‘Wolverine: Top Secret’ Takes That Lovable Grump To The Prom
In 1994, X-Men: The Animated Series was still going strong, and X-Men comics were buoyant. Things were going pretty poorly for Wolverine on both counts; season three of the cartoon began with his delicate ex returning as Lady Deathstrike, and moved quickly into "The Phoenix Saga," while March brought the wedding of Scott and Jean into the pages of X-Men. That poor sad gravelly muscle beast!
Marvel took pity on him, I suppose, and farmed out publication of Francine Hughes’ Wolverine: Top Secret. It’s a novel. It’s for young readers. The first chapter is called Chapter 1: The Prom.
At ninety-seventh large-text pages, twelve of which are taken up by Aristides Ruiz illustrations, it’s not an epic. It doesn’t need to be. Partially adapted from various published comics and located by bookending in an X-Setup that’s very familiar to the youthful cartoon viewer, this book is all about maybes. Maybe Logan spends the various chapters remembering genuine events in his long, but not Origin-long, life. Maybe it’s all a trick, like they told us in episode forty-five, Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape. Doesn’t matter. It’s a peek inside the best-he-can-do mind of the character as children saw him at the time: gruff, sad, reliable, protective. We never needed the extensive facts of the life of James “Logan” Howlett. We already understood the man he felt like.
This book does attempt to fill in the blanks, in fact, but it’s all so silly that it feels like a myth. Hughes knows she’s working in perhaps-land, and picks a template for Young Logan that fits the masculine loner idealism of every recognizable Wolverine like a glove. A claw-perforated glove.
When we zoom back from "Westchester, today," to "Mountain Canada High School, the fifties-ish," and meet our teenaged hero, of course he’s a loser misfit. Of course he’s a rebel without much of a cause. Of course they call him "Greaser," and sneer preppily, and he wears flannel (that’s not only timeless, it’s also timely! Flannel, in 1994? Like, natch).
Teenaged Logan has to rush home to make dinner for his ungrateful old authoritarian father, and we’ve all heard this tragedy a million times before. It doesn’t lose it’s weight. The bad boy who just wants to be held, mister strength-by-necessity. It’s giving us more of the same in a rather clever way — not trying to expand upon The Man, The Mystery, but compounding the feeling — if only we could reach him. Isn’t Wolverine so cool?
Yes. He is so cool. Do you know the best thing about cool people? They all only do it by accident, because they don’t know how to be calm and friendly. Kids, Wolverine needs you to be his friend! (Of course “you” means Jubilee, the sidekid of the 90s, who Logan first denies and then accompanies to a friendly game of basketball, because team sports are the only thing that the X-Men ever used to do, back when things were good, and entertainment was wholesome, pass me my boiled sweets dear.)
Wolverine is a definitively violent character, snikt snikt bub, but a lot of us grew up knowing that his physical capability mixed with his closed-off, weirdly generous character, made him the best uncle mentor we could hope for. It wasn’t that he had metal claws that could murder you up something rotten. He was just the kind of guy who, to use an example from this novelization, would leave the only home he ever really knew because his girlfriend did the necessary thing and shot their rabid dog. Wolverine is such a softie, that he just goes into the woods and never comes back because he’s so torn up about his fur baby.
Ridiculous maybe, but this is the kind of book that makes the world seem safe. It lets children think about adventure and loss without being confronted by the uncaring. Much like X-Men’s animated series did from ’92 to ’97. Much like, ideally, the comics do.
Francine Hughes does a masterful job of giving Logan a voice to match his animated dialogue; short sentences, defensive rhetoric, something indefinably Cathal Doddesque. I can hear it, that coin-op massage chair of a voice, on every page of Wolverine: Top Secret. For nostalgia’s sake, or just for the trip of “teen Logan goes to prom”, it’s a special thing to have.