Dermal Lift: Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X

Back when I cared about this stuff, Wolverine was my least favorite of the primetime X-Men characters. A comic book version of a type that's all too common in real life, the macho guy who does his best talking with his fists and who'd serve everyone better not to employ his mouth or brain at all. Once I stopped caring about this stuff, I immediately warmed to Wolverine. Let's face it, there isn't a truly deep or faceted character to be found anywhere in superhero comics, so we might as well let it go and get to the violence, as much and as quickly as possible, please. Wolverine stories still rankle with me somewhat though, because he talks to you like the guy in the next barstool you wish had stayed quiet does, expounding on his bullshit samurai philosophy, his creepy mentoring of pubescent girls, how he's the best there is at what he does, master of any situation he might run across. It's just so goddamn wearisome - like I said, there's enough of it in real life already, and toxic masculinity of such stripes is baked so solidly into the fabric of superheroic adventure that most of the other guys don't feel the need to state the obvious so stridently. Wolverine does, and you can't help but wonder why.

It's difficult to imagine something crying out to be made less than "a Wolverine comic for people who don't like Wolverine comics," but in 1991 blazing young talent turned prodigal son turned bitter middle-generation craftsman Barry Windsor-Smith birthed Weapon X, the character's origin story, anyway. Another thing that's difficult to imagine is a take that needs to be repeated less than "check out this different, better superhero comic that really broke the rules!" But uhhh....

Maybe the biggest part of what makes superhero comics so unpalatable to the uninitiated (and vice versa) is how referential they are, how enamored every panel is not just with contributing to a larger construction, but with its consciousness of doing that. Part of this is simply good salesmanship, but I think it's more due to the fact that guys who make superhero comics really really love superhero comics. Like stoned stoners talking about getting stoned, they just can't resist bringing up that other time when, and the people who were there, and how much, and why. Reveling, stewing sweetly in their own juices. Weapon X feels very different. Here is a superhero comic that seems not just to dislike superhero comics but to truly hate them - coldly, furiously.

Weapon X is a story about a man who has lived long and hard enough to forget that life is a precious gift. As punishment for this, his life is taken from him, and he is given residence in hell.  One look at Windsor-Smith's ultra-detailed, pre-Raphaelite cartooning is enough to tell you he's not into ambiguity. "Hell is comin'," the opening chapter's final line states in extra-sized lettering just so nobody overlooks it. The panel layouts spiral around the edges and into into small images at the center of the pages, narrowing our gaze on Wolverine before he was a superhero or a secret agent. This book's hero ekes out a sub-Travis Bickle existence in a single-room occupancy hotel for AIDS patients, "one day distinguished from the next only by the changing patterns of bruises and blood from last night's drunken fights." He is abducted and taken to a secret installation where he somehow survives a series of horrifying and sadistic medical experiments. The book ends.

Here are some dialogue exchanges:

"Listen to that feral roar! The bloodlust!"

"I don't think that sound is bloodlust, professor. I think it's pain."

"Those braces can only keep the incisions open for so long, you know."

"Yes, doctor. The flesh is actually forming around the clamps, here."

"You mean... he's conscious? So he can feel what we're doing to him?"

"Most of it, yeah. Poor geezer's in a lotta pain."

"He must be in terrible pain, sir!"

"Yes! I think you're right! Look at that!"

Time and again, the knife twists. Just as Wolverine is brutally reconditioned to become the ultimate killing machine, and so too does Windsor-Smith administer brutal reconditioning to his audience of Marvel Zombies. But we are moved in the opposite direction, away from thrill-seeking toward an unsettling empathy. Windsor-Smith goes out of his way time and again to force us into seeing his book's blood-soaked imagery as full of agony, not just a signifier of badass conflict. You're not allowed to read this comic without confronting what its hero's body goes through. Imagine an NFL Mic'd Up segment of only concussions, ACL tears, and broken bones inflated to superheroic proportions. "Show don't tell" might be the oldest advice for writers, and in comics it's a pressing necessity - but Windsor-Smith understands that we have to be shown and then told, because in this milieu seeing fluids on the floor is nothing new.

So we're shown detailed, annotated pictures of processes occurring. A man having molten metal injected into his bones, fitted with neural implants that rob him of muscular and chemical control of his own body, getting chunks of that body ripped away by starving wolves, and having five boom box-sized signal transmitters surgically attached to his skin - two to his face. And we're told by word balloons and caption boxes that these are the things that are happening, because otherwise we might mistake even pictures this gruesome for just regular-type superhero goings on. The best illustration of this is seen in a sequence near the beginning, when Wolverine extends his new claws from his body for the first time. We, of course, have seen this so often that we take it for granted, but as razors bloom from flesh, a hapless guard screams at us, "Blood! Oh! Blood's spurting out of his hands! Oh my God! He's just gushing blood!"

There are plenty of hyper-violent superhero books, whose bloodletting volume exceed that of Weapon X by gallons. But there's no other superhero comic that carries with it such an emphasis on physical pain. I'm of the opinion (some other guys probably are too, but I was too busy reading Wolverine to read those books) that a presentation of human suffering is the bedrock at the foundation of the dramatic image. Despite the endless lumps they dish out to their protagonists, superhero comics almost never center their focus on pain or suffering of any kind, except insofar as these constitute obstacles to be overcome physically - usually in the space of a panel or two. Bodies are there to take beatings, but never to tell us about them. This is one reason why most superhero comics are lacking in dramatic stakes. Here Windsor-Smith seems determined to pay back as much of the balance due as he can. Physical suffering is the subject of this comic far more than its main character, who spends most of the book unconscious or incommunicado.

Not that there aren't a ton of words in this comic. Torrents of clipped, terse verbiage swirl across nude bodies locked in restraints, aiming again and again for gutshots, locating and highlighting the agony its plot causes its characters. Disgust isn't just implied, it's searched for, honed. This is one of the things I'm talking about when I say that Windsor-Smith's hatred for superhero comics is palpable throughout. But I'm also talking about something bigger - a hatred of the culture that surrounds superhero comics and celebrates the violence they all share in. Windsor-Smith knows the only reason to come to a Wolverine comic is to see violence. So he ladles it on, and makes the reader complicit. You wanted this? Well, this is what you wanted. It doesn't stop, and it doesn't apologize for itself. It simply tests your stomach. Weapon X has as much in common with harsh noise music or mondo cinema as it does with superhero comics. Its villain takes unreserved delight in watching the torture of his subject, which is the same thing we're here to do. Audience indictment doesn't get much starker or simpler than this. Characters, readers, and author form a linked circle of sadism.

Windsor-Smith's desire to rough up the reader is right there in every panel he draws. Slashed to ribbons by streaks of black ink and thin streamers of contrasting color, this is beautiful artwork that nonetheless punches out at you to rebuff the eye rather than welcoming it. Swaths of visual noise - bubbles, snowflakes, shattering glass, banks of glowing lights - pop and hiss and crackle around the figures. No spaces are left empty - Weapon X puts the horror in horror vacui. All the neon nightmares of the 1980s brought us - Neuromancer, David Cronenberg, Akira - are rendered shorthand and packed into as small a space as possible in one overdriven image after another. Colors seethe and clang off each other, set dissonantly at odds far more often than in harmony. In a rare superhero comic colored by the same dude who drew it, Windsor-Smith outdoes himself, painstakingly placing flecks of highlight and lowlight on every available surface, making panels look like tickertape parades.

"Painterly" is an adjective that gets tossed around just about any time a comic book colorist manages to pull off a decent looking page, but here it's fully earned. All process colored, benday-dotted comics art has a bit to do with pointillism, but this one wades in deep, mustering tiny dots made out of tiny dots into imposing wholes that vibrate with contrasts. Artwork this exquisitely detailed usually begs to be described as "lush", but that word couldn't be less appropriate for this stuff. Instead it raises up sharp and glittering, and bristles. Windsor-Smith's refusal to let anything be filled by flat color rhymes with his writing's needlepoint jabs at the reader's gag reflex. If something on the page can be sharpened, it will be.

The imagery itself earns the brutal technique employed in making it. Subtle character acting and compositions that manage to breathe through all the debris are the backbone, but the reddest meat in this book is its magnetic focus on Wolverine's brutalized nude figure. Large master shots of our hairy, musclebound hero in agony and weighed down by some physical encumbrance repeat incessantly, moving quickly past simple sadism and into the realm of the erotic. If I had to compare this book's visuals to any other comic, it'd be to something by bara mangaka extraordinaire Gengoroh Tagame. Wolverine's superb form is bound in coils of cord, restrained by sinister machinery, pierced by braces of surgical needles, grafted to bulky mechanical extrusions, and controlled in its every movement by the voice and hand of another's mastery. It's a homoerotic, sadomasochistic cornucopia. If you've got a sexual fetish whose real-life practice poses danger to your partner's health, you'll find visual fuel for it here - fuel limned with enough painstaking virtuosity to burn it all the brighter. You can imagine future serial killers having spontaneous ejaculations to some of the pictures in this book.

It's hard to read something this raw without wondering about where the head of its creator was at while it was getting made. Some of the bile here - certainly the chunks that spray outward at the reader - is standard comic book stuff, the impotent rage of the rare talent who deserved better but spent too many of his good innings wearing spandex to pay the bills. But there are unknowable depths to Weapon X that actually manage to show up on the page. Skill can only carry an artwork so far, and it's impossible to make something this tortured, this blackly erotic, without genuine conviction. Something we aren't allowed to see is being referred to here, reached for.

Windsor-Smith promises in his book's overture is that "hell is comin'," and the worst thing about hell is that it's neverending. So it's not hard to feel a bit cheated as we watch Wolverine hack through his tormentors to bloody retribution and the fan-favorite future we know all too well, even though it's some pretty badass shit. But Weapon X's gore-soaked conclusion is a false bottom. As Wolverine runs free the swirl of captioned commentary on his actions strikes up again, a minor-key main theme, and we see our hero back under control, put to trial by combat yet again as the voices congratulate themselves on how cleverly constructed the artificial psychodrama they've just put him through was. Wolverine cuts his way through the compound again, zeroing in on the voices. THE END. An epilogue titled INTERLUDE AND ESCAPE pictures Wolverine walking naked through a snowstorm, covered in icicles. The voices still howl around him, discussing their culpability for his fate. A small single panel of blood and fire closes the book.

The implication is obvious: as in hell, there is no escape that happens in this text.  If it does happen, glimpsed as flashbacks in other books that force their stories onto this one's, so be it. But if Windsor-Smith's bank account demanded he come back to making superhero comics after a long sojourn in the fine-arts world, he was going to find the hero who could take the most punishment and spend every page of his book punishing.  The trials, the suffering, are ceaseless - this is superhero comics, after all, and there's always a next issue. The triumphant heroic ending that all the other books cap themselves with - that's in those other books. One for this book is in them. But not here.

Judged solely on its text, Weapon X is bara, or it's horror. It's only when you lean it on the rest of the Wolverine comics that it becomes a superhero thing, a black chip in a larger mosaic that conforms to the shape we all recognize. Its only element of uplift is knowledge we bring in from outside its covers. Inside them, well, if Wolverine like us is just being fed endless, manipulative images of interlude and escape, couldn't those images play on and on until they generate a fantastic career as a costumed swashbuckler? And if that were all a dream, wouldn't the dreamer want to keep reminding himself, and us, how he's the best there is at what he does, master of any situation he might run across? The only narrative thread Windsor-Smith doesn't tie up here - the only ambiguity he lets in - is the persistent suggestion that events are being controlled by a force we don't see in any of the book's panels. A few things happen at random, unexplained, with the logic of a dream. The only Wolverine comic that explains the character's assholishness is the only one that doesn't feature it. Wolverine's the hypermasculine exterior every man who feels small wishes he could wear into the world. In Windsor-Smith's book the character himself is just the first guy in the line.

Weapon X isn't the only superhero comic to tear down its protagonist's heroic facade or even to indict its readers for believing in that image - though it is one whose force and quality surpasses all but the top rank of stories to do so. What is unique about it is seeing that high level of quality married to a determination to baldly depict a true extreme of pain and violation, to make characters and readers suffer as much as possible. To be hard to read. The only other comic I've read that heaps as heavy a burden on its hero is Suhehiro Maruo's Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show - but that one's focus is on degradation, the dragging down of an innocent soul. This book is almost a companion to that one - coming afterwards - about a soul that has already been degraded. And so in order for it to suffer it must simply feel pain. For the suffering to register, to make as big an impact as possible, as much pain as possible must be felt.

But what kind of reason is that to make a book? Again I throw my hands up, looking into unknowable depths that I can see the existence, but not the contents of. For something that's not into ambiguity, this is truly enigmatic work. Back when I cared about this stuff, I dropped out of high school and got a job in a back-issue archive, cataloging a warehouse full of pretty much every comic published since the '70s. There were other publications scattered in there too, and around the same time I found Weapon X I found a porno mag that featured photos of what I later learned is called a "dermal lift". A bald guy in aviator's goggles hung from a wood-beamed ceiling, suspended by metal hooks lodged in the stretching skin of his back, a woman in swastika'd fetish gear seeming to direct whatever was happening. There was a look on his face: he was over whatever horizon he'd lived life on the other side of. Most fiction doesn't want to push its characters that far. This does.

Maybe that's reason enough.