to rise above his failings and live up to the ideals of honor, justice, and self-discipline? He of course chooses the latter, and Claremont sets up the story to provide an easy path to redemption. Unbeknownst to Mariko, Shingen is a Yakuza lord, and Wolverine resolves to dismantle his operations, reveal him for what he is to Mariko, and personally defeat him in honorable combat. He is under no illusion that he'll get Mariko back; he even accepts that his actions may make her his enemy. He is after justice and self-respect--taking down Shingen is the honorable thing to do.
Claremont was blessed to have Frank Miller provide the cartooning. Miller was probably the best adventure cartoonist working in the U.S. when this story was first published, and he was near the height of his powers. His draftsmanship is characteristically unpolished, but the visuals are presented with a striking degree of economy and clarity, and his dramatizations of the various characters are never less than spot-on. His pacing of the story is just remarkable. The action sequences are thrilling--they're modeled after the work of Japanese cartoonist Goseki Kojima, but there are no swipes, and Miller's use of Kojima's style is so assured that one would think that he was born to it. The quieter scenes play eloquently, and Miller may be the only cartoonist to ever get a good rhythm going with Claremont's typical overwriting of the narration and dialogue. The large blocks of text never overwhelm the panels; they're very cannily integrated into Miller's pages, and they create an effective counterpoint to the pictures. Claremont's work with John Byrne is generally considered his best, but the two never presented a story as artfully as he and Miller do here.
The story has flaws. The frequent references to Japanese honor codes are anachronistic; they owe more to stories set in medieval Japan--such as Akira Kurosawa's samurai films--than anything taking place in the country in either the 1980s or today. And a subplot in which Wolverine is tricked into killing a rival of Shingen's doesn't hold up upon reflection--the plot to manipulate Wolverine is so byzantine that I doubt a chess grand master could have worked it out. But no matter. It's a terrific adventure comic overall--probably the high point of Chris Claremont's career, and an excellent reminder of how good Frank Miller was in his heyday. The promo spots for the new Wolverine movie prompted me to pull the book off the shelf and reread it. I'm finding myself fascinated by the character all over again. Here's hoping the new picture can follow the lead of the two Bryan Singer X-Men films, and, at the very least, hold its own with the comics. Something tells me that this weekend I'll go to find out.