WOLVERINE AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY
Barry Lyga has some serious geek cred. I had a long chat with him last fall about the “Legion of Super-Heroes” (after he contributed a piece to the “Teenagers from the Future” book I had edited), and he’s better known, of course, as the author of acclaimed young adult novels like “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl,” “Boy Toy,” and “Hero-Type.” If works like that didn’t plant him inside the sphere of awareness of comic book readers everywhere, then his newest book surely will, since it features everyone’s favorite Canadian mutant world-traveler: Wolverine.
In “Wolverine: Worst Day Ever,” Lyga explores the character from the perspective of a kid who doesn’t automatically worship the ground upon which Wolverine walks. But when I kicked off a lengthy e-mail discussion with Lyga, I was only partially interested in what his new book would be about (after all, we can read that in the pages of the book itself). I wanted to find out what it was like to try to bring a fresh take to a character as over-exposed as Wolverine. I wanted to see what made Lyga’s Wolverine tick, and to take some time to explore what was so special about the character. And, most of all, I wanted to explore whether or not a character like Wolverine could work outside the panel borders of a comic book or the dimensions of a movie screen. Oh, and also: is he just trying to jump on that “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” bandwagon, but with more snickety-snikt?
Tim Callahan: How do you write a novel about a comic book character? Isn’t the visual storytelling part of what makes Wolverine special? He might work as a comic book character, or even as a movie character, but does he work as well as a prose character? Does “snikt” lose its power without the accompanying images? (I know the novel includes some illustrations, but still…)
Barry Lyga: I get what you’re saying, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I had a moment of panic at first. Comics are a visual medium and superheroes — with their outlandish appearances and expressive powers– are such visual creatures that it seems problematic to reduce them to prose. I don’t want to insult any practitioners of the fine, dark art of superhero novelization, but I think we can probably count the truly great superhero novels on the fingers of one hand. Possibly even a hand involved in some sort of industrial accident.
But here’s the thing: I don’t necessarily think it’s the characters who require a visual storytelling medium. I think it’s the stories. I think most stories have an optimal medium, a sort of Platonic form that is most ideal for that particular narrative. It’s one of the reasons I was so damn curious to see “Watchmen” — that seems like a story idealized in the comic book medium, and I was curious to see how it would translate.
Digression aside, my point is that your average superhero story is historically heavy on action and spectacle. So comics are the best format for that story. But when Marvel approached me about writing this Wolverine story, they were very specific that they wanted a character-based novel. They didn’t care if Wolverine was doing triple backflips and slashing apart Sentinels or if he was meditating in the backyard, as long as it connected to the reader on a character level.
That freed me up to tell the kind of story I’m known for, which relies on character exploration and development as opposed to slash-em-up.
That said, there’s definitely action in this story. How could there not be? It’s Wolverine!
The fact that there are some illustrations in the book allowed me to take some welcome shortcuts. I didn’t have to describe Wolverine’s costume or claws because there were pictures. That’s where so many superhero novels sort of fall apart, I think — the necessity of using the sort of mundane (for lack of a better word) language of prose to describe very idealized beings. I mean, I suppose I COULD have typed, “Wolverine was about 5’4″, wearing a skintight yellow costume with blue scallops along the rib cage. His hair looked sort of like the way Dave Cockrum reimagined Timber Wolf’s — imagine that!” But I don’t think anyone would get a kick out of that. And no matter how accurately you describe a superhero’s costume, there’s nothing like seeing it in action. So it’s best just to get that out of the way and stop focusing on the traditional focus objects — costumes, haircuts, powers — and let the characters open up and breathe.
So if you’re doing a character-based novel on Wolverine, how do you determine his character? I’ve made this point elsewhere — probably lots of elsewheres, but I can’t remember exactly where — that Captain America doesn’t exist as a character. Roger Stern’s Captain America exists as a character. Or Stan Lee’s. Or Ed Brubaker’s. Or Mark Gruenwald’s. But even though there are similarities, each writer is going to characterize a comic book character in a different, personalized way.
What is the character of Wolverine? Are you using the Len Wein debut story characterization? The scruffy pugilist of the Greg Rucka run? The Claremont samurai warrior with a mean streak? Who is Barry Lyga’s Wolverine?
That’s an interesting philosophical as well as artistic point. I’m not sure I agree 100% — I would argue that it’s not that there is NO definitive character, but rather that the definitive character is seminal, extraordinary simplified, and, therefore imprintable — but for the sake of argument, I at least agree to a substantial percentage.
So, yeah, for lack of a better phrase, “Who is Wolverine?” when I sit down to write about him?
In my case, the nature of the book dictated the answer. The book is told from the POV of a kid named Eric Mattias. Eric is a new student at Xavier’s School and has — in his own words — the world’s suckiest mutant power. He’s got a very irreverent and jaundiced perspective on the whole “living as a mutant in a world that hates and fears them” deal, so that informs how he sees the characters, including Wolverine.
This meant that since I was seeing Wolverine through a newcomer’s eyes, I could include or ignore aspects of his history without feeling like I was doing violence to anyone’s favorite iteration. I mean, if you like the Greg Rucka Logan, then hey — there’s nothing in “Worst Day Ever” that will contradict that. Ditto the Len Wein version, the Claremont version, etc. I picked and chose the stuff that seemed to be endemic to the character (or the character’s history, if you prefer) and kept it. Everything else, I felt, didn’t have to be mentioned so long as I didn’t specifically contradict it in some way.
Now, we’re talking about a character with a thirty-year publishing history. As you pointed out, there are a LOT of different iterations of Wolverine out there. I’m sure something I wrote directly and specifically contradicts someone’s cherished memories, and I am genuinely sorry about that. But my brief was to introduce the character to a new generation of readers, to a new audience. I had to go with a streamlined Wolverine for that: tough guy, scrapper, mysterious, in no small amount of personal torment. And since the book is aimed at all ages, I tried to look at Wolverine from the point of view not of a guy my age saying, “Whoa, dude, he just shanked that guy with his claws! Excellent!” but rather from the point of view of a kid Eric’s age. A kid who’s trying to figure out his place in the world and sees this bad-ass adult who also seems to be wrestling with the same issue.
Long answer to your question! The shorter answer is: Hopefully he’s ALL of those Wolverines you cited. The ultimate goal for me was to create a new instantiation of the character that would be recognizable to fans of all his different versions.
But now I’m going to invert the question back on you: What are, in your estimation, the essential elements of the character?
Well, here we get into an interesting point, because there’s not only a Len Wein Wolverine and a Chris Claremont Wolverine, but once a reader — that would be, in this case, me — sees more than one version of a character over the long term, that reader creates his own version. So the Tim Callahan Wolverine? He’s the one with the mysterious origin — in my world, there is no need for a James Howlett explanation of his early years — and, yeah, he’s the short, scrappy guy with the regeneration and the claws. His first reaction to a situation is to fight, to test the mettle of his opponents and to prove himself to them. but he’s not mindlessly savage. He’s an instinctive guy, with an animalistic streak, and he’s attracted to the Samurai tradition because eastern disciplines help him control his more primal urges. He’s also protective of others, especially the young and the vulnerable, but he hides his more compassionate side with gruffness. He’s a killer when he needs to be, but he’s trying not to go down that road if he can help it. Oh, and he says, “bub” a lot.
I really like the sequence in Millar and McNiven’s “Old Man Logan” — an arc that I thought started terribly, but has won me over completely — when Wolverine slaughters the X-Men because he’s tricked into thinking that he has to unleash his murderous rage on the ultimate villain assemblage. When he unwittingly eviscerates Jubilee, and then realizes what he’s done, it’s the perfect moment in which all his
fears are realized: he not only lost control of his animalistic side, but he killed the vulnerable girl he had always tried to protect. To me, that deed violated everything Wolverine stood for, and that’s why it was such a powerful scene in that story.
What are some of the specific Wolverine stories, past and present, that embody what you believe the character is all about?
The Barry Lyga Wolverine and the Tim Callahan Wolverine seem like pretty similar guys. In fact, I’d wager that if you asked 100 Wolverine fans to name “their” Wolverine, somewhere between 95 and 99 of them would have answers very close to ours. The elements that you identify are the same ones I identified for my “streamlined” iteration of the character.
I haven’t read “Old Man Logan,” but if Millar was able to pull that off, my hat’s off to him. I’m not sure which is harder: violating everything the character stands for in such a way that you don’t completely destroy the character, or carrying on without violation, yet in a way that doesn’t become pleonastic and boring.
As to your final question for me… That’s very difficult to answer. The fact of that matter is that I wasn’t a Marvel guy growing up. I know that some X-fans won’t like hearing that, given that I get to write Wolverine, but it’s true. I was a DC kid. I was a Levitz/Giffen Legion geek. That’s the stuff that’s sort of imprinted on my DNA.
Don’t get me wrong: I read Miller’s “Daredevil” and Byrne’s “Fantastic Four” and “Kraven’s Last Hunt” when it was all fresh and new on the spinner racks, but that stuff came later in my geekdom. I was reared on the Legion and Superboy and that sort of stuff, so the X-Men were always “those other superheroes” to me when I was a kid. As a result, I don’t have a wealth of stories that I read twenty years ago, where I can say, “Oh, I always wanted to do BLANK with Wolverine!”
In a way, I think that made me a good person to write this, since the book comes at the character from a new perspective. I was able to use my own perspective as a template for Eric’s and approach the character with a sense of newness and innocence, not as a fan who’d read every single Logan story ever published. As a friend of mine said when I told him about the book, “That’s cool because you won’t treat him like he’s the Holy Grail.”
That said, I read a ton of stuff for research for this book and of COURSE I knew the character already. It’s impossible to be a superhero fan and NOT know the character. I just didn’t have an intimate acquaintance with every Wolverine story ever told.
But the stories I remember reading from my youth were cool ones. I remember reading the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series, which my younger brother collected. I liked that a lot. I have some references to Wolverine’s Japanese past in the book, and that comes from my memories of that mini-series. And I think that — for me — that mini-series was very important in that it cemented the mentor role you ascribed to Wolverine earlier. That’s a role that turns out to be important in “Worst Day Ever,” though not in a traditional sense.
And then I remember very strongly my friend Pete Madriñan making me read the Claremont/Smith “X-Men” when we were kids. There was a bit during the Brood story where Cyclops’s power goes crazy and Wolverine gets the brunt of it. And Wolverine thinks something like, “If I hadn’t caught the edge of that, there’d be nothing left of me but an Adamantium skeleton and some bits of flesh.” I read that one time, more than twenty years ago, and it stuck with me. I think because it says so much about the character. It’s not just that he’s aware he could have died — he’s intimately aware of the DETAILS of his death, of exactly how much damage and what sort he could expect to endure. That tells you that he’s someone who has a close, personal relationship with violence — giving AND receiving.
The old story about how Sabretooth tries to kill Wolverine on his birthday ended up being important to me, too. I think that was from the series in the eighties, if I’m remembering properly. And in a strange way, Origin was important to me. I agree with you that Wolverine’s a character best left without an origin, but since they went ahead and gave him one, I kept it in the back of my mind while writing, trying to imagine how someone with that background might relate to Eric.
Now you tell me: What’s the best, “truest” Wolverine story you can name?
I don’t have a single, “true” Wolverine story in my memory, but I certainly think back to a few key tales when I think of Wolverine as a character, as a concept. Besides “Old Man Logan,” I like another relatively recent Mark Millar story, the multi-part “Enemy of the State,” which is Wolverine totally cut loose from his usual (off-kilter) moral center. And Jason Aaron’s one-shot story (with artby Howard Chaykin), in which Logan spends the story trapped in a pit, being constantly gunned down by a down-on-his–luck ex-cop, well, that’s a story that gets to the heart of the Wolverine character even though it’s almost not even about him. As far as classic tales go, I’m partial to a few Chris Claremont /John Byrne stories, like “Days of Future Past,” and the sequence from the Hellfire Club arc with Wolverine in the sewers — that’s iconic for a reason — and some of the Claremont/Paul Smith stuff sticks with me too, probably because that’s when I really started reading “Uncanny X-Men.” I remember a Wolverine/Rogue story from the mid-1980s that I was quite fond of as a kid, even though I don’t remember many details of the comic at all.
I, too, was mostly a DC guy.
But let’s talk about the book you’re actually writing, instead of moldy old comics we read ages ago.
My son is a huge fan of Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books, and you are obviously aware of the huge success of that series. Did you take any cues from what Kinney has been doing? If I give you a back cover blurb that says, “Lyga’s book is ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ for badass mutant lovers,” would that be completely wrong?
I’m familiar with Jeff’s work on the Wimpy Kid books, and I even read the first one a while back. I’m not really sure how to describe the similarities and differences between Worst Day Ever and Wimpy Kid. Although I am perfectly happy to type “Wimpy Kid” over and over, in the hopes that eventually Google will point kids to this page when they search for Wimpy Kid. (There, I did it again…)
In the Wimpy Kid books, the artwork is sort of seamlessly integrated into the text as an essential part of the story. You can’t remove the art and have a coherent story, really. In that sense, they are sort of prototype graphic novels, in a way, with the art conveying story points.
With “Worst Day Ever,” my original thought was that the artwork would stand alone, on separate pages, like a traditional illustrated novel. But a couple of things happened. First of all, some of the art just SCREAMED for snarky captions in Eric’s voice, and I got carried away. Next thing you knew, I was writing captions for every piece of art, not just a few. And then, secondly, Marvel’s designer made the artwork blend with the text in a very natural way, not on separate pages, but actually with the text, so that the art sort of comments on the text. Which actually makes sense — the book is supposed to be a blog, and on blogs, art co-exists with text. So it’s a very organic and sensible decision. Her name is Spring, and she’s done a great job designing the book.
That said, unlike in Wimpy Kid, if you removed the art, you would still have a complete story. It might not be quite as funny, but it would still be a complete story. I’m not 100% sure that’s the case with Wimpy Kid — I think you’d lose more than mood or atmosphere if you yanked the art.
All of which is my VERY long way of saying, yeah, there are similarities, but I’m not aware of how conscious they are. But if someone were to say that “Worst Day Ever” is “‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ for badass mutant lovers,” not only would it not be completely wrong, but it would also be pretty flattering!
In addition to writing reviews and columns 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 every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
If you’re daring, you can follow Tim on Twitter @gbfiremelon!
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