Alternate Cover: Butchering the classics

James catches up with Dark Knight Returns and Wolverine: Origin: but has time diluted their classic status?

The Dark Knight Returns

Like any medium, comics has its fair share of “great works” that any serious comic-reader or commentator is expected to be intimately familiar with. Works that enter the shared consciousness of fandom, with no further explanation assumed when they’re brought up or referenced – you’re simply expected to know about them.

Of course, like everyone, I’ve had neither the time nor money to go and read them all. I only got around to Sandman when they released it in Absolute form, a decade after it first finished. I pre-empted the V For Vendetta movie by finally reading the comic – and likewise, I followed up the Sin City movie by purchasing all the collections. They’re all comics that, by received opinion, I should’ve been familiar with long before I actually got around to reading them – but sometimes, you simply have to bluff your way through the discussions until you find yourself with some spare cash and a spare weekend. Which is what happened to me this week.

While searching HMV for something to spend a recently-won £20 voucher on, I happened across the graphic novel section. HMV, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a record-shop turned entertainment-media outlet, now mainly centred on flogging overpriced DVDs to people too stupid or impulsive to buy online. As a result, their graphic novel range is neither extensive nor particularly choice – it mostly consists of comics that have been adapted into films (Ghost World, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sin City, et al). The assumption is that these comics are widely accessible, and good enough to act as “ambassador” stories to convince a sceptical public that comics are a worthwhile medium.

So, £20 in hand, my gaze became transfixed on two graphic novels that, by rights, I should’ve read, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t gotten around to. There are people walking around who don’t care half as much about comics as me who have read these stories – and one way or another, I had to get around to them. There was, I thought, no time like the present.

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Those comics were Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Paul Jenkins’ Wolverine: Origin. It’s easy to see why they were sitting on the shelf at HMV, given the movies attached to their names (if not necessarily their contents). It’s less easy to see why I hadn’t yet read them.

In the case of Origin, I have a good excuse. It first came out when I had just started at university, and was fairly strapped for cash. After buying the first two issues, I caught wind of the hype and sold them both on eBay, netting £35 for #1 and £19 for #2. The plan was to buy the trade, but it was another three years until I had a job and enough disposable income to buy a collected edition. It just became a perpetual resident of the ‘to buy’ pile. The reason I hadn’t read DKR is more to do with my past as a Marvel zombie (regular readers will be shocked to learn this, I’m sure.) For the first ten years of comics fandom, I’d barely open a comic with “DC” on the cover, let alone buy one. My stance has obviously relaxed considerably since then.

So anyway – I bought them and read them. And you know what? They’re both pretty good. Both classics in their own right, certainly, but I’ve realised that my distance from these industry golden boys has, at least, given me the chance to offer a belated fresh perspective on behalf of everyone who still feels like they’re being made to feel like a bad fan because they haven’t read Miracleman, or Amazing Fantasy #15, or Mark Millar’s Ultimates.

It’s hard to say whether the appeal of Dark Knight Returns has simply been diluted as the industry caught up with Miller’s interpretation, or Miller’s descent into self-parody has coloured my opinion of the book, but I actually found it hard to see what the fuss is about. It is, admittedly, an excellent depiction of a future society under strain from vigilantism, and showcases Miller’s unique grasp of the comics form and structure when he was in his prime – but at its heart, is this really a Batman story? It’s easy to see how it spawned a wave of gritty imitators, but I’m inclined to say that the thing that really made DKR work was its contrast against the light, fluffy superhero stories that preceded it. Removed from that context, it’s still good, but it doesn’t stand alone as well as its contemporaries.

Wolverine: Origin, on the other hand, is guilty of almost the opposite crime. There’s almost too much Wolverine in it. The opening two issues, which show Wolverine as a child, living it up with a wealthy Canadian family in their mansion during the 1800s, is a fantastic, iconic beginning for the character. But after that it gets a bit bogged down in the idea of being an “origin” in every possible sense. Explaining his obsession with Redheads is fair enough. Likewise, where he got the name Wolverine. But you also get explanations for why he likes cigars, why he says “bub”, why he has a problem with authority figures moving in on women he’s attracted to, and yet more besides. It’s the Wolverine-est story ever told!

So there you have it – both good stories, neither without its flaws. Certainly, it’s easy to see why they’re pushed out as some of the genre’s best material, as they’re in a different league to the majority of superhero comics, but the best thing about having read them is that I can now tick them off the list once and for all.

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Which brings me to my final point – if you’ve actually made it to the end of this column, answer me a couple of things: Do you think I missed the point with regard to either story’s genius? If so, how? And finally, if you have one – what comics industry classic have you not managed read yourself? Maybe it’ll help me decide what to buy next!

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.