Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Best there is at What he does

Wizard is a comics Magazine. Mainstream comics, Superhero comics, mostly. Its effectively one long advertisement for DC and Marvel, and I've never bought an issue. I do leaf through it occasionally in a shop. I was doing just that the other day when I came upon an article which, well, it shocked me.

It was a list. "Best 200 Comic Characters". Obviously that meant mainly Superheros or Supervillains. Now, you shouldn't really pay any attention to lists. They're subjective and bound to annoy you if you give them any weight. But at the same time, the fact that anybody could give the number one spot to their choice stunned me, appalled me. And it was a "they". The vote was
among Wizard staff, not just some editor, but a group. Which meant this view wasn't held by one person, but more than a few.
There were other flaws on the list, of course. Thats the nature of lists. But they had a character called "Cyborg Superman" above a lot of strong characters, like Iron Fist, for instance. Judge Dredd isn't on the list at all. No 2000AD characters are, in fact. But their top spot was what really rankled with me.

Wolverine. They chose Wolverine as the single Greatest Comic Character of all time. Now, I like Wolverine. I love Wolverine. He is a great character. He is a really cool character. And this, I think, is where the problem lies. The modern comics fan has been brought up on a steady diet of cool characters, of Image creations, of watered down versions of Wolverine and the Punisher. Characters prone to bloody spasms of ultra-violence, with murky pasts and short tempers and pseudo military costumes. And then they look at Wolverine, and the genius of the character is instantly apparent when compared to Grifter or Deathblow or Backlash or Deadpool or Cable, and he seems suddenly to be a truly great character, perhaps the best ever put in a Superhero comic.

But he isn't. In his great book "Reading Comics", Douglas Wolk defines the great superhero characters as each being a metaphor of some kind. That metaphor is then at the base of all of their adventures. Thus, Spider-Man is (obviously, explicitly) about the individual's struggle between power and responsibility, between what we want and what we know is right. Superman is about human perfectibility - he is the perfect human, only he is not actually human, and his main weakness, Kryptonite, reminds him of this. The Fantastic Four is about family, the X-Men about difference (racial, sexual, political) and identity. All of the greatest characters in the genre have a metaphor of some sort. Wolverine? According to Wolk, Wolverine is all about the struggle to contain rage. Which I can buy. But in his earlier appearances, it was never so. He was just the short hairy Canadian in the X-Men with the crush on Jean Grey, the cool power and the even cooler claws. He had a ridiculous temper, sure, but he didn't really seem to struggle with it. He was what he was.

The classic Claremont-Byrne run on "Uncanny X-Men" was where Wolverine started to blossom. Byrne is Canadian and he has stated he felt he needed to give his compatriot more to do. So Logan - his, ahem, "secret identity" - got a few solo scenes where he took out some poor schlubs alone, and the beginnings of his dark past were shaded in with the first appearance of Alpha Flight. And while he was given slightly more depth, his rage still wasn't seen as all that much of a problem. While X-Men was a team comic, Cyclops was probably the closest it came to a leading character at that point (when the first movie came out it was notable how Wolverine was obviously the protagonist). The first real step towards the Wolverine we know today came with his first solo Miniseries in 1982. In his introduction the reprinted collection, Claremont discusses how he tried to woo Miller into drawing the series. Miller wasn't interested in Wolverine, was the problem. He didn't see the potential in the character. The anti-hero with the short fuse wasn't enough for him, used to writing about Daredevil, with his apparent handicap which is really a gift, and his catholic neurosis and his penchant for the wrong women. So Claremont explained that he saw Logan as a "failed Samurai". This may be true. But there had never been even the slightest whiff of it in the X-Men comics up until then. I get the feeling that Claremont was aware of Miller's interest in martial arts and Ninjas and he went right for that weak spot.

It worked. Their series is arguably - still - the best Wolverine story, simple and beautifully told and moving in its way. But the main character is all but unrecognisable from the man of the same name in the X-Men comics of that era, though this new version of the character soon showed up there too. The greatest boon of Wolverine's dark past had been revealed to be the license it gave creators to invent slices of that past. Logan became a sort of Forrest Gump for the 20th Century in the Marvel Universe - present at some important events, in vital places at crucial times, altough he only remembered fragments of it. It meant that writers could really choose to tell any kind of story with him - he had been a spy, a soldier, a hunter, a mercenary, an assassin. Now he was a Superhero.

But it doesn't really convince me, the repeated attempts to give him a nobility, the "failed samurai" aspect of the character. I like him as an unrepentant killer, the berserker eternally amidst a melee, claws flinging blood in arcs, mouth open. Attempts to give him depth just seem a little silly to me, perhaps because they don't really allow for his obvious insanity. In fact they often deny it, forcing him to insist upon his own humanity, to swear he is not the beast his actions often condemn him as. This reminds me of a character far more worthy of the title of Greatest ever created - Batman. As Wolk acknowledges, Batman is insane. But its a benign insanity, driving him to the brink of his own humanity in an attempt to be the best he can possibly be. His arch-enemy, the Joker, is portrayed as just another, more malevolent sort of maniac, their kinship as the force that draws them into conflict time after time. Writers dwell on Batman's insanity, though none ever really openly acknowledges it (Alan Moore and Frank Miller have probably come closest) and it enriches his fictional existence, it is part of the tapestry.

Wolverine has a few other marks against him for me. He has never truly had a Great solo story, or even a Great run by a classic creative team. The aforementioned Claremont-Miller solo series and Barry Windsor Smith's beautiful "Weapon X" are possibly the closest he has come, and the first series is not the finest work by either creator, while Windsor Smith's script is unworthy of his frequently stunning art. Marvel hires too many hacks as writers - seemingly nervous of the big names, unless they have been developed in-house - and Wolverine has suffered from this in his solo title. Some fine artists (John Buscema, JRJR, Howard Chaykin) have drawn him over the years, just never in concert with a great writer, to my mind.

Nor does he have a great arch-enemy. His nemesis is Sabretooth, who is basically Wolverine, minus the adamantium, and only more so. He is feral, he possesses a healing factor, animal senses, a bad hairdresser, strange vocal mannerisms, etc etc. His links to Wolverine's past (revealed piecemeal over the years before more or less ruined in "Origin" a few years back) serve to give their every fight a special edge. But he's too simple and too similar to Wolverine to be a Great villain, his re-appearances too safe and dull. He is a cool character, and if you put him in Black Panther facing T'Challa, then I would want to read that. But against Wolverine? Again? Really? No thanks.

Visually, Wolverine is a strange case. Bizarre hairstyle, which means he has that odd mask, furry arms, which must be on display, meaning he wears tank-tops and long gloves, he's also short and stocky, and often shown chomping a cigar...none of his several costumes have been notable from a design standpoint. He looks a bit goofy. But it works, somehow. Maybe only when contextualized by his character. Or maybe because he's so often depicted mid-brawl. Or maybe it doesn't work and I've just become accustomed to him over the years so I don't question it at all. The best he's looked in ages was when Frank Quitely put him in a leather biker jacket, without any mask, without any exposed biceps, without any long gloves. Just a guy with a funny hairstyle smoking a cigar. Inspired by Hugh Jackman's more realistic iteration in the X-Men movies, it seemed far truer to the character than any yellow and blue spandex ever could. Basically, Wolverine's look is not really a vital part of his character. He's not quite as instantly, unmistakably recognisable as Spider-Man or Captain America, to name a couple of other Marvel characters. Those characters are almost inseparable from their costumes, which is a good thing in a visual artform. Wolverine? He hasn't quite got that recognition factor. The man in the street would know Spidey, or even Cap. But not Wolverine.

So who is better, who would have been worthy of inclusion at the top of such a list? Well, Batman, obviously. Of all the truly iconic heroes, he and Superman carry the most mythic weight, feel the closest to modern legends. They have transcended the. medium of comics and exist now as Cultural figures beyond their fictional lives. That alone shouldn't put them at the top of any list, but the fact that they are fantastic, archetypal characters should. They have depth and resonance and have each featured in dozens of brilliant stories. They are both visually masterful - simple and unforgettable. That follows for Spider-Man and the Hulk, too. Wonder Woman and Captain America are close but not quite at the same level. Wolverine exists in the next group, alongside other greats like the Flash and Daredevil and Green Lantern and Iron Man. But he is probably the best example of a certain type of character - the grim and gritty hero, the anti-hero, prone to ultra-violence, bristling with attitude but heroic underneath.




Blogger Monsterwork said...

He meets Ernest Hemmingway when he jumps back in time to when he was fighting in Spain.

Numero Uno right there.

And he says 'Bub'

And his cock got shot off in New Avengers.

I could go on.

4:33 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

He's just the nearest Marvel can ever get to Batman, and I'm saying that as a Marvel man.

He's "cool". He's the most popular character of the 90s and the 90s still owns comics.

There's a reason that Batman, Spider-man and Superman are the most famous.

I think I'll always be a Fantastic Four person, family man and that but I've got to take Batman as the best character. I assume he came second to Wolverine in Wizard? Actually Wizard is made by cretins, they probably had Caitlin Fairchild or Bane second.

Batman is the best comic character ever and you only really need four issues of his dumb comic to prove it. You can read all three thousand odd Batman comics and you really aren't going to like him more than you do from those four issues.

Conversely there aren't any really good Superman comics without Batman in. Unless they were written by Alan Moore in which case they don't count.

11:34 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Oh but there are. All Star Superman. A Superman for All Seasons. Even much of John Byrne's run is brilliant, and better than anything anybody has ever done on Wolverine.

Batman was number two, yep.

Meeting Hemingway - exactly what I meant about Forrest Gump...

12:19 am  
Blogger Will Shyne said...

Well,now. I'm not got going to argue with such a well reasoned dissection of Wolverine as I agree with most of it. I do think there are some great Wolverine stories but just for me, praps. X-Men 205 by BWS and Claremont and the Mandarin Saga by Claremont and Jim Lee but there's certainly no Dark Knight, Year One, Last Superman Story or All Star Super-Man. Not even a Born Again, Kraven's Last Hunt etc. Wizard ARE a bunch cretins and that's the reason you don't buy it. The fact that Super Cyborg is on there is because Geoff Johns might have written a good Green Lantern story with him in over the last year. Just a bunch of 'king idiots.
I propose a series of Wolverine meeting great authors and influencing them. He could be Mr Darcy, the protagonist of Camus' the Outsider, Huckleberry Finn. I like it...sounds "Worthy".

11:22 am  

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