Robot 6

The Fifth Color | What do we want from Wolverine?

You've Come a Long Way, Bub

FF #3 X-Men Evolutions Cover

YouTube link-clicking has replaced channel-surfing in my house these days, so I happened upon this fantastic video from science guy Vsauce called “Is Your Red the Same As My Red?” It’s about color comparison, qualia, the explanatory gap and the theory of mind, and it’s a fantastic watch at around 10 minutes. So check it out when you’re in a Mr. Wizardy or Bill Nye-ish sort of mood and learn why painting a room with a spouse can become quite a challenge when no one can really explain what an off-white means to them.

This, of course, got me thinking about comics. Despite the basic “refracted light” of basic character bios, I’m pretty sure not every fan sees the same characters on the page. Our own influences, when we started reading, what popular culture was thinking at the time, there are so many exterior conditions that can bring a hero or villain to popularity or disuse that I can’t imagine what it’s like for the House of Ideas to try to single out a “new hit” to promote. Take Rogue, for example: At heart, she’s a scrappy Southern gal who can’t touch anyone for fear of draining their life force. Pretty basic, but when colored by the reader’s perception, this could be a metaphor for trauma survivors, an example of teenage physical anxieties, just a dangerous “bad girl” who tantalizes you by being actually physically dangerous, or a number of things. All of these reasons can catch the imaginations of fans and keep them reading, each for their own purposes.

Even characters in the books struggle with this perception problem in the panels. Charles Xavier clearly dreamed of a day when mutants and humans would work together; the Dream that he brought the X-Men together for was very simply based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous address. But now, Scott Summers thinks it’s a dream of mutant protection by any means necessary. The Jean Grey School is working toward sheltering new mutants and providing a safe space that’s isolated from those who hate and fear them. And Legion over in X-Men Legacy vows to enact the Dream as some invisible hand of fate, eliminating the dead weight of bigotry.

Can any of these be right? Are all of them correct including all the shades in between? Let’s look at Wolverine as a hero and a pop-culture icon and see if we can’t understand the qualia of what makes him the Best There Is. Read on!

Wolverine around kids used to look like this.

Uncanny X-Men #195

OK, so the first time we met Wolverine, most everyone just wanted the Hulk to kick his butt, so let’s move on to where we really got to know him: through the X-Men. Back in the 1970s and early ’80s, the man only known as Logan was a Canadian mountain man, a rough customer who drank and smoked and, most objectionably, killed people. He was a lone wolf sort of guy, a Dirty Harry with claws who wasn’t the handsomest man in the world, but he was no one you wanted to mess with. He gave the X-Men an edge and reflected a lot of ’70s machismo where guys like Scott Summers couldn’t. He rounded out the cast, but there’s only so much loner tough guy action one can take from ol’ Canucklehead, so he changed as we moved through the years.

From the 1980s through the ’90s, Logan was somehow softened up at the same time he was made more extreme for the next generation of readers. Softening included a bevvy of teen-girl sidekicks, the same trope (tough guy with more innocent gal-pal dynamic) used for different reasons. Kitty Pryde was first to give both of them some balance; she was still young, but hanging out with Wolverine made her seem less naive and Wolverine lost some excess machismo. Jubilee was pure wish fulfillment as hip ’90s gals got a chance to imagine a super tough father figure and Wolverine actually got some of that machismo back as hero worship started to set in. In the 90’s, every personality trait Wolvie had was cranked to 11; his healing factor allowed for ridiculous stunts, he became more muscular and hash-lined through Jim Lee’s famous pencils, he went more feral for a time (so feral he lost his nose!), hung out with Ghost Rider and the Hulk and the Punisher, other action heroes of the day as well as a selection of hot women, making him a weird sort of ladies’ man whose girlfriends all tragically die in the end. He went from from Charles Bronson to Sly Stallone, a grimacing action hero who always got his man (unless they escaped to fight another day) or his lady (who died tragically lest he be tied down). This brightly colored extreme version of Wolverine was a hit with the kids and is probably the main reason we find him in every book on the stands some seasons.

Short and hairy no more!

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

These days, Wolverine still has some traces of his former life, but has seemed to settle down in his later(-er) years. No longer the “lone wolf,” he’s joined the Avengers, the X-Men, led X-Force and might even take Alpha Flight up on an offer. His teeth-gritting tough-guy persona has cracked to reveal a more sorrowful man underneath, showing a lot more feeling on the page than he did in years past. A teen-girl sidekick from time to time has given way to running an entire school full of children. A traditionally short-and-hairy little man is more commonly known to the public as looking like Hugh Jackman. His sparse and mysterious background has had a ton of blanks filled in and more answers seem to show up every year and — wait. Can we go back to the fact that short, squat, hairy Canucklehead is now more commonly visualized as Hugh Freakin’ Jackman? An actor who oozes charisma, dances on Broadway and was 2008’s Sexiest Men Alive? Urban, middle-aged housewives dream of Wolverine, you guys.

At what point do we notice the change? Was it too subtle to bother with the differences? Are we still getting the original points of the character down despite the chance in motivation and presentation? Or have what we wanted as a readership and society changed Wolverine more than plot points and story hooks? From the excess of ’90s action hero sensibilities, I think we all just got tired of how fake and four color it all was. Going back and reading a lot of comics that enthralled you when you were 14 now when you’re … uhm, not as 14 we’ll say is always going to be a blast from the past because comic book fans got older, our tastes changed and the mainstream now influences our medium more than ever before. There is no one true depiction of Wolverine, as everyone who reads his comics and loves or hates him will have different experiences with the books they discovered him in. For a man with a mysterious background, a stylistic look and a baseline attitude of “tough guy,” we can make of Wolverine whatever we want and, amazingly, all be right. In that Vsauce video I posted above, he remarks that the ability to sit down and discuss what the color red looks like to one another, sharing our individual view points as a group is what undoubtedly makes us human.

So Wolverine #1 came out this week by Paul Cornell, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer. Was it a Wolverine story? Why don’t you tell me in the comments below. Excelsior!

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Comments

12 Comments

One word: Logan

That’s what we need Wolverine to be.

I think those fantasizing housewives might be the ones writing these Wolverine stories these days.

Erech Overaker

March 15, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Pretty solid assessment of the whole transformation of the character, good piece.

Wolverine seems to have started carrying as much franchiseness as a character as the character itself does, in recent years that has struck me as odd, and makes it harder to relate to the character personally. Well relate is completely the wrong word, but harder to care about I guess. Mostly all I think now is when the hell does he have time to have a beer or use the bathroom, busy as he is.

Claremont/Byrne built a character trait in Wolverine that allows for these changes – the fact that he’s conflicted. He’s allowed to vacillate and embody seemingly opposing values because of this. He can be a teacher of children and a murderer because he’s a man always in transition and regardless of which direction he’s headed, it provides good drama and remains true to the character at the same time.

Wolverine is so overexposed he’s become a parody of himself and it’s impossible to NOT write him as a parody of himself in any comic. Because he’s become as much a corporate posterboy for Marvel as Spider-Man has, it would be impossible for Marvel to do this; but dial his visibility wayyy back.

With Wolverine, less is more.

Wolverine is the second most overplayed character in comics, after the Goddamn Batman. Wolverine takes more flak from it, I think, because he doesn’t play the same role in the same kind of story over and over and over again. Batman’s five hyperdecompressed series and constant Justice League roles and cameo appearances pretty much add up to one solo story and one Brave and the Bold-esque story a month, which is a sustainable level. He’s also a character who doesn’t seem to bother with things like a real life so it’s easy to just imagine him having high-octane adventures all the time.

Wolverine has to feature in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers alone, in which more things have actually happened, I think, than have happened in however-many issues of Justice League; then he’s running the school over in Wolverine and the X-Men, in which more things have happened than in Batman, B&R, and the Dark Knight combined. On top of this he now has his own series as well as Savage Wolverine, which I guess is setting itself up to be a team-up series a la Avenging Spider-Man, an Uncanny Avengers chapter whenever Cassaday can be bothered, and weekly Infinite installments. He seems to live a much more varied and active life than Bruce Wayne.

Depending on how much you like Rick Remender and Jason Aaron, and how capable you are of ignoring or sidelining everything else, it might be a pretty great time to be a Wolverine fan. They did a pretty good job of addressing the disparity between the Wolverine running a child-murder squad and the Wolverine running a school. It’s just that that only went a fraction of the way towards solving the problem of the legion Wolverines.

Honestly, I preferred him when he was just the pissy little tough guy in the one and only X-Men title.

Honestly, I don’t care how many stories he’s in, if he’s written well. What I hate are that they made a family of characters around him – X-23, Daken, AoA Weapon Omega (and various other alternate versions) now Dog. THAT waters him down more than him being in a billion titles in my opinion.

If I want great Wolverine stories, I re-read the classics that I love: Ellis/Yu, Skroce, Miller/Claremont, BWS, etc. After I re-read those, I’m good, itch scratched, and I don’t really need to get the latest stuff.

@ MattComix:

Amen.

Both Marvel and DC spread their best characters way too thin. Wolverine was the canary in the proverbial coal mine, but it is endemic.

@ Z-Ram:

That is sort of the problem. There are only so many great creators and they rarely work with each other for very brief periods of time. Then, there is the dumb luck aspect of getting them on the right title with an editor who isn’t just giving them dictation on the story beats for the next cross-over. It only happens a couple times a year anymore.

The problem with monthly, in-continuity comics is that there are all kinds of obstacles to it happening there.

Paul Cornell, Alan Davis and Mark Framer are a nifty creative team. However, Wolverine is in 35 books every month. That doesn’t give them a ton of latitude. Also, Wolverine is highly likely (in his role as Marvel poster boy) to be at the center of whatever cross-over is next. Strike two. Finally, macho adventure is really Logan’s best mode (e.g. the Claremont-Miller mini) and neither Cornell, nor Davis, are really suited to that mode. Strike three.

It is a bummer, but this feels like a “Pass” for me.

I liked the Cornell story. It was only a primer story for more, but the voice it gave the character was different from any other’s I’ve heard from most other contemporary Wolverine writers, and really harkens back to when Chris Claremont, Peter David or Archie Goodwin wrote him in the late 80’s/ early 90’s. They described him as rough around the edges, but also a sharp, shrewd guy who can see all the angles.

For the last 15-20 years worth of stories, more or less, Wolverine HAS been written as a parody of himself, as some comments have already mentioned. He’s written like a dumb, crude, low brow guy whose primarily interested in fights, beer, and bragging. He’s the guy who’s laughs too long and too loud at the end of the bar. He’s the guy who won’t stop flirting with the waitress, even when it’s clear she’s uncomfortable. Definitely more of a Sly Stallone than a Charles Bronson/ Clint Eastwood type. And I hate him like that.

I mean, minus the recent Greg Rucka and Jason Aaron stuff (which is more in line with the Claremont, PAD, Goodwin stuff), Wolverine just kind of seems to show up places, put on his uniform and fight bad guys in costumes because that’s all he ever does. That’s all he knows how to do. He talks about a beer a lot. HE CAN’T PRONOUNCE WORDS WITH MORE THEN 3 SYLLABLES in say, Mark Guggenhiem’s arcs, etc.

But in Greg Rucka and Jason Aaron, and Larry Hama’s stuff, he’s a voracious reader who can quote Faulkner or Hemmingway if he thinks it’s relevant to the conversation. That Wolverine may not have a formal education, but he’s been around so long, and he’s just naturally an opinionated, thinking man, that he can’t help but reflect on what’s in front of him. He’s also been around long enough to want to do something about the state of the world. He’s proactive, not reactive.

Cornell is writing him more in that line, (even though he IS kind of reacting to a situation he was in), I think. He’s writing him smart. He doesn’t over do it with the “ya’s” and “yer’s” and he doesn’t have him mispronounce common words. He’s still tough, but he seems intelligent and he seems like he’s superheroing because he actually wants to help. It’s only been one issue, and yes, the plot is a little “paint by numbers,” but this is still a Wolverine I haven’t read in years. I want more. To be honest, the first Claremont/ Buscema arc was pretty paint by numbers as well, so you really can’t judge a run on the first issue.

And I love Alan Davis/ Paul Neary. Can’t get enough of them. So, I’m sold there as well.

We’ll see where it goes.

I swear, if I was in charge of Marvel, I would make it my mission to make sure EVERY character got their due–nuts to ‘what sells’. I’m sorry, but no matter how many times they push Wolverine/Spider-Man/Batman/etc., ‘sells’ is a relative term in today’s comic book industry. My edicts:
-Shrink the number of bestseller titles to just two, with the exception of Spider-Man (to just one, The Amazing Spider-Man) and Wolverine (also to just two, Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine).
-Replace Avenging Spider-Man and Savage Wolverine with volume 3 of Marvel Team-Up (or Two-In-One, take your pick), and focus on the lesser-known characters.
-No more multiple Avengers titles–JUST Avengers. If the bean counters want one more title, I’d revive Avengers Spotlight and focus on the lesser-known members.
-If it’s been felt that the X-teams have been too ‘fringe’ for so long, yet there are people apprehensive about fully involving them in the MU’s going-ons, then I have a sensible approach: in-continuity, a sort of ‘network’ is established between the major teams of the MU–Avengers, Fantastic Four, Defenders, X-Men, etc. It’s sort of like what Justice League Unlimited did.
ALL THAT is my answer to character overexposure.

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