Monday, October 05, 2009

Old Man Logan

"Old Man Logan"
Wolverine #66-72, Giant-Size Wolverine: Old Man Logan
Writer: Mark Millar
Penciller: Steve McNiven
Inker: Dexter Vines (with Mark Morales and Jay Leisten)
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: Morry Hollowell (with Christina Strain, Justin Ponsor, Jason Kieth, Paul Mounts and Nathan Fairbairn)
Editor: John Barber

From time to time, I complain about writers and publishers losing sight of the fact that they're working in a serialised medium. After all, if you're reading a story in monthly instalments, it's clearly a very different experience from reading it in one go. Of course, it's only an issue with the original run, not the collected edition; but with monthly sales up in the 90K-plus territory, it seems a pretty safe assumption that most readers experienced this story for the first time in serial form.

And "Old Man Logan" is a good example of what I mean. Basically, it's Wolverine crossed with Unforgiven and Mad Max. Which is fine; as a character, Wolverine more or less fits with them both. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world where the heroes have all been wiped out or, like Wolverine, broken down and driven into retirement. The bad guys are running the country, but since it seems to be an utter dump and general all-round wasteland, it seems to have been a bit of a pyrrhic victory for them too.

We start off with Wolverine as a pacifist farmer who doesn't want anything to do with the hero business. A blinded Hawkeye shows up to enlist his help for One Last Mission crossing America to make a delivery, which will raise the money he needs to pay his rent. Wolverine agrees as long as he only has to drive the car.

At which point, you pretty much know where it's going. It's a road trip; Logan will come out of his shell and explain what happened to him; he'll get over the trauma at some point; there'll be a big moment where he fights back and pops his claws for the first time; and so forth. These barely even count as spoilers. The set-up is so familiar that everyone knows that's where we're going. But again, fine. Everyone knows where action movies and romcoms are going; the point is to enjoy getting there. If you do it right, the big pay-off works precisely because everyone saw it coming an hour ago.

Read it as a graphic novel, and it works. Yes, it's eight issues long, and it's a lightweight plot - some familiar tropes and some Marvel Universe paraphernalia. But read it in one go and it's paced about right. The episodic road trip scenes feel like part of a larger whole; the scenes where they pass by some random degraded superhero concept serve as dark comedy asides to break up the journey, and give Steve McNiven a chance to draw weird things while hinting at bits of back story to enjoy and move on.

Now, it's not exactly deep. You could just about make a case for the story being a metaphor of the nihilist superhero story as a dead end, with Millar taking some of his themes to their ultimate conclusion and starting to come out the other side. But that's a bit of a stretch. Chances are, it's just a load of things that Millar thought were cool. In a single sitting, that's enough.

Read it in serial form, though, and it's stretched over eight months. (More, actually, because the book ran late.) While it can justify its page count, it isn't the sort of story that's going to sustain interest for the better part of a year. By the nature of the story, you can't throw in tons of plot twists and turns to hold the reader's attention. It's too straightforward for that. And so you end up with a comic that takes forever to get somewhere fairly predictable instead of a graphic novel that takes about 200 pages to get somewhere enjoyably familiar. It makes a world of difference.

None of which is to say that, on a re-read, "Old Man Logan" suddenly stands revealed as a work of genius. There are still awkward shifts between black humour and sentimentality; there are still bits where the book is trying too hard, which undercut its attempts at sincerity. But it does lose its pacing problems; and while the concept was too slender to carry eight months of an ongoing series, it's fine for a story that you'll get through in an afternoon.

This was a story peculiarly unsuited to the serial format, since it needed the page count for a sense of scale, but didn't have the complexity or depth to work over eight months (and besides, it's the sort of story that works best when you just go with the flow - monthly interruptions don't help with that). There are perfectly good financial reasons why Marvel don't like graphic novels - cashflow, for a start - but a weekly or even a fortnightly schedule would have been an improvement. It works for Spider-Man; it would vastly improve a lot of stories for the X-books. This is a definite example.

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