Wolverine would have been a good recurring character in The Incredible Hulk, where he first appeared. And I would have defended him, retractable claws and all. But he can’t really sustain his own book, nor being a major character in a team book. He’s just a fairly shitty character, a second-stringer to anyone but those with a part of their brains stuck at 17 years of age.
Let’s be clear about this: people love Wolverine because he’s a tough guy. He’s the Dirty Harry of the mutant world. And God knows Americans love their Dirty Harrys. Wolverine’s sole point is to be a badass and to kill people. If super-hero comics are stereotypically defined by the fight-of-the-month, Wolverine’s the king of the fight-of-the-month mentality. He’s not good at anything else.
The Weapon X program is cool and interesting, and it’s a good origin for a character defined by his ability to kill. But it’s only that. Wolverine can act anguished about his own abuse, but that usually just results in a “berserker rage” in which he just claws everything in sight. The guy’s not exactly an introvert. The guy’s not exactly a thinker. Does he have any measurable interior space? Not really. He’s the tough guy, and that’s it.
I like nothing more than seeing Wolverine burned to a crisp and slowly healing. You can’t feel sorry for him: he’s a tough guy, and he gets what he gets. He’s not a hero. No one gets points for courage when he heals like that. I mean, Superman’s a fun character but he’s not known for his courage: what does he have to fear? But Superman has an interior space. Watch Clark Kent agonize over not being able to stop a dictator as Superman because of his ridiculous, Kansas-imposed commitment to the laws of this world. Hell, watch him agonize — in the classic Superman-Lois-Clark love triangle — over his inability to woo Lois Lane. There’s a character who’s hard to write but who has interiority despite his powers. Superman’s a rich character not for his powers, even though he could be the ultimate badass if he wanted to be. But not Wolverine.
Wolverine talks like a kid acting tough. “I’m not good for nothing but killing” is something Wolverine might say, but not in a moment of introversion. Instead, he’d say it with a tough demeanor, revealing nothing more than his own shallow bravado mixed with a seasoning of self-pity. This is a guy who routinely says things as stupid as the Thing’s “it’s clobbering time” but who takes these ridiculous expressions seriously. He’s got the emotional maturity of a high school kid, and an immature one at that. Like an adolescent, he thinks tough guys say this kind of shit. Adult tough guys know that toughness is communicated through actions, through self-control as well as through rage. Even the women in Frank Miller’s Sin City are tougher than Wolverine. Anyone over 17 is tougher than Wolverine. He’s the poster child for arrested development. He’s got all the complexity of hard rock music, of prancing in leather and thinking that acting tough makes you a badass. He’s a poseur, and not a very good one at that.
If I’m going to read a tough guy, I’ll read the Punisher. I don’t need the claws. I certainly don’t need the ridiculous healing factor. The Punisher’s a badass but he’s a badass you can relate to. He can’t hide behind his healing factor. He’s not a super-hero. He had a bad day, like the Joker, and his solution to his rage at what humans are capable of doing to each other is to eradicate as many bad guys as he can from the face of the Earth. And he does so with guns, like real people do, not with claws. He’s a fucked-up Vietnam vet, killing vicious criminals instead of robbing banks for that old high he got in war. He’s not the deepest character, to be sure, but he’s a better badass than the whiny, bragging Wolverine. Wolverine belongs with villains like Juggernaut, ridiculous monstrosities who can withstand his claws and unwillingness to control himself and his “berserker barrages.” The Punisher belongs with mobsters, with the mundane child molesters of the world. He’s not Rorschach, but he’s cut of that cloth. Now, there’s a badass with depth. Wolverine, on the other hand…
None of this addresses, of course, the remarkable inconsistencies of Wolverine’s character. He’s a loner who spends all his time with the X-Men. If Wolverine has a problem with Weapon X’s abuse of him, why does he not have a problem with Professor X’s agenda? Sometimes, Wolverine’s depicted as killing civilians in bar fight. Other times, he has the non-killing attitudes of the X-Men, even against the vicious killers that the Punisher greets with a bullet to the brain. He stops short of killing mass murderers, but has left a string of dead drunken brawlers across the United States and Canada. Yeah, great guy.
Not to mention the whole love triangle with Cyclops and Jean Grey. I mean, there’s a reason Jean Grey chose Cyclops over Wolvie. Cyclops is an introvert, a thinker. Wolverine is the extrovert, the unexamined adolescent. Okay, we know the average comics reader is a little more nerdy than the average Joe. A little more thoughtful. Probably a little more introverted. Why identify with Wolverine? Granted, Cyclops doesn’t have a lot of interiority either, but he’s certainly a lot closer to the stereotypical comics reader than Wolverine is. It’s argued that comics readers see super-heroes as power fantasies: is Wolverine, then, the fantasy of being the high school jock instead of the high school nerd? Doesn’t the love of Wolverine by thoughtful, introverted readers express a kind of self-hatred? A wish that they could be a badass, perhaps? And a stupid, bragging, unexamined badass at that? A secret desire to be — dare I say it? — Flash Thompson?
Of course, there’s also that awful sound effect. I mean, really. Snikt! Snikt? What the fuck is that? Have you ever heard something make that sound in your life? No, but it sounds cool — in a thoughtless, adolescent kind of way.
Any character can be good if written properly. Here’s a guy who, when he extends his claws, they rip holes through his skin. He’s so used to pain that writers and artists don’t even note that pain in the comics when his claws come out. But he feels it. Now, if you wanted to do this right, you’d have a psychotic Wolverine. A guy who can’t use his powers without pain, who’s not really good for anything but killing. He should be fucked up, in his own little world. He enjoys the rip of his claws through his skin. He likes it enough to do it at almost any opportunity. It makes him, deadened to sensation through experience, feel alive in some small way. He’s an addict. He craves combat. He craves feeling alive. No wonder he kills guys in bars but not villains who rend him limb from limb. Make Wolverine a psychotic who goes to S&M clubs and gets torn to ribbons every night — a guy who can’t come unless half his body is on fire and literally shredded. He’s not good for anything else, and he’s gone down a path of needing to be hurt more and more to produce that same adrenaline rush.
He’s not in the X-Men for a social outlet — nor because, after seeing everything he’s seen of the world, he believes in Xavier’s dream. No, he’s there to pick up chicks. Then he gets the sexy, spandex-wearing teenage new recruit back to his room, where she’s thinking she’s going to have sex with Wolverine — Mr. Badass to her, because she’s 17 and falls for that kind of bragging thoughtlessness, which is probably why he does it in the first place, outside of his own arrested development. She gets back to his room at the X-mansion, so convenient for such liaisons, and he closes the door. She expects him to be all over her, to take her like the tough man he is. But he begs her to tie him up and to cut him with knives, to set him on fire, to shoot him over and over again. She does so, but it does nothing for her. So much for the tough Wolverine, she thinks.
That’s my Epic Comics proposal, Mr. Jemas. A one-shot mature readers book. And the best Wolverine story ever written.
Because, you know, there haven’t been many good ones.