Old Man Logan: How the Best Wolverine Story in a Decade Crashed & Burned
Before we begin, let’s make two things very clear:
1) I like Mark Millar. I’m a fan, plain and simple. I’ve been a fan since way, way back in the days of The Authority when he worked over at Wildstorm. I currently own a copy of Superman: Red Son and cannot recommend it highly enough. And, let’s face it, his Civil War story arc was, hands down, the best crossover event Marvel’s had since the Age of Apocalypse epic back in the nineties. And don’t even get me started on how terrific his new series Kick Ass is!
So, as you read this, remember: I like the guy.
2) SPOILER ALERT!!!! If you haven’t already read Old Man Logan, then stop now, unless you’re okay with finding out how things end.
Having said all of that, let’s get down to the brass tacks: Old Man Logan—the most-anticipated (and one of the best-selling) books of 2008/2009 (a full fifteen months from beginning to end, but that’s another story). For those of you who have somehow missed this series, here’s a brief synopsis:
“Fifty years ago the villains of the Marvel Universe banded together and waged a singular, unified assault against the heroes and, when the dust had settled and the bodies had fallen, there were no more heroes. This is the world Wolverine, now calling himself simply “Logan,” inhabits. He is many things now: a farmer, a father, a husband and, somehow, a pacifist. He keeps his head low, scratches out a meager existence from the barren land and keeps his family fed. So one day the Hulk gang comes knocking, saying that the rent is due. To make payment, Logan heads east with Hawkeye (the only surviving Avenger) to deliver a mysterious package, collect a payday, and keep the Hulk gang from killing his family.”
Sounds like a great premise doesn’t it? Something unique: a world in which the heroes didn’t give up (as in other stories), but were simply beaten outright by the villains. A world in which Wolverine “the perfect human weapon” has gotten old and wrinkled. Has settled down with a wife, a son and a daughter. A world in which the man whose trademark saying is “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice” has become a pacifist!
Is there any wonder this story came pre-packaged with more hype than any other title at Marvel this year (last year)? Not only did the story have an intriguing premise, but it had a great writer at the helm in Mark Millar and a stunning artist in the engine room by the name of Steve McNiven. So with all that hype, with all that talent, with all that potential for greatness, how did the story stumble, fall, and land so embarrassingly in the junk pile with the rest of the standard “You won’t believe how much of a badass Wolverine is!” storylines?
Come, let’s take a walk together:
Old Man Logan #1
After much marketing, promotion, gossip, buzz, fanfare and anticipation, it arrived. And, quite frankly, it was everything it had been promised to be and more. There we were, launched into a sad, regretful new world. A hardscrabble world where the fiercest X-man of all squeaked through each day in regret, sorrow and sadness. He was a father and a husband now, and not the kind of father we would expect. He dissuaded violence, avoiding it at all costs, even taking a brutal beating at the hands of one of the Hulk’s offspring, all for the sake of his family’s survival, all for the sake of his oath of non-violence.
And then the rent was due and there was no money to be had, but along came Hawkeye, offering fast cash, a little adventure and, more importantly, a chance to save his family. And our adventure began.
Old Man Logan #2
With issue #1 selling out blindingly fast, the stage was set for Old Man Logan to really change the world. And issue #2 came in a timely, orderly fashion. We were on the road now, surveying this strange, new, post-hero world. And Logan was still a wounded, sorrowful pacifist, still bearing the burden of some great tragedy that Millar and McNiven teased us with from time to time with small, well-timed flashbacks. But, most importantly, this issue showed us that Wolverine truly was a different person now. Whatever mysterious tragedy had occurred had changed him to his core. He was a genuine pacifist now. Completely unwilling to raise a fist (or a claw) in anger, unwilling even to save his own life, at one point having to be rescued from a band of low-class ne’er-do-well thugs by Hawkeye.
This was Millar really hitting his stride. Really showing us that the ol’ Canuklehead could actually be re-envisioned and have his violent nature (and his hatred of that violent nature) explored. This was the time when I was telling everyone I knew that this was the title to watch! This was the story that they simply had to jump on board with!
Old Man Logan #3
The third installment ships on time—seemingly a simple feat, but just keep reading and we’ll see how this becomes an anomaly in the series rather than a staple.
With issues one and two selling out at a near-record pace, issue three came down the pipe swearing to continue fulfilling all of the promises that the advertising team over at Marvel had made. And, somehow, Millar did it! Issue three was full of world building and character development. Hawkeye took a side-adventure to rescue his estranged daughter and Logan, reluctantly, went along, promising all the while that “I will not be a party to violence.” And his promise held. Hawkeye commits all the acts of violence with Logan sitting back, offering little more than a grim, disapproving silence. Now and again we get a little more of a peek into the events that caused Logan’s conversion to non-violence, but not nearly enough to clarify things. The issue concludes with Logan being forced to act, though not necessarily through an act of violence—yet another stage of further complicating the character’s progression.
Again, Millar and McNiven gave us our money’s worth and continued exploring the X-Men’s most vicious member.
Old Man Logan #4
Here’s where things began to go awry.
Issue four came after much unexplained delay. While only being delayed by a few weeks, it was enough to make readers grumble, since Millar left us with quite the cliffhanger at the end of issue three. Well, issue four turned out to be mostly filler: a little adventure here and there, more opportunities for Logan to proclaim the legitimacy of his new non-violent disposition. But, as with issue three, there was a fair amount of world-building going on here. We became more privy to the murky details of “the great battle” that led to the fall of the heroes (and the fall of Logan in particular). The issue concluded with a very Jeph Loeb(ish) popcorn-cliffhanger ending in which we were promised that the secret behind Logan’s pacifism would be revealed. In very dramatic fashion, Millar and McNiven concluded the issue with a three-quarter page panel of a very mournful-looking Logan turning to the reader saying “Sit down an’ I’ll tell you.” Beneath it was the caption: “Next: The Secret Revealed.”
While not Millar’s best writing, I gave him credit for leading us on. After passing the halfway point in our story (though we didn’t know then that it was the halfway point), we’d finally been promised the deep, dark secret that has lead to our current, horrible state.
Old Man Logan #5
Let the publishing hiccups begin. Issue number five comes late. Way late. MANY weeks after its expected release, as everyone is salivating with anticipation over the story’s big secret, the issue still wasn’t released. It was enough to make avid readers irate…but the payoff was worth it. Issue number five fulfilled its promises and told the story of how, on the day the villains organized their attack on the heroes, Wolverine was tricked into killing his adopted family: the X-men. That’s right, all by his lonesome, a feral, blood-thirsty Wolverine murdered the entirety of the X-Men, thinking them villains! The shock is too much for the character. He attempts suicide but, with his healing factor, fails and is never the same.
No one had believed Millar could do it: promise a logical, emotional and believable explanation of how Wolverine became a tail-tucked pacifist. But he’d done it! In one fell swoop, with a single issue, Mark Millar had advanced the complexity of Wolverine’s perpetual loathing of his own violent nature a thousand fold! This was the most direct development the character had seen since Larry Hama’s “adamantium-free” Wolverine in the mid-nineties, a time during which the character was forced to explore and understand himself without his trademark “invincible” nature.
Way to go Millar! Way to go McNiven!
Old Man Logan #6
More delayed publishing without explanation from Marvel. Here and there people were heard to whisper that the repeated and extended delays had to something to do with McNiven’s process of drawing. Other theories centered on an idea that it Millar hadn’t finished the project yet and was, basically, writing on the fly (little did we know this was the actual case)!
But, eventually, the issue was released (with one of the most striking covers in the industry I might add) and it turns out to be just more world-building and only slight story progression. We find that there are a few lingering mutants, even a certain Inhuman king. (You’ll notice by now that I’ve mentioned “world-building” quite a lot in this article. Keep an eye on that, it’ll come back later.)
Overall, this latest installment is “okay.” We find out that things are tough all over (which we already knew) and, by the end, Hawkeye is betrayed and killed and it seems like all we’ve been through has been for nothing.
Decent story progression. Not great, but…“decent.”
Old Man Logan #7
Houston, we have a problem.
Almost two months pass and everyone’s asking “where’s the next issue?” Little did we know the next issue was still inside Mark Millar’s head…and that head was in a hospital. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it seems that all the while Marvel and Millar had been publishing a story that wasn’t even completed yet. Simply making it up as they went along. And now the writer was sick and the story on hiatus.
While I’m the last person to knock someone for getting sick, it’s just basic common sense that, for a limited series, you finish the project before publishing. That way, should...oh, I don’t know, the writer get ill and become unable to complete it on time, you don’t wind up with an incomplete story hanging over your head and your readers grumbling outside your door.
But I digress.
So, eventually, Millar gets better and, eventually, out comes the latest issue of our story. But it feels different now. Everything seems to be moving a little faster than before. The character isn’t as introspective and troubled as he was a few issues ago. Now he’s just fighting people…even though he’d given up fighting, even at the cost of his own life.
Yes, some will say about this issue: “But he was face to face with the Red Skull! The arch-fiend behind it all!” Yes, you know that and I know that, but the character doesn’t really seem to think about that. He just fights because…well…there’s a bad guy in front of him. I understand the development that Millar was going for: “the character has been forced to fight, forced to face the person who ruined his entire life.” But the problem is that the character never really internalizes or acknowledges this. He just brawls with the Red Skull, kills him (again, after vowing to be a pacifist!) and dashes off with the money that the Hulk gang is waiting for. But the money comes too late. Logan returns to a ransacked home and a family slaughtered by the Hulk gang. The final page (again, reminiscent of the atrocious Jeph Loeb’s cliffhangers) concludes with Logan unsheathing his claws and reclaiming his fighting moniker: Wolverine.
Gone now are the meditative, mournful flashbacks that plagued the character all through the series. Gone is the troubled, “my own violence has led me to my downfall” attitude that was indicative of the character (not only for this series, but for his entire existence). No, Logan has simply become the “crash-and-smash” badass he’s often times reduced to. All this under the false auspices of “I’m just trying to get the money to save my family.”
By this point you could feel Millar giving in to the typical attitudes of having the character beat people up rather than, think his way out of situations. This issue, as a whole, was abrupt, abbreviated, and incomplete…but with lots of good punches to the face. Something we’ve never seen before, right?
Old Man Logan #8
By now Marvel’s erratic publishing of the series has left a bad taste in the mouths of its fans and they know it. So they let the normal Wolverine storyline resume and promise that the conclusion of Old Man Logan would come in an action-packed, giant-sized issue.
Eventually, Marvel would deliver on that promise, but only after nearly another two long, painful months of delay.
Inevitably, the final issue of Old Man Logan hit the shelves and, yes, it was giant-sized and, yes, it was action-packed. Maybe too action-packed? There’s more blood in this issue than a Garth Ennis project. In fact, the entire book was reminiscent of Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrow’s ultra-violent and gore-filled miniseries Crossed. This final installment of Old Man Logan is a bloodfest! With Wolverine appearing in dramatic places and standing in dramatic poses with his claws unsheathed and a perpetual grimace on his face. After a long, somewhat goofy battle with both Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Logan is triumphant! He’s learned to kill again! Oh…wait…wasn’t he supposed to be avenging his family? Well, what better way does a man who’s been a pacifist for fifty-years avenge his family than by changing his entire belief structure and going on a 24-page killing spree? Right?
In fact, by this point, the series has been plagued by such an inconsistent publishing schedule and the story taken so far away from where it began that, when Logan finally returns to bury the bodies of his family and grieve (a whopping two pages worth of grieving!) I had genuinely forgotten that they were, supposedly, what this story was supposed to be about! Then there was a moment of “Oh yeah! He had a family, didn’t he?”
Every ten years or so Marvel does a good thing: they develop the character of Wolverine. In the early eighties it was Chris Claremont who gave us the definitive “I’m that best at what I do…” archetypal version of Wolverine: a man at odds with his own violent nature. A man who really was the best at what he did, but who also loathed what he did and his ability to do it so well.
Then, in the early nineties, Barry Windsor-Smith gave us the definitive Wolverine story: Weapon X (quietly published over at the classic Marvel Comics Presents). This story answered years of questions about the character and, more importantly, helped show us how a propensity for violence can be conditioned as well as inherited.
Then, in 2005 Marvel gave us Origins, a good story about where Logan began, a story that foreshadowed the character’s self-hatred, fears, obsessions and perpetually remorseful nature.
So along came Mark Millar with what began as one of the most complex Wolverine stories in years, a story in which the character had been forced to change, forced to repent of the thing he hated most: violence by his own hands. So how did the story go so wrong?
1) Writing on the fly
Dear, Marvel: don’t do that! Not only does it offend your readers when something odd happens and the series can’t be completed on time simply because the writer hasn’t written the pages, but it also makes for a rushed conclusion which, obviously, is the case here. The narrative arc of Old Man Logan was significantly shortened after Millar’s illness. Obviously, Marvel knew they were behind the eight ball so, rather than let Millar extend the arc as needed to develop the character, they forced him to abbreviate it for the sake of publishing deadlines already missed.
And it shows, Marvel. It shows.
2) False character development
Dear, Mark Millar: don’t do that! You began your story with such a highly-developed understanding of the character’s innate loathing of his own ability for violence. Simply the idea that the character had become a pacifist was a stroke of brilliance considering that every tragedy in the character’s life has been attributed, in some way, to acts of violence on his own part (i.e. the death of his father, the death of is first love: “Rose,” the death of his later love: Yuriko…all three characters died by his own hand…er, claws). Obviously, the character hates himself more than he could hate any villain and, early on, you seemed to know that.
But as the series progressed you forgot that important lesson and reduced the character back to solving problems by the strength of claw than by the strength of character. You went back to having the character hack and slash his way through life and, by the end, he’d become the exact same character he was before: a rebel with his own code of ethics who can kill better than anyone. Yes, this makes for fun reading, but bad writing, especially when, for so much of the story, Logan is relieved to have liberated himself of his bloodier impulses. So why’d you just hit the reset button and turn the character back into the thing he hates the most? The thing he’d finally overcome?
3) Comes the spin-off
Remember all that world-building I mentioned earlier? Well, at the conclusion of Old Man Logan the character, having mercilessly killed the Hulk family and buried his own family, rides off into the sunset promising to bring law back unto the land. Now, at this point it doesn’t take a genius to see Marvel setting the wheels in motion for what will most certainly become a recurring monthly title, a title in which this older Wolverine roams the ravaged future battling bad guys both old and new and generally being a badass. Millar has already laid the groundwork by implying that Dr. Doom, the Abomination and others were still lurking about. But who will battle them you ask? Let us not forget the small band of mutants and Inhumans introduced in issue six!
I don’t know, I guess Marvel figures Wolverine isn’t appearing in enough titles right now, what with him being in X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men First Class, X-Force, Wolverine, Wolverine: Origins, Wolverine: First Class, Wolverine: Weapon X, Weapon X First Class, Wolverine Annual, Ultimate Wolverine, Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine Noir & X-men Origins: Wolverine.
Yeah, Marvel, I think I see what you’re saying. Your character just doesn’t seem to be getting enough facetime. So let’s see if we can give him another title…maybe something where he’s really off by himself (Weapon X, Weapon X First Class, Wolverine, Wolverine Noir, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ultimate Wolverine) so that he doesn’t have to be buried in the duties of a leadership role (X-Force, X-men, X-men First Class, Ultimate X-Men). Maybe we’ll call it “Old Man Logan?” I’m just shooting in the dark here. Just trying to keep your character from falling into anonymity!
At the end of it all
…Old Man Logan is the kid that could’a been a contender, but got terribly overwhelmed by its own personal ghosts, potential and bad planning. It’s actually quite sad. Due to Marvel’s horrible logistics the series took a whopping fifteen months to run from beginning to end! (Remember, that’s fifteen months for only an eight-issue mini-series!)
The simple fact is, Millar had the potential here to write one of the best Wolverine stories ever, possibly even one to rival Barry Windsor-Smith’s legendary Weapon X.
But potential, sometimes, becomes little more than just that: potential.