Monday, April 27, 2009

Wolverine Noir #1

Wolverine Noir #1
Writer: Stuart Moore
Artist: C P Smith
Colourist: Rain Beredo
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry
Editor: Daniel Ketchum

Marvel's Noir books are a weird misshapen hybrid if ever there was one. Characters from one genre, revamped in the style of another genre... just because. It's a familiar tack for superhero publishers in recent years, who have often tried to expand the genre by splicing it with other strains of pulp - at their critical peak, many of WildStorm's titles worked in the same way. It can work, at least on the level of critical acclaim. It can also come across as a pointless parlour game.

Marvel's Noir books look suspiciously like they fall into the latter category. It's important to be clear: these are not superhero books in a noir setting. There are no powers. They're noir stories where the characters are based on existing Marvel characters. Of course, for the most part, those characters weren't designed for noir. The question is whether they have something to offer the genre, or whether you just get an absurd crossbreed monstrosity.

Compared to many Marvel characters, Wolverine is well suited to be a noir protagonist. He's a morally conflicted, alienated anti-hero, with appropriately bleak overtones and a dementedly complicated back story. His powers are not essential to the character. Not surprisingly, writer Stuart Moore has chosen to transplant him into the typical private detective role.

You'll notice, by the way, that this bears no resemblance whatsoever to the version of Wolverine we saw in X-Men Noir. Apparently, despite the occasional mention in interviews of a "noirverse", there isn't one - the books are all free-standing.

The set-up is that Logan is running a detective agency along with his dimwitted partner Dog, with Mariko Yashida showing up as the obligatory femme fatale client. Logan evidently keeps his dimwitted partner around out of guilt; the implication is that he's somehow responsible for Dog's condition. There's also a Creed wandering around, and if you can't figure out that he's the villain, you haven't been reading Wolverine comics for very long.

Curiously, Moore's idea of Logan seems to rely principally on the Origin miniseries - hence the heavy use of Dog, and extensive flashback scenes with versions of Rose and Smitty. This is unusual. Of course, origin stories are supposed to be core to the understanding of a character. But everyone knows Origin is nothing of the sort; it's a harmlessly irrelevant chunk of back story clutter which can be ignored at no great loss to anyone. Nor is it particularly memorable in its own right.

So it's surprising to see Moore drawing so heavily on this unlikely source material. If you're going to transplant a character wholesale to a distant continuity, you'd have thought it made more sense to focus on his core defining elements.

That said, Logan's character is more or less on model - he's a sort of cross between the typical street-level version of Wolverine, and a general noir protagonist. Since they aren't that distant to start with, the book does have something of a Wolverine feel to it. We've lost the berserker rage stuff in favour of a hidden guilty secret, but it's still a cousin of Wolverine.

Artist CP Smith is a good choice for the noir books. He's always been big on shadow and darkness, and he has the skill to make a character-driven book visually arresting. He certainly seems to think he's working on a proper story. It goes a long way to give the book some credibility.

But my reservations remain. It's an exercise in transplanting characters from one story to another, and at the end of the day, it's a gimmick. The characters weren't designed for this. They're square pegs being hammered into round holes, and that knowledge unavoidably undermines the drama. The book isn't played for laughs; but at its core, and visible at every turn, is this arbitrary "let's do a bunch of noir stories for the hell of it" idea. The book is done with some skill, yet it remains unavoidably and visibly the sum of its parts, a Frankenstein story.

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