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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Panel Vision - Old Man Logan

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So, by now Logan is looking to be on track to be the biggest superhero hit of the season and the latest genuine home run for Fox’s X-Men franchise since last year’s Deadpool.  That makes sense- the film looks incredibly well conceived with a lot of excellent elements, and it’s basically just the most recent iteration of the trend of Mark Millar comics getting amazing adaptations.  

If you’re not aware of him, Mark Millar is a Scottish comics author whose been a major staple of the comic scene for the better part of the 2000s.  Millar’s one of the co-creators of Marvel’s very successful Ultimate Universe, which helped inspire the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and wrote the comics that gave us Wanted, Kick-Ass 1 & 2, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and Captain America: Civil War. 

The one wrinkle about this success is that virtually all of those films changed a ton from the source material because the original comics aren’t really that great.  I already dedicated a whole article to how bad the original Civil War books are, and I could easily do the same for the rest.  You can already see that with Logan as it’s clearly shed nearly everything from Old Man Logan save for the old Wolverine concept.  However, this case is a bit of an exception because Old Man Logan is a great comic. 

As you’ve probably figured out, Old Man Logan revolves around Wolverine as an old guy, but there’s a lot more to it than that.  The series is set in a moderately distant future, far enough for the world to have fully changed but also way too close for comfort.  At some point in the future, all the villains of Earth managed to finally team up and get their act together to kill all the superheroes.  50 years after that final murderous attack on the superhero community the US has been sliced up between a handful of big name lieutenants who now rule the wasteland. 

Red Skull took the White House and most of the East Coast, ruling as an evil Nazi President, Dr. Doom holds the bible belt, Kingpin took the rocky mountains, and an evil and psychotic version of the Hulk has claimed California.  Wolverine is one of the only heroes left alive, but he’s renounced violence and refuses to take out his claws.  However, his resolve is tested when he’s forced into a cross-country delivery run with fellow former hero Hawkeye, who’s now blind. 

To really understand how Old Man Logan happened you need some serious context for this work.  Firstly, 2008 was a good year for the bad guys in Marvel comics.  This was the same year that the event Dark Reign got underway when Norman Osborn took over SHIELD and put together a team of super villains to pose as the Avengers with him.  

What’s more, that idea of “what happens if the villains win?” is one that Mark Millar has explored pretty regularly.  That’s actually something you find about Millar looking over the full breadth of his work, he tends to return to a handful of ideas or motifs though usually there’s not a lot of variety in them.  The villain takeover plot was one he also explored in Wanted, and the old man hero concept has popped up again recently in Starlight. 

At the same time, the X-Men universe was still kind of adrift at this point.  They’d been spiraling since the 2006 event Decimation, in which 90% of the mutant population lost their powers, and had actually disbanded by 2008 in a story called Divided We Stand.  Combine that with Wolverine having recently regained ALL memory of his origins and the time was ripe for Millar to come in and explore some new territory with the character.  It also helps that Marvel’s always been big on dystopic futures, with the X-Men especially.  Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse, Future Imperfect- these are familiar waters for Marvel so diving back into that well was a good call. 

As for the actual comic, it’s benefited by having a much looser structure than Millar usually employs.  The road trip format is an excellent way to take us on a walking tour of the fallen America, which is a unique landscape even amid Marvel’s dystopias.  It’s most similar to the ‘90s possible future book Future Imperfect, in which the Hulk was zapped to the future to fight an evil version of himself- more on that in a bit, however.  What really helps Old Man Logan’s dystopia sell is the sense of life persisting within the fallen world. 

Society seems to have already collapsed and begun reasserting itself as a new kind of society meant to fit this new, brutal reality.  There is a lot of destroyed space between the handful of the major cities, and there’s a really smart subplot about the Moloids.  Moloids are a subterranean race of yellow monster creatures that used to be under the thrall of Mole Man and fight the Fantastic Four, now they burrow under and sink various cities and small towns, devouring those within. 

It’s stuff like that that really sets Old Man Logan apart from a lot of its dystopia contemporaries and the third Wolverine film- mythos.  See, most dark future stories from both Marvel and DC have a bad habit of being very limited in their focus.  In Days of Future Past, for instance, it’s never addressed what exactly happened to the Fantastic Four or the X-Men in this world where Sentinels took over. 

That’s starting to change more recently, like Age of Apocalypse featured an issue addressing characters like Bruce Banner and the Reed Richards and Age of X actually had a full on alternate universe Avengers.  In Old Man Logan, this vision of the future is littered with detritus from the superhero world that came before, some even reshaping the very landscape itself.

For instance, the car Hawkeye and Wolverine are traveling across the wasteland in is actually Peter Parker’s Spider-Mobile and yes, it does go up walls in this book.  There’s a lot of other cool elements in that vein, like an entire town formed around where Thor’s hammer fell to Earth, the giant-sized corpse of Hank Pym spread across the mid-Atlantic and imported dinosaurs from the Savage Land that prowl the wastes.  This extends to the people running things as well, even if it doesn’t always make sense.  For instance, it’s kind of hard to believe that Dr. Doom would content himself with ruling the scraps of the world that was, especially given how every other time he’s managed to win he grew bored with it. 

Though, I will say that President Red Skull’s vision of America has taken on a much more sinister and prescient tone these days. It’s Red Skull’s involvement that eventually gets Logan out of his pacifist stupor though he’s not the one to fully bring back the Wolverine.  He’s taken to wearing Cap’s bloody costume as one of the many souvenirs of fallen heroes he keeps in his trophy room.  That particular effect is actually VERY reminiscent of Future Imperfect as the evil future version of the Hulk in that comic had a virtually identical trophy set-up: speaking of which. 

The Hulk is easily the best and most gruesome part of this whole book.  Honestly, part of me wonders if Old Man Logan came about because Millar wanted to make his own version of Future Imperfect or maybe a refutation of that book in some way given how connected their visions of the Hulk are.  However, where Future Imperfect’s Maestro used his outward barbaric hedonism as a cover for his deeper, cunning sadism, Old Man Logan’s Hulk is nowhere near that sophisticated. 

For reasons that have never explained something snapped in Banner’s mind the day the super heroes died, to the point he turned evil and joined the villains.  After that, he ended up “mating” with his cousin She-Hulk to form an entire clan of inbred hulks who now rule California and consume human flesh.  They’re a ghoulish pack of cartoonish green super powered rednecks that truly define the kind of unbridled, nihilistic human ugliness that tends to punctuate so much of Mark Millar’s work.  Hulk himself has been re-imagined into this overweight, backwoods ogre thing that makes for an amazing final fight. 

Old Man Logan is a great comic though I’m not sure it deserves the honor of “greatest Wolverine story” as some fans like to bestow upon it.  It’d be more accurate to call it the best dystopia story we’ve ever gotten from Marvel, certainly the most realized.  It’s walking a very fine line between genuinely disturbing elements and a bad taste wallow, but it pulls off that balancing act very well and is ultimately a super enjoyable read.  I’ve compared it a lot to Future Imperfect in this review, but that’s fine because Future Imperfect is one of my favorite comics and both books work off the same kind of enjoyment. 

Both the Hulk and Wolverine are characters defined by their capacity for destruction and both comics put them face to face with a version of themselves where that will to destroy is all that’s left of them.  They face down shallower, more visceral and violent versions of themselves that must be destroyed, even as the audience enjoys the chance to see a version of this character that’s finally able to cut loose.  It’s having your cake and eating it too and while that technique can only be used so many times before it breaks it makes for one delicious plate of junk food in this case.   

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