I'll be honest: I didn't expect anything extraordinary from "Strange Tales II" #1. I bought it eagerly, and I was looking forward to reading it, sure, but I thought it would be just another fun comic along the lines of the previous "Strange Tales" anthology - you know, the one with the cover blurb by our own Chad Nevett? I assumed that it would be jokey and good-looking and would be a chance for some alternative creators to do their riff on the Marvel stable of characters.

It's the kind of thing that we see every once in a while, on DC's "Bizarro Comics" or "Bizarro World" hardcovers, or in "Girl Comics" from Marvel. The stories look cool or different or iconoclastic, but they tend to be based around goofy little gags or slightly twisted conceits designed to evoke laughter or...ironic laughter. It's the kind of stuff I like, and in "Strange Tales II" #1 we get a brilliant example of that kind of story as Kate Beaton presents a hilarious look at the Kraven/Spider-Man relationship in two gleefully savage pages.

But there's something else going on in "Strange Tales II" #1. It's a Wolverine story by Rafael Grampa. And it's not a goofy, hip "indy" take on the Marvel Universe. It's eight pages of pain and pathos and beauty, and it is not only one of the best comic book stories of the year, but it may be the perfect Wolverine story.

For all the great Wolverine stories out there - and there have been plenty, honestly, though I'm partial to ones drawn by Sam Keith instead of Barry Windsor Smith, and I think the Jason Aaron/Yanick Paquette "Insane in the Brain" arc of "Weapon X" is far superior to the Claremont/Miller "Wolverine" miniseries that helped define the character - never has the character been so effectively distilled to his brutal, painful essence in such a magnificent-looking way.

Rafael Grampa's "Mesmo Delivery" (first released through AdHouse, then reprinted by Dark Horse) may have been an artistic tour-de-force, but in this eight-page Wolverine story from "Strange Tales II" #1, Grampa layers his impassioned, expressive art with a substantial bit of humanity. It may be simplified, comic book superhero humanity, but that's where the purity of the effect comes in. At their best, all superhero comics are romanticized metaphors for the human drama, and when they are razor-sharp, like Grampa's Wolverine story, they cut to the bone. And they make everything else look like so much baggy, saggy meandering around the point. Like filler designed to bloat and expand the page count to fill up a comic, or a collected edition.

Grampa gives us the essence. Eight pages of it.

Though Grampa draws the cover of the issue, and it showcases his hyper-detailed, lumpenly-elegant forms, it doesn't relate to the story inside the issue. It's no heroic fantasy of Avengers proportions. No, the story inside is dirty and fierce, a locker-room and sweaty-stage production. Gritty in the way that word used to mean before it was co-opted by comics like "Darkhawk" or "Punisher 2099."

Grampa's Wolverine story begins with four horizontal panels - a page composition that will repeat at the end of the story - and a wordless image of a bloody heart, flying across a field of grey. Surely if there's a central symbol in Western culture that we would all agree upon, it would be the familiar image of the bilaterally-symmetrical heart. It's meaning is so universal that to use it symbolically in a comic book story would be too obvious. Yes, a heart symbolizes love, we get it, and from age three we know how to put it on the cards we make for our loved ones. It's a primal symbol, and it has lost its potency because of it.

Yet the heart Grampa gives us in that first panel, a heart not diluted into an icon, but one that has weight and oozing valves, that is the kind of heart that has symbolic power. Particularly when it's flying through the air. And it's the opening to what amounts to a Wolverine love story. (All the best Wolverine stories are love stories in the end.)

And the mise-en-scene of the rest of the page provides context for why a bloody heart would fly across a panel, as we pull back to see a cheering crowd surrounding a wrestling ring, the announcer holding up the arm of the winner - a shaggy variation on Sabretooth - and saying "Don't keep it as a souvenir, people, this man needs his heart!" The man he seems to be referring to, we learn on the next page, is Wild Child, or the Grampa version of the character, like Sabretooth part of the Wolverine family of feral healers in the Marvel Universe.

But Grampa gives us a new take on their eternal struggle, focusing the whole of the great superhero conflict - the endless battles, the spectacle, the suffering, the glory - around a single arena. It recasts these characters as pure fighters, and strips away the melodrama of cosmic events and villainous schemes. These are the characters in their pure, violent form. Battling because that's what they do, and the fans eat it up.

Wolverine doesn't appear on the first page of the story. Not fully anyway. All we see is his hat, and a bit of his ears and hair, a sliver of eyebrow. He walks beneath the final panel on page one, barely visible, in front of a poster that shows Sabretooth and Wild Child posed beside a giant "VS." Two opposed forces, locked in conflict. Grampa sets up everything on that first page - the violence of love and the allure of the battle - and Wolverine just slides right in beneath.

The conceit Grampa frames this story around is the worst break-up in Wolverine's life. Or the only break-up, as this story seems to tell the one Wolverine tale that matters. The one about how his twisted need for violence and pain pushed his lover beyond the edge of reason, and how he lost everything he wanted because he couldn't control his addiction to suffering. In this Marvel Universe-as-bloody-spectator-sport reimagining (or, as I'd argue, distillation) Wolverine's emotional pain is contrasted with the physical beating he takes from Deadpool - or Deadpool's son as he self-identifies in the story, since this seems not only to be an alternate version of the Marvel Universe of Wolverine, but a future alternative version. Or ultimate version, but without Magneto senselessly killing everyone.

In the locker room talk before the fight, Deadpool brags, "I'm young and I heal faster." Wolverine pops out a single claw, slicing through his own skin as it protrudes, and replies, "well, today Uncle Logan's gonna teach you what it takes to be good at what we do, kid."

"That must hurt," says Deadpool.

"Hurt?" Wolverine responds, before popping all his claws toward the reader, "You don't know what pain is, yet."

The startling power of that scene comes not from Wolverine's threat of violence, but from this cliche representation of the threat - we've seen and heard this same sort of stuff in dozens of Wolverine stories in the past - contrasted with the pain Wolverine's talking about, which we don't realize until a reread. This isn't a threat of violence, as Wolverine pops his claws, it's self-flagellation. The pain he inflicts upon others is never as severe as what he inflicts upon himself.

Grampa's transition from that panel to the top of the next page - corresponding with a page turn - is viciously effective, as we get five layers of meaning wrapped up in a single image. It's (a) Wolverine backed up in a corner, against the ropes. But (b) he's stuck through with six or seven bladed weapons, and even a dart and a stick. And yet he's (c) smiling. And (d) saying, "Ouch." And, (e), the flowery font above his head reads, "Dear Logan." If this eight-page Wolverine story is the essential Wolverine tale, and it quite possibly is, than this top panel on page four is its essential image. It packs the whole story within its borders.

Wolverine's love, who we learn is someone named Sophie (on the final page), says goodbye to Wolverine in this letter. A letter that Wolverine sees back in the locker room before the fight and reads, alone, somberly on the final page of the story. But the words of the letter appear throughout the fight with Deadpool. Sophie's words of anger and frustration - not at something minor as being ignored by Wolverine, or not being emotionally supported, or even at being put in dangerous situations, but at being put into a role that she cannot fill, as lover and torturer to the main who lives only through his pain - contrast with Wolverine taking stabs and slices from Deadpool in the ring. And the sound of Sophie's letter only pauses to allow Wolverine time to make a comment or two as he slices off Deadpool's head.

"The secret to be good at this," says Logan, " is not to be young and heal fast, kid. The secret is to have a good relationship with the pain."

But the only kind of pain Wolverine feels comfortable with is the physical kind, and throughout the fight with Deadpool, we get bloody flashes of his life with Sophie. Of her stabbing at him with an ice pick. Of Wolverine lying in a bloody bed, as Sophie gasps at how far she has been asked to go. As Wolverine laughs at the pain she has physically put him in, for kicks.

Yet the final page - the four horizontal panels in parallel to the opening page, but only a metaphorically torn-out heart on display here - shows the real pain. Four nearly silent panels of Logan in the locker room after the fight, healing from his multiple stab wounds and deep lacerations, still bloody, but as the camera pulls back in the final three panels, we see the small Wolverine, alone with his sadness.

"I can't heal from every kinda hurt, darlin'."

The sentiment is obvious, perhaps, but in Grampa's hands, it is overwhelmingly powerful. This may be "Strange Tales II" #1, but there's no ironic gag at the center of this story. No goofy take on superheroes from an alt-comics point of view. Just sex and violence and love and death and everything in between. In eight pages. The perfect Wolverine story, made real with Grampa's pen and brush. Pain as life. The metaphor of Wolverine.

In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

Tags: marvel comics, wolverine, rafael grampa, kate beaton, strange tales ii, when words collide

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