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May 30

Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine #1-6

Posted on Monday, May 30, 2011 by Paul in x-axis

“Another Fine Mess”

Writer: Jason Aaron
Penciller: Adam Kubert
Inkers: Mark Morales, Dexter Vines, Mark Roslan
Colourist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: Rob Steen
Editor: Nick Lowe

You might have forgotten this, but the Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine miniseries which wrapped up last week was supposed to be part of a whole Astonishing imprint.  The idea – and I quote here from Marvel’s own press release – was that “Each book in the imprint features all-star characters by top-tier creative teams and serves as the perfect jumping on point for both casual readers and hardcore fans.”  This was supposed to hark back to Astonishing X-Men‘s days as the book that had Joss Whedon working on it.

What happened in practice was that the Astonishing minis didn’t do all that well in terms of sales.  The March issue of this book had estimated sales of around 24K in the North American direct market, which is the territory of X-Factor and Wolverine: The Best There Is – not exactly prestige numbers.  Astonishing Thor doesn’t even clear 20K.  To judge from the solicitations, Marvel seem to have quietly given up on the imprint, and I can’t say I blame them.

But still, we have this – a six issue miniseries, strangely shipped on a bimonthly schedule which did it no real favours.  And while I’d struggle to describe it as a “jumping on point”, it is at least self-contained.  Jason Aaron seems to have taken the remit as an invitation to write something completely off the wall, freed from having to worry about broader continuity, at least as long as he doesn’t wreck the toys too badly.

Aaron’s clearly fond of working absurdity into his Wolverine stories, and a lot of the time it works well for him.  He’s got the knack of chucking in completely off the wall concepts, without derailing the story altogether.  He makes insanity part of the ground rules, instead of seeming like a parody.

Well, this series pushes that about as far as it can go.  There’s a plot – sort of – but this is a shamelessly demented book which goes out of its way to hammer home the fact that it doesn’t make sense.  It kicks off with Spider-Man and Wolverine stranded on prehistoric Earth, where they’ve apparently been stuck for several months.  A flashback fills us in that they ended up here after foiling a bank robbery by D-list villain the Orb, when something odd happened with some magic jewels.  From there on, the book keeps ratcheting up the nonsense.  The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs strikes.  The heroes are catapulted into the far future where humanity is dead, a robot version of Devil Dinosaur is stalking Manhattan, and Peter Parker is the last science teacher alive.  There’s a gun that fires the Phoenix Force.  There’s a ridiculous (and hilarious) twist on Ego the Living Planet.  There’s a crazy drug dealer called Czar with a time travel baseball bat who’s screwing with everyone Just Because.  There’s a brief trip into each other’s origin stories.

It’s mad, and it wants you to know that it’s mad.  It plays well to Adam Kubert’s strengths as an artist; he gets a lot of opportunities to go wild, but he also gets to do some world-building, and he’s able to shift gears when Aaron does want to give the characters a moment of lucidity.  A book like this needs an artist who’s willing to go big, and Kubert delivers that.

If anything, it’s a questionable move to bring out Mojo as the underlying villain, since he’s been playing this sort of role for so long that instead of making things weirder, he actually yanks the book back onto safe and familiar territory.  Spider-Man even says as much, so perhaps it’s a deliberate choice to try and give the main plot at least some shape.

Except if the book was just intended to be lunacy, you’d expect it to build to a conventional climax.  And that’s not really what happens.  Issue #5 ends with Wolverine turning into Dark Phoenix, a typically over the top cliffhanger.  But issue #6 is pretty much a deliberate anticlimax.  We’re told that Spider-Man talked Wolverine down, but we don’t actually see much of it – and what we do get is only in flashback.  The rest of the issue turns out to be Peter and Logan stuck in the old west, along with a woman who Mojo threw in as an arbitrary love interest.  They’ve been there for three years.  They’re settling down and Peter declares that the point of the whole exercise must have been to bring him together with said love interest…

…and then the Time Variance Authority, of all people, show up to hit the cosmic reset button.  The end.

The last few pages are a montage of what various characters are up to, with Spider-Man delivering a depressed monologue to the effect that everything we’ve just read was meaningless.

Now that, by any standards, is an odd way to end a comic.

I think what Aaron was going for – given the last panel, with Wolverine looking at the palm of his hand in an echo of a “blood brothers” sequence from earlier in the issue – is that the two start off the series not talking to one another, and over time become friends, and Wolverine still remembers that.  The plot was insane and pointless; in Spider-Man’s mind, the only important thing was the girl who he didn’t get and who doesn’t remember him; but Wolverine remembers getting to like him more, and that’s enough.  It’s a little oasis of meaning in a meaningless world, but it’s enough.

Does that work?  Well… Wolverine does start off not talking to Spider-Man, and does grow more friendly towards him over the course of the series.  That change is obscured by telling most of the story from the standpoint of Spider-Man, who was always willing to talk.  So yes, there is a change.  Does it feel like a particularly organic one?  Tricky.  Aaron’s had to introduce an artificial level of tension in the first place so that their relationship has somewhere to go over the course of the series, and that kind of undermines what he was going for.  Within the logic of these six issues, yes, there’s a change; but it’s really more of a restoration of the status quo.

Then again, the whole conceit here seems to be that it’s a very, very minor thing, but enough to give meaning to insanity.  If the change in their relationship was clearer, it wouldn’t work; at best, it would be schmaltzy.  It’s an ending that’s likely to infuriate some readers, but I think on balance Aaron pulls it off.

It should be said that the series seems to make two other attempts to give the story wider significance.  The epilogue seems to have Dog from Origin showing up in the present day, presumably to cause trouble in Aaron’s Wolverine series.  And then there’s the love interest, who is finally named in the last issue as Sara Bailey.  This could just be coincidence – and if it’s a deliberate reference, it’s one that Aaron can’t possibly have expected most readers to get – but Sara Bailey was the married name of Jean Grey’s sister.  Sara went missing in the early issues of X-Factor, in a prominent subplot that was swiftly forgotten about, and she was never seen again.  (She was reported dead in 1994 during the Phalanx Covenant crossover, but we never saw a body.  The plot, if you can call it that, hasn’t been touched in 17 years.)

Is this supposed to be the same character?  Seems unlikely, given that she’s wearing a Star of David necklace, but on the other hand, it does make for an odd brother/sister parallel with Wolverine and Jean. Perhaps it’s just Aaron’s way of teasing continuity wonks. Or maybe it’s just a really odd coincidence.

The overcrowded nature of Marvel continuity results in a lot of miniseries that can’t really do anything and don’t really matter.  With their remit of being standalone stories, the Astonishing imprint was always going to have trouble doing stories that “mattered”.  Rather cleverly, Aaron has turned that to his advantage by doing a story which doesn’t just Not Matter, but Doesn’t Matter on a cosmically pointless scale, openly challenging the reader to find some meaning in it anyway.  And, at the same time, it works simply on the level of being a lunatic parade of enjoyable nonsense.  Very eccentric, but by god, it commits to the idea and makes it work.

Bring on the comments

  1. Tom says:

    Years ago at a signing I asked Claremont about Jean’s sister. I remember him saying that she was intended to be Nanny and the story was shunted over to X-factor. It never got resolved due to crossovers. Way off track but I love stuff like that.

  2. Brendan says:

    I have to say, as someone who has never read a story with Mojo in it, he seemed to work perfectly within the story. The ‘Reality TV’ concept seemed perfect within the ‘logic’ of the story. And his dialogue! Hilarious.

  3. Reboot says:

    We did see Sara as part of the Phalanx in one of the X-Men issues, IIRC.

  4. Reboot says:

    We did see Sara as part of the Phalanx in one of the X-Men issues, #36 IIRC.

  5. Typing_Monkey says:

    One of the major problems lies in the final issue, in that the relationship with Sara Bailey is rendered completely moot.

    Peter Parker finds unambiguous happiness with her in the Wild West past. Which is fine. Then, when they return to the current timeline, she has no recollection of who she is, and Spidey slinks off to mope.

    This is particularly odd. Because if there’s anything to Peter Parker’s character, it’s a tenacity. Surely just giving up like he does is completely out of character. He knows where she works…surely as plain old Peter Parker he can go into the bank and ask her out on a date, and get to know her, if that relationship meant so much to him.

    Of course, he has a relationship currently working in ASM. And if that relationship is supposed to be strong, then the relationship with Sara only serves to undermine what Dan Slott is doing in Spider-Man’s own book.

    There is a level of “Don’t Matter-ness” that is fine, however this moment of character undermines both this book and the parent Spider-Man title, and surely is ill-advised.

  6. Michael P says:

    I wonder if the whole bit with the love interest was commentary on Marvel’s more-or-less stated policy that Peter can’t ever be happy, to the point of cosmic reset buttons being used to take away his happiness.

  7. Thomas says:

    Is there a website somewhere with a fairly up to date list of dropped or unfinished x-men storylines? I remember when “the 12” was the big story everyone thought would be ignored forever.

  8. Dan says:

    Guessing this doesn’t work as an all ages book? It sounds like something I wouldn’t mind getting for my Spidey-loving seven year old nephew.

  9. entzauberung says:

    I don’t know what standards you have (but there weren’t too much sex/violence in this) – I can only say that 30 year old entzauberung thought this was really fun, but 7 year old entauberung would have loved it to bits.

  10. Taibak says:

    Thomas: has a list. They call them ‘danglers’ or something like that.

  11. Paul says:

    Dan: the series is rated T+, presumably on the strength of a couple of brief moments of graphic violence (played as comedy) and references to drinking.

  12. wwk5d says:

    “We did see Sara as part of the Phalanx in one of the X-Men issues, IIRC.”

    I think it wasn’t her, per se. One of the Phalanx was giving Banshee and some of the others background info on the history of the Phalanx, and he shifted part of her body to look like Sarah. I think he said something about how she was used by them or something, being an unwilling participant.

    We did see a Phalanx as Candy Southern (Suthern?) before the Phalanx crossover in an issue of Uncanny…

  13. Mike says:

    Wasn’t that Candy one of those prime Sentinels? Archangel’s girlfriend, no?

  14. Tre says:

    Longtime reader of this and the X-Axis here.

    I consistently bought the series, though constantly against my better judgement. I felt that Aaron’s inherent message–“nothing matters”–was interesting enough, but it’s hard to plunk down $4/issue for a comic that revels in going nowhere and seemingly squanders a good creative team on a year-long editorial comment.

    I also didn’t enjoy this series as much due to Aaron’s choice of depiction of Czar and Lil Hammer (or whatever their names are)–I’m sure it’s due to my own personal identification as an Af-Am male, but I found their characterizations rooted in boring, offensive stereotypes.

    There’s plenty of us that don’t just talk ‘street’ and whatnot, you know.

    Loved the art though.

  15. @ Mike: if I’m remembering my 15 year old X-Men stories correctly, it was Candy Southern’s roommate who was the Prime Sentinel, which demonstrates a very thorough approach on Bastion’s part when it comes to creating sleeper agents.

  16. Brad Curran says:

    That ending didn’t sit well initially (even if I did appreciate the blood brothers call back). Then again, I haven’t re-read the whole thing. I was enjoying the bi-monthly “lunatic parade of enjoyable nonsense” and found each issue to be a pleasant addition to my weekly stack up until the last issue. So I appreciate your giving it some context I hadn’t thought of.

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