RETRO REVIEW: Wolverine #17 (November 1989)

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Hey, have you guys heard about this neat new Wolverine guy?  I think he could someday be as big as Howard The Duck!

Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

Wolverine17CoverWOLVERINE #17
Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: John Byrne
Inker: Klaus Janson
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Letterer: Jim Novak
Editor: Bob Harras
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price:  $1.50
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00

Previously in Wolverine: Though he’d only been around for about fifteen years our time, the man then known as Logan had been through a lot by the fall of ’89, having lost his love Mariko, been ambushed repeatedly by Sabretooth, discovered bits and pieces of his past, and even “died” with the X-Men in Dallas.  Having relocated his personal base of operations to the hidden island city of Madripoor, and taken on the identity of Patch (brilliantly disguising himself as a guy who looks just like Wolverine with an eyepatch), he thought he had found some continuity in his life.

Turns out the world was ready to prove that assumption wrong…   Wolverine171 The ongoing battle against his own animal tendencies is also not going well for the shortest X-Man, and he finds himself ashamed of his urge to hunt, to kill…  Wolverine is a complex character, tough to get right, but Archie Goodwin quickly finds an interesting take on him.  There are those who think I hate Wolverine and all Wolverine stories, but that’s not actually true.  I hate when Wolverine tales are all surface, throwing in a few “best there is at what I do” clichés, adding more dead girlfriends and useless baggage and generally being bone-headed idiocy.  (Yes, I am talking about the Mark Guggenheim run, thank you.)  Luckily for Logan, he is no longer as alone as he was in the wilds of Canada years ago…

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I also like the use of Wolverine’s friendships to ground him, dealing with the fact that the man calls himself a loner, but has a vast legion of people willing to fight for his continued survival.  It’s a fun dichotomy to play with.  This issue is John Byrne’s first Wolverine issue as penciler, and it was positioned back in ’89 as a whole new jumping-on point for Wolverine’s adventures, but I have to say it’s weird to see him paired with Klaus Janson (known mostly for his Daredevil work with Miller.)  The combination of styles ends up being neither fully Janson nor fully Byrne, and while I’m not sure that’s for the best, it’s a fascinating take.  Having shown us the tortured center of Logan’s character at the time, Goodwin quickly sets him down in his new home, throwing him (through the teleporting powers of Gateway) into the hive of scum and villainy that is the city of Madripoor…

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Another thing that is fun about this issue is the way it finally tries to reconcile Wolverine’s monthly appearances in Madripoor in his own book with the X-Men living in an abandoned village in Australia in their own title, giving us a textual explanation of the hows and whys of his timeline (something I often wish we still had in some of today’s comics, especially regarding Captain America, Batman and Iron Man’s continuity.)

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Aaaaand, we transition into Wolverine’s adventures as a ladies’ man, effortlessly tying together all of the various threads of his character into one for the first time in my memory.  Writer Goodwin was a fan of old-school comic strips and pulp stories, and imbues Madripoor with a ‘Terry And The Pirates’ sensibility that I truly enjoy.  Of course, we’re not reading the comic just to hear the things we already know about the character, as the creative team begins setting up conflicts and plots to test the mettle of our hero’s skeleton…

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“Prince Baran” seems to be a pretty transparent Flash Gordon reference, doesn’t it?  Again, I find the art fascinating to look at, as two skilled artists combine their prowess into a strange melange of both, seemingly switching back and forth from “Byrne-look” to “Janson-look” from panel to panel.  Note the strongly Byrne face in this first panel here…

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Logan quickly goes old-school, leaping across the rooftops of Lowtown, using his hyper-senses and agility to follow the drug-dealers.  I remember being very amused and entertained by Wolverine’s turn as a Batman-style vigilante detective when I read this issue ‘lo those many years ago, in the summer before I went to college.  Seeing him acting less like a feral brute and more like a heroic (albeit flawed) protagonist was impressive to me…

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There are, admittedly, some serious issues with the coloring in this book, not all of which can be attributed to the technology of the time.  Big flats of purple and green tend to mute large portions of the issue, and there’s a tendency to paint over detail with big patches of solid color, something that bothers me.  As for the story, Wolverine is initially unable to find the source of the drugs, but we, the readers, are treated to a flashback sequence (starring Daredevil, who looks fabulous under the pens of Byrne and Janson) explaining a bit more about the cocaine and its fatal properties, leaving us with the introduction of the man called Geist…

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I’ll admit it: For years, I conflated Geist with the similarly designed Cyber, who likewise fought Wolverine in black leather and plates of silvery stuff.  Either way, Geist proves his villainy by turning his evil ministrations to Roughhouse, who was already established as one of the heavies in Lowtown, using the old Vince McMahon theory of a new badass being “put over” by beating the old.  We close the issue with a shot that’s as cool as it is important…

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…the first shot (save for that iconic cover) of Logan in costume as Wolverine.  It’s something of a telling moment to me, actually, that they saved this shot for last, not just because it serves as a very interesting cliffhanger shot, but because of how methodically the writing has established our main character from the ground-up.  It’s an example of how even the much-maligned Wolverine, in the hands of the right creative team, can have compelling stories told about him.  It’s easy these days to dismiss Wolverine as nothing more than a shell upon which the creative team can project whatever they want (or, even more cynically, whatever will sell), or to somehow imply that his overwhelming popularity ruins the character, but there’s a lot of good stuff to be had at the core of the Wolverine, and this issue is an example of how to really tell a story about and around the central protagonist, without having to rely on the reader to fill in the gaps of WHY they care about the story being told.  (That sentence seems to have a lot of implications about the current state of comics in general, not that I think about it.  Hmmmm.)  Wolverine #17 does the trick as a jumping-on point, serving as a “first issue” to relaunch the character while making it clear what is so cool about him in the first place, earning 3 out of 5 stars overall.