Long before Hugh Jackman strapped on the claws as Wolverine in the X-Men film franchise, the character had a recognizable voice. If you read the Marvel comics from which he emerged, you could practically hear it just based on the way writers and artists depicted him: Surely, it was a gravelly growl, tinged with animalistic grunts and harsh cadences. It’s fitting, then, that Wolvie will be the first Marvel hero to get his own podcast. March 12 will see the release of Wolverine: The Long Night, a scripted podcast featuring the character, written by novelist and up-and-coming comics scribe Benjamin Percy. We caught up with Percy to talk about influences, format, and his own remarkable basso profundo.
What was the first Wolverine story that had an impact on you?
I’ve been reading Wolverine since I was 7 or 8. He’s one of those characters that I’ve followed my whole life. As a cigar-chomping, sideburned, whiskey-swilling, squat, grumpy loner, I feel a strong connection to him to this day. I always wanted to write Wolverine, but I never thought it would be in this capacity. I never anticipated this podcast universe would unfold before me. I have a strong affinity for the [Chris] Claremont/[Frank] Miller stuff. I really liked what [Greg] Rucka did in his run. He had some cool stuff with a story line with a militia in particular, that lingers in my memory to this day. Jason Aaron is one of my favorite writers in comics. His work on Wolverine is pretty definitive.
What makes Wolverine an interesting character to you, other than the fact that he’s a squat whiskey-swiller?
I have a strong interest in anti-heroes. Everyone from Wolverine to Don Draper to Tony Soprano. That struggle between light and dark. The struggle to do good, even though you’ve done bad. That’s something that absolutely drives me at the page when I’m writing my novels, writing screenplays, writing comics, writing this series. This is a story about atonement, about deception, about sacrifice, about the uncertainty of memory, about man in the wild, and the wild in man. Wolverine is such a compelling prism to explore these elements through. He’s somebody who is thickly bound in hair, and muscle, and adamantium, but inside that cage, deep inside that cage, there’s a big heart that’s hidden. Complicated characters are always the most interesting to me. He’s about as gnarly and complicated as they get.
How did you become a part of the project?
I broke in the side door of comics a few years back. I started off with a two-shot in Detective Comics, and from there I landed Green Arrow, and from there I landed Teen Titans, and from there I landed James Bond. This industry is a ladder. I guess you could say I’ve been working my way up a few rungs at a time. I was approached about this by Midroll and Marvel, and I put together a pitch. I wasn’t the only person they approached. I put together a pitch that was, I guess you could say, muscular. I don’t fool around with this sort of thing. When I knew I had the chance to write Wolverine, and when I knew that there was going to be this exciting new platform for the character, I put everything I had into making sure that this was mine for the taking. My pitch probably numbered 30 single-spaced pages.
I laid out what I wanted to do with the character. I laid out as many compelling story beats as I could. They gave me the green light. My claws have been out ever since.
So to speak. What’s the difference between writing a podcast pitch and writing a pitch for other mediums?
The pitch really, there’s no difference there. The scripting, however, is incredibly different. You’re tearing away a primary sense. There’s no sense of vision, so you have to find other ways to tell the story. This is especially difficult with a character most often associated with comics, where oftentimes a fight scene or an action set piece is central to the narrative. How do you write a fight scene in audio? You can’t, really. You have to find other ways to frame the narrative, and other ways to make the listener’s heart race.
Did you go to the well of other scripted podcasts, to get a sense of how that works, or old radio dramas?
I did. I was already an avid podcast listener, but I brushed up on some of my favorites, including Serial and S-Town. Their success, I think, has everything to do with their investigative format, the way that the listeners are complicit in the story. They are co-authors, they are literally detectives, because they are piecing together the clues alongside the point-of-view characters, the reporters in that case. In our series, our point-of-view characters are FBI agents. We’re lodged in their point of view, in their perspective, as we work our way through this community where dark deeds are occurring.
Tell me about them.
I can’t tell you too much. There’s something appealing about an odd couple, whether it’s Sonny and Cher, or Abbott and Costello, or Kirk and Spock. You want characters to play off each other. Sally Pierce and Tad Marshall are characters who have very different techniques. I wouldn’t call them a good cop and a bad cop, necessarily. You might find a parallel in, say, True Detective season one. They’re sparring with each other, even while working together toward a singular goal. In the course of listening to the series and following these characters, it’s not only an investigation into what’s happening in this town, it’s a query into Wolverine himself and the nature of his soul.
When you say the agents are the POV characters, how does that work? Is this like a Twin Peaks thing, where they’re narrating to Diane? Or is it more of a conventional sort of radio-drama approach?
There is a past and there is a present. There’s a past when bad things have happened, and there is a present where the mayhem is still occurring and the investigation continues. We’re cycling through the different timelines, and we’re trying to make sense of it all. Sometimes we’re in past tense and sometimes we’re in present tense. You are following them sometimes in the present, as they investigate a scene, and other times there is a recollection. There’s a recollection when they interview somebody, who tells them what they’ve seen. Sometimes one of the agents is reporting to another what they’ve discovered.
What do you want to bring out in Logan that maybe listeners and readers haven’t seen before?
I talked about podcasts like Serial and S-Town as an influence. I talked about True Detective as an influence. The other primary influence on the construction of this podcast was Unforgiven. Logan is hiding. Like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, Logan has separated himself from the world. There’s no better place to do that than Alaska, the last frontier. This is a place where survivalists go. This is a place where religious extremists go and criminals go. It’s very much a land of misfits, and rogues, and ne’er-do-wells. Logan is trying to escape what he has done. He has troubles with his memory. But he does remember that he has done monstrous things, terrible things. Sometimes, he wakes up in a sweat, haunted by bloody images from his time working with a black-ops unit. He is trying to escape himself and seek atonement. That’s what he’s going to pursue over the course of these ten episodes. He’s drinking himself into oblivion. He’s working himself raw as part of a fishing crew. He’s racing through the woods, sometimes even among packs of wolves, until his body wants to collapse. He’s seeking numbness. He’s seeking emptiness.
It’s a romantic comedy.
I take it this is before he’s joined the X-Men, or is it during one of his stints where he’s run away?
I can’t comment on that. Let’s just say that there are glimmers all throughout this first season that Marvel fans will recognize. One thing I do want to level up on and emphasize is that the point-of-view characters, as I mentioned before, are these FBI agents. Wolverine is obviously essential to the series, but what we’re really building up to start with is his offstage mythology. He is the subject of their investigation. Meaning with every episode, he’s going to have a larger and larger role, but up front, this is a tale of suspense. One of the devices of suspense is withholding information. We’re keeping a lot of clues hidden from you and we’re also keeping Wolverine, at the beginning, at the margins of the story, until at last he’s horribly spotlit. Spotlighted? Spotlit.
Let’s go with spotlit. Have you spent much time in Alaska?
I have, yeah. I’ve been up there several times for outdoor adventure, including several fishing trips I’ve done, based out of Homer and based out of Seward.
What kind of impression has it left on you?
It’s nature porn. You have the mountains crashing up against the sea. You have wildlife roaming through town. You have extreme conditions and extreme people. For someone with a personality like mine, it’s kind of heaven on Earth. It’s also a great stage for drama.
What have you heard so far of the finished product?
I have heard not only some clips, but finished cuts of some of the episodes. It’s melting my brain. It really is giving me gooseflesh when I listen. [Director] Brendan [Baker] and [sound designer] Chloe [Prasinos] have done an amazing job with the sound design and the music. This is cinema for your ears. This is not some old-time radio serial. The technology that they’re using, and the editing that’s taking place, and the extraordinary work of the actors, makes this a vividly realized experience.
Where and how did you listen to it?
I put in my earbuds and then ran naked through the woods listening to it.
Sounds like that’s the ideal way to do it.
I actually just turned down the lights in my office, leaned back and closed my eyes, and got swept away. But in my heart, I was racing naked through the forest.
Tell me about Brendan and Chloe. What are they like and what kinds of interactions have you had with them?
It’s been incredibly interactive from the very beginning. A lot of conversations in person and over the phone, and through … I’m spacing on that chatting platform now. Is it Slack?
Slack, yes. It’s the worst. It ruins all of our lives.
From the time I was building up the pitch, to the time that we were honing those final drafts, this was a collective effort.
I’m assuming the answer is nothing, but what can you tell us about the supporting cast? You’ve got some truly awesome character actors, Scott Adsit, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chris Gethard.
Alaska is a land of misfits, and rogues, and ne’er-do-wells, so there are survivalists in this story. There is a cult stationed outside of town. There are hunters and there are fisherman, and there are bartenders, and there are grizzled and rookie cops. All of them come together and make Alaska a kind of character as well.
The one supporting character we know anything about is Bobby, the local Alaskan cop played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. But that’s basically all we know about him. By sheer coincidence, Andrew and I went to a socialist summer camp together when we were both growing up. I have to say, imagining him as somebody out living among survivalists and cult members is truly hilarious to me.
He’s a genius.
He’s so talented.
His part is one of my favorites in the whole podcast. He does such a fantastic job. He brings this wonderful vulnerability to the role.
And you got Richard Armitage to play Wolverine!
When they were listing off different names as possibilities, as soon as they came to Armitage, I snapped my fingers and said, “Him, he’s the one.” I just knew that he was perfect for this role. He has not only the gravelly baritone, but a certain haunted demeanor about him that makes him perfectly suited for Wolverine. He’s a very, very smart guy. Some of the emails that he sent, in which he was referencing William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar and talking about how he wanted to sort of unpack the character of Wolverine, they were scholarly. He’s not someone in this role. This guy is Wolverine.
That’s a good Blake cut.
If you’re familiar with that painting, it’s the man on all-fours. He saw in that painting an equivalency to Logan.
Speaking of voices, I do have to ask perhaps the most important question: Do you ever get sick of having the best physical voice in comics? You have this bass voice that I wish our readers could hear.
I am the voice of Darkseid, right? Darkseid. I am the voice of every comic-book villain.
When did you get this voice? How early in your life did it appear?
I was 14 years old and probably 70 pounds. You can imagine the looks that I got. Like, “What is wrong with you? Did you eat a monster?” You didn’t know the voice of the witness-protection program was an actual dude, until you heard me.
This is good, you’ve got your tight five for when you start doing stand-up.
You should have heard me before I got a vasectomy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.