Review by Karl Verhoven
The opening portion of Not Yet Dead is set in the past, with Wolverine in Hong Kong, enjoying the company of both film producer’s daughter Ai-Chia as a girlfriend and Scottish hitman McLeish as a drinking companion. McLeish is approaching sixty, aware his days as a feared contract killer are nearing an end, and considering a retirement he knows won’t be long lived. The complication ensues from the Hong Gang gangsters wanting to move into movie production, which is seen as a more honourable business than drugs, and across the far East great importance is attached to honour.
Warren Ellis has created an initially personable character in McLeish. He and Wolverine have their falling out midway through the opening chapter, and it appears definitive, but Ellis keeps flashing back to the good times, as McLeish passes on his code of honour: “No point to a decent man who’s made one mistake dying unpleasantly. If a murderer has no respect he’s nae better than some greedy wild animal killin’ more than he can eat.” Ellis’ dialogue indicates McLeish as a man who relishes what he is, and relishes being acclaimed for it, but back in Hong Kong it wasn’t to Wolverine’s taste. In the present it seems as if someone’s either imitating McLeish’s methods, or that he survived what appeared a very final demise.
Despite having written comics for several years, this was Ellis still finding his voice. This Ellis needed shock to sell a story, yet this is a tidy effort in myth creation with the solid simplicity of an action movie. McLeish’s odious self-justifying character is revealed step by step to create a total monster, and Bruce Willis in his vest could be playing this Wolverine. The cinematic mood is cemented by Leinil Francis Yu’s art. There are several memorable full page images of Wolverine on his motor bike, a fantastic accessory, and his hunched and scowling Wolverine has a suitably feral attitude. It’s an odd touch that the cover to every edition of the graphic novel so emphasises a costumed Wolverine, as an element Ellis correctly establishes is that no costume is required.
Surprises characterise the final chapter as some truths are told and the chickens come home to roost. The years have been kind to this graphic novel, now with a reputation as among the best Wolverine material, yet that doesn’t really stand up and is surely more attributable to Ellis’ name and later work. Ellis lays his red herrings well, but a plot element with considerable impact, an accumulation of very scarce adamantium, is eventually just dismissed without explanation, and while Not Dead Yet is a readable example of a certain type of Wolverine story, it hardly breaks new ground. The very best Wolverine material does.