What’s So Great About Wolverine, Anyway?

Posted: April 29, 2009 in Braak
Tags: ,

wolverine1This is a good question.  When I was in my angsty, disillusioned, alienated, MISERABLE teenage years, Wolverine was my favorite superhero.  I am, frankly, not a hundred percent sure that I bothered reading comics that DIDN’T have Wolverine in them.  I was precisely the kind of shitty comic book fan that Marvel now caters to by putting Wolverine as a guest star in every comic–I didn’t care about the character development in Avengers or Spider-Man; I just wanted to see Wolverine cut some motherfuckers up.

It’s fair to say that Wolverine has, throughout most of his portrayal in the comics, actually been a fairly stupid character.  It’s also far to say that I, as a fairly stupid fourteen year old, just didn’t realize it.  I think, however, that this is true of most comics.  Comics suffer from two pretty serious problems when it comes to storytelling:  the first is that they never end.  The second is that something interesting has to happen every seventeen pages.

The result of this is that no stories ever really have closure, no characters ever really get to develop–if someone starts reading Spider-Man because they like that he’s a guilt-ridden normal guy using his miraculous powers to help people in need, then that’s what they want to keep seeing every time.  And, because Marvel wants them to buy an issue every month, he must punch AT LEAST one person every issue–which translates to something like, a fist-fight every forty minutes of his life.

Looked at in that regard, basically every character in the comic books is stupid–because they never grow or develop, and they rarely get a chance to do anything but punch guys.  And, because Wolverine got dropped into every story, every limited series, every crossover EVENT that Marvel ever did, his played-out qualities were aggravated to unbearable levels (well; for some of us, anyway).

Given all of that, I still think there’s a really interesting concept at the core of Wolverine.  Before I get to it, though, let me explain what Wolverine was like when I was reading him–there have been retcons and revelations and shit like that, and I don’t want to confuse anyone.

When I read Wolverine, he had very little memory of his past before Weapon X, and a spotty memory of his time during Weapon X–though he did have memories of killing French fur-traders in the 19th century, of fighting in World War II and the Spanish Civil War, and of being raised by wolverines (look:  it was cool when I was a kid, okay?).  At that time, the Weapon X project was NOT a project about hunting mutants, or killing mutants, or having anything to do with mutants.  It was a Canadian-American super-soldier program (this was also spotty:  I think the implication was that, while the experiment took place in Canada on Canadians, it was actually an American-sponsored program), and was designed to create super-soldiers to fight the Russians (who also had their own super-soldier program, which is where guys like Omega and Epsilon Red came from).

The unbreakable bones were from Weapon X, and so were the claws.  In Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X series, it was strongly implied that the claws did not exist before the treatment, even though the fancy doctors were surprised when they showed up:  either the treatment caused what Grant Morrison would now call a “second-stage mutation,” or else there was more to the project than the scientists had been let in on.  There was nothing about other Weapons (i.e., Weapons I through IX), though there were other people in the program (Sabretooth, Maverick, Silver Fox, Wraith, a guy called Mastodon).

All right.  This is what I think is the core idea at the basis of Wolverine:  Wolverine is a weapon built for a war that we’re no longer fighting.  He is a very, very old trope, that of the soldier who finds meaning in war, and fails to integrate when he finally returns home.  Wolverine wandering through the wreckage of the Cold War, surrounded by similarly disused superweapons, for me evokes the same kind of feeling as Odysseus, leaving behind the last war of the gods, bringing one last red slaughter home.  He’s a kind of Philoctetes, I think, invincible, yes, but nursing a festering psychic wound that makes him impossible to get close to, impossible to return to humanity.

I think that this is what also makes him so resonant with the Japanese idea of the ronin:  what does a gun do when it’s got no one to shoot it?  What does it mean to have given over your sense of self to a higher power, to remake yourself as an instrument for that power, only to find yourself abandoned?

This is what I always thought was interesting about Wolverine’s famous catch phrase, “I’m the best there is at what I do”–it’s awesome not just because it’s true (he’s really great at killing guys), but because it’s ironic that it’s the ONLY thing he can do.  It’s not like he can get a job as a chef or a banker or something–in a world without the X-Men and Professor X, Wolverine would have to go live in a log cabin somewhere, eating bears or a tree roots, or else find work similarly on the fringes of modern society.

Consequently, it’s also what makes it such an interesting character choice for him to be part of the X-Men–Wolverine is actively participating in making a world in which he’s going to be useless.  He’s choosing to try and be a part of a venture that eschews violence and violent means, despite the fact that violent means are the only ones he’s got at his disposal.  He’s struggling with the fact that, despite being the best there is at something, he will always be the least effective at doing what the X-Men are actually FOR–and he enters this condition voluntarily, because despite the fact that war is all he’s ever known, he still recognizes that there is a better world possible.

Compare this, for example, to the Punisher–certainly recently, he’s a similar model for the difficulty that a veteran has with re-assimilation.  But, unlike Wolverine, the Punisher has found a way to engage all of his military training in a way that reinforces the old, violent, military mode.

The comic book of Origins is, to my eye, a completely pointless exercise in character development (well, not completely pointless:  they sold copies of it, which is, I guess, all that counts):  Wolverine isn’t interesting as a character because of his childhood.  There is nothing about his childhood that could possibly shed any light on the basic concept at work here–Wolverine’s interest as a character begins with Weapon X.

(Erin once said something similar to this, but, as I said, it’s ridiculous to ever agree with him on anything–particularly while he maintains his dangerously foolish position on the nature of Atman; I will concede, however, that he was not completely wrong on the subject.)

In fact, the lack of pre-Weapon X identity is part of what makes him so great; there IS NOTHING for him to go back to.  He was remade by Weapon X, and so there is no former life or character that he can assume in order to be part of society again.  The challenge for him is to build a new identity with the X-Men, and whether or not he’s able to really do it–does he fall back on his old, killing ways?  Does he make a new person out of himself?  Does that make it harder for him to kill?

(Zak once said, and with this I agree completely, that some of the best scenes in the X-Men comics were the scenes where people were just doing regular things, like playing basketball.  The perils of modern comic storytelling, unfortunately, generally preclude Wolverine being able to have an identity outside of punching whatever this month’s problem is.)

Likewise, the recent attempts to tie Weapon X into something to do with mutants is also pointless–though, perhaps, less so.  When Weapon X is part of a war that’s still ongoing, there’s something interesting about a weapon choosing to fight for the other side–but I think that X-Men is already flush with characters exploring racism, race loyalty, &c.  You don’t need Wolverine for that.

The interminable quality of comic books is a huge hindrance to great storytelling; for Wolverine to be really interesting, he has to eventually move out of the transitional phase between ex-super-solder and X-Man (which he never really has), or else he risks becoming farcical (which he has, on a couple of occasions).  He needs to either find a way to get over his shit and become integrated, or else he needs to fully admit that there’s no room in the world for him.

I generally approve of ideas like “The End” series, that Marvel did–it lets them explore how these stories which will never really conclude might possibly conclude–giving us an interesting climax without disrupting the constant demand for monthly stories about punching.  I had a really great idea for the climax to Wolverine’s story, that I suppose will now never see the light of day–it did involve him eventually killing himself, after finally just killing Sabretooth.  It tied Wolverine’s story-arc together as a tragic one–irretrievably broken, Wolverine does the one thing that only he can do, at the same time acknowledging that his one gift is one that a better world must necessarily exclude.

It was very sad.  You would have been moved.

Anyway, that’s what I dig about Wolverine.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    This was a wonderfully written love letter for Wolverine as a character, and were he always written with this kind of care (and with this consistent through-line), I’d probably be more enthusiastic about him.

    Unfortunately, the bulk of the character’s actual comics were written by Chris Claremont and Larry Hama, who are absolutely terrible. Just awful, AWFUL writers (no, I take it back – Larry Hama is a good military writer who is a bad fit for superhero books, as evidenced by a brief stint on “Batman” where he had Batman call Bane a “mook”).

    We used to tease a friend of mine for writing shitty high school poetry that had the line “black, like my soul.” Just a bad line anyone would be embarrassed to have written, right? So imagine my frickin’ surprise when I get a copy of the Claremont/Miller Wolverine miniseries that has Wolverine narrating to HIMSELF this exact same line.

    It was troubling to see, since that miniseries is held up as one of the Greatest Wolverine Stories Ever Told, and it was damn near unreadable.

    Then I went over to one of the other Great Wolverine Moments, “Dark Phoenix Saga,” which is just all of Claremont’s worst excesses, and five decent pages of Wolverine skulking around in the dark.

    I think my problem is that he works well as a supporting character, but the moment you thrust him into the spotlight, someone has to concoct Plots for him to Do Stuff in – which in the mid-90’s usually meant every other month he’d meet another old buddy and/or enemy from his mysterious past who wears armor and talks cryptically.

    Or they pulled the shocking reveals you mentioned that weren’t really that shocking and didn’t reveal much. “HE HAS BONE CLAWS!” Oh. Okay. Guess that kinda makes sense. Does that explain anything? “It means he had CLAWS…BEFORE Weapon X!” Okay, sure, why not. “But this CHANGES EVERYTHING!” No, it just gives him something else to fight with until the adamantium gets stuck back in him.

    Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve only read a couple Wolverine-as-lead stories that I could classify as “good”: the four-part story “Not Dead Yet,” in which case you don’t have to know much at all about the character (I believe the trade will be re-released sometime in May), or the Greg Rucka year, which, like most Rucka stories, is really solid but maybe nothing too exciting.

    Can anyone else list a favorite Wolverine story?

  2. braak says:

    Well, the Claremont/Miller story is a lot better if you kind of tune out a lot of the voiceover.

    Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X is also really good, though, again, the dialogue sometimes gets a little bombastic.

    But…yeah, I think the Wolverine in my imagination isn’t really borne out by his portrayal in the comics.

    At least, not yet. Once Marvel lets me write Wolverine: Odyssey–then you’ll see.

  3. braak says:

    Oh! Also the What If series: “What If Wolverine Became King of the Vampires.”

  4. Jefferson Robbins says:

    I strongly disagree. Wolverine would make an EXCELLENT chef.

  5. braak says:

    Well, he’s got the super tastebuds, and the built-in cutlery.

    But I feel like he’s not tempermentally suited for it, you know? When Gordon Ramsay gets pissed off, the worst that happens is he calls you a “stupid fucking donkey.”

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    Which actually reminds me of a gag on “Leverage,” where the violence-guy reveals he’s also quite a skilled chef. When Timothy Hutton expresses surprise, violence-guy, annoyed, points out that if you can properly handle a knife to kill, it’s really not that hard to learn how to use it to chop vegetables.

    If only Wolverine could’ve channeled his berzerker rages into a cooking class or two.

  7. Jefferson Robbins says:

    Don’t forget Seagal, in Under Siege. A Wolverine incognito if there ever was one.

  8. braak says:

    I don’t know about that. Is Steven Seagal even capable of raising his voice?

  9. Moff says:

    Yeah, the blessing and curse of him is that Wolverine is mysterious, which is a huge draw — but a drawback in that we like mysteries to be solved eventually. First, it’s cool when he can’t remember much of his past. Then, it’s satisfying when we learn something conclusive about it. Then, it’s annoying when it turns out it wasn’t really that conclusive after all BECAUSE THE TRUE MYSTERY GOES SO MUCH DEEPER.

    Although this brings to mind an important question, which is: Could Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, working together, beat Wolverine in a fight?

  10. braak says:

    I don’t think so. It’s true that Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are really great ninjas, but the Claremont/Miller series clearly established that even exponential increases in the numbers of ninjas didn’t seem to stand a chance against Wolverine.

  11. Jefferson Robbins says:

    And if they’re flammable Marvel-issue Elektra ninjas, then it’s just more tinder to light Logan’s cigar.

  12. braak says:

    Yeah, this was during the era when there was no blood in Wolverine comics, so you could tell the ninjas were dead because their faces were smoking.

  13. Erin says:

    I just love the claws and the fact that Wolverine is totally awesome and he fights ninja and dinosaurs.

    Don’t shit on the fourteen year old inside of you: embrace him.

  14. Jeff Holland says:

    The 14-year-old inside of me bought Rob Liefeld comics. He has much to answer for.

  15. braak says:

    Nonsense, Erin. The whole point of being fourteen years old is that you eventually STOP BEING FOURTEEN YEARS OLD.

  16. Erin says:

    Wherever Braak goes, and whatever happens to him on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the dead ninjas, a fourteen year old boy and Wolverine will always be playing.

  17. […] I’ve said before about some things that I think are great about Wolverine. I stand by everything that I said, there.  The core of Wolverine is that he’s a weapon, […]

  18. […] the thing.  I actually don’t know if I’m in the tank for Wolverine or not.  As I have written, Wolverine is one of my favorite characters.  But am I the kind of fan who is going to like his […]

  19. J.h says:

    nice writing, l love it.

  20. Damn so close with the Odysseus analogy. He’s the Greek guy who pushes the Boulder up the hill only for it to roll down and have to push back up again. He will always be fighting for an end only to forever be in a state of fighting while striving for an end. He will suffer eternally while striving solely to end his suffering.

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