Friday, 6 February 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #16: Whiskers

OK, so here's the thing. What can I possibly say about Wolverine?

I don't mean that there isn't anything to say. Logan has appeared in the vast majority of Uncanny X-Men issues published since his first arrival back in 1969. On top of that, he's been in pretty much every issue of X-Men/New X-Men/X-Men: Legacy, had his own comic (currently in its third incarnation) for over 250 issues, and snikted his way through God knows how many mini-series and one shots. The man has a history so extensive that even the gloriously unrepentant geeks at UXN are apparently frightened to compile his biography.

The problem with Wolverine is that everyone already knows exactly who he is. Without a doubt Logan is the most well-known of the X-Men, in most cases by a fairly comfortable margin. He's about to get his own movie, such is his enduring popularity (I refuse point-blank to entertain the possibility that the movie's existence has anything to do with Hugh Jackman's box-office draw, some ideas are simply to depressing to entertain). I doubt there's anyone left in the Western Hemisphere who doesn't know about his healing factor, his adamantium-laced skeleton, his claws, and his tendency to out bad-ass the baddest of bad-asses. He's become so popular that he's no longer just a character, he's a template. Thousands of Wolverine-esque heroes are running around dozens of different realities and comic houses. At least two of them keep showing up in the pages of the main X books themselves. While this has led various people to tell me they dislike Wolverine, feeling that the constant permutations of his various characteristics reflect poorly on the original. I think this is missing the point to some extent. It's kind of like hating Big Brother because of I'm A Celebrity... (obviously for the analogy to work you have to pretend that BB isn't a gigantic festering pile of blood-tinged faeces). Wolverine has gone through new and exciting, passed popular, crested phenomenon, and reached that most hallowed of levels where people keep complaining that they're sick of him but still part with enough of their hard-earned cash to keep any comic in which he appears afloat. He's the superhero equivalent of a political sex scandal: we all pretend we don't want to hear about it, but somehow everyone ends up knowing the sticky details anyhow. In a genre dying a long, protracted, agonising death, Wolverine is still one of the few characters who represent a license to print money.

Sure, there are things I could tell you about Logan that you might not know. That he was born James Howlett, for example, or that he has a (really, really boring) son named Daken. That he trained as a samurai in Japan, and was a member of a Canadian Black Ops group alongside, amongst others, his later nemesis Sabertooth. That he fought the Nazis with a time-displaced Shadowcat, and Franco's fascists with a non-time-displaced Ernest Hemingway.

But all of that is just the stuff he's done. It isn't who he is. Something like 95% of the stuff you see Logan go through can probably be directly traced to someone somewhere thinking "Wouldn't it be cool if Wolverine did this!?!"

In fairness, the answer is often "yes". Because Wolverine is innately cool, at least within the context of a long-running superhero comic. That doesn’t really mean that “OMG Wolvie just jumped down that monster‘s throat and hacked his way back out!!!1!” is necessarily going to get us very far.

So who is Wolverine? That’s easy. He’s Chaotic Good.

Now, I know that an AD&D reference probably wasn’t what anyone was expecting from me at this point. I want to state for the record, though, that I’ve always been a fan of its alignment system. For something with only nine options, it does pretty well at pigeonholing the vast majority of fictional characters (the fantastical ones, anyway). It’s also a useful way of differentiating Wolverine from so many of the characters that followed him, directly or indirectly.

I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about comics in general to state with any certainty that Wolverine was the first Marvel superhero to stray quite so far into anti-hero territory, but he must surely have been in the first wave. Many of those that followed later, regarding the X-Men at least, concentrated on the “Good” aspect: specifically, to what extent they truly were. Gambit, for example, was constantly cloaked in secrecy. Was he really on the side of the angels? Or was he playing the X-Men? Maggott was introduced in a similar manner, although I was the only person on the planet who apparently cared. Other characters who started out heroic went through phases (generally attributable to external influence) where they ended up in similarly shadowy territory. Jean Grey, when she was possessed by the Phoenix (though I’m still confused as to the exact sequence of events that second time round), Psylocke during the Kwannon/Revanche storyline, the period just after Archangel was created by Apocalypse. The “evil possesses our hero/heroes” plot certainly predates Wolverine (it‘s as old as the “identical twin who‘s a dick“ trope, probably), but the more drawn-out “What’s their angle” story lines, not so much.

My point in all of this is that this is what makes Wolverine more unique than he might seem amongst the morass of dangerous anti-heroes with a temper and attitude . Many of them focus on the Good/Neutral/Evil variable. Wolverine is all about the chaos.

One of the best parts to the dynamic between Xavier and Magneto is that both of them believe in order, and in civilisation; they just have very different ideas on how to structure it, and who gets to join in the fun. The same is true of Graydon Creed and William Stryker. Hell, you could argue that even someone as thoroughly unprincipled as Sinister believes in achieving his own form of order. Apocalypse too, in a massively twisted way, and for the most vague understanding of "order", in that he wants a violence-dictated meritocracy, but one set along strict lines. The problem with Apocalypse (aside from all the genocide and stuff) is that he sets about trying to achieve his insane version of "order" using chaos as a tool.

And you can't do that, any more than you can carve a dreidel using a chainsaw. Chaos can be used to fill the gap between two different orders, but that's all. This is part of the problem with warfare, as the Americans have learned in Iraq. Mind you, the armed forces are about enforcing order as fast as possible by causeing as much chaos as possible in the most ordered manner possible, which is why it's hardly any wonder the whole idea gets so massively fucked so massively quickly.

Xavier understands this, and Magneto doesn't. It would be tempting to say that Wolverine gets it even less, but that isn't the problem. The problem is that Wolverine doesn't want chaos, doesn't want to be chaos, but somehow it always ends up that way. Part of that is down to his berserker rages, perhaps, but often those descend whilst he's already in the thick of things, having charged forward without pausing to think.

That's what makes Wolverine such a dedicated, unwilling follower of chaos. He can't see beyond what's immediately in front of him. He's completely a creature of the moment (how much of that is down to the gaping holes in his memory is an interesting question). Everything is reaction. He reacts quickly, and in accordance with a moral compass that by and large is fairly laudable, but it's still just all response to external stimuli. Interestingly, on the rare occasions when he does engage in a little long-term planning, his aims are usually spectacularly devastating, and frequently involve one or more cold-blooded murders.
In fact, that might be exactly why he avoids proactive behaviour as much as possible: he simply can't trust himself to make the right choice, the choice that won't be stained in blood. Whilst he invariably plays the role of the rebel within whatever group he ends up in, it's interesting that he spends so much time within larger teams, under the control of others; from the Canadian Army, through to Department H, and then the X-Men. Sooner or later, things reach a head and he storms out, but eventually he'll be back, or he'll sign up with someone else, because deciding which orders to obey is a damn sight easy than deciding which orders to give, even to himself. [1]

Wolverine spends a lot of time telling himself and anyone else that will listen that "I'm the best there is at what I do, and what I do isn't very nice". As much as he may despise it, or deny it to himself, he knows that what he is is a weapon. A razor, as Admiral Cain would say. And to the extent to which a weapon can ever do any good, it's dependent upon who has their hand on the trigger. And much as he doesn't want to be a weapon, he knows Xavier wants to use weapons even less, and that's the point. They feed off each others reticence, even as they argue over the occasions when that reticence has failed to throw the brakes on sufficiently hard. That's what makes their approach different from Apocalypse, and why I've never gotten round my automatic suspicion of anyone desperate to join the armed forces. Without Xavier and his fellow X-Men, Wolverine would find it far easier to inflict damage on the criminal and the evil. Without Wolverine, Xavier might be more willing to use his tremendous mental powers more aggressively. It is precisely because they both exist simultaneously that the chaos and the order can orbit the same equilibrium, instead of the former shaking the latter apart.

Next time: what's the use of screaming if you can't make yourself heard?

[1] OK, so he took command of X-Force recently, but a) his leadership style is mainly threatening people into behaving and b) that doesn't seem to work.


jamie said...

I know you were worried about writing this article, but I think it's turned out well; an attempt to summarise his history would have been sheer folly, but you've encapsulated the essence of the character and his enduring appeal, plus his key role in the dynamic of the X-Men in general, with an especial relevance to your original Prof X piece. Good work!

(I think you're being unfair about Hugh Jackman though...)

SpaceSquid said...

I despise Hugh Jackman and all he stands for. This is not unfairness, this is the application of cold, rigid logic.

I'm glad you liked the article, though.