Monday, August 10, 2009

Q: Why Is Wolverine So Cool?

A: Because he stabs people a lot.

At some point recently - I believe during a brief run-down of Mark Millar's "Old Man Logan" storyline - I said something to the effect that "Wolverine isn't so much a character as a coatrack - only as good as the stories hung on him". I've thought about it a bit recently and I think that's basically true - or rather, it has become true.

As he was initially conceived - wait, scratch that. As he was originally conceived, Wolverine was a one-off villain for the Incredible Hulk, a sparring partner who premiered during a fight with the Wendigo. He was the product of - to judge from all the different versions of the story rolling around - half-a-dozen people's contributions. And the Wolverine that first appeared in Incredible Hulk #181 was really only a cipher, with nothing besides a visual and a general outline of an attitude to his name. Plus, no matter how you (heh) slice it, his yellow-and-blue costume is really fucking ugly.

I mean, seriously, this is supposedly the toughest man in the Marvel Universe, and yet he willingly dresses up in canary yellow with navy blue trim? There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's suspension of disbelief, you know?

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that Wolverine is the most popular comic book character to be introduced in the last forty years: no one even comes close. He is who he is primarily because Chris Claremont and John Byrne decided to focus on the little guy, building a character from scratch out of what was pretty unpromising and, frankly, unpleasant material. (My memory may be hazy as to the specifics, but Dave Cockrum obviously preferred Nightcrawler and Storm - not coincidentally, characters who he designed. I seem to recall reading somewhere that Marvel thought Colossus was the series' breakout star? Am I right? If true, that's just stupid.) But Wolverine slowly went from being the rough, annoying tough guy (who wasn't really even that tough, on a team with the likes of Colossus and Phoenix) to a fully-developed character in his own right. Admittedly, that "character" was itself influenced more than a little by a hodgepodge of popular media standbys - Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro, for one, probably a little bit of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Mack Bolan, etc.

But still: Wolverine slowly coalesced into the shape we know him bytoday. And something a lot of people don't remember is that Wolverine actually had a distinct character arc over the course of Claremont's long run. he started out as a crass bruiser, and slowly became not merely a team player but a linchpin, a character who had grown and changed incrementally over the course of a decade-and-a-half. But of course, ever since Claremont left, the only thing anyone can think to do with the guy is put him through the same kind of motions over and over again - oh no, will Logan overcome his bestial nature? Will the young teenage girl-ward find the heart of gold hidden behind the rugged exterior? Will he stab everyone before the story is over, or save some people to stab next issue?

I kid, but there's some truth to the idea that Wolverine is essentially an extremely limited character. That hasn't stopped there from being, what, thousands of solo Wolverine stories by now? He works in the narrow context of a soap-opera ensemble book, with maybe occasional solo excursions. But on his own, his stories tend to get bogged down in rote formulae real quick - how many stories have you read that basically consist of Wolverine fighting a bunch of ninjas / guys with guns / mob guys, beating the level boss, advancing to the next level, er, issue, rinse repeat? Or how about the "hey, here's an old friend of Logan's who we've never heard mentioned before, who just happens to show up and need a favor". Just once I'd like to see Wolverine meet some "old friend" who doesn't remember him at all: "don't you remember? We got drunk at Circus Circus and fought Batroc? Come on, 1982, you have to remember, bub . . ."

What I really like about Wolverine is his hair. Nowadays, they go out of their way to play down the hair. Folks like David Finch or John Cassidey play down the hair so much you can barely even see the outlines of what should be the most awesome 'do in all of comics.

I was thinking about this recently when I saw a picture of Jon Bon Jovi from the 1980s:

There once was a time when I dude could dress like that, with that kind of poufy hair, and somehow still get by as a guy's guy. Sure, Bon Jovi was always a little soft as far as hair metal was concerned - I was never a hair metal fan but he always seemed like training wheels FM radio metal pop, singing working-class anthems for high school dudes and their girlfriends. Hardly "hardcore" like, oh, Poison.

Considering how powerful a negative influence "Gay Panic" remains in heterosexual dudes across the country, it's amazing that these guys were able to get away dressing like this. Glam was never that big in America during the 70s, after all. But the fact remains: sure, you can say that the real bad dudes were listening to Metallica and Slayer, but dudes were still listening to dudes dressed like ladies and thinking that it was totally awesome. Totally fuckin' METAL, dude.

How awesome would it be if Bon Jovi had super sharp metal knives attached to his forearms? And he really did ride around like a "cowboy / on a steel horse", kicking ass and being generally awesome? That's Wolverine. And his hair was the greatest possible 80s coif in existence: not merely was it wild and erect, but it was also sideburns and mutton chops and pointy bits and looked kinda liked Batman's ears, and wow, his weird triangular mask was actually shaped just like his hair, because his hair was actually rock hard. And you know that somewhere along the line when you were stuck home by yourself - probably during junior high, maybe later - you tried to make your hair do the Wolverine points by dousing your scalp in pomade and trying to make it stick. And then you realized that A) it's really not possible with over-the-counter hair products and B) it looks fuckin' stupid on a flesh-and-blood human being.

Wolverine may have been born in the 70s, but he was made by the 80s. In the 90s he had a grungey period where he was dressing in flannel and wife-beaters, and he always rocked the cowboy boots even before that girl who used to be on the OC. In the 00s he dressed like a refugee from a Massive Attack video for a while, all sleek leather and hobnail boots. Wolverine's fashion sense is usually about five years behind real life, sort of like how all comics trends are five years late. Now he's back in the yellow and blue, and it still looks as stupid as usual, no matter what texture they give his boots. But Wolverine for me will always be the crazy guy with the giant triangle of black hair - the hair so primal that even when he was shaved cue-bald in BWS' Weapon X, it grew back overnight. That is his secondary mutation.

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