How did I get these mutton chops?
Wolverine, sheathe your claws! In fact, go away. (Denial … crumbling …) All right, I admit it, that would be covering up for my 80s self who dribbled all over the hairy bastard like everyone else.
Right, so I owned Hulk 181-182 from my original stash, one of the latest issues of the ones my brother gave me, and I bought X-Men 97-105 or so myself off the stands. Then came a superhero hiatus of about six years, as I’ve written about before. So that means, when I received a big pile of comics to borrow from my friends John and Edd in 1986, who should be so pleased as me to see that Wolverine had become a major character. My girlfriend fell head over heels in love with him and I wasn’t far behind. And then … we kept reading … and it seemed as if he weren’t a major character after all, but a location onto which more and more “characters” were piled.
I’m not focusing on the linear sequence of his changing physical depiction at least not as such, because it’s been done a lot and it’s easy to be funny, as in Ten of the wildest, weirdest, & worst hairstyles in comics. Instead, I want to stay with the logic I presented in Doom’s face, that the term “retcon” is a lie, that changes in comics characters don’t “work backwards” but rather fully replace whatever’s been done already, with consistency being a rather minor variable, and themselves only to last until the next time. The question for me about Wolverine is what each new tray of replacement material actually is, how and when it came to a point which “comic-booky” is pitifully inadequate to describe, and how each one designates a different story role and commercial entity.
[May I take this moment to mention how much I hate the Wikipedia entries which rattle through a character’s abilities and history in fictional chronological form? Come on, people! We have the Marvel Wikia for that. Can no one provide actual encyclopedia-worthy material on the chronological and creative publication of the characters?]
So here’s a preliminary list of Wolverine stuff and when it was introduced, and more-or-less by whom, which you can help me make more accurate. Selfishly, I’m confining it to the time I was engaged with the character, such that “Later” designates the period after the character got out from under Claremont’s effective control and was written and added to by a whole bunch of writers and artists, so the changes are both harder to track and not very interesting to me.
You can quibble with my table design, but for the most part, I either already know or don’t care. Yes, I know John Romita Sr. drew the original design, and yes, I know that everyone disagrees about whether the original claws were retractable or not (and into what). Yes, I know there’s a Wein-Cockrum step between Wein-Trimpe and Claremont-Cockrum. Yes, I know Claremont was co-author with Byrne and Miller; yes, I know that Byrne’s run on Alpha Flight tied into all of this and added stuff too (just call that part of the Byrne column). Yes, there are tons of little one-off moments in other titles or special issues that I’m not citing, preferring to think of them as subsets of the relevant time periods.
I know some things are ambiguous or possibly wrong too, partly due to text and partly to my memory. Wolverine has a temper in the “Cockrum I” period, but I don’t remember his genuine uncontrollable bloodlust thing getting going until Byrne’s involved. There’s something similar with the Jean Grey crush too, in that he’s at least sympathetic to her during the Cockrum I period and gets mad when she’s hit in the face, but I’m similarly inclined to think that a genuine torch isn’t there until Byrne. I’m not sure when he started whining about how much it hurts “every time” to pop out his claws, but I remember Byrne talked about it in an interview in the late 1970s, so I listed it under him. I’m pretty sure that his healing was speedy and cool fairly early (maybe even in the Hulk? don’t remember), but didn’t become a anti-cancer, anti-aging, poison-resistant, limb regeneration, recover from being digested, completely ridiculous thing until … maybe … about the Brood story, I’m thinking. I’m willing to correct those or anything similar if there’s strong text to show I’m mis-remembering. Did the Cockrum run give him animal senses, or the Byrne phase? Was it Miller who upgraded his senses to effective cosmic awareness, or did that kick in later? Correct me too if I’m simply wrong about designating a feature to the right period, for instance, I really don’t remember exactly when his beer-drinking became a constant reference but I remember it being a Nightcrawler-buddy thing, so I put it in with Byrne. I also can’t recall if the lost-dead wife was introduced in the Weapon X series or later.
Regarding things I don’t know, should there be a column for Larry Hama and John Buscema in the long-running titled Wolverine comic that began in 1988? I never read it. Is there any feature, from any period, which I missed and should be in a new row?
I mentioned something about story roles. Let’s see:
The 1974 Hulk version (pictured in the lead image) introduces a slightly offbeat hero or maybe not-hero, a hard-core Canadian Captain America or something like that, who’s intriguing because he’s foreign, short, human, and willing to take on the Hulk and the Wendigo at once. Herb Trimpe’s combat depiction is incredible – the new guy’s mix of fast-and-savage outshines both behemoths throughout the pages; Kirby himself couldn’t have done better. Definitely in the “I’d like to see more of that little hard-case some day” category.
The nid-late 70s Cockrum I version, who owes a lot to Timber Wolf and possibly to the Beast under his mask, wasn’t a super-cool scary character, but rather fit in well as a “team piece.” He was enjoyably tough and mean, with useful but not absurd senses and stuff to make him interesting. He pulled his weight well enough, but could get smacked down hard in the fights, and he generally came off as a shrill loudmouth, consistently backing down when scolded by Storm and Cyclops.
The Claremont-Byrne version is when the disproportionate effectiveness upgrade kicks in – if I recall the interviews correctly, Byrne generally visually emphasized him in comparison to Cyclops, whom he disliked, and probably started the whole “Cyclops is a wuss” thing going. A little bit of the authorial Sue crept in almost simultaneously with the cool, giving him the last word and being right all the time; it’s hard to tell where the one stops and the other starts.
Looking at my table, I think the Miller version is where the door swung wide into not only Sue, but Sue-eeeee! territory. I can’t really fault it, as a business thing it was right there to do, it made a zillion dollars, and it kept Miller on both sides of the Marvel-DC grittydark arm’s-race, the prime weapons-dealer if you will.
The weird thing is that Wolverine then becomes Claremont’s big Sue too, in the main title. He became the ultimate in emotional-sensitive tied to the ultimate in amoral, as well as the ultimate in moral authority tied to the ultimate in license-to-kill. It’s a Nixon effect: “if the president does it, then it becomes legal” – if Wolverine does it, then it can’t be wrong. That’s really different from the Byrne-centric gut-level, claw-thinking, entirely non-abstract bad-ass.
Those three steps add up to a brilliant disaster. From there it’s a cash cow, he’s Marvel’s Batman, just slap him on a cover or spout the lines we all know and love, and add some more back-story to any of the things I listed already, and watch it rollll on in. As I said, I didn’t read or frankly, even know about the Hama-Buscema series, so I can’t say it was mere fluff, but one of you can tell me.
One more solid dose of backstory and angst (and very lovely imagery) did the job for good. I did read it but I confess that all I recall is a lot of metal penetrating a lot of flesh.
All told, no one can say it was a bad idea for anyone who stood to gain from it, and if the arc of comics-character history is long but bends toward something, well, Wolverine today is it. My observation is that the “it” is many layers of plaster encasing a void.
My call: once there was a character, the shriveled remains of whom rustle inside the plaster when you turn it over and over, but when? Maybe hardly ever. The window between “hey, there’s some potential here, let’s see him do more” and “OMG phenom, cross him over everywhere, repeat the catch-phrase, give him some more origin” seems pretty narrow. Just about at the point when he was most interesting to me and part of what was going on, I’d say maybe at the Cockrum-to-Byrne transition, the Sue process kicked in and became institutionalized, to the extent that all those Liefeld and Lee characters took the resulting bloated, balloon-cheek-stuffed Wolverine as a baseline. The resulting pile-on of content for him and all the knockoffs ultimately yielded the brilliance that is
… such that the only value remaining to the character lies in parody. Not that Dave Sim didn’t see that coming back in the 80s.
So one final point: once Wolverine effectively becomes a central character, then who’s the, or his, bad guy? As a team character during the build-up phases, he didn’t have one, and then, I think the Sue/franchise effect swamped subsequent attempts to make one. Let’s see, Lady Deathstrike, Sabretooth in various concept-packages, umm, probably more. I’m tempted to categorize all post-1990 Wolverine phases or shifts in concept as the hunt for a credible, personal, and interesting opponent, in the context that it’s already too late. Once he’s not credibly stoppable or has any reason to fear anyone, then opposition has to be emotional, and once you exhaust the “oh no I can’t remember / oh no this is what I remember” mine (which has to be exhausted eventually), then his built-in emotional tapdance between “lose control freak out slaughter everyone” + “sanest man in the room” takes care of the rest. That’s a whole post waiting to happen, isn’t it, potential guesties?
I’m not saying a Wolverine story can’t be done well in pockets or moments, only that it’s (i) unnecessary relative simply to having him present and (ii) is well into Batman territory, i.e., each story unit has nothing to do with an ongoing series-story but is rather its own personal painting using similar raw materials. That’s probably the only way to resolve the piled-on powers + bathos he became.
Next: 90s (H)ero [guest post]
Posted on July 14, 2015, in Heroics, The 80s me and tagged Barry Windsor Smith, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Dave Sim, Frank Miller, Herb Trimpe, Hulk, John Byrne, Larry Hama, Len Wein, Logan, Mark Douglas, Mary Sue, Weapon X, Wolverine, Wolverine: The Musical, Wolveroach, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.