Johnston & Tortosa on Wolverine's Manga Adventure

Going Inside Wolverine: Prodigal Son

Wolverine: Prodigal Son

The mutant known as Wolverine has been many things: X-Man, Avenger, Fantastic Four, surrogate father, government guinea pig, but teenage shonen manga hero?

Wolverine: Prodigal Son vol. 1, by writer Antony Johnston and artist Wilson Tortosa, does indeed star Logan, but it’s not the clawed hero most comics readers have come to know. In Prodigal Son, a new graphic novel published by Del Rey Manga with the cooperation of Marvel Comics, Logan is recast as a rebellious teenage martial arts student whose mysterious past brings a world of pain down on his school.

Johnston, a frequent comics writer whose credits include Wasteland from Oni Press and authorized adaptation of Alan Moore’s prose works from Avatar Press, answered some questions about the concerns readers may have approaching Wolverine as a manga character.

His collaborator, Philippine artist Wilson Tortosa (Battle of the Planets, Tomb Raider) found time to discuss the influences of both manga and American comics on his approach to illustrating Logan’s shonen adventures.

Antony Johnston explained that he became involved with the Wolverine manga through a connection with the book’s editor. “I'd met Dallas Middaugh (Del Rey Manga associate publisher, and editor of Prodigal Son) once or twice at conventions, and we'd chatted a little. He was aware of my work, especially Wasteland, and I'd pitched some ideas to him, but we hadn't yet found the right project. Then out of the blue, about two months after SDCC 2007, Dallas called me up one night and asked if I was interested in doing a manga revamp of Wolverine.

page 1

“Now, I'm not known for writing superheroes at all, so I wasn't sure I was the right man for the job … until Dallas explained that they didn't want a superhero book. They wanted a manga, something completely out of continuity. I'd have a clean slate to essentially do whatever I wanted. That sounded a lot more interesting, so I said yes. Then I came up with some ideas, Dallas and I decided on one, and I wrote up a pitch. Dallas took it to Marvel, they said yes, and hey presto. It was pretty simple and smooth.”

Even before getting involved with Prodigal Son, Tortosa was a fan of the character. “I first encountered him during Jim Lee’s run on the X-Men in the 90s thanks to my brother,” the artist explained. “I got really interested in the character after reading about of his exploits from the back of Marvel Trading cards, which my bro also collected. Then came the animated series, where he’s my favorite of the bunch, the arcade games and then X-Men: Evolution. I was particularly glad that they didn't turn him into a teenager in that one.”

Prodigal Son casts Wolverine as a teen outside, a promising martial arts student whose mysterious past threatens his school. Although many American readers are used to see Logan in a school environment, at the Xavier Academy, Prodigal Son is a whole other type of learning.

“The martial arts school is a staple of shonen manga, not to mention martial arts and action films, and it was a perfect setting to introduce the character and give him a supporting cast,” Johnston explained. Despite the shonen setting, however, Johnston was quick to confirm that this version of Logan remains very true to the X-Man fans know.

“Put it this way, ‘our’ Logan is fourteen, but of course has the same core character and personality traits as the existing character. So he has a problem with authority, a tendency to rebel, and he doesn't make friends easily. When you're a teenager, what's going to really rub at all those traits? School, of course. Add that to the background we wanted to use — no memory of his past, mysterious forces out to get him — and it just made sense.”

The school setting is echoed in both Wolverine’s X-Men roots and many shonen manga series, but Johnston doesn’t see those connections as much more than incidental. “Of course (the school connections exist), but I didn't let them dictate how I wrote. Setting any comic in a school is always going to make people think of X-Men, and the same goes for manga with Dragonball or Naruto. You can't avoid it, so you also mustn't let it worry you. I didn't play up to it, but it's there if you want to see it.”

Because Wolverine has such a well known personality, Johnston chose to focus on the core aspects of his persona, while ignoring specific elements of his Marvel Universe past. Recognizing that the approach could rub some of Wolverine’s fan base the wrong way, Johnston admits that he did his best to make the conceits of the character as universal as possible.

“Actually, I didn't even try to balance the history. This is about taking the essence of the character Logan/Wolverine and building him into a manga hero, not trying to shoehorn a superhero into a manga book,” Johnston said. “That's been tried, and for the most part it hasn't worked. But we're completely disconnected from the Marvel universe, and Wolverine's history therein. There are certainly references and ‘easter eggs’ in there for the Wolverine fans, but at its core this is all new.

“As for existing fans rejecting it, we've been aware of that possibility since the book was first announced. It was pretty hard to miss all the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the Internet. But I hope that if those fans give it a chance, they'll appreciate what we've done. And I don't think new readers will have a hard time with Wolverine as a whole. He's got claws, he heals really fast and he has no memory. All of that's established pretty quickly, and in ways that make sense to the story. It's not like he suddenly has lasers coming out of his eyes or transforms into a jet fighter.”

With an all new supporting cast and villains starring alongside Logan in Prodigal Son, Johnston acknowledges that he made a specific decision to avoid the expectation of using established Wolverine foes. The use of new characters was “a completely conscious decision, yes, for all the reasons above,” he admitted, before teasing, “As for whether we decide to bring in new versions of other characters, that remains to be seen. I'm not giving anything away!”

On the subject of transforming this incarnation of Wolverine into a distinct version, Wilson Tortosa explained that depicting Logan as a teenager provided its own set of challenges.

“Tremendous,” Tortosa said of the process. “I've seen a lot of fan art around and it’s really hard to turn him into a teenager without making him end up looking too … pretty. What's even more difficult is he still has to retain that dark, brooding personality and look like a believable fourteen-year-old kid at the same time. Antony also made it clear that this was not about flash or gimmickry, so I have to make him look relatively normal yet distinctly identifiable as Logan.”

Being from the Philippines, Tortosa has had exposure to both American comics and manga for many years. Maintaining Wolverine’s “look” in a shonen manga book offered several unexpected challenges for the artist.

“Well, there were quite a few, like his hair. Have you ever wondered how Goku's hair would look like from a weird angle? Also, as with American comics I've always tried to keep details consistent,” he explained. “With Logan and his healing factor, plus the huge number of injuries he gets for being cast in a shonen manga, it was hard to keep track of where his wounds are, where the holes on his shirt are, by which panel should they already have healed, etc. etc. Very unexpected, indeed!”

One specific idea that Tortosa took from Logan’s American incarnation was his depiction of Wolverine’s famed claws. “Yeah, but I thought that they should be more jagged and uneven,” he said of the claws in Prodigal Son’s resemblance to Wolverine’s bone claws, seen in X-Men titles during the mid-90s. “I remember seeing a really deformed skeleton on the Discovery Channel that looked like it had knives and spikes jutting out everywhere. That really gave me the ideal look I was looking for.

“It usually takes me hours to imagine and plan the sequences in my head even before I draw the layout,” Tortosa said of the script, which is heavily action-driven. “So there are quite a number of pages where it actually took me longer to do the layouts than to draw the final art itself. Interestingly, I find the parts where they're just standing around talking the trickiest to lay out. It's hard to draw those without making it look really boring.”

Manga publisher Del Rey, a division of Random House Books, is publishing Prodigal Son, with the expected input from Wolverine’s owners at Marvel. Despite having two offices looking over his scripts, Johnston says that the process was easy for him.

“From my perspective it wasn't complicated at all. My contact was entirely with Dallas, and I couldn't have asked for a better editor on a book like this,” he said. “You'd have to ask him how complex it was from his end, though, as he dealt with Marvel directly. We had a few requests for changes come back from Marvel, but nothing extreme or, for that matter, unexpected. It was about as easy going as this sort of project could be.”

Depending on each readers’ personal biases, the notion of publishing manga-style adventures of an American superhero icon has possible negative or positive connotations – namely, the possibility of seducing fans of one area of the comics spectrum (either manga or American superheroes) to explore the other. Johnston admits that he hopes that both sects of fandom, particularly those who choose to ignore the other massive and diverse segment of titles, will see Wolverine: Prodigal Son as a door-opening experience.

“I genuinely think it's (for) both (types of fans). I wrote it to appeal to manga fans, first and foremost. They're the obvious target audience. But I do hope that fans of American comics who already know the character will try the book out, and — if we've all done our job right — realise that a manga story can still deliver what they want, just in a different way.”

Both Johnston and Tortosa are committed to continuing Logan’s manga adventures for as long as readers support their efforts.

Tortosa gushes, “I'm currently working on the second volume. I'd love to draw more stories for this Logan, he's just that fun to draw.”

“Book 2 picks up right where the first left off,” Johnston teases, “and continues Logan's quest for the truth about himself and his past, not to mention the revenge he seeks. I'm being deliberately vague, here, because I don't want to give the end of Book 1 away.

“Suffice to say that Book 2 will wrap up the story we started... but it also plants a couple of seeds for further stories, should we get the chance to tell them. And we're all hoping that we do get that chance.”

Wolverine: Prodigal Son vol. 1 is currently available. More information is available on Del Rey’s website and Antony Johnston’s website.

Twitter activity