comics, comics criticism, marvel, writing

The One Who Eats Their Pain – Ben Percy and Wolverine the Undying

With the arrival of his weekly event series The X Lives of Wolverine and X Deaths of Wolverine, Ben Percy’s time with Wolverine is coming to a major climax. Across the last 19 issues of the X-Man’s solo series, Logan has dealt with Dracula and the rise of the Vampire Nation, tussled with mutant villain Omega Red, matched wits with new villain Solem, and battled the broken remnants of his past as represented by fellow mutant and Department X operative/assassin Maverick. 

Logan’s long history of violence and betrayal has left him skeptical of the paradise promised by the new mutant nation on the living island of Krakoa. But he wants to believe in the dream and has committed himself to defending the nation, hunting down the dangers threatening his fellow mutants, and taking on the pain and suffering so no one else has to. Under Ben Percy’s pen, this era of Wolverine has become not just a lone wolf but a covert defender of all mutantkind.

Wolverine’s mysterious past has long been a driving force for the narrative around the character and part of his appeal to readers. From the first page of Percy’s tenure on the Wolverine title, he makes clear that history — fractured as it is– is central to his take on the character. While in recent years Logan has regained most of his memories, that doesn’t mean it all fits together cleanly.

Can you remember everything you have ever experienced perfectly?

Logan’s mind is even more complicated given the compounding weight of more than a century of life, frequent brainwashing, and tortures and trauma untold. This Wolverine is grappling with the weight of his history, not merely its absence. In this way, Percy also wrangles with the complexity of superhero publishing. Past and present constantly contradict, decades of events condensed into a sliding timescale of tragedy upon tragedy over the course of a few years. Logan admits that he cannot be sure what memories are real or what is implanted. This lets the writer play with different elements of Logan’s past without getting too bogged down in the minutia of what has been stated previously. 

He might remember, but it doesn’t mean his memory can be trusted. 

Ben Percy is the first to truly reckon with this modern notion of Wolverine the undying. As the publishing history moves on, old stories placing him in specific time frames move further and further into the past, and Wolverine grows exponentially older. To have been alive in his prime to fight with Captain America in World War II requires a much different level of vitality than the original 1990 story and has greater implications on the scope of Wolverine’s mutant powers. Even that iconic story was an addition to the character’s history that extrapolated his healing factor.

Wolverine (2020) #1 art by Adam Kubert and Frank Martin. Letters by Cory Petit

What was originally presented as the ability to get up quickly from a fall has grown to be a body that heals itself from the ravages of time and the ability to reconstruct from naught but an adamantium skeleton. While the latter has been played with to its extremes, notably in Jason Aaron’s time with the character, the aging and the implications of that have not been tapped into as much. What does it mean in 2022 to have been alive for not just 50 or 60 years, but hundreds? Percy’s Wolverine grapples with the weight of that history, the burden of remembering so many years, the gaps and forgotten moments that come with living for so long, in addition to all of the tampering and mind control he has suffered.

While at first blush pitting Wolverine against Dracula and the Vampire Nation is the kind of idea that sounds broad and comic book silly, and while it is indeed a broad comic book idea, Percy grants it a surprisingly thematic resonance for Wolverine. The unaging vampires, the endless and monstrous life of Dracula, represents the kind of existence Wolverine could choose to lead– to become a monster that places himself above mortals, forever taking advantage of others, preying on them to foster his own strength. But Wolverine’s immortality is dedicated in service to people.

Where Dracula has haunted history as a demonic presence, Wolverine has existed in many forms, some monstrous, some heroic. Dracula is a pale reflection of the monster he could be and has been in his most tortured and exploited. 

Omega Red, historically a paper-thin villain, the USSR’s attempt to make a Weapon X of their own, provides a similarly broken mirror for Wolverine. Omega Red is another kind of vampire, experimented upon and transformed by humans to become a killing machine. But Omega Red lacks the moral compass and empathy that has defined Logan’s struggle. Wolverine has long battled his berserker rage and more animalian instincts, where Omega Red relishes in violence and literally feeds off of the pain and life force of others. 

In issue 19, the final before the X-Men line pauses for the big X Lives and X Deaths of Wolverine event, Percy pauses to tell a one-shot story with artist Javi Fernandez that sees Logan doing his best Captain Ahab, tracking down a mysterious leviathan who is threatening the shores of Krakoa.

It is a quiet, contemplative issue where Logan reflects on the value of living a life without fear of death and the dangers of complacency and his ongoing struggle with the status quo of Krakoan utopia, complete with maudlin musings of cosmic and existential significance. Logan, ancient in terms of human life, recognizes his insignificance in the grand scheme. It puts him at odds with those who seek to extend their lives by sowing death– men like Omega Red and Dracula

Fernandez’s layouts are rigid but spacious, using large panels with Logan insignificant within them to make the existential monolog literal, and minimizing background details to focus on the endless horizon. Close-up shots are mostly reserved to contrast the scale of Logan as a man to the scale of the leviathan.

Wolverine goes out alone to do battle with this almost elemental force, not only to take on the pain of Krakoa but to feel the pain himself. As he is dragged down into the depths, he muses, “Maybe I can die. Maybe I can’t. But the hurt helps remind me I’m actually alive.”

For Logan, that is enough: to know that in the here and now, he is alive, and that he can take more pain than anyone else so they will not have to. Krakoa will live another day without knowing pain, the issue concludes, “Because I ate it all for them.”

Wolverine (2020) #19 art by Javi Fernández and Matthew Wilson. Letters by Cory Petit.

Wolverine doesn’t trust the Krakoan project or the dream of peace because he has lived too long and seen too much and felt too much pain. But he will risk his life to see it made possible, whether he truly thinks it can come to pass or not. That’s what he does–has always done, will always do–Logan the Undying. Omega Red and Dracula extend their lives by feasting on others, but Wolverine will eat the pain for others because he knows he can take it. He is a warrior who fights for a dream he has never really believed in, and that is what sets him apart from his enemies, the ghosts and shattered mirrors and nigh-immortals who inflict pain on others.

Ben Percy’s primary collaborator throughout the run has been Adam Kubert and who better to join him? Kubert, with his significant tenure on not only the solo Wolverine title in the 90s but lengthy work on the X-Men franchise generally, knows Wolverine better than most artists working today. Kubert was the first to depict Logan dealing with the emotional and physical reckoning of Magneto ripping the adamantium from his bones and the discovery that his claws were a natural mutation, not an implant or byproduct of experimentation. That Larry Hama-written issue, 75 from the second volume of Wolverine, deals with similar themes of Logan’s broken past coming together in nightmarish fashion. As his mind and body deal with the shock of Magneto’s attack, Logan relives his history of violence and trauma as Professor X and Jean Grey try to reach him.

Kubert’s approach in that issue is more abstract and confused than his very purposeful work in the current series, as it attempts to communicate the agony and visceral nature of Logan’s hallucinations. But it also offers a glimpse into how Kubert has matured as a storyteller. In the current run, he is dealing with similar ideas about Wolverine’s jumbled memories and fragmented past intruding on the present.

In that 90s story, the past collides and overlaps, unconstrained by panels and intertwining into an ethereal mess. The intrusive and disjointed memories of the current Wolverine series, in contrast, are presented much more methodically and with more restraint.

Wolverine (1988) #75

Take for example the image of Sabretooth in issue 9, where Wolverine’s meeting with Maverick has him reflecting on his life as a programmed assassin. The single image of Sabretooth’s snarling face is broken up into 16 panels across the page, with insert panels of Logan and Maverick’s reactions to Sabretooth’s violence. 

These are not torturous dreams, they are matter-of-fact recollections of his dark past. Logan has reached a place where, having revisited much of what he had once forgotten, they no longer come in flashes of nightmares. They are a part of him and his long history, though they are mixed up and confused, one ugly and dark deed overlapping another.

Wolverine (2020) #9. Art by Adam Kubert and Frank Martin

This storytelling device is one Kubert returns to several times, particularly in the issues where Logan crosses paths with Maverick, which dredges up his days as Weapon X and the killer he used to be. Kubert effectively uses these small panels to visualize Logan’s broken and scrambled mind. 

This kind of flashback technique is unique to Logan’s POV. In issue 14, also drawn by Kubert, when we are given background of Solem and the mutant pirate Sevyr Blackmore, they are presented in more traditional layouts, tinged with a hazy color as if being played on an old VHS tape, but nevertheless a more straightforward presentation of panels. 

With X Lives and X Deaths set to explore Wolverine’s past and future, these themes promise to build on the foundation Percy and Kubert have laid down in this first year and a half. With this writer in it for the long haul, Wolverine is poised to move forward in interesting ways that build off of his broken past but no longer defined by it. Krakoa has opened new doors for many mutants and for Wolverine it offers a chance to define a future and purpose for himself among the mutant population. The man who began as an outcast and loner, abused and used as a weapon, has found himself as one of the most prominent members of a mutant nation.  Percy has been building on the broken fragments of Wolverine’s history in the service of moving him forward, and in doing so is building out the characters’ mythos that illustrate why his character is so enduring and worthy of his status as one of Marvel’s preeminent heroes.

For Wolverine, the past– fragmented, ever-present, haunting–has given him the experience needed to protect future generations from the kinds of torment he has suffered. Every fight, every cut, every death, is worth it if it means that those who come after him might know one more day without experiencing the pain that so long defined him. He’ll be the undying monster that feeds on that pain, every time. 


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