SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSITY:The Best There Is . . . Isn’t Very Nice: Complex Dualities in Wolverine

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture


The great question in pop-culture studies is “Why?” Why Star Wars and why baseball? Why The Matrix and why Madonna? Why Sponge Bob and why Big Macs? Why do these things capture our cultural imagination.? The “Why?” of comic books was addressed in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film, Unbreakable. There he sees language as originating in pictures. Says the Samuel Jackson character:

I believe comics are a last link to an ancient way of passing on history. The Egyptians drew on walls. Countries all over the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere, felt or experienced.

In Unbreakable, Shyamalan offers a theory of myth as a concrete picture language that precedes modern language forms. These images, surviving in a kind of collective human unconscious, intrudes into contemporary culture through comic art. What it reveals is an archetypal or universal pattern of the hero, what the great Myth theorist Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth: a single story being told over and over again in all the stories of heroes from all throughout time.
Think of atoms—those tiny high school chemistry building blocks from which all the physical objects in the universe are made. Certain stories are like that. They’re made up of a series of unchanging elements (like atoms), producing patterns (like molecules) that repeat over and over again. There are atoms of human experience which, when put together, create patterns which C. G. Jung called archetypal. These archetypal patterns are blueprints to the hidden nature of reality itself, blueprints that are revealed in the stories we tell. Call them archetypal or mythic, certain kinds of stories appear all over the world, all throughout history—these are the stories that take hold of the foundations of the world.
It’s a theory that also appeared in the 1920s in the work of Owen Barfield, whose book Poetic Diction had a profound influence on the thought and writing of his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. What Owen Barfield found in studying the history of language was that a strong distinction between a sign (like the word “cow”) and its signified (the actual cow) is new to human thinking. For people before the Modern era (even up through the Medieval period), to name a thing was to invoke it. Speech had physical consequences in the world; words were what they signified. According to Barfield, language was much more like concrete reality for the majority of human history than it is today, which is to say that language had the same kind of power over us that pictures (and music) often have now.
In other words, for most of human history, language has been, like any picture, as much an object as the things it refers to. It should be no wonder to us, then, that we constantly push language to adopt more concrete forms—combining words with music or with pictures in comic books, movies and computer programs (computers, for instance, only became a widespread cultural phenomenon when they became less about abstract symbols and more about pictures, their program structures altered from the confusion of DOS to the clarity of Windows). Comics about superheroes may be less than a hundred years old, but stories of superior heroes are not, and neither are pictures of their exploits. We’ve simply translated them using modern technology, converting our oldest myths into comics and movies. Comics are a product of our mythic mind, a way of thinking older than science or philosophy, and thus more primal in what they reveal.
But if one “Why?” has been answered, we are nevertheless left with many more. My question is, “Why Wolverine?” Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have entered the American psyche—moving past the sub-culture of comic readers into mainstream awareness. At the fringe of that awareness lies the hero who has replaced Spider-Man as the popular “top dog” of the Marvel universe among that comic reading sub-culture. But like a creature roaming the edge—that place where civilization and wilderness meet— Wolverine waits to claw his way into our mass cultural vision. Or perhaps, as his presence and popularity in the X-Men films suggests, he is already there, but the creature that he is forces us to exile him to that edge, to the place in our collective, civilizing consciousness where we can safely coexist with what the Wolverine is. This then is the quest: to know why Wolverine matters to us, by discovering what he is.


Created by Len Wein and John Romita, Wolverine leaped into comic history on the last page of The Incredible Hulk #180, sent by the Canadian government as their “Weapon X” to do battle (in Hulk #181) against the great green behemoth. Marvel’s strongest hero, unstoppable even by such super-strong characters as the mighty Thor or Fantastic Four’s Thing, is taken on by a five and a half foot scrapper with no super strength at all. And Wolverine holds his own!
Wolverine was then brought to the Uncanny X-men, his primary home for decades, by Wein and Dave Cockrum. The X-men comic had struggled for ninety-three issues, relegated in the end to the place of mere reprints. Then, in 1975, Giant Size X-men #1 launched the series’ rebirth with half a dozen new X-men including Storm, Night Crawler, Colossus and Wolverine. The new series was a huge success, and all origins were quickly explained: these were mutants, born with special powers. But that was hardly enough to explain Wolverine.
I titled this section “Beginnings” because it isn’t exactly proper to speak of Wolverine’s origins. For twenty-five years he had none, which is to say Wolverine’s origins have been slowly revealed over decades—the mystery of his past has always been part of his character’s power. First he was only Wolverine, without a name. Even that took several issues to reveal, and then only one name: Logan. It was then some time before we learned his claws come out of his hands, not some apparatus in his gloves. Then we learned he may have a decades-old past of which even he was unaware. Then came the Weapon X miniseries, showing how he got his adamantium skeleton and claws, then flashbacks to previous adventures (including adventures in the Canadian Secret Service and even a World War Two team-up with Captain America) and then his mysterious past relationship with Sabretooth. Finally, some twenty-six years after his entrance into X-men popularity, the six issue Origins comic revealed his absolute beginnings to mixed reviews ranging from those purists who said Wolverine’s origins should never be told, to those who agreed it should be known some day but thought the approach, in the style of a nineteenth century Romance novel, to have failed miserably, to those who thought three decades was bloody long enough to wait and so were just plain happy to have any definitive Wolverine origin at all!
Personally I’m a semi-purist. I acknowledge the right, yea verily the need, for Wolverine’s story to continue in comics, but, for me, the great years are those of the late seventies and on through the eighties when Chris Claremont (with some formative help from Frank Miller) defined the Wolverine character at its mythic best. So much of what has followed has been retread or an attempt to find something else to do with him, and so it is on the Claremont years that I concentrate.

This Aint No Disco

Wolverine’s roots may be archetypal, but his cultural beginnings are in the anti-hero sentiments of the 1970’s. We were fresh out of Viet-Nam where the presence of news cameras demanded a permanent change in the way wars are waged. In our collective guilt we either condemned war heroes or ignored them, wanting the whole thing to go away. Add to this two factors: First, the more obvious one: the feminist revolution of the ’60s and ’70s which, while creating opportunities for equality, demonized all things masculine, rejecting such qualities as courage and heroism in favor of sensitivity and emotional expression. The problem with men was that they weren’t enough like women.
The second factor was more subtle, has been part of our culture much longer, but came to a head at the same time. In a 1961 short story called “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut imagined a future America in which absolute equality was required absolutely. Strong people were chained with heavy weights, beautiful people were forced to wear ugly masks, dancers had their legs fettered, newscasters spoke with a lisp and people who were overly intelligent wore an ear piece which blasted various noises into their heads, confusing their ability to think. Everyone was forced to be equal.
Because of the American love of equality, ours is a culture that tears down the heroes we raise up, that rewards success but then accuses the successful of arrogance and greed. It’s a culture that spends millions on making under-achievers feel special while eliminating educational programs for highly talented students. This equality mentality, a kind of hierarchiphobia, was one of the main themes of the recent superhero story, The Incredibles. If we take away our superheroes so that we can all feel equally important, the results are obvious: “If everyone is special then no one is special.” Deep thoughts from the minds of Disney . . . .
So out of a mix of post-war angst, forced mediocrity and gender bending castration with its resulting backlash of macho stupidity, the seventies raised the antihero hero: Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Burt Reynolds’ Bandit, Stallone’s Rambo. Batman became a truly dark knight, Superman and Captain America became unbelievable caricatures and a psycho man-animal with claws and fits of “berserker rage” began his rise to the top of the comic hero popularity pyramid. Even in a decade when we rejected heroes, we still had to have them. So we made them very good at being bad and made them a little bit psychotic, like Wolverine: “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn’t very nice” (X-Men #163).


Chris Claremont has said that he was handed a Wolverine around whom everyone had to walk on pins and needles: “Say hi to him the wrong way, he’ll take your head off.” That was fine for a few years, but Claremont quickly realized he was faced with a serious question: How do you make a psycho interesting? (X-men: Legend of Wolverine). His answer, whether conscious or not, was to find those qualities of archetypal humanness in Logan that would have made him as relevant to the storytellers of the ancient past as he was to those of us who loved his dark goodness in the seventies, and as he is to everyone who remains fascinated by his claws today.
For Claremont, making Wolverine for himself meant making a Wolverine mini-series in 1982 with the legendary comic writer/artist Frank Miller. The concept, according to Claremont, was to envision Logan as a “failed Samurai.” His struggle is between an ideal image of himself and some chemical imbalance inside him that pulls him back at the moment the ideal is almost met. He must forever pursue that ideal (whether he achieves it or not) or else “yield to the dark side of his nature.”
The archetypal quality in Wolverine is this dual nature. He is utterly noble and completely savage. He is us at our absolute best and worst and the best there is at being the absolute worst. But this duality is always complicated in Logan, never simple. He is an isolated loner standing off against society, but he is also a partner. Alone in his first mini-series, in his second Wolverine was paired with Kitty Pryde (1984-85). Teamed in the X-men, Wolverine eventually earned his own series (and his own movie). As Batman became Superman’s dark other in the eighties, so Wolverine has been the other to many: Kitty, Colossus, Night Crawler, Rogue and more.
Understood correctly, myth is a kind of story telling that instructs without allegorizing. Into an allegory, an author places one-for-one correspondences—each character and object representing a single idea. In myth, meanings are fluid and multiple. Wolverine does not represent simple opposites but rather a complex duality, pairs of relationships that sometimes oppose but are sometimes in harmony—the kinds of relationships to be found in all of human experience:
Those of us who believe in universal right and wrong find times in life where black and white turn to shades of grey. Those who believe that morals are relative, believe so with absolute conviction—fundamentalist surety. We love nature but want our houses warm in winter. We hate routine but plan out our lives on elaborately detailed calendars. We fall in love forever, but hate old flames with heartfelt bitterness. We have great aspirations, but hide secret sins. Human experience is often the experience of paradoxical truths. Some of the most foundational of these truths are embodied in stories of complex duality like Wolverine’s.
Among Wolverine’s complicated dualities is a Beauty and the Beast pattern in which he can love women and be loved by them in a variety of ways, yet cannot have them. His first great love was Jean Grey, but she belonged to Scott Summers, Cyclops. They both lost Jean when her Phoenix form died (X-men #137). Logan neared marriage and happiness with the Lady Mariko Yashida, winning her through a war against her own father that culminated in a death duel where Wolverine rose to the height of his nobility, only to lose her just before marriage, first to the illusion-making powers of Mastermind and then to Mariko’s own nobility when, in her shame, she decided she must first restore clan Yashida, breaking the clan’s underworld ties and correcting evils committed while under Mastermind’s power (X-men #176). Another woman, Lady Deathstrike is one of Wolverine’s greatest enemies. Young women, Kitty Pryde and (in the X-men movie) Rogue, are among his closest friends. His loves for women range from noble to needy, from romantic to fatherly. He loves, he rescues, he loses.
Another of Logan’s complex dualities revolves around the idea of self-knowledge. His mystique for decades has been his fragmented memory. Wolverine, like the whole of humanity, has never quite known who he is. Not only are his memories incomplete, sometimes they are false. His identities are multiple and sometimes contradictory. But he frequently knows others better than they know themselves. He can, first of all, peg true identities: he can tell by sight, smell and sound that an ally is in fact an enemy in disguise—a robot or a shape-shifter. But it goes deeper. He recognizes even personality traits, as when Kitty Pryde was possessed by her future self (X-men #141) and Logan was convinced she was telling the truth, or when Rachel Summers, the alternate timeline daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey, came from the future into a different past and Wolverine sensed Jean’s personality in her daughter (X-men #193). In the first powerful Brood story, Logan was the only one of the X-men who could not be hypnotized by the Brood, but rather saw them for who they were (X-men #162). He alone was able to save his friends—which leads to another duality, this one a real paradox.
Wolverine is often the first into battle and the first to get pasted. He may be the “best” but he often loses. And yet sometimes he won’t join a battle at all and so must turn the tables by himself when the other X-men lie in unconscious defeat. Utterly impulsive or utterly self-controlled, there is no middle ground for Wolverine.
One of his most entertaining moments of inaction occurred when he took Peter Rasputin, Colossus, to a bar to get him drunk and beat him up over his recent treatment of Kitty Pryde. When the X-men’s strongest enemy, the Juggernaut, showed up at the same bar and began a slugfest with Colossus, Logan sat back, drank his beer and watched the show. It was one of the best lessons Colossus ever learned (X-men #183). In another great moment of restraint, Wolverine ended an alien invasion of Earth with a bluff while playing poker: he bet his life against the alien leader’s and the guy folded (X-men #245).
Wolverine smokes and drinks constantly, enjoys getting into fights, butchers the Queen’s English with words like “bub,” “babe,” “fracas,” “yup,” “an’” for “and,” “o’” for “of” and the suffix “-in” for any word ending in “-ing.” He is also a dictionary of punctuated Hollywood one liners:

    To Ororo: “I’m made for killing—you’re not” (X-men #152).
    Of the Brood: “No deadlier beings exist in the universe. ‘Cept maybe
    me” (X-men #162).
    On fighting the Brood: “They do their best. I do better” (X-men #162).
    On fighting the Silver Samurai: “I survive his first cut. He survives
    mine” (X-men #173).
    To Sabretooth: “You were right, Sabretooth. You’re the killer. I’m a man
    who sometimes kills” (X-men #212).
    Having lost his healing power and sure he’s about to die on the island of
    Genosha, as he enters battle: “I might as well go with style.
    An’ lots o’ company!” (X-Men #238).

Even so, his wisdom is far reaching. A recurring theme in his stories is one of educating others. Logan frequently teaches his partners the nobility and nature of the true warrior. Bar bum he may be, but he is also sensei, master. He taught Kitty Pryde to overcome her fear (Kitty Pryde and Wolverine Mini-series), Storm to restrain her own rage (X-men #152), Professor X to allow Storm to lead the X-men and stop getting in her way (X-men #181), Dazzler to be a hero (X-men #228), and Colossus to control his power (X-men #231). Logan is to his friends a classic archetype: the wise fool.
And he is also the archetype of one half of an ages old conflict, the one between nature and the city. It’s there in the oldest story ever written, The Epic of Gilgamesh, where Enkidu (who shows striking resemblances to Wolverine) stands in for nature and Gilgamesh for the city in a struggle to find balance. The theme frames the Bible as well: it begins in a garden and moves to a post-Eden wilderness, but then Cain kills his brother and, for protection, builds the first city. The tension between nature and city continues throughout the biblical story to The Apocalypse of John where a new heaven and earth come together in a single place, a city, the New Jerusalem at the center of which Eden’s Tree of Life grows—the unity of the two worlds complete. It’s a theme in the Iliad, where Greek and Trojan warriors battle to forge themselves into nations built by law instead of only tribes joined by blood. It is a mythic pattern forever at the heart of human endeavor: to live in harmony with nature while refusing to accept her limitations.
Logan is on the nature side of this duality. In the opening of the first miniseries, Wolverine tracked down a bear that had killed some people and mercifully ended its life with hand and claw. Then he tracked down the hunter who shot the bear with a poison arrow, driving it to madness and slaughter. Logan quipped, “The bear lasted longer.” In X-men #245, the team had moved to Australia, where they discovered an underground base used by enemies they had defeated. Wolverine sensed danger in the vast complex, even in the very technology, the computers around them. Another team member suggested that it was “maybe the ‘natural man’ reacting to all this technology?” To which Logan replied, “There’s a reason I trust my senses over these toys.” And yet, true to the idea of complex duality, Wolverine is, himself, augmented by technology, the byproduct of civilization—his body is laced with artificial adamantium, the product of Frankensteinian science. In Wolverine, technology and nature are forever wedded.

His Three Selves

One archetypal duality stands out to me as the central Wolverine story line—again, another duality more complex than mere light and dark, yin and yang. So many of the archetypal human stories, the great recurring myths, are stories of the human aspiration toward Divinity. Mankind longs to achieve godhood or at least find his way to God. Hercules, son of god and mortal, eventually achieves apotheosis, godhood. Achilles, whose mother is a goddess and father mortal, was destined, had he been born of gods only, to dethrone Zeus, king of the gods. His struggle in the Iliad is a struggle between his humanity and the divinity he will never achieve. But there is a second struggle co-existing with the first: the ascent from animal to man. It is Enkidu’s story in Gilgamesh; it is the story of Tarzan; it is an integral archetype of Greek myth: fauns and satyrs, centaurs and minotaurs, and the story of Euripides’ Bacchae in which Dionysus draws the women of Thebes into animal existence in the wilderness. It’s even in the Bible: In Daniel 4:31-37, Nebuchadnezzar, Emperor of the mighty Babylonian empire, falls to an insanity in which he becomes like an animal, running wild and naked, eating grass like cattle.
The central theme to Chris Claremont’s Wolverine was this pair of co-existent archetypes, this complex duality: the progression from beast to man and the struggle in humanity for divinity. In a battle against Dr. Doom, the Fantastic Four’s chief nemesis made use of Logan’s heightened senses to try to drive him mad with rage (X-men #147). Logan remembered nearly attacking his first mentor, James Hudson (the leader of Canada’s Alpha Flight), and how Hudson helped him reduce his berserker rages. He remembered Hudson’s words—“You’re a man, not an animal”—and his memory helped him control himself long enough to escape. In his first miniseries, Wolverine sunk to his lowest animal self in his confrontations with Mariko’s father, Yashida Shengin, but he rose to the same grand conclusion: “I’m not an animal. I’m a man” (Wolverine Mini-series #4).
Logan always suffers from an animal self, a Wolverine self if you will. The berserker rages remain a part of his psyche, when killing is required he never hesitates and his heightened senses tax his sanity, even in the latter Claremont years. But his character is not limited to a Wolverine self, claws extended, versus a Logan self, whose retracted claw hands are human. He is more. We might go so far as to identify an animal self, a human self, a mutant self (the healing power and heightened senses that make him homo-superior, evolution’s answer to godhood) and even a Promethean self,? (an amalgam of metal and flesh, made a god in the image of a materialistic universe). But I suggest that three selves are sufficient: Wolverine the animal, Logan the man and his highest ideal, the Samurai self. Logan’s greatness is that he somehow is the best there is at what he does. Though he may think himself a failed Samurai, his greater nobility appears throughout the X-men series. His own Mariko said, “You are an honorable man, Logan, with the soul and inner grace of a true Samurai” (X-men #162), and a dying woman whom he comforted called him a Samurai as well (X-men #181). And in his first recorded confrontation with Sabretooth, even Logan recognized this third self: “I’ve changed. I’ve learned about honor. A hard road more often than not. But worth the effort” (X-men #212).
Wolverine is an archetype of complex human dualities: of lust and romance, of desire and restraint, of insight and self-deceit, of goodness and wickedness, of success and failure, of acting and being, of wisdom and earthiness, of teaching and learning, of nature and civilization (each in both harmony and discord), of animal and machine (each both in harmony and discord) and most of all of the human creature: an animal created with a divine spark, who sometimes forgets his spiritual self to sink into his animal flesh, or sometimes forgets his mortality to elevate an arrogant soul. He struggles between heaven and dirt, between angels and slugs, looking for the place of balance where he can say, as Wolverine does, “I am a man.”
When Chris Claremont quit X-men after #279 in 1991, those who followed undid much of the character development he had accomplished with Wolverine. The subtle maroon and burnt orange costume he’d picked up in X-men #140 was traded again for the old gawdy yellow outfit he used to wear, and his animal nature reasserted itself. Essentially, they started over. Perhaps a make-over ruined him, but that’s what happens with a character we don’t want to let go. But then, we can’t really let go; the story is an archetype as old as the stories we’ve told since creation. Like it or not, we will constantly write Wolverine whether for good or ill. We’ve been doing it for four decades and for four thousand years.

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