Shonen Snikt! Johnston on Wolverine Manga

This week marks the debut of another Wolverine series, but this new title is not concerned with Logan's early history, nor his dark offspring, nor his adventures with the Avengers, X-Men, or Alpha Flight. Instead, the two-volume "Wolverine: Prodigal Son," published by Del Rey Manga under license from Marvel, sees one of superhero comics' most popular characters completely re-imagined for a new audience while retaining those defining characteristics that make Wolverine the best at what he does.

"Prodigal Son" is written by Antony Johnston, co-creator of Oni's acclaimed "Wasteland," and illustrated by Wilson Tortosa. CBR News caught up with Johnston to discuss his shonen manga take on Wolverine, as well as what readers will and won't see in the series.

"Wolverine: Prodigal Son" follows the story of a young boy named Logan, a mysterious orphan who was taken in by the Quiet Earth dojo, where he quickly rises through the ranks of the school's top fighters. With his ability to defeat any challenger and heal any wound, the boy nicknamed "Wolverine" soon becomes complacent, and the school's sensei Mr. Elliott must find greater challenges for his prize student. But before long, a secret organization with its own plans for Logan brings the fight to the dojo's door.

"The core arc of the character is Logan--who's only 14-years-old in this version--learning to take responsibility for his actions, and dealing with the consequences of who he is and what he does," Antony Johnston told CBR. "It's a trial by fire, and it raises questions about maturity, nature vs. nurture, all that kind of existential stuff.

"Rest assured, though, none of that gets in the way of the fighting and SNIKT!ing. Of which there's plenty."

Clearly, this is quite a different take on the popular X-Man. "We've kept the essence of the character, and made sure he's recognizable. So our Logan has the whacky hair, the claws, the healing factor, the bad attitude -- but everything else was up for grabs, and we took advantage of that," said Johnston, who is also known for his adaptation of Alan Moore's prose for Avatar, as well as the video game tie-in comic "Dead Space." "I was actually surprised by how much Marvel allowed us to change. The first few ideas I had were all loosely based around the existing character's continuity and history to some degree. But Dallas [Middaugh, editor at Del Rey] encouraged me to drop it all and really pare the character back to the essentials so that we could just tell a good shonen story without any baggage. That's what I did, and Marvel gave their approval with very few changes or requirements."

In volume 1 of "Prodigal Son," readers are introduced to Wolverine and his supporting cast, including friends and rivals at the dojo and Tamara, the sensei's daughter. Fans of the established X-Man may recognize (or think they recognize) analogues to characters like Sabretooth or the Weapon X program in "Prodigal Son," but, in line with the complete renovation of Wolverine's concept, Johnston said such insights are largely projection. "There are some analogues to the classic Wolverine touchstones in there, and an homage or two, but for the most part it's just wishful thinking," the writer said. "You won't meet any X-Men. You won't find a world of costumed superhero teams and supervillians. In short, you won't find anything that resembles the Marvel universe.

"This is an entirely new story, a shonen manga fight comic, that just so happens to feature this kid called Logan. You don't need any knowledge of the X-Men, the Marvel universe or characters to read and enjoy it. It stands entirely on its own."

Johnston's biggest influence in creating "Wolverine: Prodigal Son" was the classic manga "Lone Wolf & Cub." "Not in the subject matter, or even the narrative style, but the mood, tone and character of that story -- pretty bleak and brutal, but with moments of lightness and compassion for contrast," the writer explained. "'LW&C' is one of my favourite manga anyway, so it was an obvious thing to look to."

As to differences in pacing between Western comics and manga, Johnston stated that his writing is already heavily influenced by manga stylings. "You only have to look at the how a book like 'Wasteland' is paced to see that," the writer said. "The influence is not necessarily obvious, because manga has had such a big influence on all of the Anglophone market for many years, now. It's mainly about letting the story breathe when it needs to; realizing that the reflective and contemplative character moments are just as important as the action scenes, and deserve just as much 'page time.' But then when you do need an action scene it's fast-paced and relentless, as a marked contrast.

"We're not the only book that does this, and it's not even new. To my mind, there's no doubt that the 'decompression' trend from a few years back came about entirely because of manga influences on Western creators. But the influence is definitely there, and it's become an important part of my style.

"So for 'Wolverine,' it was just a case of working out the dynamics, hitting the peaks and troughs until it felt right."

Translating a Western character like Wolverine into the world of manga has the potential to appeal to two audiences that do not always overlap - traditional Marvel Comics fans and manga readers -- but there's also the danger that it might slip between the two audiences, connecting with neither. "I know much of the initial reaction out here on the internet has been people predicting that neither group will care about this book," Johnston acknowledged. "I don't think that's true. In fact, I think there's good stuff in there for everyone. For the mainstream Wolverine fans, this is a chance to see Logan as you've literally never seen him before; a complete reimagining of the character and his world without any continuity baggage. It's like a great cover version of a song. With the best cover versions, you can tell it's the same song, but the way it's played is nothing like the original.

"For the manga fans, it's (I hope!) a great shonen adventure comic. You don't need to know who Wolverine is, or his current status in mainstream comics," Johnston continued. "If you don't care about any of that, it's fine. But if you do care about a good fight manga, a rollercoaster adventure with a great central hero, then you'll get something out of it."

"Wolverine: Prodigal Son" Vol. 1 is on sale now from Del Rey Manga.

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