So in the early 80’s, two of the biggest forces at Marvel Comics were Chris Claremont (writer of the X-Men), and Frank Miller (writer/artist on Daredevil), whose work jointly served as inspiration for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But before there was the parody, there was the real thing: Claremont and Miller working together on a book about mutants and ninja.
Wolverine #1, first of a four-issue limited series, came out in the summer of 1982 (cover date September, so it would have released in about July). The first issue, with no actual story title, launches us right into the action as Wolverine hunts a killer bear. Right at the beginning, things feel a little off.
Miller’s work had always been blocky. His skills lay more in layout and action than in accurate rendering. Klaus Janson’s rough inks in Daredevil proved a nice fit, making his work feel gritty and loose.
On the other hand, Josef Rubinstein’s inks here are often a mixed bag. Rubinstein was probably chosen for the project to give a feeling of continuity with the monthly X-Men series of which this was a spin-off, because he had been inking Dave Cockrum’s pencils over there for 20 issues or so. Rubinstein’s elaborate rendering on the facial close-ups works well to compensate for Miller’s looseness, but not so much in the action scenes with their blocky figures and sometimes clumsy poses. And neither one of them seems to have any idea how to draw a bear.
After Logan hunts down the bear and the careless hunter who injured it and drove it insane, he finds out that his girlfriend, Mariko Yashida, has returned his letters unanswered and gone back to Japan without warning. Unable to get through to her on the phone, he hops the next flight to Tokyo, determined to find her and make sure she’s safe.
He finds her married off to a stranger in order to pay an obligation for her father, Shingen Yashida. What’s more, she has bruises on her face, put there by her new husband, but she refuses to leave him, insisting her family honor is at stake. She sends Wolverine away, but he doesn’t get far. He is attacked and drugged and brought before Lord Shingen.
Shingen tells Logan he is unworthy of his daughter’s hand and challenges Logan to a duel with bokken, wooden practice swords (written in the comic as “bokan”; they also spell hai as “hei” for some reason). It doesn’t go well.
Shingen is far more skilled than Wolverine, beating him even after Wolverine abandons his sword for adamantium claws. Wolverine awakens on the street and is taken in by a deadly woman named Yukio who seems to know him.
In the second issue, “Debts and Obligations,” Wolverine and Yukio are attacked in her apartment by Hand ninja (recurring enemies of Miller’s Daredevil). Although the action is appropriately cinematic, it shows a disconnect between art and dialogue and also points up Claremont’s tendency to over-dramatize. The Hand are described as “the finest killers on Earth. each the equal of a dozen ordinary men.” But in an early splash panel, as Wolverine stands in a window prepared to jump out, there are over 60 arrows flying past him in the panel. Not one hits its mark.
This page from the end of the fight shows what the book does well though.
That shot of him standing over the downed ninja is dramatic as hell, although the sloppy printing (with that big glob of blue leaking through the black above his head) doesn’t help. But notice that ugly sword slash on his pec that has been colored over with his costume. As a Comics Code-approved publication, this is once more a series about guys with swords, knives, shuriken, and claws who never draw a single drop of blood.
Yukio is totally hot for Wolverine, but he still pines for Mariko. But he does agree to help Yukio get out from under the thumb of a local crimelord named Katsuyori. What Logan doesn’t realize is that Yukio is actually working for Shingen; her assignment is to use Wolverine to kill Katsuyori, then kill Wolverine herself.
The confrontation happens at what is supposed to be a peace negotiation, with Mariko and her new husband representing her father. Katsuyori tries to kill Mariko with assassin-trained Kabuki actors, but Wolverine jumps in and saves her, after a battle in which he flies into a berserker rage–frightening Mariko with his savagery–but which ends with the caption “They’re lucky they’re still breathin’!” (the Mighty Mites parody calls this phenomenon “pseudo-killing”) Once again, the Comics Code or Marvel’s own editorial standards refuse to acknowledge just what Wolverine is.
Yukio, meanwhile, has killed Katsuyori and revels in the fact that, with Mariko out of the picture for good, Wolverine is now hers.
At least until issue 3, “Loss,” in which Shingen is none too happy that Yukio has refused to kill the gaijin. He sends the Hand to kill her, and Wolverine is no help, because he’s super-drunk and calls her Mariko by accident. When he returns to their apartment, he finds his old friend, Japanese special agent Asano Kimura, dead with one of Yukio’s signature throwing knives in his chest. And it’s coated with the same type of poison used when he was captured and brought before Shingen. Logan realizes Yukio’s been working for Shingen all along.
He chases her, but they are interrupted by more Hand and battle in a zen rock garden. After Wolverine pseudo-kills a bunch of them, he takes time to smooth out the gravel, leading him to an epiphany that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but will get us into the final act.
Issue #4, “Honor,” finds Wolverine finally bringing the fight back to Shingen’s doorstep, a few steps behind Yukio, who has decided to kill Shingen herself to escape his vengeance for not killing Wolverine. Yukio saves Mariko’s life and kills her new husband who is trying to shoot Wolverine at the time, so Logan lets her go. Then he faces Shingen for a second battle, although this time, Shingen’s using a real sword. But Wolverine’s also not suffering the after-effects of being poisoned, so…
Mariko discovers Wolverine standing over her father’s body. Although Wolverine fears that family honor will force Mariko to attack him in turn, she declares that Shingen soiled the family’s honor by becoming a crime lord, and Wolverine has saved the family’s honor by slaying him. And with her now a widow, the way is clear for…
Wow, I so do not remember that! But rest assured, it never actually came to pass. Still, a hell of a way to end the story.