Twenty years ago, the Marvel Universe felt like a larger place. This is not a comment on the comics themselves—by now I suspect I can no longer be brought to the point of caring about what ersatz-Biblical wisdom emerges from the mouth of the Silver Surfer—so much as on publishing circumstances. For all the many faults of the Bill Jemas era, documented and analyzed by people much wiser than I, its context, hot on the flayed and wounded heels of the steep contraction of the comic book market and the new success of the Marvel Knights line, brought with it a sense of abandon: a tendency to take risks for no reason beyond "What else have we got left?" What this included was the hiring of talent from global comics scenes - for example, Croatia's Darko Macan and the unfairly-maligned Igor Kordej. At that time, Marvel had something of an eye outwards, for better or worse: new voices, new aesthetics, and new approaches went hand in hand with in-some-cases dubious compensatory priorities, and an exoticizing viewpoint that allowed for the uninterrogated rise of Akira Yoshida.
It is through this prism that the five-issue curio known as Wolverine: Snikt!, written and drawn by mangaka Tsutomu Nihei, sprang into existence in 2003. Originally crafted for Marvel's long-forgotten mangaesque Tsunami imprint, Nihei's story feels almost reverse-engineered: a girl swoops in from about 50 years in the future and warps Wolverine forward to her native time, where some sort of virus has gained sentience and flesh, and has largely eradicated the planet. Of course, Logan is the only one who can stop this hostile species from self-replicating, because the adamantium of his skeleton is the only material to which the prime unit is vulnerable. He growls what amounts to a "Yeah, alright," kills that prime unit, saves the world, and asks to go home.
Reader, I'm not oversimplifying. There's a workmanlike whatever-ness to the whole affair: two issues are dedicated to Wolverine in action; a third presents as much explicative worldbuilding as the story needs to make sense; and then two issues depict battle and resolution. The story is about nothing beyond its confines; its characters serve their purposes and evaporate, and the world around them is limited to the plainly evident, with just enough propulsion to get you to your destination.
But this lack of detail is part of what makes the comic noteworthy. In Snikt!, the words "Wolverine" and "X-Men" are uttered, but the only real function of Wolverine being Wolverine is that he is a guy with knife hands who cuts through metallic monstrosities. The convolution of the X-Men's continuity or Wolverine's life story has no bearing on this comic; Wolverine is a blank slate, plunged into a blank world. It is in this way that Nihei sets his story apart from the vast majority of superhero comics of our current time: he does not hide the fact that he really, truly, could not care less. There is no sense of requisite gratitude, no this-is-our-modern-mythology self-importance; nor is there any overt disdain of the Pat Mills or Garth Ennis variety, no vociferous hatred or resentment for the genre. There is only clarity. It's a job - why does it need to be anything else?
Where this new edition, published through the manga specialists at VIZ, differs from Marvel's own previous collections, is its supplementary display of some of Nihei's uncolored inks, offering up a sample of a superior product. The series was colored by American studio GURU-eFX, delivering a palette most indicative of early '00s Marvel: a digitally disaffected mash of muddy, murky gradients and smudges whose role, it would appear, is to not complement the underlying lines but wage war against them. Special effects add texture in the worst possible way, while the characters are shown in a uniform tint of refrigerated-corpse silver, all of it diminishing the sharpness of Nihei's lines. Indeed, the coloring (as well as Cory Petit's mixed-case lettering) can well be seen as an attempt to Americanize the un-American - a refusal to accept external sensibilities on any terms resembling their own.
But what that backmatter gallery also does is remind the reader that some of the artist's sharpness is still present. Nihei's line art here is cleaner than much of his contemporaneous Japanese work, since the coloring obviates the typical manga use of halftones, but his inks do their best to make up for it. His strokes are scratchy and frenetic, thick enough to pop—which is to say, pointing out their own incongruity—amidst the coloring. It certainly looks more like the just-concluded BLAME! or subsequent Abara than his later, simplified efforts such as Knights of Sidonia. Much of the dynamism otherwise present in Nihei's work is swallowed by coloring effects, be they digital blurring or faux three-dimensional smoke or speed trails, sometimes giving his objects or characters the appearance of floating stiffly in mid-air. Yet there are reminders of Nihei's actual authorial personality: between the dilapidated architecture of the future and the mechanical antagonistic species, the cartoonist's preoccupation with the physicality of decay is on full display. Every torn cable and every crack on a brick wall is articulated with as much attention as the man can muster - far more than the attention devoted to the actual story.
On the merits, Snikt! is not a very good comic, failing to justify its east-meets-west marketing angle. It lacks the pained, urgent verve of the best Wolverine comics - say, Barry Windsor-Smith's Weapon X (quite possibly the best comic Marvel ever published, and certainly the best comic Barry Windsor-Smith has made), while it has none of the heady interest in its own world that Nihei demonstrates in his Japanese works. And yet, in spite of its weakness, I find it impossible to dismiss it as a pure stunt, because it is a striking example of that by-now-rare commodity: a Marvel comic that does not trip over itself in celebration of being a Marvel comic. Indeed, the unvarnished lack of veneration is a faint reminder of what Marvel has, at best, forgotten, and at worst appears to have never known: there really is a world outside that window, and you'd do well to look at it every once in a while.