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Wolverine Graphic Novel and TPB Reviews ~ Page Three
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coverWolverine: First Class - From Russia, With Love 2008 (SC TPB) 168 pages

Written by Fred Van Lente, Chris Claremont. Pencils by Clayton Henry, Salva Espin, Steve Cummings, John Byrne. Inks Vicente Cifuentes, Terry Austin.
Colours/letters: various. Mark Paniccia, Louise Jones.

Reprinting: Wolverine: First Class #5-8, The Uncanny X-Men #139-140 (2008, 1980)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

I don't have this TPB, merely the issues it reprints. As such, I can't be sure of its contents. All the ads for it mention the issues I've listed above -- but an actual review I read of it seemed to indicate it also reprinted Wolverine & Power Pack #1.

Comics these days seem to be fracturing off in various directions, as the big two -- Marvel and DC -- seem both obsessively fixated on continuity, interweaving their series in cross-title epics...yet also release projects that are only peripherally canonical -- and even non-continuity altogether. Marvel has produced some "All Ages" series of Spider-Man, the Avengers, etc., marketed at younger readers that the main series were no longer really being aimed at. Then Marvel released X-Men: First Class, telling retro tales of the original X-Men. Like the "All Ages" series, it was meant to be more friendly to younger readers, with less emphasis on violence and brutality, but with its heavy helping of wit and humour, it was equally intended for adult, regular readers, too. And though playing a bit fast and loose with established wasn't entirely apocryphal, either.

Which then led to Wolverine: First Class.

A retro series set in the era of comics published in the early 1980s -- at the end of the classic Claremont/Byrne run, with Wolverine in his brown and orange suit. And though with lots of action and adventure, like with X-Men: First Class there's a lot of wit and humour in a series meant to be friendly to both youngsters and adults. And though Wolverine gets the title, it focuses on the grudging relationship between the gruff, middle age Wolverine...and the X-Men's newest recruit, perky teen, Kitty Pryde.

Now one might argue is it responsible for Marvel to take one of their grittiest, most violent characters and put him in a cleaned up, light-hearted comic, deliberately meant to be friendly to younger readers? For that matter, one focusing on Kitty Pryde -- when Kitty has been killed off in current comics? (Wolverine and Kitty had previously paired up years ago in the mini-series, Kitty Pryde & Wolverine).

But ethics aside: Wolverine: First Class is a lot of fun.

Although genuinely funny, writer Fred Van Lente keeps it on a firmer foundation of adventure-drama. Although straying occasionally into silliness, this doesn't clash with the regular X-Men comics. And partly because we have to pretend these stories could've occurred in between those comics from decades ago, the individual stories, though occasionally referencing each other, are largely self-contained. And, of course, as with other "retro" projects, there are plenty of period appropriate guest stars and team ups.

The first issue reprinted here involves members of the Canadian team, Alpha Flight, as Wolverine relates an old adventure to Kitty, while the two-parter from #7-8 involves the Russian characters, the Soviet Super Soldiers. The Alpha Flight issue is a well-paced, well told tale, mixing humour, action...and ultimately pathos. The other stand alone issue is also quite good. Skewing more toward comedy, it nonetheless squeezes a lot of plot into its 22 pages. In that regard, the two-parter involving the Soviet Super Soldiers kidnapping Kitty Pride (and fellow X-Men Colossus) with Wolverine in pursuit, is a bit weaker. It's still a perfectly good tale, but compared to the one-off plots maybe feels a bit stretched serialized over two issues (though has a hilarious line where Wolverine wakes up in mid-air).

Rounding out the collection is a vintage X-Men reprint. Featuring Kitty's first official joining of the team (after having been introduced a few issues before) the main plot has Wolverine and Nightcrawler teaming up with members of Alpha Flight to battle a monster in the Canadian wilderness. In fact, though the title of the collection highlights the Russian story, Alpha Flight is the more dominant guest stars (even if neither story features the full team) -- hence why they get the cover image.

By virtue of being set amid older X-Men comics, this has to both play on what we know...without becoming incoherent in referencing obscure stories from years ago. So the focus remains on Wolverine and Kitty. There is a big emphasis on Kitty's crush on Colossus, but in general the other X-Men barely appear...which kind of ignores the relationships that existed. It's not until reading the vintage reprint that a new reader would realize that Wolverine was friends with Nightcrawler, or Storm acted as Kitty's surrogate big sister/mother.

Wolverine has been portrayed various ways over the years, from the angry, feral wild the cool secret the brooding samurai. Here, Van Lente emphasizes another aspect: that of a gruff, working man who likes his beer...and his hockey (including knowing team stats!) Van Lente's an American, but enjoys playing up Wolverine's Canadianness both in dialogue, and in simple visuals like Wolverine wearing a T-shirt with a maple leaf on it. And though one could quibble about Van Lente's explanation of the Canadian political's still neat that he would try and explain it! Often writers make Wolverine Canadian by accident of birth (when they mention it at all)...Van Lente seems to enjoy writing him as Canadian. (I read somewhere that Van Lente has expressed interest in writing an Alpha Flight series). While his Kitty Pryde nicely captures the essence of a teen age girl, sometimes irresponsible and frivolous.

The older reprint is a particularly strong adventure, as well. Coming at the end of the Claremont/Byrne/Austin partnership, you might expect it to feel tired, but it's actually well done and well told, with some of Byrne's peak art, not just in faces and figures, but in backgrounds and the evocation of the woods. Granted I think Claremont oversells the nature of the real wolverine (the animal) -- which is, after all, just a glorified badger. This was one of Alpha Flight's earliest appearances, including featuring the first appearance of Heather!

It's an indication of what I mean about Van Lente's comedy not straying too far afield that though there's a clear shift in tone between the wit of Van Lente's scripts, and Claremont's more serious one...they don't jar next to each other, either. Even if Van Lente's Wolverine is a bit more easy going than he was probably portrayed (agreeing to help a lovesick Kitty spy on Colossus...'cause there's nothing good on TV).

And aside from the striking Byrne/Austin art, the art on the modern issues is also strong throughout...despite a different artist for each story. But all artists have a clean, realist style, a good eye for detail, and are able to juggle the drama/action with the light-hearted and whimsical.

If you're a bit maxed out on Wolverine comics as ultraviolent excesses, or feeling a bit bored by too much grim and gritty, these do a nice job of providing an alternative. Still with enough seriousness to work as adventures, even touching on deeper emotion, but with some laugh-out-loud gags and an overall feel good tone. And combined with a nice, vintage reprint, this makes for a more than agreeable romp -- and a nostalgic throwback to X-Men comics of old.

This is a review of the stories as they appeared in the original comics.

Cover price: ___.

coverWolverine: First Class - The Rookie 2008 (SC TPB) 120 pages

Written by Fred Van Lente, with Len Wein. Illustrated by Andrea Di Vito, Salva Espin, with Herb Trimpe.
Colours: Laura Villari, others. Letters: Simon Bowland, with Ed Dukeshire. Editor: Mark Paniccia.

Reprinting: Wolverine: First Class #1-4, The Incredible Hulk #181

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June 2015

The "First Class" label has been applied to a few short run X-Men comics (whether the short run was intentional, or a sales issue, I'm not sure). It kicked off with X-Men: First Class in which writer Jeff Parker presented retro tales of the first incarnation of the X-Men in often light-hearted, family-friendly (but still enjoyable for older readers) tales. It also spawned Uncanny X-Men: First Class, with writer Scot Gray presenting retro tales of the "new" X-Men (essentially the Claremont-Cockrum-Byrne era) with maybe a slightly less humorous spin (though some of that remained). As well it spawned this series -- Wolverine: First Class.

Written by Fred Van Lente it's set in the X-Men era just after Uncanny X-Men: First Class, essentially toward the end of the seminal Claremont-Byrne run. And it's not technically an "X-Men" series since, as the title indicates, it's about Wolverine, with the other X-Men simply cropping up as supporting characters. Somewhat less obviously, it equally focuses on new team mate, Kitty Pryde -- but presumably Marvel worried "Wolverine/Kitty Pryde: First Class" wouldn't sound as cool.

The idea of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde being teamed -- the ultimate in odd-ball combos -- basically got cemented in the old Kitty Pride/Wolverine mini-series.

Here Van Lente follows Parker's route of playing up the light-hearted and the humour, but with maybe a little more gravitas, a little more grounding. If Parker's First Class stories could, at times, border on being comedy, Van Lente's is maybe more a very funny drama. I had previously read the next collection in the series (reviewed above) and really enjoyed it. I recently picked up this first one -- and also got a kick out of it. I maybe didn't rate it quite as a high, but that may just say as much about the respective moods I was in when reading each, as opposed to whether it actually reflects any different quality.

But these stories are a lot of fun. The humour is funny, good for a few chuckles. But, as mentioned, Van Lente doesn't forget these are still adventure stories, so the plotting is also interesting, telling stories that hold your attention, waiting to see how it turns out. And despite the comedy, the characters generally remain people (as opposed to parodies) and there are bits of emotion and drama.

The first story has Wolverine reluctantly saddled with Kitty, investigating a mutant detected in a small town. The second re-visits an idea already established in the comics -- namely that Wolverine's arch nemesis, Sabretooth, always attacks him on his birthday (I think first portrayed in a story included in X-Men: Vignettes, vol. 1). Yet despite essentially recycling an idea that's been used before, Van Lente keeps the story from feeling too much like just an echo of an earlier tale.

Part of the point of these "First Class"/retro tales was to root the stories in their comic book eras, sometimes drawing upon ideas and guest stars from the time as part of the nostalgia, telling stories that could've been told back then, but weren't. So the collection's two-parter has Wolverine and Kitty travelling to Wundagore Mountain and getting involved with the gentle beast men who live there and their creator, The High Evolutionary -- recurring things in Marvel Comics but with whom the X-Men hadn't had any dealings at the time (I think the first time the X-Men encounter The High Evolutionary was during the Evolutionary War crossover published a few years after the era in which this story occurs).

It's an enjoyable tale, once again mixing genuine wit and humour with a story that keeps you turning the pages and some character drama. But I might quibble and say that the series works best with stand alone tales. The two parter is enjoyable but the single issue stories are maybe more punchy. I felt the same way about the next TPB collection -- and also Parker's X-Men: First Class.

The art on the series is quite effective. Both Di Vito and Espin have sufficiently similar styles that there's no drastic shift between issues. And both have a clean, realist style -- no exaggerated distortions and /or cartoony exaggerations. Both have a good eye for composition and storytelling. And yet both, despite the realism, have just enough of a light, comical touch to play to the lighter aspects, and to milk humour from expressions.

Based on what I've read of the various First Class series, Wolverine: First Class stands as the best (though I certainly enjoyed Parker's X-Men: First Class). With its mix of good-nature humour (atypical for the normally dark and violent Wolverine), bright, clean art, and yet good plotting and character moments, it goes down like lemonade on a summer's day.

Admittedly, my point about Wolverine normally being one of Marvel's most dark n' violent comics does raise a few ethical qualms about whether it makes sense to offer such a kinder, gentler take on the character (and so woo in unsuspecting readers). But that's a debate for another day.

This collection also includes the vintage Incredible Hulk #181 -- that first introduced Wolverine to the world! Well, technically the previous issue had in a final panel cliff hanger, but this was his first full story, as he and the Hulk and the monstrous Wendigo get into a three-way tussle. It's enjoyable (though probably reads best as the full two-parter). Placing old stories like this next to the new ones provides an interesting contrast. Although in some ways less sophisticated than Van Lente's modern-era writing, it still has its own punch. Indeed, precisely because it's more straight-faced, relying less on tongue-in-cheek humour, it actually has more gravitas, offering some character twists and genuine pathos by the end. It also offers a slightly different take on Wolverine -- this being before his personality and character had fully developed. Though at one point Wolvy measures a weight in "stone" which writer Len Wein presumably thought would sound more Canadian, but that's actually just a British measurement.

This is a review of the stories as they appeared in the original comics.

Cover price: ___.

cover by ChaykinWolverine / Nick Fury: The Scorpio Connection 1990 (SC GN) 64 pgs

Written by Archie Goodwin. Illustrated by Howard Chaykin.
Colours: Richard Ory, Barb Rausch. Letters: Ken Bruzenak. Editors: Gregory Wright, Mark Gruenwald.

Additional notes: tabloid dimensions.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed May 2012

The Scorpio Connection is a tabloid-sized graphic novel from the days when Marvel put out such volumes semi-regularly -- the physical size (and dimensions), use of multi-tone colours (before it was the norm in the monthly comics) and so on all meant to make such stories seem a little more special. Some featured original stories...some featured their usual canon of super heroes. This falls into the latter category, as it involves the perennially popular mutant super hero, Wolverine, and Marvel's resident super spy, Nick Fury, teaming up over a case that affects them both personally.

In running, on again/off again, skirmishes between Fury's spy agency, SHIELD, and a terrorist group called Swift Sword, a SHIELD agent, and an old friend of Wolverine's, is killed, and Wolverine comes looking for payback....meanwhile Fury discovers the terrorist assassin is calling himself Scorpio, the name used by Fury's old arch foe, long believed dead...a foe who also happened to be Fury's brother.

And this is one of those projects where it's hard to review -- indeed, where I'm beginning to question my ability to review these things! Simply because, it's not particularly bad...I just found it kind of bland and something where I'm flipping the pages more than engrossed in the action. So is that its fault...or am I just becoming too jaded?

The problem is: it all feels kind of workmanlike, where we've seen it all before.

Even the "mystery" about this new Scorpio isn't much of a mystery -- as we are told who he is and what his motive is less than 20 pages into it! He's the son of the original Scorpio, raised as an instrument of revenge by his domineering mother. Nothing exactly fresh or unusual there (or that you couldn't predict). And, of course, for a 64 page graphic novel, it means any "plot" is largely incidental...Wolverine and Fury aren't trying to uncover some Byzantine plan or anything...the villains' main goal is just to strike at the heroes! And though there is supposed to be emotional undercurrents -- they too are pretty perfunctory and generic. Fury feels guilt over the long ago death of his brother, guilt dredged up by this new Scorpio -- made worse once he knows who he is. I mean -- that's fine, but pretty basic. While Wolverine's is even more cliched: seeking revenge for the death of an old friend who once saved his life (that probably sums up the motivation in dozens of Wolverine stories). While Scorpio and his mother are never really given any fleshing out or unexpected aspects.

Howard Chaykin started out an artist, but became best known (and critically acclaimed) as a writer-artist, particularly when fully unleashed on his own projects of satire, action, and often mature subject matter -- though often running hot or cold. But here, working once more as simply an artist, his work -- like Archie Goodwin's script -- is certainly not bad...but not fully great, either. Some scenes and panels are good -- some seem stiff, the figures clumsily sketched. The stylish and eclectic composition he uses on his own stories isn't as obvious here, simply because the script doesn't really call for it. I mean, there are some nice sequences (Fury chasing Scorpio across balconies in Venice) but a lot are just workmanlike -- no more, no less. His architecture and buildings can be quite detailed and appealing, though neither the pictures nor the colours (with their coldly bland, washed out hues) always evoke the different regions which, in a globe hopping story like this, should be part of the appeal. Chaykin is an idiosyncratic artist -- he's perhaps the only artist where his faces and facial expressions are so much a signature of his work that you'd almost think he was just cutting and pasting the same head on different bodies in different scenes (dressed up with a new hairdo or something) -- particularly with that defining way lips pull back from teeth.

So...I dunno. As I say, I'm not really saying this is "bad" -- the writing is okay, the art is decent. It clips along. Maybe I've just read too many stories like it. But you can read stories that take cliched, generic themes and ideas, and with a little twist here and there, a little more detail and nuance to the motivation and characterization, can seem fresh. And others that just feel as though everyone's just dotting their "i"s and crossing there "t"s -- and that's kind of what I feel here.

Cover price: $__ USA

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