Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jason Powell on the 1982 Wolverine Miniseries

[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.

20 comments:

Jason said...

Hey, synchronicity: Claremont has another miniseries set in Japan (well, the first issue is set there). "Big Hero Six," the first issue of which came out this week. It goes for the opposite vision of Japan: ultra-modern, high-tech, fast-paced ... still a bit of a cliche, but an improvement on all the "honor, duty, etc." stuff that Claremont used to go on about when it came to 1980s Wolverine.

scott91777 said...

I've often wondered if Miller actually contributed any of the actual scripting to this series since a lot of it, especially Wolvie's internal monologue during combat, is so indicative of Miller's "hard-boiled" style that he would later perfect in The Dark Knight Returns (and Dave Sim would deliciously parody over in Cerebus during the Church & State storyline using The Roach, as always, to play with current mainstream comic trends: "Left lung swelling up. Rupturing. Filling My Chest Cavity with Blood [..]Cardiac Arrest. Acute Uremic Failure. Leakage in the left ventricle [...] Breathe Deep. Flex. Count to ten. Squint." and my favorite "We're all cockroaches, Epop. We've always been cockroaches. We have to be cockroaches. We love being cockroaches. Even Jason loved being a cockroach"... but I digress).

Miller, of course, had already been utilizing this style over in his Daredevil work. As you're saying, even if Miller didn't write it himself, I'm sure he at least had a hand in getting Claremont to write this way. Which, in my opinion, is definitely a good thing. When I read The Dark Phoenix Saga (only recently mind you), I found myself annoyed at the redundancy of much of Claremont's words when paired with the art. I realize, of course, as Grandpa Simpson would say, "It was the style of the time." It didn't matter how tightly plotted or brilliantly illustrated by Byrne the story was... the verbosity just kind of 'dated' the whole thing for me.

Perhaps, ultimately, Miller's greatest contribution to modern mainstream comics (via his Eisner influence of course) was cutting back on a lot of that redundancy and, as you pointed out, just letting visuals speak for themselves and allowing the words to emphasize rather than distract from the action.

And, you're absolutely right, the issues of Uncanny X-men directly following this collaboration see a definite improvement in this department on Claremont's part. He definitely seemed to trust more in his artist to tell the story for him. I have enjoyed reading them far more than I enjoyed reading Dark Phoenix. Sure, occasionally Claremont lays on the melodrama rather thickly at times, but, overall, the experience is much closer to reading a modern comic and, given the time frame, Claremont and Miller were to the first to adopt this style which, by the end of the decade, would become the norm. For my money, the Paul Smith issues and after from the 80s are some of my favorites. This is the Claremont that I was first introduced to and fell in love with when I first got in to X-men.

I was going to point out the Irony of Miller's "one-dimensional" psychopath comment as well... but more in reference to Sin City. I'm not sure if the AS Batman is truly one dimensional; as Miller and Geoff have pointed out, Miller's Bat-works are meant to be looked at in relation to one another and, if you look at the others, their is definitely more depth there. Also, I'm not sure if AS Batman is so much "one-dimensional" as we've only seen one dimension. There are hints that there is something more going on than the side that we have seen of him. Particularly in the final page of issue 9 where he and Robin "Mourn lives lost. Including our own."

Hey! I just realized in the post I have mentioned Claremont, Miller, X-men, Cerebus, The Simpsons and The Dark Knight Returns ... If I could have just worked in The Office and U2 this would pretty much represent all of my most favorite things :)

James said...

"(Mariko is the first character with whom readers saw Wolverine share his real name, which rhymes with “Shogun.”)"

Huh. I wonder if it's coincidence that his really real name has now been revealed to be "James".

Jason said...

Scott, the text in "Wolverine" definitely reads as Claremontian to me. I'd be surprised to learn that any of the actual dialogue was Miller's ... but, hm. Well, now you've got me thinking about it ...

At any rate, yeah, the influence of Daredevil on this series is evident in both the leaner, tighter use of text/dialogue and even all the ninja stuff. (The Hand were in Miller's Daredevil before they showed up here, as far as I know. (I have to add that caveat to everything now after completely botching the "Aliens"/"Brood" chronology ... ! ))

scott91777 said...

Jason,

That's correct, The hand were introduced around the same time as Electra... so that would make it around '81 or so... about a year before this story.

Streebo said...

I never picked up on the Shogun influence before. Thanks for pointing that out.

Jason said...

Thanks Streebo, glad you liked it.

James, I know nothing about "Origin" (other than it's where they revealed the "James Howlett" thing, which I don't like). But, it might've been deliberate, yah.

Scott, I forgot to say last time, sorry if I misrepresented ASBM&R in your eyes. But I think my point in the post still stands. Viewed on its own, as it's been for the last two or three years or whatever, the comic is fairly straightforward and the lead character pretty one note (or maybe three notes: G D and B), so clearly Miller's threshold for dimensionality has gone down in the last 25 years. :)

scott91777 said...

Jason,

I maintain that when ASGDBM&R is completed... (sometime next decade)... that we shall see a fully realized Goddamn Batman... (G D and B... hilarious!) ... If only Sim were still doing Cerebus... "I'm the goddamm Cockroach!"

ROM said...

My head groans whenever this gets brought up. Ninjas and samurai in modern day Japan? Honestly, Marvel, get a clue. I swear DC does a far better job in depicting Asians than Marvel has. I mean, Betsy Braddock becoming a Japanese woman who happens to be a ninja?

arcus said...

I hate to be so late to the party as I race to catch up with you guys, but I felt the need to make the (pedantic) observation that Logan's name is revealed in #109, during Wolverine's first fight with Weapon Alpha/Vindicator - a fairly long time before the Japan stuff starts to come up. So the Logan/Shogun rhyme is probably just a cute coincidence.

cease ill said...

I really enjoyed the Shogun reference articulated here, and while the stereotypical notions in the writing were also the first ideas about Japan I had (living in Georgia), the writing had a massive impact on my own nascent identity and the sentimental turn of my philosophy. Emotional. Your analysis of the art makes me wish for once my collection was not 3000 miles away, as it makes me aware, I had never encountered it with such a vocabulary (nothing can replace the way it captured me, but elaboration evokes more of the same and spurs my own humble skills). To a larger extent, that is why I have been faithfully re-reading this analysis from about #193 back over much of the past 24 hours, and why I thank you so much, Jason.

Anonymous said...

"Logan" doesn't rhyme with "Shogun." The Japanese is pronounced "SHOH-goon." Japanese speakers would pronounce "Logan" as "ROH-gahn." I live in Japan.

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