Wolverine
Wolverine
Medium: comic
Year: 1982
Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciller: Frank Miller
Inker: Joe Rubinstein
Keywords: superhero
Series: Wolverine >>
Format: Four 22-page issues
Website category: Comics
Review date: 25 October 2021
Marvel has released lots of Wolverine books, but this was the first. (He'd first appeared in The Incredible Hulk in 1974, as a baddie, but this was the first time he'd got a book of his own. This was also only Marvel's second ever limited series.) For what it's worth, I only own the original 1982 limited series and not the collection that also includes the story's sequel episodes in Uncanny X-Men #172-173. Anyway, this is one of Wolverine's most iconic stories, loosely adapted into the 2013 live-action film. Claremont was then in the middle of his epic 17-year run on X-Men, while Miller was the star writer-artist of Daredevil. (Technically, he's only credited as the penciller, but he and Claremont plotted this out together in the car while returning from the San Diego Comic Convention.)
This was a transitional book for Wolverine. Previously, he'd been a psychotic human bomb, liable to turn berserker and attack friends and foes alike. (Both readers and comics creators complained that this mini-series took away a lot of his edge.) He wasn't yet, though, the overused immortal he is today. His regeneration powers don't make him unkillable. This is a Wolverine who's at risk against ordinary ninjas. (In other words, he's worth reading about.)
This story also makes him a Japan-o-phile, having lived and worked there for years and fallen in love with an aristocratic lady called Mariko Yashida. He speaks the language (and can be almost jarringly polite in it on the phone). He knows the difference between good and bad kabuki. Of all the things in this book, that surprised me. Claremont's writing the character as a failed samurai, in search of inner calm and control even though he's... well, Wolverine. This is a solid approach. It's a character-based approach to storytelling. Logan's trying to win back Mariko, which is a curse for someone with a whole bunch of Wolverine-like traits that he really, really doesn't want to unleash in front of her.
This is a counter-intuitive but interesting approach to the character. Wolverine is rude, macho and talks like a snarling Clint Eastwood (which ameliorates Claremont's dialogue overload). This is absolutely not Japanese. To me, he's always felt far more American than most superheroes. (Well, technically Canadian.) He feels blue-collar. His natural home is a dirty downtown bar of people who'd punch you in the face. He doesn't fit into civilisation... but he's not a cowboy either. He doesn't use guns. He's an animal, with claws. He gets up close when he kills you. You could argue that the gunlessness makes him closer to an Akira Kurosawa jidaigeki than he is to the westerns that Kurosawa inspired, although the culture clash would have been deafening.
There's nothing wrong with culture clash, though. Here, that's the point.
"Of course, Logan, you are more truly Japanese than any Westerner I have ever known... but I doubt even you can really understand Mariko's actions."
So, how's the story's portrayal of Japan? It's a lot like Claremont's later Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series, unsurprisingly, which is a semi-sequel to this. They're both extremely respectful and give a lot of flavour, although Frank Miller's a better artist than Al Milgrom. I particularly like how Miller draws Japanese faces, which is dramatic while avoiding visual cliches. I appreciate the occasional bit of Japanese language in the dialogue, which is usually correct, but it's not without glitches.
(a) it's "hai", not "hei". That one got annoying.
(b) that goddess's name is Amaterasu, not Amatersu (and no one believes in her anyway).
(c) it's "bokken", not "bokan". (Or, if the sword's made of bamboo, a "shinai".)
(d) you'll have to shut your eyes to vowel length, which is okay (ish) since this is a Marvel superhero comic book, not a language textbook... but then "douzo" gets written as "dozo" with a horizontal line above the first "o". Oh, come off it. That's correct in isolation, but crazy in the context of everything else. Either do vowel length or don't.
(e) "Yukio" is still a boy's name. Bloody hell. Why doesn't Wolverine laugh when she says her name? I gave Claremont a half-pass on that when I was reviewing Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, but this is the character's first appearance and so full responsibility lives here. (How about this for a fan theory? Yukio was actually born male and had sex-change surgery.)
The book's good, obviously. It's doing thoughtful, logical things with Wolverine's characterisation, giving the character a reason to struggle against his own savagery. No reboots required. Claremont uses the Hand from Daredevil, although not their mystical powers. Frank Miller's obviously a star name, but I have a lot of respect for Claremont too. This isn't a medium-changing story like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, but, for its title character, it was revolutionary.