YouTube link-clicking has replaced channel-surfing in my house these days, so I happened upon this fantastic video from science guy Vsauce called “Is Your Red the Same As My Red?” It’s about color comparison, qualia, the explanatory gap and the theory of mind, and it’s a fantastic watch at around 10 minutes. So check it out when you’re in a Mr. Wizardy or Bill Nye-ish sort of mood and learn why painting a room with a spouse can become quite a challenge when no one can really explain what an off-white means to them.
This, of course, got me thinking about comics. Despite the basic “refracted light” of basic character bios, I’m pretty sure not every fan sees the same characters on the page. Our own influences, when we started reading, what popular culture was thinking at the time, there are so many exterior conditions that can bring a hero or villain to popularity or disuse that I can’t imagine what it’s like for the House of Ideas to try to single out a “new hit” to promote. Take Rogue, for example: At heart, she’s a scrappy Southern gal who can’t touch anyone for fear of draining their life force. Pretty basic, but when colored by the reader’s perception, this could be a metaphor for trauma survivors, an example of teenage physical anxieties, just a dangerous “bad girl” who tantalizes you by being actually physically dangerous, or a number of things. All of these reasons can catch the imaginations of fans and keep them reading, each for their own purposes.
Even characters in the books struggle with this perception problem in the panels. Charles Xavier clearly dreamed of a day when mutants and humans would work together; the Dream that he brought the X-Men together for was very simply based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous address. But now, Scott Summers thinks it’s a dream of mutant protection by any means necessary. The Jean Grey School is working toward sheltering new mutants and providing a safe space that’s isolated from those who hate and fear them. And Legion over in X-Men Legacy vows to enact the Dream as some invisible hand of fate, eliminating the dead weight of bigotry.
Can any of these be right? Are all of them correct including all the shades in between? Let’s look at Wolverine as a hero and a pop-culture icon and see if we can’t understand the qualia of what makes him the Best There Is. Read on!
OK, so the first time we met Wolverine, most everyone just wanted the Hulk to kick his butt, so let’s move on to where we really got to know him: through the X-Men. Back in the 1970s and early ’80s, the man only known as Logan was a Canadian mountain man, a rough customer who drank and smoked and, most objectionably, killed people. He was a lone wolf sort of guy, a Dirty Harry with claws who wasn’t the handsomest man in the world, but he was no one you wanted to mess with. He gave the X-Men an edge and reflected a lot of ’70s machismo where guys like Scott Summers couldn’t. He rounded out the cast, but there’s only so much loner tough guy action one can take from ol’ Canucklehead, so he changed as we moved through the years.
From the 1980s through the ’90s, Logan was somehow softened up at the same time he was made more extreme for the next generation of readers. Softening included a bevvy of teen-girl sidekicks, the same trope (tough guy with more innocent gal-pal dynamic) used for different reasons. Kitty Pryde was first to give both of them some balance; she was still young, but hanging out with Wolverine made her seem less naive and Wolverine lost some excess machismo. Jubilee was pure wish fulfillment as hip ’90s gals got a chance to imagine a super tough father figure and Wolverine actually got some of that machismo back as hero worship started to set in. In the 90’s, every personality trait Wolvie had was cranked to 11; his healing factor allowed for ridiculous stunts, he became more muscular and hash-lined through Jim Lee’s famous pencils, he went more feral for a time (so feral he lost his nose!), hung out with Ghost Rider and the Hulk and the Punisher, other action heroes of the day as well as a selection of hot women, making him a weird sort of ladies’ man whose girlfriends all tragically die in the end. He went from from Charles Bronson to Sly Stallone, a grimacing action hero who always got his man (unless they escaped to fight another day) or his lady (who died tragically lest he be tied down). This brightly colored extreme version of Wolverine was a hit with the kids and is probably the main reason we find him in every book on the stands some seasons.
These days, Wolverine still has some traces of his former life, but has seemed to settle down in his later(-er) years. No longer the “lone wolf,” he’s joined the Avengers, the X-Men, led X-Force and might even take Alpha Flight up on an offer. His teeth-gritting tough-guy persona has cracked to reveal a more sorrowful man underneath, showing a lot more feeling on the page than he did in years past. A teen-girl sidekick from time to time has given way to running an entire school full of children. A traditionally short-and-hairy little man is more commonly known to the public as looking like Hugh Jackman. His sparse and mysterious background has had a ton of blanks filled in and more answers seem to show up every year and — wait. Can we go back to the fact that short, squat, hairy Canucklehead is now more commonly visualized as Hugh Freakin’ Jackman? An actor who oozes charisma, dances on Broadway and was 2008’s Sexiest Men Alive? Urban, middle-aged housewives dream of Wolverine, you guys.
At what point do we notice the change? Was it too subtle to bother with the differences? Are we still getting the original points of the character down despite the chance in motivation and presentation? Or have what we wanted as a readership and society changed Wolverine more than plot points and story hooks? From the excess of ’90s action hero sensibilities, I think we all just got tired of how fake and four color it all was. Going back and reading a lot of comics that enthralled you when you were 14 now when you’re … uhm, not as 14 we’ll say is always going to be a blast from the past because comic book fans got older, our tastes changed and the mainstream now influences our medium more than ever before. There is no one true depiction of Wolverine, as everyone who reads his comics and loves or hates him will have different experiences with the books they discovered him in. For a man with a mysterious background, a stylistic look and a baseline attitude of “tough guy,” we can make of Wolverine whatever we want and, amazingly, all be right. In that Vsauce video I posted above, he remarks that the ability to sit down and discuss what the color red looks like to one another, sharing our individual view points as a group is what undoubtedly makes us human.
So Wolverine #1 came out this week by Paul Cornell, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer. Was it a Wolverine story? Why don’t you tell me in the comments below. Excelsior!