The history of the man called Logan is a complicated one. His backstory was first explored in the 1982 mini-series called simply, Wolverine, which took the mutant to Japan on a journey of self discovery that ended, as most things have for him, in tragedy (and is the basis for this summer’s film The Wolverine). Over the ensuing decades, tiny bits and pieces of Logan’s history were revealed until suddenly everything changed as then editor-in-chief Joe Quesada (now CCO of the company) penned Wolverine: Origin with Bill Jemas and Paul Jenkins. The story revealed that Logan has been alive for a long time, about two hundred years, in fact, and even has another name, James Howlett.
While more has been revealed in the ensuing years – his brother that also survived the ages, his son who turned bad after years of perceived neglect, and many loves lost – there is still a large amount of “missing time” in the past. Now some of that will be filled-in in Wolverine: Origin II, a story by Kieron Gillen and Adam Kubert (whose brother drew the original) that the writer describes as a “period novel.”
Origin II will pick up more directly after the events of the first story, as Logan is living wild and rabid with a pack of wolves in the Canadian wilderness. He’s given up on being human, and thinks of himself as less. But as he finds his way back to civilization, a man who will become Sinister, Dr. Nathaniel Essex, finds this mutant early in his studies.
We talked with Gillen about the pressures of following-up on his boss’s major epic, what makes Wolverine’s past so compelling, and how pop music, as it usually does in his writing, might even creep into this story (after a fashion).
Newsarama: Kieron, let’s talk about your brand new series, and that is Wolverine: Origin II.
Kieron Gillen: Sh*t.
Nrama: (laughs) Well, you know, you’re only following up your Chief Creative Officer, no pressure there!
Gillen: (laughs) I’m going to get fired. If he doesn’t like this, I’m really in trouble aren’t I?
Nrama: Let’s take a different approach and start by talking about the artist you’re working with here, Adam Kubert!
Gillen: I know, it’s great! It’s really exciting. I don’t know how to describe it… it’s an enormous relief.
The way I’m writing it, it’s the same way I write Young Avengers, which is a hybrid full-script/Marvel method thing. I write some bits in Marvel Method [plots with very little direct panel breakdown and dialogue] where it feels that is better, mostly with action sequences, then some scenes in full script when they’re a bit more low key, but still with the understanding that the artist can kind of do what they want with it. That’s what I’m doing here, because Adam – he doesn’t need me to do full script!
And the question of Man and Animal and being instinctive versus being calculated and all those dichotomies are part of the story, so that’s how I’m writing it. You have the feral parts and the more civilized parts, and just knowing he’s an artist that will make that all natural, and flowing, and beautiful, all incredibly vibrant.
I’ll tell you, my favorite story about it so far, the first part is Logan living with wolves. That’s most of the first issue. It really has a “Call of the Wild,” Jack London novel vibe to it. This is beginning of the 20th Century, frontier vibe – very “White Fang” is a good way to describe the plot. I’m not joking, it is, I even re-read that as part of my research!
But he went to the Natural History Museum and started sketching wolves immediately, stuff like that. I’m excited about having an artist to work with on a project like this that works so well with that sort of thing. And I like the sibling rivalry with it, between Origin I and Origin II!
Nrama: What part of the process was he in as your artist? Was that from the beginning, or did you find out after you’d taken the job?
Gillen: I believe that was from the very beginning, at least from when I knew it was going to be a period novel in the Marvel Universe, from when I knew Origin II would be what Origin II is. We were playing around with some different ideas as well, but he was on from close to the very beginning.
Nrama: Well now I want to know what the other ideas were!
Gillen: Well, I can’t really say that! When we sat and thought what period, what would Origin II be, there were a few options to that. One of the ideas could very well be Origin III if that winds up happening, so that’s why I wouldn’t want to talk about them.
Nrama: That’s fair. Mr. Sinister is someone we know a decent about, and some of his early times, his manipulation of the Summers and Grey families – why use him? With his close association with those two, why involve him with Logan?
Gillen: One of my working titles for the series is “Origin of the Species.” Especially in its earlier version, when I was still playing with different ideas, and those ideas still inform the character, this is a book about the birth of the 20th Century. This is a book about the world that’s about to become World War I. This is right when the German schliefen plan was written. I think in my early drafts I had Sigmund Freud in it, I had Italian futurists in it, that sort of thing.
And Nathaniel Essex, because that’s one of the important things about it, yes, he’s Mr. Sinister, but I’m calling him Nathaniel Essex throughout. This is quite a self-contained book. You can read Origin I then read this, or have read every Marvel Comic ever and read this, but it’s also something you can just pick up and read by itself. Nathaniel Essex, for my purposes, is a disgraced scientist. He’s a man who meddled in ethically questionable areas and is now pursuing them. He’s the very model of the mad scientist. And of course he’s interested in emerging species. So to me, that’s the perfect guy.
And of course, for me, I’ve written a lot of Sinister before in my Uncanny run, and this guy is not that guy. In fact, he’s literally not that guy, because in the hundred years between he completely rebuilds himself, and reprograms his personality, even. So here, he’s much more grounded – I’m not even planning to reveal any of his numerous special powers. He’s always been a shape changer, so he’ll just appear a normal looking dude.
It’s quite a gritty story. The villains we use, it’s all very lived-in, has quite a bit of Marvel science. If you’re going to talk about eugenics, and war, everything of that period, Nathaniel Essex is a very wonderful dark lens to see it through.
He has interesting philosophies about Wolverine. This is kind of the start of his love affair. This is when Nathaniel Essex really starts prodding at Mutants and the idea of Mutants.
Nrama: It’s interesting that these two men are actually close to the same age, when we look back in their histories.
Gillen: I think Sinister is slightly older, but they are contemporaries.
Nrama: What is so compelling about Wolverine that continuing to reveal these untold tales of his past is something that Marvel wants to do and that you want to do particularly?
Gillen: I’ll tell you what, the first issue is going to be really striking. Wolverine doesn’t speak. It’s a period novel, where everything is told in very sparse captions – we originally even talked about making that first issue completely wordless. But the actual research about wolf packs and that kind of stuff was so interesting and made it feel fresher than what our idea of a wolf pack is, I decided to leave some captions. It’s an overture, it’s very structured and a singular statement.
The idea of doing something that is both very important to the Marvel Universe and Logan with interesting resonance, but also something that’s a singular statement, a core growth moment for Logan into the man we know and buy 8 million comics of each month.
With Logan, it’s always been about the mysteries. What are the key parts of the character that we don’t know? What are the most definitive things we don’t know yet? That’s why we played with different options, and this is what we settled on. There’s a gap between Origin and when he comes into the Marvel continuity with Silverfox, and our Sinister story is set between then. The guy you see with Silverfox, in 1910, I think, off the top of my head, and the guy who ran off with wolves at the end of Origin are very different guys. James, at the end of that story is a very different guy. So what are these core emotional lessons that transformed this guy into that guy – that’s very interesting. There’s a lot of grist. There’s a lot about the question of family. There’s a lot about the question of rage – yeah, he killed people before but we never saw Logan go into a proper berserker rage. When and why did that happen, and what does that do to you? What do you do in these other love affairs? There are these questions of family and just who the f**k are you, and how can you bear to wake up and look yourself in the mirror?
All these are interesting things. The Man or Beast question is there, the question of healing and what that actually means. These are all things I want to play with. And the secret of his greatest enemy! There’s an interesting story there.
Nrama: It’s interesting to me that the solicitation here is using the name James Howlett. Is that a name he’s still using at this point, or is he moving into the Logan persona a bit?
Gillen: I don’t know how to explain that. The Logan persona… Well I mentioned he doesn’t speak in the first issue, he doesn’t speak for quite awhile because he isn’t happy being dragged into the story. Early on, most of the cast doesn’t even think he can speak – most of the cast doesn’t even think he’s human. He goes a bit King Kong or Bigfoot, “who is this man of the woods?”
I would say that’s very much part of the story we’re telling.
Nrama: Will we be seeing other familiar faces from the Marvel Universe besides Mr. Essex?
Gillen: Oh… I’m just running through the list… Yeah! If we’re going to show the secret behind his greatest enemy, we might show his greatest enemy! (laughs) I love doing early interviews.
Nrama: Let’s be blunt, hearkening back to my early question: Why does Wolverine need more comics?
Gillen: You see, Marvel has a quota, and a quarterly profit margin they have to hit… (laughs)
Really, I look at this as a singular statement of novelistic intent about a character who is iconic and important. To me it’s like “why did you need Dark Knight Returns?” This is a rare chance to do with a Marvel character something of singular emotional importance, to really try to do something like that.
This is a quality product – I hate to sound like a businessman like that, but this isn’t just a “here’s a mini we’re doing,” it’s big, emotional, powerful, and true and I think that Marvel characters entirely justify that kind of treatment.
Wow, that was quite wanky! (laughs)
Nrama: We talk a lot about how character drives your stories. How does character drive the story when the character himself is so unsure of who he is?
Gillen: Oh wow. But see, it’s the question of discovery. You put these contrasting people around him, you have him interact – even when he’s not speaking you still get the interaction, because people can talk a lot with their actions. That’s what’s great about working with Adam, you can tell someone a lot about a character with just a glance – it’s the advantage of a visual medium.
It’s why the bildungsroman is a thing, the coming of age novel. You can explore these kinds of questions, it’s how a character delineates from who he is supposed to be. It’s the idea of the family you choose versus the family you have.
Nrama: What are you trying to do differently or new with Wolverine Origin II that you have maybe never done before in your comic book writing?
Gillen: Um… there’ll be no pop music talking. I guarantee you. (laughs)
I will not say there isn’t any pop music at all, knowing me I’ll dig out what people were listening to in 1907.
This builds off the morsels of the ideas I explore in [creator-owned book] Three, which also hasn’t come out yet. It’s a period novel in the Marvel Universe, without people just being in costumes and a bit more fighting. There are the big visual set pieces, but it’s also aesthetically coherent to the period. I just sort of got the urge to make Essex more like Doctor Frankenstein, make the pseudo-science more super, where I’ve always pulled back from that a bit.
So the period novel in the Marvel Universe feels most unusual for me, especially without a lot of satire. I did some period stuff in Journey Into Mystery and Uncanny X-Men, but I was broadly satirical. I did a whole issue of Uncanny about Dostoyevsky and it was a broad parody. This isn’t, it’s firmly in the setting.