Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2002
Artist: Andy Kubert
Writer: Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins
Collects: Wolverine: The Origin #1-6
Wolverine was created by Len Wein in the pages of the Incredible Hulk; when Wein helped overhaul the X-Men in the late 1970s, he made the Canadian Wolverine one of the founding members of the new, multi-national team. Nowadays the X-Men franchise (with various spin-off titles) is the backbone of Marvel comics, and Wolverine has his own title, was heavily featured in the X-Men movie, and is arguably the company's most popular character not created by Stan Lee in the 1960s. All this, without having an origin story.
Calling on my scattered memory of Wolverine stories, one of his superpowers is that he ages slowly, meaning his true age is unknown. He also has no memory of his early years, his recollections beginning when he was a wild man living in the wilds of Canada, being befriended by James Hudson, founder of Alpha Flight. I think that's the basics, though some of that may have been changed over the years. Heck, in Wolverine's first solo mini-series, he refers to knowing who his father was...but that's no longer supposed to be true. Wolverine has learned various things about his past, but never his very beginnings.
Now Marvel tries to answer that. However, this isn't just meant to be a super hero adventure, but literature in a sequential art form. Even the minimalist title -- Origin -- is grandiose, as if there can only be one character in all comicdom that it's about (although inside the full title is Wolverine: Origin). In some of the accompanying commentaries, it's claimed Marvel decided to tackle the story -- and risk ruining the character's mystique -- because it was a risk, to send a message that the old Marvel, after years of seeming too staid, was back. Another motive was that with the X-Men movie franchise in full swing, they wanted to provide an official origin before Hollywood beat them to it. That latter explanation, though more mercenary, sounds a tad more plausible than the first.
The result is quite promising at first, ambitious and audacious, but not an unqualified success.
Instead of four-color fisticuffs, Origin begins as if it's a superhero origin as written by, say, one of the Bronte sisters. It begins on a wealthy estate in the 19th Century, as young Rose comes to join the household staff. In true gothic style, there are brooding undercurrents and family secrets. An unlikely three-way friendship is formed between Rose, the sickly son of the master of the estate, and the rough and tumble son of the gardener. There's little action in the first part, but plenty to keep one's interest in the various characters, and a certain complexity applied to many of them. Particularly the gardener's son who, abused by his father, is a tragic figure, both hero and villain. Eventually things come to a head, and Rose and the boy- who-will-be-Wolverine flee, finding work in a remote mining camp and the literary inspiration seems to shift from Bronte to Jack London.
Up to this point, it's pretty effective, even if it seems too self- conscious of its reach for greatness. And it delivers a particularly nice mid- story twist. Adam Kubert's art is unusually evocative of his father, Joe Kubert -- and that's a compliment. The senior Kubert being precisely the sort of artist who would suit this non-superhero superhero story. Blended with the pseudo-painted coloring, the story is visually atmospheric, evoking equal parts gothic melodrama and Tom Sawyer, with the children protagonists particularly well rendered, and lots of scenes of constricted beams of light stabbing into dark rooms, as if trying, and failing, to illuminate the secrets.
Like a lot of American depictions of Canada, it's unclear how familiar Jenkins and company are with their northern neighbor. I can't claim to be an expert on late 19th Century Canada, but the early part of the story is so clearly modelled after a British milieu in dialect and class conflict, that it's a surprise when, later, the reader learns it was Alberta all along (I could maybe easier believe it as 19th Century Ontario). It's a pleasant surprise, though. Given that Wolverine is one of the most famous "Canadian" characters in pop culture, it's nice Marvel decided to keep him that way (as opposed to having him be English or American by birth).
Unfortunately, when the story hits the mining camp, it loses some of its impetus. The characterization isn't as complex, or unexpected -- Wolverine incites the ire of a local bully whose motivation is that, well, he's the local bully. And the plot loses much drive -- it's not entirely clear what we're waiting for. The problem with telling Wolverine's "origin" is: what constitutes his origin? Being born with latent powers, we're not waiting to see how he becomes Wolverine. And though we're waiting to see how he ends up a wild man in the woods, it's not really that gripping a question. Wolverine already demonstrates feral leanings, running with a wolf pack. So, although something does sever his ties with civilization, there's a sense it would've happened regardless.
Characterization also is uneven, as often seems to be the case with modern comics that think they're sophisticated, but put the trappings of sophistication before the substance. The story is narrated by Rose in her diary, but Wolverine is often depicted in a hands off way, without Jenkins putting us into his head with words, and the relationship between the two is not totally developed. Early on we assume Wolverine will fall for Rose -- her red hair foreshadowing his later infatuation with fellow X-Man, Jean Grey. But as the story progresses, nothing is really developed beyond the platonic, so that when Wolverine belatedly announces he always figured they'd end up together...it, frankly, comes out of nowhere. If love, requited and/or unrequited, was going to be part of the story, Jenkins needed to give it more focus.
Another curious thing is how oblique the first few chapters are. Although one can infer relationships and attribute significance to certain things, and guess Wolverine’s biological father isn't who he thinks he is, it's never stated out right. One expects everything to be articulated by the end...but it isn't. On one hand, that can make the story seem sophisticated, making the reader work for the answers. On the other, one can't help wonder how many readers might finish the book, never putting two and two together.
Ultimately, there's a feeling the writers put most of their effort into the first half, with its unexpected character developments and, as noted, a clever twist. But the last half just trundles ahead in an unsurprising way that, frankly, could've been told in half the number of pages.
A frustrating aside is that one of the commentaries refers to "extras" in the collection, including descriptions of alternate story proposals. But that isn't here -- I assume that was only in the hardcover version. I can't decide if Marvel left them out of this softcover collection as a bonus for people who bought the expensive hardcover...or to thumb their nose at people on a budget who buy the softcover. Either way, it's disappointing.
In the end, Origin does smack, at times, of an audacious undertaking, a risky attempt to tell Wolverine's origin, not as an action-adventure piece, but as something akin to literature. It's moody and involved...but loses its drive before the end, becoming prosaic and conventional. Ultimately, the "greatest story never told" (as the tag line for the book goes) becomes decent rather than great. It will be curious to see how this impacts on later Wolverine stories since the reader now knows his beginnings, but he remains ignorant. Enough characters connected to him remain around at the end, that it wouldn't be hard for someone to work this in to later stories, or have Wolverine encounter the grandchild of someone here.