Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Wolverine can all be grouped together as tremendously popular superheroes that people around the world can identify as easily as Santa Claus. But Wolverine stands out from that pack in one particular way – whereas the aforementioned characters are products of the early days of comic book creation, Logan was a little late into the party. A child of the 1970s, the scrappy little Canadian warrior leapt out of the mind of Len Wein and onto the pages of "The Incredible Hulk" – and he's had his claws burrowed into the collective popular culture membrane ever since.
After years upon years of complicated character development, Wolverine is finally tearing his way back into movie theaters this weekend with his solo celluloid debut, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." In honor of the fan-favorite character's impending film premiere, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art called upon legendary "Uncanny X-Men" writer Chris Claremont and "Wolverine: Inside the World of the Living Weapon" author Matthew K. Manning to discuss the origins, implications and ramifications of having the ol' Canucklehead in our culture. Peter Sanderson, a comic book historian and curator at MoCCA, moderated the event.
"It strikes me that Wolverine is one of the few [characters] since the Silver Age that's fully as iconic as the great Kirby-Ditko creations of the '60s," said Sanderson at the start of the event. "The new X-Men, and Wolverine as a break-out character, have kept on going and going and have retained their popularity and won over new generations of readers with every passing decade."
"Wolverine is one of the first characters to really have a chip on his shoulder but he didn't have a bad attitude just for bad attitude's sake – he was actually very deep," mused Manning. "He actually had a strong moral code beneath this rough exterior. I think it was something that fans hadn't seen before, especially in that amount of detail."
Claremont agreed with Manning to a point, but also had a slightly different perspective on the character's appeal. "I think the thing with Wolverine is, with Logan, is that the conflict is very primal and in your face," he said. "[Other superheroes] have a line they will not cross. They all have a code of conduct that defines and limits them. With Logan, with Wolverine, you have someone who comes to the superhero arena with a far different view of how he relates to the world. If the need arises, if you cross him the wrong way, he will kill you. That's a fact. At the time we started playing with it, John [Byrne] and I [did] a Christmas story. The X-Men are going out for Christmas and Kitty's not feeling well. She's only 13, so she gets left at the mansion. Something goes wrong as they're going out – involving a mistletoe I think – but the way that John Byrne wanted to draw it, Kitty says the wrong thing and Logan just cuts her in half. Now, she's phasing so it doesn't do any damage, but the thought is definitely there. The claws come out, the arm swings, end of story. The whole point was at the time to establish that Wolverine was fundamentally dangerous. You could never take him for granted and you had to be very, very, very careful how you dealt with him."
In addition to having that animal instinct – a knee-jerk reaction to deliver the killing blow when pushed too far – Claremont said that Logan's outward aggression was matched only by his internal conflict. "Whenever we presented his quarters in the mansion, my vision has always been that there's an invisible line drawn down the middle of the room. On one side, it's a total shit-hole. There are beer cans stacked three feet tall and it looks like a mess. The other half is perfect – it is pristine, it is the quintessence of Japanese style. There's a table, there's a samurai sword, there are three or four pieces of furniture in their precise and proper place. That's the conflict within Wolverine: there's a part of him that wants to be civilized to the fullest extent of the word and there's a part of him that is raw, beyond animal. The human in him can never yield to the animal, and the animal in him can never let the human be triumphant. That conflict is back-and-forth and back-and-forth, then and now. It's part of what gives him the essence of his attraction as a character.
"You look at someone like Ben Grimm, and he looks like a monster but he's still a man," Claremont pondered further. "There's no conflict. The conflict is, if he loses his temper and hits somebody, he'll knock the wall down. With Logan, there are two separate entities in the same place. Yes, he has adamantium claws, but if you took the adamantium claws away from him there would be bone claws in their place. It's not that his technological enhancements are taken to a new level, it's that they are a version of what was already there. The struggle with him is between the person he was born to be and the person he wants to make of himself. That struggle – sometimes he's winning, sometimes he's losing. I hope part of the attraction of him as a character is that that's a conflict to one extent or another can relate to. Maybe not as mad, passionate psycho killers, but certainly the fight between what you should do and what you want to do – what is desirable, and what is fun."
Manning agreed with Claremont's assessment that the rage-side of Logan proved interesting to readers, but said there was more to the character than that. "That was the original attraction behind the character, but then as he progressed, there was more and more depth," Manning said. "He does have these rage issues that he has to always struggle with. If he was just the angry guy, it wouldn't have mattered – it would've been a fad where he's just a two-dimensional character. But he does have more and more dimensions as you keep going. He's gone to such lengths, as to go to Japan and go to China, to actually master not so much martial arts, but how to keep this berserker part of himself in check. I think that's what gave the character staying power."
Unquestionably, there are some differences between the Wolverine of 1974 and the Wolverine of 2009 – "Hugh Jackman's six-foot-four," Claremont chided, noting that the size relationship between the actor and Storm actress Halle Berry was the exact inverse of how it should be in the books – and Manning believes that the movies have had a strong impact on how Logan is approached in comics today.
"Wolverine was, physically, a stocky little guy. You look at some of the Grant Morrison 'X-Men' comics and he does become a little bit more, leather costumes being the same, he does get more slender. When Greg Rucka wrote a couple of 'Wolverine' arcs, he was a little more svelte than he [used to be]," Manning posited. "He started to look more heroic than rugged and animalistic than he used to be. Especially in his first appearance in the 'Hulk,' he's just this little spitfire guy."
"A six foot tall Wolverine is just another big guy fighting another big guy," Claremont argued, clearly supporting the scrappy version of the character. "The neat thing about Wolverine is that Kitty can walk up to him and look him in the eye. She's – at least in 'X-Men Forever' [the new Claremont series] – sixteen and still growing. She might come back in six weeks or six months and might discover that she's a couple of inches taller. It presents the reader with a visual icon that is – well, he's a little shrimp! Yeah, he's massive. He's solid. But he's short. So, what's so tough about that? Well, there are a lot of really dangerous short guys in the world! Tall guys tend to underestimate them. My point with Wolverine is that no matter how many times you hit him and no matter how many ways you hit him, he keeps finding a way to come back and win. That as a paradigm for superheroes in general, and the X-Men in specific, is what you want.
"He also takes no prisoners among the team," Claremont continued, offering another reason why Wolverine is so enjoyable. "If Scott wants to be leader of the X-Men, Wolverine says, 'Okay, you want to be boss? Prove it. I'm here. I'll do what you say because you're the boss, but if you want more than that you'll have to earn it.' With him, it's a matter of winning respect, earning your place in the team dynamic and going off from there; nothing is given."
Sanderson pointed out that while Logan certainly has samurai roots, the character is also ingrained in other types of iconic roles – from his cowboy outfits to his tuxedo-clad spy missions, Wolverine represents almost every type of American hero. Manning definitely took stock of this aspect of the character, and also added that Wolverine has served as a father figure to several characters, such as Kitty and Jubilee, and simultaneously as a hopeless romantic – in that just about every single one of his love interests has, at one point or another, bit the dust. Manning pointed out that in Daniel Way's "Wolverine: Origins" run, the tragic deaths of Logan's lovers, among other things, appear to be masterminded by the newly introduced villain Romulus. Claremont was visibly annoyed during the explanation of Wolverine's current continuity, though he was happy to offer his two cents on how the character could be course-corrected: "If worst comes to worst, somebody will cut a deal with the devil."
It wasn't long before the conversation turned towards Wolverine's most reputable nemesis, the savage Sabretooth. One audience member compared the relationship between Logan and Victor Creed as akin to Batman and the Joker, in that the constant presence of Sabretooth in Wolverine's life presents a never-ending challenge – as long as the feral enemy is alive, Logan will always have something to strive against and overcome.
"It's a misnomer to look at Sabretooth as an animal – he's not," argued Claremont. "He is a sentient being. He just doesn't acknowledge anyone else on Earth as being a sentient being. They're all prey and he's a predator. He'll kill you if he needs to, or if he feels like it, or if you get in his way, or for any other of an infinite number of reasons – or he won't. But it's up to him. The reason why he always comes to pay his respects to Logan on Logan's birthday is to remind the kid who's number one. 'If you're so good, beat me – if you can't beat me, get out of my way. Just to remind you, I'm going to try my very best to kill you and let your healing factor bring you back. But you wanna stop me? You better stop me.' It's a very simple, very primal view of things. If the day comes that Wolverine can beat him, that would be interesting. That hasn't happened yet, and as far as Sabretooth is concerned, it won't."
Another audience member quickly reminded Claremont that in current continuity, Wolverine has, in fact, decapitated and killed Sabretooth. Undeterred by this information, Claremont revealed to the audience that in his upcoming series "X-Men Forever" – a book that ignores Marvel continuity following Claremont's departure from the "X-Men" comics – Sabretooth is not only alive and well, but is going to make an appearance in the second issue of the series. To further cement that fact, Claremont revealed a fully penciled splash page from the issue to confirm that Sabretooth is indeed alive – at least in Claremont's continuity.
"My plan is to take the character [of Wolverine] and the history that we're aware of in totally different directions, to explore strange new worlds," Claremont revealed of "X-Men Forever's" mission statement. "Everything else, the other stuff, has been done five ways from Sunday. I don't care about the adventures of Weapon X – this is me personally – or Wolverine's history, or what happened between issues blah and issues blah. That's done. It's all there. If someone wants to write about it, fine, but for me, it would be more fun if I were a reader to sit back and imagine it for myself and play my own games with it – but to come back to the book and see what happens next. ['X-Men Forever'] is about what happens next. The history is there, but it's only there as an impetus and an inspiration for the presentation of whole new different directions for the characters and the book. To me, that's the fun – the fun is the unknown country, not where we've been again and again and again."
While Wolverine still has thousands of unknown countries to explore, one thing is for certain – the character is about to make a big leap from paneled page to big screen film reels as a solo movie star. Hugh Jackman has played the character since Bryan Singer's original "X-Men" film and, for a sect of humanity that's unfamiliar with the comic book tales, remains the iconic representation of Wolverine. Height discrepancies aide, Claremont couldn't be any more pleased with how Jackman has portrayed the character.
"Think about this – Hugh Jackman walked onscreen in 'X-Men 1' and essentially took over the damn movie," he said. "He was a last minute hire. He walked off the plane from London, walked into make-up, got made up, got into costume, threw himself out there and within six weeks, Fox knew they had something. As the films have evolved since, he's become the core of the cinematic essence. I think the 'Wolverine' film will prove that and continue that and emphasize that without question.
"But the same thing happened, oddly enough, in the comics," Claremont continued. "The short little obnoxious guy has grown into what, at the worst of times, becomes the X-Men's quintessential father figure. I say that because I'm responsible for a lot of that. But he's also potentially the scariest and most dangerous of them all, and the most tragic because he's trying to be something better. There is, within him, this fear, this certainty and awareness, that no matter how close he gets to this holy grail, he'll miss it and fall and have to try again – or not. The thing that defines him is that he needs to keep trying. He needs to keep surging towards that goal. What would ever happen if he achieves it is an interesting question – will that mean he ends, or would that create a whole new set of challenges for him to overcome? I don't know. But that's the struggle with him, and that's a primal enough struggle that I think makes him appealing to all readers – both male readers who perhaps want to be like him, and perhaps female readers who want to redeem him… or just run him over with a truck."
"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" hits theaters nationwide on May 1, 2009.