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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Wolverine By Paul Cornell and Alan Davis, Superhero Comic of the Year

This is the year where I finally put my money where my mouth is and drifted away from mainstream superhero comics. It wasn't because the books were offensively bad, just that most of them weren't really going anywhere that wasn't permitted by the dual demands of movie licensing and comics continuity. One of the comics that got around those and remained consistently memorable, however, was the new Wolverine book by Paul Cornell and artist Alan Davis.

On the surface, one could say that this was another case of a comic being an adaptation of its own adaptation, since the big hook for Cornell's story is Logan losing his healing factor and becoming Killable-- the thing that happened in the Wolverine movie, which I still have yet to see. However, Cornell has done exemplary work showing us how Wolverine is adapting-- or not adapting, rather-- with his newfound mortality. Without a mutant regeneration ability that can cure him of every ailment conceivable, from being drunk to being hit with Little Boy *, the list of new problems that Logan must face are endless. In the very first issue after a sentient virus burns out his healing factor, Logan realizes that he has to be careful with EVERYTHING-- he even considers buying a practice shaving razor, as his previous shaving techniques were much rougher. Logan is unparalleled at ignoring pain, but that's because pain is the body's signal that something is wrong, and there used to be nothing that Logan's magic healing flesh couldn't fix. Now he has to worry about not only normal human injuries, ailments, intoxications, and all-around mortality, but he also has to deal with the added disabilities of his other powers.

 Immediately after Logan is diagnosed as "mortal" by Hank McCoy, he's prescribed a drug to counteract the heavy metal poisoning of his adamantium skeleton, which would otherwise kill him rather quickly. The metal skeleton may be unbreakable, but it also makes him vulnerable to electro-magnetic attacks, and early issues imply that Logan's torn up his own ligaments against his metal bones in past berserker rages (just that he didn't notice because he immediately healed up). He can't use his claws without bleeding a lot, making his primary weapon a double-edged sword. And his heightened senses also make him more vulnerable to sensory attacks-- as seen when he's drugged by some ninja enemies, and starts tripping even harder than an ordinary man.

This is why the book has become so intense, even if Logan gets his healing factor back-- we finally see the character as VULNERABLE. There have been other stories where Wolverine has lost his powers**, but they haven't been nearly as brutal in showing Logan's emotional responses. Even his legendary stoicism is challenged, as everything Logan used to rely on to do his job is compromised, and he has to live his life with caution. If that weren't enough, his enemies are aware of his newfound mortality, and are using it to toy with Logan's emotional weaknesses as well as his physical ones. Mystique slips into his bedroom unnoticed to steal an heirloom sword, making it clear that she could kill him any time she wanted, but is just toying with him. Sure, Wolverine can put on a brave face and fight back, but it's becoming increasingly clear that his ability to overcome weakness with a manly man attitude has its limits. A lot of his actions now seem motivated by a desire to compensate for this and prove to others that he's still got it, such as picking a fight with the Black Panther (ex-husband of Wolverine's friend-with-benefits Storm), or going off on a quest in search of his stolen sword despite knowing it's an obvious trap.

Marvel seems to have realized how good this book is, and has heavily promoted the series' relaunch, which implies that Wolverine will become a super-villain, retraining himself by working alongside the super-powered crooks he used to turn into sashimi. The new costume is inspired by samurai armor, not just to protect Logan's weakened body, but to reflect his new mood. In this series, Logan has made several references to samurai culture, but with a more cynical edge than before; though he admires the ideal of bushido, he's sickened by the reality of the samurai culture, as mercenary dogs of the aristocracy. But that's what Logan might have to do now, if he wants to get his edge back. He could only fight his arch-enemies like Sabretooth to a standstill even when he had his healing factor, and now that he's lost such an advantage, he's got to find another way to stand up to the most despicable mass-murderers on Marvel's Earth.

The Nietzche line of "he who fights monsters" has always been a theme in Wolverine comics, as his innate brutality proves necessary to protect the innocent, but keeps him on the edge of becoming as bad as his foes. Now that Logan's lost his X-Gene crutch, he's much less stable, and may well fall off that edge. And even if he gets his healing factor back at some point, he may never atone for what he'll have to do to reclaim the level of viciousness needed to defeat Sabretooth.

This has been an excellent comic, and everything I look for in a Marvel book. Paul Cornell is superb at making Wolverine a sympathetic character, and the story is gripping from issue to issue. The art by Alan Davis needs to introduction, as Davis is unquestionably one of comics' legends. But the fill-in issues by Mirco Pierfederici were surprisingly good, even under Davis' shadow; he did a great job selling Wolverine's newfound vulnerability, as he finally is able to get drunk and ends up in a disarmingly weepy state. And new artist Ryan Stegman looks like he'll do another great job, fresh off his "Superior"*** work on Superior Spider-Man. I actually look forward to where this book goes next. You should too.

* From the Marvel Knights Logan series, by Brian K. Vaughan and Eduardo Risso. Wolverine was apparently at ground zero when Hiroshima was bombed, fighting against Imperial Japan and getting laid for the first time. Logan explicitly mentions the parallels between losing his virginity and entering the atomic age. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
** Most notably in Larry Hama's epic run on Wolverine, in which his healing factor is burnt out by the strain of Magneto tearing out all the adamantium. This is unfortunately undercut by the fact that, after a year of being vulnerable and having to rely on bone claws, Logan's healing factor overclocks and turns him into a feral brute whose noseless face is covered by a pirate mask and has huge wads of forearm hair. Again, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.
*** Too easy, I know

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