Chris Claremont and Frank Miller (story)
Frank Miller (art)
The first line of this book has become iconic: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” And the lead character, Wolverine, has become just as iconic.
He first appeared as a throw-away Hulk villain in ’75, and shortly thereafter Len Wein, the writer of Hulk #’s 181-182, used him again in Giant Sized X-Men when he created the new, international X-Men line-up. Immediately thereafter Chris Claremont took over writing X-Men and stayed on the book for the next 16 years. Between ’75 and ’80, Wolverine remained a supporting character. He was an angry, anti-authoritarian, anti-social jerk who all the other X-Men were sort of scared of… but he was also kind of a dead-end character, and Claremont even, at one point, seriously considered killing him off. Then came issues 132 and 133, the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” and something cool happened. Wolverine briefly goes solo when all the other X-Men get captured, and he brutally kills at least four guys, and he goes from being a bad attitude to being a badass. Scott and Jean, the last of the original line-up, leave the team, and almost overnight Wolverine became more or less the star of the book. (He also gets a much better looking costume!) However, he still wasn’t a top-tier Marvel property. The 1982 Wolverine changed that. This is the book that put Wolverine on par with Spider-man and the Hulk.
Chris Claremont and Frank Miller left San Diego ComiCon and were driving together up I-5 to LA, a six hour drive. Miller was the new writer-artist on Daredevil and was already doing some cool stuff (the Elektra/Bullseye arc was just coming out), but he wasn’t yet a star talent… but Claremont really wanted to work with him on a Wolverine solo story. Miller wasn’t interested. He saw Wolverine as a one-dimensional character: a psychotic berserker. (Originally Claremont saw Wolverine as a stone killer – a black-ops type – but editor Jim Shooter objected, so Claremont and Byrne came up with the “berserker rage” concept to get around Shooter’s prohibition against killing.) However, Claremont pitched his idea to Miller that Wolverine was really a kind of “failed samurai,” and Miller became intrigued. They had just recently introduced a Japanese back-story for the character. John Byrne, when he was co-plotting X-Men, had read James Clavell’s Shogun and was inspired to create Wolverine’s Japanese love interest, Mariko. She was “the absolutely, impossibly unattainable vision of purity” (Byrne in Backissue magazine #4). As they drove, Miller continued playing hard-to-get, but he and Claremont continued to further develop this take on the Wolverine character – and only then did they think of a plot to build around the (newly emerging) character.
One thing they both agreed on quickly was that they wanted to “utterly destroy” Wolverine in the story, completely break him and then see if he could rise up again. After all, if your character’s power is the ability to heal, then his iconic story would be one that wounds him physically, morally and spiritually like never before. In this story, Wolverine is beaten (in a fight) and broken (spiritually), and you don’t see that often. And when later writers do that then they run the risk of looking derivative. It’s the standard dilemma of ongoing serials that last for decades. How do you hit the iconic tropes without appearing derivative? That’s why (I would argue) most of the best superhero stories were from the Silver and Bronze Ages when the characters were first emerging.
The plot summery: Wolverine travels to Japan and discovers that his girlfriend, Mariko, has married someone else at the orders of her father, Lord Shingen, who also happens to be a yakuza crime boss. Shingen tricks Wolverine into dishonoring himself before Mariko’s eyes, not once but twice. Wolverine handles the blues like any redneck would: he gets drunk and picks a bar fight with a stranger. After Wolverine has been totally demoralized, Shingen orders Yukio, a lady ninja with a death wish, to kill Wolverine – whom, instead, she falls in love with. Shingen sends the Hand, a clan of ninja assassins, after them both, and much violence ensues.
This is Wolverine’s first solo comic, and for the first time, this story really brings pathos to Wolverine’s struggle to be human and his shame over his berserker side. Wolverine was a mysterious (if rather flat) character, and this is the first time we get a full glimpse into his past as well as his motivations and his (surprising) insecurities. Yukio and Mariko represent the two sides of Wolverine: the wild beast and the honorable man, chaos and order. Prior to now, Wolverine had basically been depicted as a rude, ill-tempered redneck. So when we find him speaking perfect Japanese and learn that he can not only identify a kabuki play as being the Chushingura (the 47 Ronin) but can tell a good performance from a great one, it comes as a bit of a shock. This really made the character – who had been around for seven years at this point – complete: a failed samurai who was rough and rude on the outside but cultured, honorable, and surprisingly sensitive on the inside. Wolverine would remain with this existentialist, “am I a man or a beast” conflict for the next twenty years, but this was the story that best capitalized it – which is probably what makes this the best Wolverine story of all. Shingen’s plan to humiliate Wolverine and tear him down was specific to his character; you couldn’t take this same plot outline and swap in Iron Man or Spider-man.
Not to slight Chris Claremont, but it’s obvious how much influence Frank Miller had on this plot. By his own admission, Miller has never been strongly interested in superheroes. He prefers noir crime thrillers and ‘70’s kung-fu movies, and when he took over Daredevil he essentially turned it into a mash-up of those two genera with a superhero costume. Now, he does the same for Wolverine. The plot of this book is essentially a yakuza crime thriller – adamantium claws and healing powers are optional. There are also notes of James Bond here: Asano is in the role of the likable local expert who helps 007 before he dies, there’s a good girl and a bad girl (although generally in 007 one of them has to die), etc. Wolverine’s first person narration is pure Mike Hammer. In addition to noir narration we have all the other requisite tropes: brooding introspection, moral compromises, a tough guy hero who gets the crap kicked out of him, and a femme fatale (here, a female assassin replicating Daredevil’s Elektra). Wolverine is no longer a superhero but a noir tough guy like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow (and, later, Harry Dresden) who gets used, manipulated, beat-up and beat-down, but stays morally superior, tough, and never gives up, and somehow muddles through by sheer chutzpah and stubbornness.
Timing is everything, and this book was right there to help launch the ninja craze of the 1980’s that was pervasive throughout my childhood. This book came out right along with of Sam Firstenberg’s movie trilogy: Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) (I remember watching that on home video endlessly when I was 10, then I’d go outside and practice throwing shuriken into trees), and Ninja III (’84). In the 1980’s you could make anything ten times cooler by slapping “ninja” on it. G.I.Joe’s Snake-eyes got the ninja re-boot not long after Wolverine did.
Miller had just introduced the Hand in Daredevil the same year the Wolverine limited series came out: an order of ninja assassins founded in the 1500’s who serve a Japanese demon and are masters of both martial and occult arts. Spooky! The weird thing is, however, that while we are repeatedly told that the Hand are the best assassins on the planet (“the finest killers on Earth, each the equal of a dozen ordinary men”), they really seem to function as the one-hit-dice goblins of the Marvel Universe. They just try to overwhelm by numbers but (at least if you are Wolverine) can be cut down by the bushel. The opening of part 2 is classic: Wolverine wakes up to find (if I count swords) ten ninjas in his bedroom. Pages 2 and 3 make an epic double-page splash panel (pictured above) of Wolverine shoving four ninjas out the window… where another fourteen ninjas are shown crowding the rooftops. On page 4 we finally get the title page as Wolverine jumps through a swarm of arrows – indicating there must be about fifty archers on those roofs! (With bad aim, because not a single arrow finds its mark… although later there is a nod to Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood when Wolverine gets shot with a dozen arrows.)
Miller helped shape a lot of the story, but the writing is classic Chris Claremont – for good and bad. Claremont’s descriptions are always great, he sets a wonderful mood, and he gets Wolverine’s tough-guy narration pitch perfect… but he also over-explains, recaps the last issue in some heavy-handed ways, and occasionally breaks the cardinal rule against having the caption narrate exactly what we can see in the picture.
As I said, Miller had just started writing Daredevil when this came out, so it was really this book that put him on the map. His art in Daredevil was fine but nothing outstanding. Here, his eloquent layouts are more influenced by the Japanese manga he loved so much (and were virtually unknown in America in 1982); in particular Goseki Kojima’s fantastic Lone Wolf and Cub was an acknowledged influence on Wolverine the series and Wolverine the character. Wolverine made Miller a star talent and both Marvel and DC were like, “What would you like to do? Pick any character you want.” However, Frank Miller (along with Neil Adams, Scott McCloud, Dave Sim, and Wendy and Richard Peni) was part of the strong push for creator rights going on at that time, so he surprised everyone by turning down Marvel and DC’s carte blanche to do a creator-owned, indy comic called Ronin about a Japanese samurai. Score one for “follow your bliss.”
I can’t judge this book objectively because I have too much nostalgia around it. When I was 12, I re-read this book a half-dozen times. It was my favorite comic for several years. However, this is classic Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, and that says a lot. This is also usually pointed to as the best Wolverine story in comics, and that also says a lot. I think it really is Wolverine’s best because (1) it’s him at his most vulnerable, (2) it gives us a new side to the character that we hadn’t seen before, (3) as mentioned above, you have two of the best talents of the 1980’s collaborating, and (4) this is the book that put both Frank Miller and Wolverine on the map. So this is probably the “if you only read one Wolverine” book, and, unsurprisingly, it was the major influence behind the movie The Wolverine.