How Benjamin Percy’s ‘Wolverine: The Long Night’ Is a Revolution for Marvel (Exclusive)
As far as podcasts go, Wolverine: The Long Night is quite the ambitious one.
Not only is it the first scripted podcast from Marvel, it’s also the first of its kind, in that no other major media brand has stepped into the fertile grounds of the podcasting world yet. Plus, this is a new version of Logan we’re seeing, not Hugh Jackman’s big-screen take or recent comic book iterations, but an even darker look into his psyche that steers us closer to his roots -- which is all writer Benjamin Percy wants.
"I grew up on Wolverine. He's one of my favorite comic book heroes, and I've long dreamed of writing that character. I never imagined it would be in this medium, though. That's the thing that excited me the most; Podcasting is a wild West of sorts, and this felt like a way to not only reach a new audience but break the character wide open again," Percy says.
"I've always felt a connection to Wolverine, in particular in the wildness and the way that he was apart from society and even apart from other mutants," he adds, noting he grew up on the woods of Oregon with "back to the land" parents.
It makes sense that an established writer like Percy would be able to bring such depth to Logan, but it’s his personal relationship to the character and franchise that really makes the podcast feel special. He's been reading comics since he was four, having first been introduced to Wolverine, like so many of us, in X-Men. The fan-favorite superhero, who was once part of a military program that made his body nearly impenetrable, giving him the ability to heal and regenerate, made his first appearance in 1974. "He has been in the spotlight so long that there's a danger of growing too familiar," Percy explains. "He is a loner and someone who should be feared, and I wanted to relegate him to the shadows once more, have a more fearful mythology surround him."
Available on Stitcher, Wolverine: The Long Night tells the story of FBI agents Sally Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Tad Marshall (Ato Essandoh) investigating mysterious deaths in Burns, Alaska. Though townsfolk are convinced that a serial killer is to blame, the detectives believe the crimes were committed at the hands of a mutant. The moody thriller feels more S-Town than comic book, and our point of view is that of the agents, not Wolverine (Richard Armitage), who appears, at first, through flashbacks and phone calls.
Though it’s a new format for the comic giant, it is still very much Marvel, complete with incredible sound design. "It has a lot of high-octane, adrenaline-soaked thriller elements that you'd expect, and it's also a very mood-driven, character-driven story," Percy says. "It's kind of occupying -- I hope, anyway -- the borderlands of literary and genre."
Percy is a known name in the comic book world, having taken on DC Comics' Green Arrow and Teen Titans and, soon, Darkwing, though his writing goes beyond that genre. A former professor who taught at the prestigious University of Iowa's writers' workshop, he's written for magazines like Esquire and GQ, sold screenplays to Fox and Starz and completed four novels, two short story collections and a nonfiction book on genre fiction writing. When speaking with him, it,s hard to imagine when he has time to do anything but write, but he voraciously consumes pop culture and seems to have read or listened to everything, casually referencing Alice Munro, Stephen King and This American Life in the span of about two minutes.
"I'm a narrative junky. I might be reaching for a magazine while I'm waiting in the car wash. I might be streaming a podcast while I'm going down the interstate. I might be watching Netflix as I run on the treadmill. I might be cracking open a novel in bed. If I don't get my daily fix, I get a little jittery and feel hollowed out," he admits. "I started off as a literary guy and shrugged that off and went full genre. Now I play with my imaginary friends at the keyboard."
Fans were a little frustrated when Wolverine wasn’t front and center when the podcast initially kicked off, but audiences will get plenty of the mutant in the finale, which is available May 7, and Percy believes the wait was worth it: "There's something to be said about withholding some information."
"A common rule in novels is that your most interesting character is not your point-of-view character. Look at Moby Dick, look at The Great Gatsby; Ishmael is narrating or Nick is narrating. If you look at The Cider House Rules, Homer Higgins is telling the story, but the Doctor was the most interesting character. On and on and on I can go," he says. "I thought it was that much more appropriate if we were hunting for this character [Wolvering] who has lost his way, who fits right in in the Alaskan wilderness, because this is a place of rogues and misfits. This a place people go to escape, where there are survivalists and religious extremists and people who want to fall off the grid.”
Since Wolverine is often forced into team situations in films, Percy focused on the fact that the character is very much the opposite of that. "I wanted to write a story that was about man in the wild and the wild in man and really put the microscope to Wolverine’s character," he explains.
Percy clearly has a love for genre narratives, and it comes out in the podcast's tone, as the story mixes together Twin Peaks, True Detective and S-Town in an unraveling mystery.Whilel writing, Percy considered Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's Wolverine runs, as well as Jason Aaron's and Greg Rucka’s turns, but he also built in influences from Unforgiven, the film in which Clint Eastwood’s character has a history of violence he is trying to escape and, yes, HBO’s anthology crime drama. Percy was fascinated by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s True Detective season one characters, "the odd couple at the heart of it," who brilliantly played off one another and the drama's narrative unreliability.
"If you're watching something in True Detective, you know it's true, where when somebody is telling you something, it's often times a lie. I like the idea and binding that together with shows like S-Town or Serial, with that interrogative format," Percy says.
In fact, that inspiration is precisely what Essandoh used to bring his FBI agent to life. "Definitely, the True Detective feel of the relationship between agents Pierce and Marshall was where I tried to lock in [character references]," the actor says, while complimenting Percy's dynamic writing. "The script was so fully realized in depth and scope. All the characters drive the story at all times."
Percy notes that going back and forth in time, another key element of the HBO series, was what allowed him to play with multiple genres. "This goes back to one of those things that excites me about writing a podcast -- we were kind of inventing the rules as we went along," he says. "Everybody knows what makes for a good screenplay. Everybody knows what makes for a good comic script, but the rules are still being invented when it comes to podcasts and how to best tell the story."
Even Essandoh admits that taking the leap into podcast acting wasn't the easiest transition. "It was a bit disconcerting at first, because there's no camera, but once I learned to treat the microphone as if it were a camera, I was good to go," he recalls.
It's impressive that Marvel has allowed its characters to be taken into the relatively young realm known as podcasts. Though the format has been around for more than a decade, it is constantly being reinvented and redefined as it makes its way through those awkward teenage years to find itself.
"I know that podcasts have sometimes been viewed in the past as a punky upstart, [especially] when it comes to the way they relay narrative," Percy says. "I think it should excite everyone to see a big dog like Marvel getting into the ring. It's just elevating the forum. I think Marvel should be applauded, especially for their open-mindedness about the delivery of the Wolverine narrative and that they really encourage creative freedom. I expected a lot of pushback when I framed the story in the way that I did, pushing Wolverine a little bit to the background at first, but they’d been completely encouraging of new techniques and new approaches to the character all throughout."
And to Marvel and Percy's credit, fans have been listening. "It's just been pure pleasure from first draft to final cut," he says.
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