Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wolverine: Origins #37-40

Writer: Daniel Way
Penciller: Scot Eaton
Inker: Andrew Hennessy
Colourists: Andy Troy with Rob Schwager
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editors: John Barber and Jeanine Schaefer

More than three years into Wolverine: Origins, the great moment has finally arrived. It's time to unveil Romulus, the mastermind who's apparently been behind virtually everything in the series to date. Indeed, retroactively, he's been behind virtually everything, period.

And after such an extended build-up, does it deliver? Not really, no - but then most of us made up our minds about Origins a long time ago, and Romulus would have had to be something pretty remarkable to make us rethink it. After all, one of the central problems with this series is its attempt to subsume Wolverine's entire history into a monumentally complicated and wholly implausible conspiracy theory. Revealing who's behind it all doesn't make that any more or less of a problem.

Romulus may be the centrepiece of this story, but actually, about half the page count is given over to a plot where Wolverine gets suckered into fighting 90s villain Omega Red instead. And credit where it's due, that bit's quite good. It's an extended fight scene in a deserted prison, with some imaginative use of the setting. As so often with this book, the further it wanders from the main story, the better it gets.

Also in the plus column, this arc is drawn by Scot Eaton. He may not be the most distinctive superhero artist out there, but he's solid, he can tell a story, and he continues to improve.

But we come back to Romulus. What ultimately shows up is basically a big, burly, greying version of Wolverine, with his own artificial claws. Which... well, given the way he's been set up, what else was he going to be? Romulus is apparently dying, and wants the various super-soldiers that he had a hand in creating to fight each other to the death. The sole survivor will apparently inherit his position, whatever that actually involves. In fact, even within the story, some of them aren't interested.

This seems a good time to stop and wonder: what story does Daniel Way actually think he's telling with Romulus? I remember Way doing a Q&A a few months ago and getting a bit irritable at somebody who described Romulus as a plot rather than a character. But what's the idea meant to be?

So far, we have a big alpha male character who runs an enormous global conspiracy that appears to have no particular agenda beyond its own continuation. Romulus claims to be at the top of the food chain, and he's obsessed with creating an heir in his own image - though this apparently hasn't stopped him from also taking a hand in a bunch of other super-soldier types who don't look much like him at all, from Cyber all the way down to Nuke. (Incidentally, Way seems to have no interest in the "blond and dark-haired warriors fight throughout history" stuff from the notorious Jeph Loeb Wolverine arc where Romulus' name was first dropped. Given the highly selective way he's used the material from that story, I can't help wondering whether Way found it as bemusing as everyone else did.)

Romulus puts on a big show about his own power, but he's apparently on his last legs. And because it's supposed to be a metaphor about ancient networks of communication, he loves railways.

Does any of this add up to a very interesting character? Well, strip away the more absurd convolutions of the conspiracy theory, and there's something to be said for the idea of the secretive crimelord unable to deal with his mortality and trying to groom a doppelganger to take his place. Romulus is dying and he wants to "live forever" by creating a Romulus II. And because the new Romulus will actually have all of the qualities that the original Romulus merely claimed to have, he'll secure the legacy he wants. Alright. There's something in this. There's a tortuous metaphor here about father/son relationships which could actually make a story.

The problem comes when you do it with Wolverine, rather than a character created for the purpose. It casts Wolverine in the role of manipulated son trying to escape his father's shadow, and if you want to do that story, the Weapon X project already provides a more than adequate vehicle for the metaphor. Thematically, Romulus doesn't add anything to Wolverine's back story; and the insanely complicated conspiracy only serves to limit the sort of stories you can tell with him. He's a better character when he's just a victim of assorted and largely unspecified forces.

And the plot logic is tortuous. Romulus is going to crown an heir by getting everyone to fight to the death without telling them why or what they're fighting for? What? What does being the new Romulus actually involve, anyway? Nobody seems to think that's a point worth discussing, even though logically it ought to be driving the plot. The whole thing ends up working on a level of manipulation that seems to remove it from any resemblance to actual human behaviour.

Maybe that's why it doesn't work. Romulus personifies a standard theme of Wolverine stories: the hero tries to escape the influence of his brutalisers, and assert his own identity and independence. But he doesn't personify it very well, because the overwrought complications of the plot and the nonsense about food chains and trains and deaf-mute henchmen distance him so far from reality that he just doesn't ring true as a human being. And that makes him less effective to tell the story than the faceless military-industrial organisations that served the same purpose before him.

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