Given the media attention Wolverine has received this month, it’s probably safe to assume everyone’s heard some version of his real-world origin by this point. He was created by writer Len Wein, designed by John Romita Sr., first drawn in a story by Herb Trimpe and first used as an adversary in a 1974 issue of The Incredible Hulk. He was given new life, and his incredible popularity by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, during the seminal X-Men run that began in 1975′s Giant Size X-Men #1.
I imagine that a lot of readers have also encountered some theories as to what it was exactly that made Wolverine so popular, to the point where his popularity has only increased as the years have passed. Is it the fact that he has knives that pop out of his hands? Is it the haircut and sideburns? The mysterious origin? The fact that he says “bub” a lot? His Canadian-ness?
I don’t know, nor do I think anyone knows for sure, or else DC and Marvel would be pumping out a lot more new Wolveirnes (Actually, Marvel has tried just that, given variations of his origins, attitude and hand-knives to more and more characters, most notably in X-2, a teenage girl version of Wolverine, and Daken, the son of Wolverine soon to appear in a title called—no joke?—Dark Wolverine).
But of the theories I’ve encountered in my own cursory reading of whatever comic book and superhero news my Google News alerts deposit in my email each morning, I think a particularly convincing one is that Wolverine stood out—and continues to stand out—because of how sharply he contrasted with the other characters in the X-Men. The character may not have been a team player, but he was also on a team for a good decade before he started spinning-off more and more (Hang on, I’ll get to Wolverine: Prodigal Son eventually, I swear).
All heroes should stand out as different from the rest of the characters in a story in some way shape or form, but Wolverine stood out from the rest of heroes in the stories he was in, by virtue of being more troubled, more haunted, more violent and more willing to just totally kill someone if he has too. (This specialness has worn off completely in Marvel comics, now that Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and Spider-Man are perfectly okay with exterminating alien invaders and one of the half-dozen team books Wolverine appears in is X-Force, the premise of which is a whole X-Men team made up of nothing but Wolverines. But the character’s appeal as The Least Boring One on the team is certainly on display throughout the first three films).
I wonder then if rather than appearing as an X-person, if Claremont and Cockrum or Byrne had introduced the character as a solo star in a 1975 Wolverine #1 if he would have ultimately been as popular as he turned out being. Like, if he didn’t spend a few years butting heads with Cyclops and calling Jeanie “darlin’” and Nightcrawler “Elf” and being fastball-special-ed by Colossus and threatening to skewer his enemies allies in berserker rages and getting swept up in mutantkind’s melodrama, would he currently be in a movie, and starring in four ongoing comic books with the word “Wolverine” in the title, in addition to all his X-Men and Avengers titles?
I don’t have an answer of course, it’s just something I’m wondering about, having just finished reading the first volume of Wolverine: Prodigal Son, the first of the Del Rey books re-imagining Marvel’s X-Men characters as manga-style characters in original manga-style stories.
It’s not very good.
I don’t know that it has much to do with not doing the character justice or anything like that; I’ve read far more terrible Wolverine stories than good ones over the years, and in the very best ones tend to be where he’s part of a larger ensemble cast. As is the case with any (well, most) other character(s), there’s little that’s inherently good or bad about the character of Wolverine, and writer Antony Johnson and artist Wilson Tortosa keep many of the design and story elements that seem to be rather integral parts of the character.
He’s got the hair and sideburns (with Tortosa drawing it so so that he has an almost Inu-Yasha-like, canine ear shape to it from certain angles). He’s got the claws (although they’re bone instead of metal), as well as the heightened senses, the healing factor, and the propensity toward berserker rages. He has a mysterious past that’s so mysterious even he doesn’t know about it, and he hangs out in the snowy wilderness of Canada.
That seems to be more than enough to keep Wolverine Wolverine, doesn’t it? Especially considering that this is a continuity-free, do-over sort of take on the character, similar to what we’ve seen in Ultimate X-Men, or the X-Men movies and cartoons, or Marvel’s previous, in-house attempts at manga versions of the character.
And yet nothing about the book seems quite right. There’s enough Wolverine-ly details that the lead character is recognizably a teenage version of the familiar character, but so many of the trappings have been changed, along no discernable rationale (beyond, perhaps keeping the book free of other Marvel copyrighted characters for exploitation elsewhere) and certainly not changed to anything better.
So this Wolverine is a teenager who lives and trains in the martial arts at a dojo named Quiet Earth , situated deep in the Canadian wilderness and full of other kids his age who are also training in the martial arts. He arrived there as a little orphaned boy, seemingly left on the doorstep by an actual wolverine (which, by the way, is awesome), and raised by the head teacher and trainer Mr. Elliott , who is also the father of Tamara, the girl who is Wolverine’s closest friend, greatest ally and closest rival in the being-real-good-at-martial arts department.
This Wolvie has a best friend named Jack, whose personality consists of Being A Fat Guy Who Will Get Killed To Motivate Wolverine, and there’s a mean kid at school named Vincent who looks vaguely like X-Men the movie Sabretooth. (There are a couple other characters who look vaguely like Gambit and Rogue, but they don’t live long either).
Wolvie’s feeling a little blue though, as it’s close to graduation, and he’s not sure what to do with his life, since he’s never been away from the dojo. Elliott takes him on a trip to New York City, but there they are attacked by a bunch of ninjas led by a woman with psychic powers who capture Elliott. He commands Wolverine to return to the compound, and when he does he finds that the ninja people have killed everyone there (except Tamara) and burned it to the ground.
And that’s pretty much the first volume.
Johnston’s plot is pretty basic, constituting the first, say, twenty minutes of a kung fu movie, in which we meet the hero and he finds all his loved ones dead, and must then seek revenge throughout the rest of the movie. It’s not terrible, it’s just completely generic, and without any wit, sense of humor, twist, innovation or self-awareness to make the generic-ness more palatable. (Unless you count Teen Wolverine being in it as an innovation, perhaps?)
Tortosa’s art is quite strong, resembling that of authentic Japanese manga, although beyond the lead character, the evil lady and dressing the ninjas more like Naruto characters than pajama-and-ski mask one’s from ’80s movies, there’s not a whole lot of remarkable, manga-inspired design.
Visually, the “manga” aspect seems to have more to do with the format style (small black and white digest) than anything specific to the design sensibility or the storytelling, which is another perplexing aspect. Wolverine’s not so much reinvented as a manga character as reinvented as the same character and then plugged into a boring, generic story, that is then drawn in a manga-version of a standard Western superhero story.
I would have a hard time recommending this to anyone, even hardcore Wolverine fans or regular manga readers interested in seeing how a manga version of a popular American super-character might work out, which is a fact I find kind of disappointing, as this seemed like a good opportunity to introduce the character to a new audience. Er, not that Wolverine really needs to get any more popular than he already is.