There is a wilderness of the soul, a place of undying conflict that’s marked by signposts of pain and suffering. A place kept wild by questions, chief among them the oldest question we know: Who am I? The answer, sometimes brief, other times sprawling, alternates between being a fountain of hope or of despair, but made concrete in moments defined by our will to survive and emerge stronger, better even. Perhaps more than any comic-book character, James Howlett, Logan, Weapon X, The Wolverine, best exemplifies the ever shifting nature of human identity, through his own post-human struggle that has remained one of comic books most enduring epics since his debut in 1974. At their best, the X-Men, and every variation and sub-team that has emerged from that concept, illuminate the human spirit, and how beautiful, dangerous, humorous, and downright weird existence is, especially when confronted with oppression. And Roy Thomas, Len Wein, and John Romita Sr.’s shit-talking, cigar-chomping mutant has become synonymous with the X-Men, a symbol of everything they stand for, despite first appearing nearly a decade after the X-Men first hit the stands in 1963. The character’s appeal has become both a blessing and a curse to the property, but Wolverine’s impact, across comics, television, and film is undeniable and reflects our interests in the primal nature of humanity, and our own imperfect state of being.
There isn’t a modern age comic book fan worth their weight in variant covers who didn’t grow up with Wolverine. For those of us who grew up in the 90s, he was undoubtedly one of the first comic characters we got to know. After all, he was everywhere—Marvel’s golden boy, second only to that public menace, Spider-Man. When he wasn’t being prominently featured within the pages of the half-dozen X-Men books on the stands (which was never), he was staring back at us, claws extended, from the covers of Wizard magazine, giving us a taste of his most PG-exploits in X-Men: the Animated Series on Saturday mornings, or filling our toy boxes with every absurd costume imaginable ($30 for your Monster Armor Wolverine). But to understand why he was everywhere, it’s necessary to look back at his inception. Wolverine first appeared in full in The Incredible Hulk #181 (he appears as a teaser at the end of #180), born out of an editorial call for a Canadian character with a short temper. The story “And Now…the Wolverine!” introduced many of the key elements that would become defining character traits over the years, including his codename “Weapon X,” his adamantium claws (the metal itself appeared five years earlier as connection to Ultron in the pages of The Avengers), and willingness to go for a killing blow—a factor that separated him from most other costume-clad heroes. Initially revealed as an agent of the Canadian government, Wolverine would not be granted membership with the X-Men or receive acknowledgement that his powers stemmed from a mutation until the following year in Giant-Size X-Men #1.
It was as an X-Man that Wolverine found his popularity. Through the 70s and 80s, Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men became a comic sensation, deviating from the other superhero books at the time, by adding a significant amount of soap opera. This was teen/young adult drama at its finest, and it just happened to feature mutants who dressed in superhero costumes and took on all sorts of strange adversaries. It was here that one of Wolverine’s defining traits became his love for Jean Grey, who was dating the X-Men leader Cyclops. Yes, anyone who’s seen an X-Men films knows that ol’ Logan’s got it bad for Jean. But there’s a difference between the tall, and impeccably good-looking Logan of the films, and short, scruffy Logan of the comics. Though he lacked an overt physical mutation that prevented him from fitting in with the rest of society (a key element that appealed to teen readers who felt they were mutants in their own way) and was older than most of the team, he became a kind of brooding romantic figure, a Byronic hero within the pages of a funny book. For every teenager who felt a little different, who lacked the stature and traditional appeal of jocks and student council leaders, there was solace to be found in Wolverine and his unrequited love. As such, the tragedy of Wolverine’s failed romances (which usually resulted in the paramour’s death by his own hands) also became a defining element of the character. To renege a bit on the earlier statement, Wolverine is one-part Byronic hero, and one part Steinbeck character who loves beautiful things too hard and tries to hold onto them too tight. For Wolverine, there’s no love without violence, and when it comes to Wolverine and violence, well, there’s also solace to be found in that too.
Snikt. We’ve become familiar with the sound as Wolverine pops his claws and prepares to unleash a tirade of violence that could ultimately culminate in what’s become known as his berserker rage. Over the years, Wolverine has become one of comics most violent characters, unbeholden to the scruples of other costume clad heroes, and able to make his way through the toughest of tough situations courtesy of his healing factor. He wavers between heroism and blood-soaked apathy of human life, a struggle that holds up an extremist mirror to our own dueling moral natures, and examination of the consequences our actions uproot. Ever the rōnin, he wanders and attempts to find purpose in violence, the violence he inflicts upon others and the violence committed upon him. While his slogan, introduced in Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine mini-series, states “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice,” the fact of the matter is, Wolverine gets his ass kicked a lot. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching a character get beat down, again and again, endure the worst tortures imaginable, and manage to get back up, recover, and finish what he started. It’s a skill that most of us would like to have, whether that healing factor be physical or psychological. Of course, like any action hero, a large part of Wolverine’s appeal simply comes from seeing his battles unfold, and Wolverine’s battles tend to be hard-hitting and visceral. For younger fans, his method of fighting, the existence of retractable, unbreakable claws, gives his action-hero status a special, memorable quality. But once you move past the cool factor, and gain a bit of maturity, as much maturity as can come from a fascination with costumed characters, the cyclical nature of comic books becomes apparent. Wolverine is caught in a loop of violence, and his battles are an expression of his own pain, and inability to know himself.
As comics evolved, becoming a more popular medium and draw for older fans, a skin of meaning had to be stretched over Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton, binding disparate, sometimes absurdist elements together within a body of thematic purpose that offered more than the gleam of coolness. One of the most enduring elements of Wolverine was his hidden past, not only hidden to readers but hidden from the character himself—a result of the government experimentation done on him. Growing up, this was the key factor that made Wolverine so fascinating, all the more so because of how writers would tease out bits of information and false turns in an effort to keep us hanging on to the question of who Wolverine was before we met him. Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Weapon X” arc in Marvel Comics Presents gave us a glimpse into his past, revealing how Logan ended up with an adamantium skeleton. This take showed Logan at his most animalistic, with primal fury that had yet to be tempered by superheroics. But as gripping as the mystery was, it became apparent that comics had to let their characters evolve, less the cyclical nature of these stories become trite and boring.
In 2001, Marvel, emerging from bankruptcy, decided to finally tell the definitive origin of Wolverine, a decision that many comic readers still find controversial to this day. Wolverine: Origin, written and drawn by some of Marvel’s biggest hotshots of the time (Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove) was the first time I found myself keeping up with a comic’s monthly schedule, making sure that I had that new issue every Wednesday it came out over the six months, lest I be left behind on what I was sure was the greatest comic story ever told. Upon reflection and multiple re-reads, it’s not the greatest comic story ever told, but it’s pretty damn great. Origin reveals that James Howlett, the bastard son of a plantation owner and a cruel groundskeeper grew up weak and sickly during the late 19th century, a far cry from the bundle of raw masculinity he’d been depicted as in modern times. Origin explored Howlett’s transformation from spoiled youth to grizzled quarry worker, while alluding to his future adventures and depicting the start of his tragic affinity for redheads. Origin, by going for a sweeping period drama, showcased that the character could be divorced from a primary focus on action, softened, and remain just as compelling as ever. If 90s Marvel Comics were all about taking these characters to the extreme, making them the impersonal basis of splash pages and toy sales, then the 2000s were about rekindling Stan Lee’s original intent of making these characters identifiable, just as interesting out of their costumes as they were in them. Origin, through its examination of the past, helped propel the character, and Marvel Comics as a publishing empire into the 21st Century, and catered our desperate need for answers and human connection.
Just a little before we got insight into Wolverine’s past in the comics, moviegoers everywhere were introduced to Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is tall, sexy, not quite as imperfect and broken as the comics, and more willing to play by the rules. He was still defined by violence, but of a less bloody variety. Still, he is recognizable as the character and Jackman pulls it off with aplomb, only getting better the older he gets. But Wolverine’s position in that original trilogy of X-Men films, points to a problem with the character’s popularity. Because he is synonymous with the X-Men, he drowns out most of the other characters, who are just as interesting in their own right even if the evidence of that isn’t so immediately apparent. On film Wolverine’s spotlight is partly because Jackman was the strongest actor in that original bunch, (alongside Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan), and partly because Singer and the screenwriters were less interested in the rest of the X-Men. I’d argue that a great deal of that disinterest in the other characters was due to the comics and cartoons at the time, that made Wolverine a top priority, sometimes to the detriment of other characters. Wolverine’s journey is one of constant struggle, and it’s a struggle that’s typically immediately apparent and readily available. It’s difficult to tell a bad Wolverine story, and easy to tell a boring one, because he can turn any situation into a conflict that almost always ends the same way. A guy with weapons as a part of his body, a loner who doesn’t need a costume, is so much more likely to find himself in repeated situations of trouble than the hero who has a secret identity and budding social life. So when constructing a team film, Wolverine becomes the lead largely because his conflict is the easiest to navigate, and provides the quickest path to character-driven action. The more recent set of X-Men films have done a much better job at using Wolverine as the supporting character he was intended to be, but there’s a clear difference in box office within the films that he leads, and the films he cameos in. The same can be said for comic sales. Wolverine became a member of the Avengers in early 2000s and sales rocketed, and when he was killed off in 2014, the X-Men books lost some of their footing, despite other characters picking up the mantle. For a character who was created to be a supporting player, there’s a constant push for him to be a lead, and the reason for that can be found in us.
Wolverine is comfortable. Not the character mind you, Logan himself is one of the most consistently uncomfortable, restless characters in fiction. But for an audience, be that viewer or reader, he provides a comfort—a familiarity albeit with a twist. He’s an archetype we’ve seen before in a variety of mediums. He’s Heathcliff, he’s Kuwabatake Sanjuro, he’s Larry Talbot, he’s Will Munny. You can read a Wolverine story in any decade and instantly get a sense of him, because he’s one of our oldest characters, just dressed differently and possessed of superpowers. Like those characters it may seem that Wolverine is the illustration of the loneliest of all lonely sentiments, that every living thing dies and dies alone. And Wolverine dies repeatedly, tiny deaths, and ones that last as long as comic canon can handle. He’s the ultimate expression of that lonely tragic figure, who’s driven to fight, fuck, and face finality. And yet he lives beyond that lonely sentiment. He always comes back, is always driven back towards community, whipped and reluctant, but drawn back nonetheless. Despite all his pain, all his suffering and loneliness, the fact remains that Wolverine, wild and imperfect he may be, always has a place—is always part of an odd family that accepts his infinite wilderness and tames him into something that feels essential and purposeful. This is a story we love to see play out across film and comics, because I think all of us have a little wilderness left over in us, all of us question our identity and place, our unrequited and lost loves, and struggle with whether it’s our past or present that defines us, if our memories can even be depended on. This is the violent nature of our soul, and let me tell you bub, Wolverine may be positioned as the eternal outsider but he’s right there with the rest of us.
Featured Image: John Byrne (Marvel Comics)