Book Marx: Wolverine: Enemy of the State

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It began quietly, sadly, with a teenage girl saying, “Mean Man, were you ever lonely? Were you ever scared? Me, I’m scared all the time. Lonely all the time. Or maybe just alone. It makes you desperate.”

When Marvel decided to restart the long-running “Wolverine” series, the first story was a five-part arc titled “Brotherhood”. With moody artwork by Darick Robertson and Tom Palmer and a strong, character-driven story by Greg Rucka, the reboot should have been a huge success. Instead, it was unmemorable, a well-intentioned attempt that failed to capture the excitement of Wolverine as both a character and a series.

Maybe it was the covers. Esad Ribic is a phenomenal artist, but having him paint artwork for Wolverine is like asking Alex Ross to animate a “Simpsons” episode. It’s overkill, and it’s an awkward fit. Esad makes Logan look so pensive and despondent you want to give the poor guy a hug. When I look at a Wolverine comic book, I want to feel exhilarated, not suicidal.

Maybe it was the pacing. As proven in the execrable “X-Isle” miniseries written by Bruce Jones, Wolverine is not someone that works well in psychological melodramas. With Marvel’s tendency to have writers make a two-issue plot stretch out to a five-issue arc, “Brotherhood” ended up being a languid, smudged watercolor of a story.

Brian Michael Bendis, the patron saint of the 14-page conversation, can usually pull off the boring “Look Ma, no action!” stories that have become so common recently, but Greg Rucka can’t. I’m glad. I genuinely like most of what Brian Michael writes, but one Bendis is more than enough. Let Rucka be Rucka!

Maybe it was the premise. Comic books, and specifically superhero comic books, have started obsessing over realism. I am not the first one to point out how ridiculous the idea is. People don’t read “Superman” or “Incredible Hulk” because they’re looking for insights into their own lives. They’re not paying to watch real-world problems solved by blue-skinned shape-shifters and cape-wearing vigilantes. So why would someone use Wolverine, one of the greatest characters of all time, to fight religious cults and illegal immigration? Superheroes need super-villains. If readers want realism, they can turn to CNN.

Maybe it was the lack of action. For those people who love to see someone brooding, the WB line-up features television shows overflowing with guys and girls brooding non-stop for your viewing pleasure. Come up with any scenario you like, it doesn’t matter. Someone in Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Smallville, Star’s Hollow or One Tree is currently brooding about it, is planning to brood about it soon, or has brooded about it extensively at some point in the past.

Powerful characters are supposed to do powerful things, not spend sixteen pages moping with other powerful characters in a bar somewhere. I don’t want to pay to watch someone brood unless there’s a pretty cast and an awesome soundtrack involved. And even then, I want some clever banter, damn it.

“Wolverine” should be about action, about claws, about blood and guts and nobility and loss and tragedy and honor. As a general rule of thumb, a Wolverine story should never begin with twenty-two pages of a teenage girl saying quiet and sad things. A Wolverine story should never feature an issue-long conversation between Logan and Kurt that gives us bad dialogue like, “Self-loathing does not become you, Logan.”

With all due respect, these are comic books, not after-school specials. If Marvel is going to ask someone to spend more on a 22-page cartoon than they do on a gallon of gasoline, the least they can do is make it worth the price.

Because Greg Rucka is a good writer - even when telling stories that move at the speed of dirt - I read the first “Wolverine” collection and enjoyed it. I also liked “Coyote Crossing” for the most part, although both books suffered from being seriously padded. But they never felt like true Wolverine stories to me. “Wolverine” should move like a summer blockbuster, not a Martina McBride ballad.

At the risk of offending his fans, by the time the third TPB was released, I was more than happy to learn that Rucka had been signed to a three-year exclusive with DC. I have tried three times now to read “Return of the Native”, and so far I haven’t made it past the second issue. I shouldn’t have to work so hard to enjoy a Wolverine story.

Fortunately, there’s Mark Millar. I would have a hard time thinking of any Millar story I’ve ever disliked. I loved him on “Authority”, got seriously upset when he decided to stop writing “Ultimate X-Men” (although I feel somewhat better now that Brian K. Vaughan is writing the series), and think “Ultimates” is awesome. In my opinion, “Chosen” is his crowning achievement, but it excites me to no end that I always add “so far” as a qualifier when I say that out loud.

I fully believe that we haven’t begun to see the wonders that Millar will be revealing for us in future days. So I was overjoyed to find out that Millar would be taking over the reins of “Wolverine” for twelve issues. I just hope he likes it enough to add another year to the contract.

I understand Millar has his critics. Hopefully, those critics will receive the psychiatric attention they so desperately need, and the world will be a much better place. As for me, “Make Mine Mark”.

“Wolverine: Enemy of the State” opens quietly and sadly, with a chauffeur watching his ten-year-old son play in a baseball game with his rich employer’s son. “Ichiro got a kick out of seeing how little money matters when you’re ten years old. When having a ball and a baseball mitt was enough to make two kids best friends for an entire afternoon.”

Then the boy is kidnapped before his father’s eyes. With a ransom he cannot pay (the criminals snatched the wrong kid and are demanding ten million dollars), Ichiro and his wife slowly begin their descent into hell, ignored by the police, forgotten by the rest of the world, clutching in vain to the hope that someone can save them.

Cue Wolverine’s entrance. On page three. In Millar World, the hero of the comic book actually shows up in the first three pages, ready to kick serious butt. It’s a radical notion for comic books, but it works like a dream.

In some ways, the set-up for “Enemy” is similar to the opening sequence of “Brotherhood”. But Millar doesn’t spend an entire issue on foreplay. In two pages, we learn everything we need to know about Ichiro, his son, and the value Japan (like almost every country) places on the poor. By page six, we’re wading in green blood, watching Wolverine battle an army of undead Ninjas.

These aren’t the “Walk faster, there are zombies following us!” variety that Romero made famous, though. These are the “28 Days Later” demons, the ones that helped make the first ten minutes of the “Dawn of the Dead” remake one of the scariest scenes ever filmed. You’ve got hundreds of zombie Ninjas everywhere you turn, dressed to the teeth in shiny weapons and nasty toys. Limbs fly into the air like confetti, monsters are slammed into headstones, and while there is no accompanying soundtrack pounding through your stereo, it’s not for lack of trying.

Then you get to witness one of the best murders ever shown in a comic book. Wolverine’s questioning the last remaining kidnapper when suddenly the man starts to gurgle. “Nobody’s that fast,” Wolverine thinks. The scene pulls away to show that someone has plunged a six-foot blade through Wolverine, the kidnapper, and even the gravestone behind them. One of the coolest panels since Frank Miller’s astonishing “Ronin” finale, and we’re only halfway through the first issue.

Let me say that again for everyone who’s lost hope that comic books can ever be exciting again. There’s a six-foot blade that’s been shoved through Wolverine, impaling the criminal before he can reveal anything, and sticking out from the back of a tombstone like a middle finger. And we’re only halfway through the first issue.

Millar isn’t only a fantastic action writer, though. He can write some pretty intense scenes even when no one is getting beheaded or eviscerated. There’s a two-page scene with Ichiro and his wife talking to Kitty Pryde in which the phrase “a box of eggs and a basket of cookies” manages to reveal the raw depths of a mother’s loss while also being a stinging condemnation of upper-class apathy. Is that impressive or what?

And then there’s the nurse.

What if Wolverine was eventually found, suffering from burns covering 99% of his body? What if he was bandaged from head to foot, imprisoned like a mummy, while a beautiful woman flirted with him? “Don’t you remember me? I’m insulted. Three or four years back? The Scorpio mission?” While she’s talking, you can watch Wolverine carefully plan her murder, pinpointing the places that will maximize the damage while minimizing the time it will take her to die.

“I always liked that costume,” the sexy nurse says, referring to Wolverine’s classic yellow and black uniform. Meanwhile, Wolverine is screaming, “Stay away from me, lady. Please. Don’t do this. There’s something really wrong with me right now. Something isn’t right here...” Unfortunately, his vocal chords haven’t healed yet, so his cries are only in his mind.

What if you are forced to watch while a sweet woman that only wants to help Wolverine (and jump his bones once he recovers) is skewered with impossibly sharp claws? Even as she’s dying, the expression on her face is clear: she refuses to believe she’s been murdered by one of the good guys. It’s not the way things are supposed to happen.

I love Mark Millar’s joy in creating tense scenes that take it to the edge and beyond. He refuses to back off or play nice like most writers. He also has a difficult time giving readers anything less than their money’s worth and more. In the immortal words of Gandhi, “Millar rocks!”

And we haven’t even reached the end of the first issue yet.

If you’ve read any of the hype, you know Wolverine battles the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Daredevil, Captain America, and pretty much everyone else that gets in his way. You know there will be death, betrayal, non-stop action, and a lot of kick-ass fight scenes. You know that John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson provide great artwork, making this as incredible to look at as it is to read. You might even know that an X-Man dies (I’ll give you a hint - the victim is a mutant).

Don’t let the hype scare you away. “Wolverine” isn’t a series that needs a lot of publicity. It just needs to be done right. And damned if Mark Millar doesn’t do it better than right. In one issue, he accomplishes more than most writers do in years. In six issues, he manages to make this particular arc one of the best superhero stories since Stan Lee thought a boy bitten by a spider might make an interesting tale.

I’m sure I’ll eventually get tired of this book, after reading it twenty or thirty times. But by then, the second volume of Millar’s “Wolverine” should be out, so I’ll risk it. I don’t mind slow-paced character studies like “Alias” or “Daredevil”. In fact, I enjoy them a lot (I’m still sad that “Alias” was replaced by the vastly inferior “Pulse” series, to be honest). But when it comes to Wolverine, I want action. I want excitement. I want speed.

And man, does Mark Millar deliver.

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