Pipeline: Claremont & Miller's "Wolverine"

Tue, August 6th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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WOLVERINE

I haven't seen the movie. This is, instead, a review of the original, 1982 four-part miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller (with Josef Rubinstein on inks), from the reprint in the Marvel Premiere Edition format titled "Wolverine by Claremont and Miller." It includes "Uncanny X-Men" #172-#173 (Paul Smith/Bob Wiacek art) to round it out to a six-issues collection.

I've read a lot of Miller's work over the years, and two things dawned on me while thinking about this book:

1) It's the only major work of his that he didn't write. Miller has written things for other artists (notably David Mazzucchelli, Geoff Darrow and Dave Gibbons), but he's always drawn from his own scripts otherwise.

2) It is his most generic art, with stylistic embellishments coming from his inker, Josef Rubinstein.

Miller sees himself more in the cartoonist mode a la Will Eisner, so the first bullet point isn't surprising. He wants to tell the whole story from the script to the final art. I just never thought about it and put two and two together. Forgive me my late realization on that one.

The second point, though, was cause for more reflection.

Frank Miller is a great storyteller, but I don't like his art until it gets super-stylized. I like "Sin City" and I like "300". "Ronin" and "Dark Knight Returns" are clever variations on what would be his "core" style. With "Wolverine," though, the pure art doesn't do much for me. Characters often look stiff and inconsistent. Silhouettes feel more like shortcuts than anchoring areas of solid black. Backgrounds barely exist, giving the art too light a look. Rubinstein's inks attempt to add some detail and texture to the art, but it doesn't look consistent enough to be comfortable. The detail on the close-ups feels over-rendered, while the wider angles feel sparse.

With some exceptions where Miller tries something different, there are far too many backgroundless panels featuring close-ups on faces that fill up the frame in random ways. The movement back and forth from the wide angles to those close-ups gives me too much whiplash. You can see the classic Miller storytelling in spots, but it often feels like he's compromising that to fit in with the typical Marvel comic of the time. He's splitting the difference and going nowhere.

The pages get interesting when he plays with the form, much like he did with "Daredevil." There are panels and splashes where the negative space is profound and makes an interesting composition. During the samurai fights, the panels go into a more cinematic wide screen look. Characters break panel borders occasionally in interesting ways. One sequence of illustrations while Claremont's text tells a story outside the panels works. Past that, there are a lot of pages where the storytelling sits blandly on the page. Even in action sequences, characters look uncomfortable and forced into spaces leftover on the page.

Claremont packs a lot of action in the four issues of the miniseries, so there's not an excuse that it's all talking heads at play here. Maybe it's Miller having a difficult time in adapting someone else's script? Did Claremont write this in the Marvel method, though? I don't know.

In any case, the story is interesting. There are a few solid twists, some classic Claremontian character moments, and a lot of action with consequences and purpose. Setting the story in Japan gives Claremont and Miller not just interesting locations to play with, but also an interesting cultural difference to mine.

I also wonder if part of the wonder of the book isn't in the way it depicts the honor-based culture of Japan as something alien to the reader. The actions of the characters in this book seem so bizarre and outrageous. 30 years later, and after the influx of manga and anime to these shores, is that shock value absent? Do today's readers shrug their shoulders at the thought of Mariko's behavior, realizing that it's culturally based? There's less outrage from today's audience at her decisions, perhaps, than 1982's.

Maybe it's a reach, I don't know. Maybe we've seen so many Wolverine stories by now that the novelty and the danger of this one is now lost to the ages. A dangerous and more feral Wolverine is a standard angle writers go to with random reboots and miniseries now.

I just know that reading this book was eye-opening towards my opinion of Miller's art and storytelling. I want to go back and reread some of the first "Sin City" volumes again. They rely more on the style and the shock and the sensibilities of the genre for their thrills, but it feels more natural to Miller's cartooning. The unfiltered roller coaster plays well.

That all said, I enjoyed "Wolverine." It's a classic piece of storytelling from that era of Claremont's work with the X-Men. The good bits of the book are very good, indeed. The plot shifts around nicely and there are surprises to be had. Wolverine is a strong character in the book who isn't untouchable. He's a man who can be hurt by wine, women, and poison, but he always bounces back. Complete with Tom Orzechowski's lettering, the book "feels" right in a way that no other letterer of the era could accomplish with a Claremont script.

Two issues of "Uncanny X-Men" that follow up on the miniseries are appended to the book. It's the story of Wolverine and Mariko's near-marriage, which only gets short-circuited in the end by an insanely silly plot contrivance that probably reads better as part of the monthly churn of issues than as a self-contained collected edition. It features Paul Smith's art, but even he isn't perfect here. Yukio, for starters, never looks right. It's like Smith was trying hard to draw the character in Miller's style, but comes off instead looking like a bad Paul Gulacy. Also, the final panel of the final page with a single tear dripping from Wolverine's eye is about the klunkiest thing I've ever seen in an X-Men comic. Maybe it was an intentional ode to the classic cheesy romance comics of a by-gone era, but it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Paul Smith's Yukio looks odd. I'm sorry, but she does.

Smith has a lot to recommend in the two issues, though, particularly in drawing an interesting and wide-ranging cast of X-Men, notably Rogue, Storm, Kitty Pryde, and Nightcrawler. All of that works. He leaves plenty of room, also, for Claremont's prose, which forms the rhythm of the story so well.

PIPELINKS

  • Woody Allen as Wolverine made me laugh.

  • Thanks for Gregg for pointing out Kim Thompson's 1983 review of "Ronin" #1 during my writing of this column. It made for fascinating and somewhat prescient reading. I'm not as down on Miller as Thompson was at that time, but he makes some points that are tough to disagree with.

  • It looks like I'll be attending the New York Comic-Con this year on Saturday (October 12) only. I spend on planning lots of time staying alive and not being squeezed to death by the waves of bodies walking around like zombies.

  • That said, I'd also like to indulge my photographic habit at the convention this year. Not that the world needs another photographer taking pictures of costumed people at the show, but I don't want to do drive-by snapshots in the middle of con aisles. If you're planning on heading to the show this year in costume and want to get together for some shots, drop me a line. With any luck, the con will set up the photo backdrop again this year like they had last year just outside Artist's Alley. It would be a great place to start.

  • Sam Kieth talks about his experience in San Diego at the "Sandman" reunion panel. The big pull quote from that entry is this one (leaving the typos intact):

    But to jump back for a sec, when I finally saw Neil in person back stage for the first time in almost 20 years, and was intense. I sensed the PURE appreciation and love of all his fans flooding the audience with cheers and support even before we got on stage, it was damned near impossibly not to be moved. Yeah, it was Neil's night, righty so. And he proved he's an awesome verbal storyteller too.. and sure, i was proud for the small role I played in the book. Towards the end of the panel, I got kinda of flustered and started to ramble, but I thanks to Neil's graceful assurance that I was helpful in bring the Sandman to life. .... hopefully I didn't make too big a fool of myself.

    I would suggest clicking through for the pictures, video, and the rest of the text, too, but Keith accidentally deleted the blog entry. Google cached it in the meantime.

  • Want to think about comic storytelling in a new way? Check out Sarah Horrocks' explanation of the emcee panel type, using some pages from "Blade of the Immortal" as colorful reference. It's an interesting way to think about storytelling.

  • Likewise, Tom Scioli's takedown of bad comics coloring in the modern age is a great read. You can't look at those "Conan" reprint pages side by side and not see how much flatter the dynamic range of coloring has become in comics today. Everything blurs together. Putting aside the coloring errors -- those things happen in every age -- and some of Scioli's phrasing that left him open to counter-arguments that tried to invalidate everything he wrote for one bad turn of phrase (welcome to the internet, Tom!), it's true that a lot of comics coloring today tries too hard to be "realistic" in lieu of making the comic more readable and the storytelling more solid. Gradients don't even bother me as much as the incessant sameness of coloring that leave backgrounds and foregrounds without differentiation except by the thickness of the ink line. It's why great colorists like Dave Stewart, John Rauch, Jordie Bellaire, Laura Martin, and Matt Hollingsworth are such treasures to comics today.
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TAGS:  pipeline, wolverine, chris claremont, frank miller

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