DVDanger: 'Wolverine Origin'

No, not the terrible movie. The groundbreaking comic, animated.

DVDanger: 'Wolverine Origin'

There's a joke in the comic strip Twisted Toyfare Theater. Franklin Richards, son of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, asks Ben Grimm, aka The Thing: All super heroes have an origin story, uncah Ben, so what's mine? "Haw!" laughs Grimm. "Condoms break."

In comics, that's always really the secret origin of all mutants. They're born that way. That's why Marvel Comics called the mega-selling X-Men the children of the atom. But that still doesn't answer all the questions. In fact, sometimes they'll hide the answers. Point of fact, it took them 26 years to tell the story of the true tragedy behind their greatest creation since Captain America thawed out, Wolverine.

Marvel Knights Animation Presents: Wolverine Origin is that revelation revisited. It's a timely release. Not only do we have the (fingers crossed, don't suck) eagerly anticipated next installment of the film franchise, The Wolverine, but Marvel has just announced at San Diego Comic-Com that penciller Adam Kubert (brother of original series artist Andy Kubert) and writer Kieron Gillen will be creating Wolverine: Origin II.

Now, relax. This is not the clumsily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine (let's just cut to the chase and call that Wolverine: Wasted Opportunities.) That unfortunate mass had one worthwhile idea, and that was the opening montage of Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting side-by-side through the decades. Frankly, Liev Schreiber should be allowed to call a do-over, because he was far better than the end result showed. Wolverine Origin deals with a precursor to that history.

It's established X-Men math. Wolverine heals fast. Ipso facto, he ages slower than other people, because the wear and tear of time has less impact. How old is he really? That's the equation behind Origin: That Logan is a child of Victorian Canadian. Well, that explains the sideburns.

Animated comics still seem like a peculiar midstep between two mediums, but it's a step Marvel has been eager to take. As the two fascinating making-of featurettes included on the disc explain, there's a lot more to this story than "And then we made a comic." It's easy to forget that Wolverine Origin was a radical and dangerous step for Marvel. When they started the process, Marvel was scarcely out of backruptcy. Yeah, look back, 1996, Chapter 11 filing. Watching writer Paul Jenkins choke up as he explains how publisher Bill Jemas kept the money men off his back is worth the disc's plastic.

The fear for Marvel was that they'd rip out Logan's sense of mystery. Part of the appeal of the ol' Canucklehead was that he didn't know who he was. He was tortured by that gap, and the enigma appealled to readers. Could any story be better than what readers might create for themselves? So the challenge was writing something that wouldn't just explain where he came from, but replace the narrative drive of the void left by his amnesia.

I'll say it. Jemas, Jenkins and co-creator Joe Quesada managed the impossible. They got the speeding Wolverine train to jump tracks. Sure, the audience knew where he came from, but that doesn't mean Logan does. It recasts his obsessions – redheads, Samurais, the northern Wilds of Canada – in a new and ever more tragic context.

This is a 19th century adventure, one that owes far less to Stan Lee and far more to Mark Twain and Jack London. It's about class and romance and tragedy. It was great and revolutionary when it was released as a six issue miniseries in 2001, and it works pretty well in this hybrid animation.

I saw hybrid, because this is part of the Marvel Knights line. Rather than starting from scratch, what the animators do is take existing comic art and use that as the basis for a cartoon. Annoyingly, the disc keeps the chapter format of the original series, and while the animation is gorgeous – depicting Logan's memories as a gallery in flames – it gets a bit repetitive after the sixth time in under an hour. However, Atomic Cartoons have done an astonishing job. It's not just that they have taken elements from within the original frame and given them fresh life. It's how they've done it. Each Marvel Knights adaptation has been different and fitting: Spider Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. had a gritty pop-art feel, while Iron Man: Extremis kept the smooth hi-tech feel of Marvel's ultimate engineer. Here, they embrace that this is paper, using digital trickery to create an heir to both Prince Achmed-esque silhouette animation and South Park-endorsed cutout.

Sometimes, yes, it lacks a little weight. Yet at its finest the animation gives new life to Kubert's lines and Richard Isanove's colors. Charcoal shadows dance over the walls, and the watercolor effect created by the sepia-tinged palette don't just look olde timey. They add antiquity. This was a radical breakthrough for comics, one of the first times ever that digital brushes could be used to paint straight over the pencils, without the need for a tracer inker.

But here's the real kicker. If you've got the original collected issues, do you need the DVD version? And if you don't have either, which should you buy. I have to say, the original story is so lush and heartrending (the final tragic scenes are a complete kick in the aorta) that it's hard to say you shouldn't go to the source first. The voice acting isn't too obtrusive, even if the accents get a little hokey some time. But, and here's the balancing factor, Kubert's work on a hi-def TV looks unreal, animated or not.

Marvel Knights Animation Presents: Wolverine Origin is out now through Shout! Factory. Next week in DVDanger: Post-Twilight, can bloodsuckers ever bring sexy back? It's Kiss of the Vampire.

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