Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted Infinite Comic #1 is the first in a series of digital-first comics that Marvel is putting out over the next year. The plan is to do four weekly series of 13 comics each about iconic Marvel characters. The comics are set within the current continuity but are supposed to be accessible to new readers as well as longtime fans, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the comic debuted around the time that the latest Wolverine movie was released.
I’m going to say right up front that I’m not a regular reader of Wolverine, but that should make me the ideal audience for a comic designed to draw in new readers. And indeed, I don’t think my unfamiliarity with Wolverine’s backstory was a huge obstacle to my understanding this comic, but the storytelling certainly was. Simply put, this is one of those comics that starts in the middle of the action and goes straight to the ninja attacks without pausing to really explain what’s going on. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Here’s how it looks to a new reader: We start out with Wolverine on a roof in Tokyo. The ninjas attack. Some guy called Creed is commanding them. Wolverine swings through the air to another building and winds up in an elevator shaft. Creed appears, dumps gasoline on Wolverine, and tosses down a lit match. He then, in what has to be the stupidest of stupid super-villain moves, jumps into the flaming elevator shaft to beat Wolverine up. Because dying in a fire wasn’t bad enough? They fight in the flames for a while (shouldn’t they both be screaming in pain?) and then Wolverine escapes up the shaft. There’s some business with a Japanese official of some sort too. He’s being attacked by ninjas, but Wolverine comes in and vaporizes them, then strangles him.
It does make more sense if you have been reading the comic, because, as writer Jason Latour explained earlier this year, this story comes out of a recent arc of the monthly comic. Regular readers will have seen these characters before, and Creed has been around for a long, long time. (I sometimes think that the editors at the Big Two are so immersed in their fictional universes that they don’t understand that a new reader won’t know things like that; I had the same feeling about DC’s New 52, which were supposedly for new readers but weren’t really.) Still, Latour says, the comic is new-reader-friendly, because the backstory will be recapped: “All of this is revealed over the course of the story and your only requirement for entry is a desire to read about WOLVERINE VS. THE FUTURE NINJAS. If you’re still reading this, I doubt we’ve lost you there.”
OK, Wolverine vs. ninjas. Cool. But I’m one of those people who likes to know why things are happening, and by the end of the first issue, the creators have not offered me a single shred of a clue. Even worse, the characters talk in deliberately abstract language, being careful never to actually say what they’re talking about. Here’s Creed, in the beginning, watching the ninjas corner Wolverine: “What’s in that tower is mine. Which means Logan won’t stop ’til he takes it away.” What is this thing that everyone is fighting over? I dunno, and it’s kind of irksome that in a comic that is supposed to be accessible to newcomers, nobody is going to tell us.*
Here’s why I picked this one up, though: Aside from the possibility of being able to step into a Wolverine comic (a possibility that has now been dashed, as I’m not going to pay another $2.99 for more unexplained beatings), I picked up this comic because I was interested in Marvel’s use of the digital comics format. In the limited sample size I have looked at (about two of each), Marvel has done a better job than DC of really using the digital storytelling toolkit. It’s certainly true here, where digital comics pioneer Yves Bigerel is a part of the team. The creators use the standard tools, such as dropping in panels and word balloons, and they use blackouts and focus changes as well. Most interesting is when they shift the picture from right to left, which they do twice—once to shift from Wolverine’s profile to show the arrows sticking out of his back, the other time to follow his movement across space. This is an unexpected move—you expect the panels to follow your finger, not jump away. Sadly, while the art is clear and hard-lined, the coloring and composition get in the way. In the opening sequence, Wolverine is standing in front of a garish billboard—yes, it’s Tokyo, but the high-chroma areas pull the eye away and make it hard to see Wolverine and the ninjas, who are colored with a darker palette. And some of the pages in which panels are superimposed over action scenes are way too busy. Like this one:
Superhero comics are not my cup of tea, but that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying some of DC’s digital-first offerings. Marvel’s new line is more sophisticated in terms of digital techniques and it’s probably great for seasoned superhero readers and those who don’t mind being dropped in in the middle of the action. But for me, not knowing anything about what was going on by the end of the issue was a deal-breaker.
*For more on this point, see the piece I wrote a couple of years ago on the Zuda Test. To be clear, this is just my opinion, and while a lot of people agreed with me, there are others who like to be tossed into the action with no orientation. To them, I would say: Buy this comic.