Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Wolverine, Agent of … S.H.I.E.L.D by Mark Millar & John Romita, Jr. (volume 2 of the “Enemy of the State” arc)

So, I decided to introduce myself to the work of Mark Millar and dove in with the twelve-part Wolverine story, “Enemy of the State.” My thoughts on the first volume, which collects issues 20-25 (chapters 1-6), can be found here.

As for the conclusion of this epic narrative – there were a couple of bright spots, but for the most part, I am happy to know that I don’t ever have to read this again. It is entirely possible that this is a great Wolverine story, but for me, it’s just a bunch of hackwork lacking any real drama, with hyperbole and bombast substituting for characterization and narrative inventiveness. It’s basically one long fight scene with no consequences at all.

The collection opens with Gorgon’s introduction to the Hand followed by Northstar’s extrication (or at least that of his corpse) by a now-re-resurrected and villainous Elektra (a scene that lacked any punch, whatsoever) before entering a virtual reality simulation being used to rehabilitate Wolverine – though readers are unaware of the VR aspect until we hit the climax of the scene. The rehabilitation scene is pretty good, a nice feint put forth by Millar & JRJr, but once Nick Fury bites it, it is obvious something isn’t right.

Dr. Weinberg intrudes on Wolverine’s killing spree in this simulation – explaining that SHIELD is running these simulations to make him burn out the Hydra programming – and it makes some kind of sense. I also found it to be inventive on Millar’s part – until he found it necessary to let us in on how serious this plan is by having the doctor spout off on how it would only take “another half a million simulations” to get Wolverine deprogrammed. When it’s revealed, on the next page, that those 500,000 simulations will take place over the course of just 12-18 hours, I was completely taken out of the story. If you do the math, that’s almost 8 simulations a second. Sure, comics are supposed to fall somewhere outside the realms of believability (they fly and regenerate and have superpowers, etc. etc.), but when you go too far, the narrative just crumbles to nothing. And this seems to be Millar’s style – push it too far, then go ten times farther, and try to mask it all with his hype machine. Maybe I’m being too harsh. And maybe I’m not.

Millar then pulls me out again when he has Wolverine discussing how many Hydra, Hand, and Dawn of the White Light agents are out there. The total he arrives at is 52,000. And is he going to take them all out by himself? “Bingo,” says Wolverine.

Now, I get that this is the character – he has a trail of bravado and ego and testosterone oozing behind him wherever he goes; he’s animalistic and he doesn’t stop, not for anything, least of all overwhelming odds – I get that. But, for me personally, that bravado act doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t work for me. Remarks like this come across as farcical rather than “tough,” and maybe this explains why I’m not much of a Wolverine fan.

Or maybe I need him toned down just a bit, in order to accept him. I appreciated the character of honor who came out of the Claremont/Miller mini-series back in the early eighties, the one who, at any moment, could go off on a berserker rage. That he had to work to hold in that animal instinct made for drama and provided conflict within the character. But when there’s no longer anything to limit him, and Wolverine is just killing non-stop, the volume turned up to 11 the whole way through, the drama is sucked out of the narrative because there is nothing to counterbalance the crazed fighting. Without any real quiet moments, the big moments have nothing to play off of.

This is a similar problem I have with the event-driven publishing mandates from DC and Marvel these past few years. Civil War rolls into Secret Invasion pours into Dark Reign and seeps into Siege, and there’s no opportunity for readers to stop and catch their breaths. And, at some point, one just burns out on this downhill race. Like a rollercoaster, the anticipation during that long, slow climb up the track, makes the rush down the other side that much more exciting.

Another glimmer of narrative ingenuity comes with Elektra’s double-cross of the Hand, which was well handled and made sense. If the Hand has resurrected her once, Elektra would obviously have a better knowledge of how to circumvent their brainwashing this second time. But, again, the fact that her actions – the killing of 200 SHIELD agents when she was part of the re-animated superpowered beings who attacked the helicarrier – are dismissed because she was under “very deep cover” just rips me out of the story. If these characters have carte blanche, then why does it matter? They have no dramatic choices to make. There’s no need for them to be heroic (and yes, I know Wolverine is an “anti-hero”). They can run their sais and their claws straight through whatever phalanx of characters stands in their way, and it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

And if it doesn’t mean a damn thing, why should I care?

Now, regardless of how poorly written I think this whole journey has been – and, for me, the journey of a narrative is important – the climax of this storyline is brilliant in its simplicity. Wolverine, like Perseus in the myths of old, reflects the Gorgon’s gaze back at him with his claws, turning the Gorgon to stone, as he has done to so many others. I applaud Millar for this bit of narrative creativity, but only wish that he wouldn’t have dragged out the story so long for such a brief moment of appreciation.

There’s a part of me that can almost understand why this story is so well regarded. But I can’t get past the fact that I feel it is terribly flawed. I’ve brought it up a number of times in these two pieces about the book, but Millar never lets up. This is one long fight comic with little in the way of substance. Millar thinks drama is achieved by heaping more “shit onto the pile” – i.e. the exaggerated amounts of enhancements Wolverine and the others who get reanimated receive from Hydra; it felt like a kid’s game where your buddy shoots you with a bazooka, but you claim to now have a missile launcher plus super-armor so you win, except that he now has a force-field and a mult-laser projectile weapon and trumps your “upgrade,” etc. etc. It all felt ludicrous, and there was never a chance for Millar to develop any dramatic tension naturally within the context of the story.

Greg Rucka recently wrote about honesty in storytelling. I didn’t get that from this story. All I got was a lot of (unwanted) style and flash in lieu of substance. And that’s probably the biggest problem I have with “Enemy of the State.”


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