"A Dream of Dying" in Barry Windsor-Smith's Weapon X
Maybe no one told Barry Windsor-Smith that he was telling a Wolverine story because Weapon X certainly doesn't read like one.
Calling Weapon X a Wolverine story is a matter of marketing, something to draw the kiddies and the rubes into Barry Windsor-Smith’s 1991 monster story (but not Monsters; that’s a different book.) This isn’t a story about mutants or superheroes, and it may not even be exploring good-versus-evil. Just forget all of that kind of stuff as you live in the space of Windsor-Smith’s masterful cartooning for the length of this story. Live within this experiment of turning a man— a troubled, drunk, and violent man— into a weapon by people who should know better. Because within these pages Windsor-Smith sneaks in a horror story about mankind’s hubris into what should have been a marketing exercise— the origin of Wolverine, see it here for the first time!!!! Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
Windsor-Smith finds a unique angle to the story. In 1986’s The Uncanny X-Men #205 (also included in the recent Wolverine: Weapon X Gallery Edition,) Windsor-Smith already told a classic Wolverine story, teaming with Chris Claremont to tell a defining story about the man, his struggles, and his sense of honor. As Windsor-Smith’s third X-Men issue in a couple of years (following the two LifeDeath issues that focused on Storm,) Windsor-Smith left an interesting mark on Wolverine as he and Claremont used this issue to define the character in ways that the character’s popularity watered down in other stories. The Uncanny X-Men #205 feels like Claremont teaming up with another master artist (after Cockrum, Byrne, Smith, Miller, Romita Jr.) to refocus and recenter who this character was.
Five years later, Windsor-Smith takes a solo shot at the character with a story that promises to tell us how Logan got his adamantium-laced skeleton. But that plot summary is just a Trojan Horse; there’s nothing in this story to make you think that Windsor-Smith is at all interested in playing nice within continuity or even cared about some guy who wore a tan-and-black costume that had pointy things all over it. Logan (never “Wolverine” in the story itself, just “Logan”, "Mr. Logan”, “the patient,” and “Experiment X”) is just a weapon. In the hands of a shadowy organization, he’s a literal weapon for them to form and attempt to control. For Windsor-Smith, Logan is the cannonball ball tearing through nearly every page, aimed right at the heart of the reader.
While you’re so focused on Logan while reading this story, Windsor-Smith sneaks in a story about three people whose roles aren’t quite defined but who are instrumental in the momentum of the story; the Professor (and even though he’s bald, it’s not the Professor that’s usually associated with Logan,) Dr. Cornelius, the main architect of the process, and Hines, the girl Friday of this story who is part observer and part active force behind everything that happens. These three characters function as both protagonists and antagonists in this story. In the grand scheme of things, they’re villains, experimenting on an “innocent” man. It’s hard to see them as anything else as they work for this Weapon X project; they’re the faces of it to the reader. They work for the kind of shadowy organization that these stories teach us not to trust.
Watching the dynamic of these three as they poke, prod, and inject Logan ultimately reveals three people who think they’re in control of a situation without realizing just how over their heads they really are. They’re playing God. Particularly the Professor, the authoritarian (but occasionally desperate) leader of this program, projects his control in all situations. He barks orders and dominates Cornelius and Hines, acting as if everyone there is to serve him and his vision of what Logan can be. Windsor-Smith depicts the others as subserviently cowering to his orders, without ever challenging him. Until the situation turns out for the worst, Cornelius and Hines seem almost excited about this experiment, this mission to turn a man into a weapon. They’re certainly not innocent in this story; it’s just a question (and even then barely) of just how culpable they are for everything that happens to Logan and them in this story.
For all of their control over what’s happening, BWS builds in constant tension about when their weapon is going to wake up and turn on them. The Professor, Dr. Cornelius, and Hines are both the hunters and the hunted in this story. Windsor-Smith finds this great way to write about Logan without really writing Logan as anything other than a machine for most of this story. Logan exists as the subject of the comic but he’s barely shown as an actor in it. The three mad scientists end up being our point of view characters of them being trapped in a lab with a monster of their own making.
So when Logan breaks free of the control of these scientists, Logan becomes a killing creature, hunting down the people who have experimented on him. Windsor Smith balances the scientists’ procedural story (how do you build a better gun?) with these scenes of bloody chaos as Logan turns into a killer that’s all rage and unmerciful violence. Logan is the sleeping storm of this boo, the one that you know is inevitable but a that you’re unable to do anything about but wait for it hit.
Windsor-Smith tells the Weapon X story by building up an environment that is a reflection of Logan with all of the chaos, turmoil, and manipulation visually there on the page. Logan is quite literally stripped of any agency in this story, reduced to a naked wild man let loose against these scientists. In terms of what interests Windsor-Smith, he is taking away all of the super-hero trappings until he gets to the core of a man who has claws pop out of his hands. That’s the elevator pitch of this character that Claremont spent almost 20 dressing up as a hero. Windsor-Smith has no strong need to tread that ground. By stripping Logan down to his skin, Windsor-Smith finds ways to focus on what this man is going through.
As the character is stripped bare, Windsor-Smith places him in pages that quickly transition from sensory overload to almost peaceful moments of zen meditation. His page constructions serve to illustrate Logan’s state of mind even as the character himself cannot express his thoughts. From the staccato dialogue, word balloons, and caption boxes that overwhelm the beginning of this story when we’re trying to get our bearings, to the few wordless sequences where Windsor-Smith slows down time to allow you to be in the moment, and through the final epilogue of the story where form and color become a meditative way out of the story, the cartoonist uses the pages and images to create a connection between the reader and the characters. The construction of the comic is purposeful and designed to bind the reader to Logan.
To tell this story, Barry Windsor-Smith builds it in visual layers, starting with the characters. Visually, Logan is at the center of the story, the naked and hair wild man that everything revolves around. Even as he’s sleepwalking through the story, Windsor-Smith creates an iconic version of the character with the wild hair and electronic boxes hanging off of his wait, wires everywhere. It’s become as recognizably Logan as any costume has. But unlike so many of those costumes that are just surface-level appearances, the Weapon X Logan tells the story itself of a man whose own humanity is taken from him as others try to transform him into a machine. Windsor-Smith’s version of the character shows this man, trapped between his own personhood and being nothing but a weapon to be shot wherever his “masters” aim him.