Sunday, February 15, 2009

X-Men Origins: Sabretooth

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Dan Panosian
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colourist: Ian Hannin
Editor: Nick Lowe

The X-Men Origins one-shots have generally been pretty underwhelming, but they just keep coming, for who knows what reason.

This week, it's Sabretooth, and the unusual creative team of Kieron Gillen and Dan Panosian. Gillen is responsible for cult hit Phonogram; Panosian is probably still best known as one of Rob Liefeld's regular inkers back in the nineties. However, his recent pencilling work has a rather engaging rough-edged, back-to-basics quality which fits Sabretooth quite well.

The real difficulty here is that Sabretooth doesn't need an origin story. He's a villain; that in itself doesn't disqualify him from getting a back story. But fundamentally, Sabretooth is just a homicidal maniac. There is no inciting event in his past that made him this way. It's just what he is.

And the character is stronger that way. He functions mainly as a dark counterpart for Wolverine, who represents the violent impulses that Wolverine resists. More generally, when used against other heroes, he's just an all-purpose slasher. This doesn't call for a detailed back story, or an armchair psychologist explanation. All that would just weaken him.

Fortunately, Gillen seems to understand all that, since what he writes isn't really an origin story at all, so much as a character piece about a psychopath who has drifted through life indulging himself. There are two main themes here. First, Sabretooth is a sadist who is just having fun at other people's expense. Second, in his own mind, he's trying to draw out the side of Wolverine that would act the same way - which, as he sees it, would be doing the guy a favour. He wants Wolverine to be his playmate.

None of this is really news, but the issue makes the point effectively enough. It's violent, but the violence is kept short enough to remain shocking. Most of the story is presented from Sabretooth's perspective, while deliberately leaving his motivations impenetrable. It neatly distills what makes the character work as a villain.

Here's the thing, though: we've currently got an entire series in Wolverine: Origins dedicated to laying out a murderously complex and ill-advised back story for Wolverine and much of his supporting cast, which would seem to include Sabretooth. So, if that's the version of continuity we're running with, shouldn't Romulus be in this book somewhere?

Well, yes, he should - but you see, that would mean writing a Romulus story, and Romulus is crap. Sabretooth's a perfectly strong character without him. Look at this book, imagine it with an added conspiracy theory of lifelong manipulation, and see how it stops working. The simplest characters are often the best. Sabretooth kills people because he's crazy. He doesn't need to be any more complicated than that. He's a straightforward idea, and best kept that way.

This book takes the simple approach and makes the character work. It doesn't bring any new insights, and it's not really an origin story, but it's a decent enough summation of the character.

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