Comic Series* Mark Millar/Steve McNiven * Superhero Post-Apocalypse * 2008
What a weird thing…. Okay look, I don’t know from comics. They never really appealed to me as a kid, so I never seriously got into them. I think there was a point where I tried, because I had friends who were into the whole deal but it was like, eh. In retrospect I think my problem was largely economic. Here’s the basic proposition to twelve-year-old me: I can spend three dollars to buy a comic book, which will take me approximately eleven minutes to read. It definitely won’t be a self-contained story and I had no way of knowing at the time where to even start. It would be like picking up a novel, starting with chapter nine and setting it down after chapter twelve. Who are these people? What are they doing? Some of this looks cool, sure, but it’s impossible to form a connection to characters or a story like that. Okay, so that’s option A. Option B is me spending the same three dollars at the used book store and buying a schlocky Dean Koontz novel instead. That’ll take me at least a couple of days to blast through, I get a full story and I can move on, satisfied. This is not an argument about how smart I was as a kid, over here reading novels instead of your *sniffs haughtily* comic books. No, I was reading trash then. It was simply a matter of how much entertainment time my limited funds could buy.
Flash forward to being a gross adult and now I have more money but less time. The problem now is that I don’t have that history, that nostalgia, to fuel an ongoing love for comic franchises. Superhero movies, with a few exceptions, are boring. Probably the most notable exception to this rule was Logan, which not only grittified the genre, but also told an affecting, desolate tale pretty much anyone who lives in this country could get into. I liked it so much I sought out the source material, and here we are. Old Man Logan, it turns out, barely has anything to do with the movie. Like, there are a few thematic similarities, but the overall character and plot and setting have little or nothing in common. Logan is a film that requires a basic knowledge of iconic X-Men characters and little else, as the setting is a dire but recognizable future America that looks pretty much the same as right now. The story is affecting because of the way it trades on our sense of lost nobility, of a time when heroes mode sense. The film works even if you only have a broad sense of the iconic American superhero because of the apocalyptic overtones in which that superhero is ultimately overwhelmed by crushing post-modernity.
Old Man Logan is a different situation entirely, mostly because it depends more heavily upon an ongoing investment in the characters and stories and overall history of Marvel comics. Pretty much anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to pop culture knows who Wolverine is. The same could be said for most of the other characters who show up over the course of Old Man Logan, either in reference or in person. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a pretty wide reach. That said, even though I recognize most of the characters in here – even the lame Avenger whose superpower is archery – I don’t really have the background information necessary to discern if what they’re doing in this story are faithful to their character or not.
The story is more broadly told than in Logan, which for all its gritty bombast is still reliant on character subtlety. Old Man Logan is not subtle. I don’t know if that’s par for the course when it comes to comics, but here at least personalities are larger than life and motives are simple. America is in shambles. The supervillains took over and destroyed all but a few of the good guys. Wolverine is lame now. He’s a husk of his former self and is basically Amish. The Hulk is a bad guy? And an incestuous hillbilly? I don’t know, but his gross kids force lame-Wolverine to trek across the wasteland to have fucked up adventures with the aforementioned archer guy, who is kind of awesome now. Look, there are a lot of weird things happening in Old Man Logan, most of which I don’t understand at all, but that’s fine. I like weird things. There’s just enough iconic imagery being subverted here that I still dig it, even though I’m sure the proceedings are more surrealistic for me than they would be for someone well-versed in the source material. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason fuckin’ dinosaurs are running around all willy-nilly! I definitely wasn’t expecting a Jurassic Park mash-up, but whatever, it’s here, I just accept it and move on.
Actually, there’s one thing that’s difficult for me to accept, and that’s the mysterious reason a book depicting just ridiculous abject gratuitous violence refuses to swear. Like, every other page of this book features someone getting beheaded or disemboweled or having limbs ripped off or getting an arrow through the nose or munched on by a goddamn dinosaur, but anytime someone says a bad word it gets bleeped. Wolverine rips a motherfucking cow in half but an occasional f-bomb is going to scar the reader? I’m so confused. I can only assume this is some relic of comic publishing that I don’t get. Anyway, moving on.
Old Man Logan isn’t really for me but I enjoyed it anyway, mostly because of the gross subversion of superhero tropes which, let’s be honest, are pretty stale at this point. The world presented here is a post-supervillain apocalypse, in which the bad guys finally stopped fucking around and banded together in order to overthrow the cadre of superheroes protecting the world. As seems to be the standard for this kind of thing, the known world begins and ends with the United States. There’s a throwaway mention about the rest of the world, although Red Skull dismisses this by saying: “who’d want it now, anyway?” Indeed. Anyway, the U.S. is divided up amongst the biggest of the bads, and everything is terrible.
Bruce Banner, otherwise known as the Incredible Hulk, is evil. Having little to no background knowledge, this struck me as odd, and is the first subversion of expectations. Since we’re dealing with comics, the imagery tends to be more important than the setup. The most affecting scenes in Old Man Logan are shocking because they’re unexpected. The bad guys aren’t supposed to win, we all know this, it’s fundamental to the genre. Yet the book begins not only with the bad guys winning, but winning with the help of a supposed good guy, Bruce Banner. He’s become a perverted, distorted version of his usual self. The man himself doesn’t even show up until the end, but the entire adventure kicks off with Hulk’s savage hillbilly offspring who show up and kick the shit out of an apparently pacifist former-Wolverine. The entire setup is an inversion of expectation, and that’s what makes it fun.
The decimation of the superheroes was nearly complete, and vestiges from their annihilation creep up in the post-apocalyptic world in creepy and unsettling ways. Not subtle, mind you – there’s big old splash pages with people worshipping a broken Thor’s hammer and another of Mad Max-esque Ghost Riders terrorizing the night – but still a constant reminder that the might of the noble and righteous is fragile. If you were uncertain about this, Old Man Logan is still going to smack you over the head with it: Check out this dope Mount Rushmore with Red Skull superimposed on it. Better yet, enjoy this scene in which Wolverine is tricked into thinking the X-Men were bad guys and he just murders the everloving fuck out of them. Oh, speaking of Red Skull, how about the clearest image of the entire book, an old Red Skull wearing the tattered costume of his vanquished nemesis, Captain America, while surveying the trophies of other dead heroes?
There is a stark difference in the approach Logan takes in dealing with the dark, uncertain future and the seeming glee Old Man Logan is enjoying depicting the post-apocalypse. First of all, the film is taking this shit seriously. Logan isn’t some ham-fisted pacifist in the film, shit, the first scene sees him tearing apart a bunch of jamokes because they shot his car. Rather he’s a deeply wounded character, haunted by a horrific past but still scratching a feeble loyalty out of the depths of his being, which is enough to push him forward towards a deeply uncertain future. Meanwhile, Old Man Logan is the stereotyped warrior-who-has-set-down-his-blade-until-he’s-pushed-too-far type. He also has a horrific past which haunts him, but his actions throughout the book don’t really dig into this, he simply reacts by not popping his sick Wolverine claws until the very end, when you get a two-page exclamation of SNIKT! And, okay book, you’ve been waiting the whole time to drop that, so it’s fun, but it’s saying nothing about his character other than “oh shit, Wolvie’s back motherfuckerrrrrr!”
And that’s awesome. I’m not over here trying to tell you there’s no room for both of these stories in the world. It was just surprising to me, having seen the film first, how very different the book is. Also, yes, I understand that this isn’t really a source material. It’s an inspiration for the film, not an adaptation. Even so, the character and world depicted in Old Man Logan have more in common with Mad Max than anything else. It’s a gleeful take on the apocalypse which trades on the disruption of our expectations and joyfully subverts iconic imagery. There’s a primitive exuberance that accompanies a story like this, in which we can enjoy the burning of the old order without actually having to experience it. This book is a good time, dinosaurs and all.