[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]
(Also published in the “Wolverine” Trade Paperback)
James Clavell’s novel Shogun – published in 1975, the same year that Claremont became the writer of Uncanny X-Men – is the story of a somewhat rough-hewn Westerner named James Blackthorne who becomes embroiled in the intrigues of samurais and warlords in feudal Japan after being stranded there in the year 1600. During the course of his adventures there, Blackthorne gains a deep respect for Japanese culture and tradition, and becomes intimate with a woman named Lady Mariko.
Given that the Marvel Comics iteration of Lady Mariko first appeared in Uncanny #118 as a potential love interest for Wolverine, it seems logical to assume that Claremont was flirting with the idea of using Clavell’s character as a model for Wolverine as far back as 1978. (Mariko is the first character with whom readers saw Wolverine share his real name, which rhymes with “Shogun.”) Later issues, such as #148, would occasionally reinforce Wolverine’s affinity for Japan, but the full immersion of Logan into Japanese culture — and the new interpretation of the character as a “failed samurai” — does not occur until this, the Frank Miller-illustrated miniseries published in 1982.
Miller, when first approached to drawn the mini, was purportedly uninterested in the character as portrayed so far, seeing him as a one-dimensional borderline psychotic who couldn’t sustain a solo series. Claremont’s solution was to design a crime-thriller/political drama that borrowed heavily from “Shogun” and took as its theme the transformation of Logan from an “animal” to a man. (Meanwhile, see All-Star Batman and Robin for a look at how much Miller’s sensibilities have changed in 25 years re: the marketability of one-dimensional psychos.)
In terms of storyline, “Wolverine” is cannily conceived despite its unapologetically anachronistic portrayal of Japan. In fairness, Claremont is hardly the only comics author to portray all of his main Japanese characters as honor-obsessed clichés, but that context doesn’t necessarily mitigate the series’ bald-faced naiveté.
Claremont’s conception of Wolverine, on the other hand, is convincing in its synthesis of cowboy/samurai. Inspired by Frank Miller’s strikingly unorthodox page layouts – notable for their use of panels that don’t quite fill the page, leaving large areas of blank white, and for Miller’s occasional use of rough near-symmetry between the two facing halves of a spread – Claremont’s first-person narration takes on a similarly jagged rhythm. Rather than attempt to synthesize his own tendency towards verbosity with the tough, terse cadence one would tend to associate with someone like Wolverine, Claremont simply switches back and forth between them over the course of the narrative. Trusting letterer Tom Orzechowski’s subtly perfect caption placement, Claremont lets the words work in counterpoint to Miller’s images, and the effect is arresting. We’re seeing the birth of a new writing approach for Claremont, who seems to have become aware of the way his words can be integrated by strong collaborators as another aesthetic element of the comic book page. Rather than distract from the visuals, language can be – in comics – a PART of the visuals. Of course, this is something that people like Will Eisner had already known for years, but it seems to be an epiphany for Claremont. (That it happens for the first time for Claremont here, in collaboration with Frank Miller, is certainly appropriate, given Eisner’s massive and pervasive influence on Miller.) The assignment of Paul Smith -- a phenomenally talented artist in terms of design and layout -- to Uncanny X-Men so soon in relation to the Wolverine mini is pure serendipity, having allowed Claremont to continue his experiment with a more integrated relationship between image and text.
As for the “Wolverine” mini, despite its stereotypical portrayal of Japan, it is a triumph of sequential storytelling. In 1982, neither Claremont nor Miller has achieved the peak of his artistic powers, but they both possess more than enough raw talent to drive their story home. Their shared relative crudeness is counterbalanced by sheer mutual enthusiasm, and the occasional narrative shortcuts are redeemed by the utter coolness of the money shots (e.g., Wolverine atop a body of dead ninjas, his narration reading “I’m the best,” or the thrilling image of Wolverine crouched behind Shingen as the former asks the latter, “Am I worthy now?”). The miniseries remains, 25 years after the fact, the definitive Wolverine story.