Most mainstream American comics are collaborative projects. Writers and artists push and pull each other to create something unique. Frank Miller is one of the figures who breaks this mold in the early 80s, moving between artist, writer-artist, and writer in Daredevil. Miller works great as a writer and writer-artist, but his art overpowers and conflicts with writers plotting for him. His art has such a clear sense of personality and pacing that it defies narrative from outside. I can’t imagine him working outside of a visual medium, whether as writer or artist. In contrast, Chris Claremont worked at the same time, yet only as a writer. His overly descriptive narration could, at its worst, be copied down and read off and explain one of his plots fully without any visual component. He does amazing collaborative work and works with artists who bring a great sense of visual storytelling. During his X-Men run, he loosens up and allows the artists more room to tell stories and pulls back on his narration. Still, Miller and Claremont feel conflicted in the Wolverine miniseries. Wolverine (1982) may be one of the best Wolverine character pieces and best Wolverine action showcases, but the two pieces conflict and produce something less than the sum of its parts.
The backgrounds are extremely sparse both for the panels and pages themselves. Miller and Claremont use many long horizontal and vertical panels for great visual effects. Wolverine and other characters pop out of them, and the panels often disappear for a sense of rapid motion. Many of the panels have no background at all, or are filled with just one color behind the central figures. Similarly, the pages have large amounts of white space surrounding the panels. This focuses completely on the characters’ faces and bodies, usually in motion. This is similar to the most heightened fight sequences and splash pages in Miller’s Daredevil art, but while these experimental showy pages were rare and special in Daredevil, they make up almost every page of Wolverine.
I drew a black border around this page to show the amount of space left open. As just an image without the border, it’s unclear how big the panels are and where the page begins and ends. This makes the characters’ movements feel even larger. They break out of panels, but the ambiguous borders make them almost break out of the pages themselves. This is even more obvious in a shot like this, where Wolverine jumps forward and lunges directly towards the reader. This creates a grand scale for many action sequences, where the characters’ movements feel larger than life. This especially works when depicting quick action sequences, like in the page above. In more still sequences, this creates an ambiguous darkness, showing early hints of Miller’s characteristic noir stylings. Still, this feels cheap in some less action-oriented scenes. Wolverine takes place in Japan, yet very little of Japan’s architecture or culture is shown. There is kabuki theatre, but Japan is largely characterized as ninjas and samurais.
The amount of blank space and empty backgrounds could easily feel lazy with a lesser artist, but Miller’s figure-work makes up for it. The figures move so rapidly and smoothly that the backgrounds almost don’t matter and the reader could easily forgot that they’re missing, if it weren’t for the narration. The narration interrupts the motion of the pages, and often works awkwardly with the page and panel designs. In this page from issue 1, the reader follows the motion of Wolverine’s claws through an arc that crosses all four panels. The motion of this is constantly interrupted by the narration boxes, slowing down what should be immediate and visceral. By placing large amounts of narration in the white space, the reader focuses on and notices the emptiness of the page. There’s also a natural desire to separate the text from the art, not overcrowding any panel or obstructing a view of the action, but by completely separating some elements of narration, it feels almost superfluous. This divides the narrative between what I see as the pure visuals on the left side, and the outward commentary on the right. It feels even more awkward here where on a plot level the narration mainly restates and explains the visuals. On another level, the narration here establishes tone and character. Wolverine’s gruff internal monologue shows readers his struggle with the violence he commits. The voice feels almost directly out of a Western, making Wolverine a violent modern cowboy, and offering a unique voice for Claremont to play in for four issues.
The contrast between Claremont’s narration and Miller’s pencils perfectly encapsulates Wolverine’s character in the miniseries, torn between man and animal. In this page from issue 3, Wolverine worries about being “a beast clad in human form”. The visuals show Wolverine as a beast, while the narration reveals his humanity. The internal monologue throughout Wolverine shows him wanting to avoid violence or annoyed at its necessity. (Although he never really avoids committing brutal acts of violence). By slowing down the action sequences, it could be argued that it forces readers to slowly contemplate the violence. Still, there’s a disconnect between the conflicted monologues in text and unilateral killing machine in the visuals. This ideological disconnect is even stronger because most of the narration directly comments on or describes the action in the visuals.
Although the clash between text and images works thematically, I don’t think it makes for a very enjoyable reading experience. The series ultimately decides that Wolverine is a man, but that feels shallow after the graphic violence and extended fight sequences. It lacks the multiplot push of a typical Claremont X-Men story. This even leads into a couple issues of Uncanny X-Men, becoming one of many plots influences those issues. This also lacks the political or ideological push of many great Miller stories. As troubling as Miller’s politics might be, they provide a real weight to what could be just action stories. It also struggles under the weight of its own influence. This is Wolverine’s first solo outing, now overshadowed by the hundreds (probably thousands) of issues and multiple movies he’s appeared in since. Despite all this, the art and the text stand out great on their own. There are so many great action shots I could highlight in the series, including Wolverine, samurais, and ninjas. Many of the artistic tricks and designs he uses here are used for greater effect shortly after this in Miller’s Ronin. The narration is stilted and overbearing at times, but there are many fun instances of Wolverine’s now characteristic gruff voice, especially when he’s annoyed at those around him. Wolverine is an interesting curiosity in Miller’s artistic career and a major turning point in Wolverine’s character, despite the visuals and text failing to unify.