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Sep 2

Savage Wolverine #21-22 – “The Great War”

Posted on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 by Paul in x-axis

This came out two weeks ago, and was rather overshadowed for our purposes by some of the other stuff that was out.  But let’s deal with it quickly before time moves too far on.

With the centenary of World War I extending for the next four years, perhaps we should expect a number of stories to take a crack at it.  Now nestled safely beyond the sensitivities of living memory, World War I has a well settled place in popular culture: it’s the war that symbolises the slaughterous futility of war.

If you want wartime heroics in Europe, you do World War II, which offers both excitement and some clear cut baddies.  Nobody sets a story in World War I any more unless it’s going to be miserable.  Partly this is due to the conditions of trench warfare, even though those were primarily a consequence of the level of military technology in 1914, rather than an inherent feature of war.  Partly it’s because the immediate triggers for World War I were relatively trivial, giving the impression of a war that wasn’t about anything in particular – which is very much a hindsight view.

John Arcudi and Joe Quinones’ “The Great War” skips the trenches by setting itself near the end of the war, but still plays the futility card fairly heavily.  It’s very near the end of the war, and everyone on both sides knows it – which means that they’re almost going through the motions while they wait for the war to end.  Or at least they could.

Logan is in the Canadian military, in a rather odd unit that also features a physically fragile telepath, Lieutenant Bellamy.  Bellamy and Logan are both openly serving as superhuman soldiers (Bellamy could hardly be passed off as a normal soldier anyway), but as men in uniform rather than a proto-superhero  In an interesting touch, it’s played as something that’s entirely familiar to the entire unit and calls for no explanation whatever; it’s just the way things work in the Marvel Universe.

The unit’s mission is to capture the last bridge across some river or other, and more importantly, to stop the Germans from blowing it up first.  On the other side are the Germans, under the command of Captain Hiban, an entirely decent man who – once he realises he’s under attack and losing – is absolutely determined to blow up the bridge.

All this leads to a story of the “you can’t escape your nature” variety.  Precisely because the causes of World War I are obscure, it’s really just a matter of national ancestry which side the characters happen to be on.  Logan is there, not because he’s a hero in any sense, but simply because he’s a reliable killer; he’s being used as a weapon here, not so much by conscious manipulation from the authorities, but simply by giving him the opportunity to be true to himself.

Bellamy, an overenthusiastic telepath who doesn’t realise the extent to which he’s messing with other people’s minds, isn’t especially heroic either; he certainly wants to be the good guy, but he equates this simply with being part of the group.  He’s not a particularly bad guy, but he’s deluding himself that he’s a better person than he really is.

And of course, that leaves Hiban, despite being the antagonist, to be positioned as the only really heroic character in the story.  He’s prepared to sacrifice himself to try and get the bridge destroyed, and crucially, this is not simply because he’s following orders.  The war is ending soon anyway; if he slows down the Allied advance a bit, at least fewer people will die in the meantime.  This actually counts as noble, within the limits of the situation.

The story’s other main conceit is to have Logan and Hiban linked together in their dreams, thanks to Bellamy’s botched telepathy reconnaissance, so that they recognise each other when they meet.  Obviously this is intended to flag up the parallels between the two and to allow Logan at least some glimmer of possibility for change, by having him show some appreciation of Hiban’s favourite music.

Quinones’ art has a strong sense of place and a great use of shadow, combined with wonderfully clear storytelling and nicely subtle expressions on his characters.  And having established a measured tone for most of the story, he’s able to get across Logan’s violent impulses very effectively simply by having those pages dial up the exaggeration just a touch – something the colouring helps by throwing in some neon backdrops at odds with the muted realism of the rest of the issue.  It’s a great example of the advantages of setting a style for a story that leaves you with somewhere to go when you need it.

A straightforward enough story, and a solidly good entry in the series.

Bring on the comments

  1. Omar Karindu says:

    It’s worth noting that the Great War occupies a much more marginal place in the American popular consciousness. WWI is a mostly forgotten war in the States, discussed mostly in terms of the way it led to WWII (which is, in turn, endlessly fetishized as America’s Shinng Hour of “saving the rest of the world,” never mind the Battle of Britain, the Free French, the entire Eastern Front…..)

    All of that means that this story is in the odd position of making perfect sense for the character, who’s not only Canadian but long established as a veteran of the First World War, but probably feeling like an oddball period piece to the majority of the likely audience.

    Of course, that’s still an improvement on the previous major Marvel take on the war, which was that it primarily involved a man dressed up as the British flag fighting traitorous vampires. That was a rather weird superimposition of American WWII jingo onto the British end of WWI; Michael Gove would love it.

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