Review: Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

Every few years, Marvel comes up with a group of high-profile projects to draw in fans with huge media buzz about their concept or their creative team, akin to DC’s All-Star line. Right now, it’s the OGN line and the revived Marvel Knights imprint, but others include the Noir and Season One sub-lines and arguably the 2099 and Ultimate imprints.

The “Astonishing” line was designed to build off of the name recognition of Astonishing X-Men, which around 2010 was struggling with slipped deadlines and a controversial turn to evil by Forge. Only two mini-series ever came out of it; one, Astonishing Thor, suffered from extremely harsh reviews, and its failure helped to end the sub-line prematurely. But just as All-Star Batman and Robin has its All-Star Superman, Astonishing Thor has Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine.

Admittedly that’s overselling the book a bit, but while Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine isn’t a medium-defining classic, it is a fantastic character-driven adventure. It’s essentially in continuity despite the time-travel antics: it seems to take place during Spidey and Logan’s tenure in New Avengers since they’re not good friends but Wolverine is in his Astonishing X-Men costume. Jason Aaron pits Spider-Man’s optimism and perseverance against Wolverine’s anger and world-weariness. They’re Marvel’s two most popular characters and they work together well in the Avengers ... but on a personal level, they’re a total odd couple. I really wish this series could have continued so that this dynamic could be mined some more on a scale of Superman/Batman.

I also have to congratulate Jason Aaron on creating a decent time travel story in a medium filled with ones which are, at best, difficult to follow and, at worst, completely illogical. It’s clear that Aaron has the full timeline of events in front of him while he writes; the reader just doesn’t get to see it. Spider-Man and Wolverine start out in the time of the dinosaurs, then just as rapidly transport into the far future to see just how their meddling in the past changed history. Clues for the final reveal are set up as early as issue two and the exact way time is being warped is kept vague as to not interfere with the story itself. The main villain’s identity was actually well-hidden for the most part, even in the solicits, which kept the focus on minor new villains Czar and Big Murder. As a treat to fans of his Ghost Rider run, Aaron also brings back the Orb, whose head is a literal giant eyeball. Once you find out who’s behind the craziness, though, it all comes together. Here’s the big spoiler ...

It’s Mojo.

The slug-like ruler of the Mojoverse is one of Marvel’s most powerful and most underused (at least in recent years) villains. His stories parodied reality television before it even existed, positing him as the ruler of a dimension obsessed with watching Earth-616’s history play out as entertainment. He’s up there with Carnage on the crazy-awesome scale, with a wealth of power held in check by an incredible amount of sheer insanity, like his new-found obsession with making Snuggies out of skin, complete with faces Many of the odd plot turns taken in Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine can be explained with “Oh, it’s just Mojo. He’s crazy.” What makes it work is that Mojo himself takes all of this seriously; the Spider-Man and Wolverine odd couple is so entertaining that he could lose control of the Mojoverse if they escape.

That’s not to say that everything works perfectly even with this reveal. There’s a subplot about a “Phoenix Gun," which literally fires the Phoenix Force as a bullet and that ends up turning Wolverine into a new Dark Phoenix. This is never quite properly set up even when a flashback in the coda has Beast pondering creating the gun in the first place. It’s worth noting that this story came out just before Avengers Vs. X-Men -- which Jason Aaron was heavily involved in -- and works as a subtle alternate history of that event’s ending. Hank McCoy somehow turning the Force into a weapon makes a bit more sense than having it wished away. A much stronger subplot sees Spider-Man chase after a girl he met during his travels. Their eventual romance is unfortunately tampered with by Peter Parker’s infamous lack of luck; at least she isn’t stuffed in the fridge.

I’m usually not a huge fan of the Kubert brothers, but Adam’s artwork especially has been growing on me, first on Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers title and now here. I think a lot of it has to do with the colors, which are far brighter in Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine than they are in, say, Superman: Last Son. This keeps the lighter mood appropriate and makes the plot easy to follow. One of my favorite chapters pits Logan against Peter in his pre-Spider-Man wrestling career, while Peter ends up encountering the young and feral James Howlett in the wilds of Canada. This allows Adam to do his own take on his brother Andy’s famous Origin comic; I doubt that this was a coincidence.

I’ve always enjoyed lighter time travel stories, from Back To The Future and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to an issue of Joe Kelly’s Deadpool where Wade was literally drawn into an old issue of Amazing Spider-Man. It’s nice to read a time-travel story where the stakes, while high, aren’t taken entirely seriously. In a few years, when Dan Slott is done with Spider-Man, I’d really like to see Aaron take the reins on the character. Until then, I’d love to get a sequel to Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine, if only to see some more Mojo.

Next week: it’s an IDW book that originally came out from Marvel, featuring so many characters you’ll need an aircraft carrier to hold them all.
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