Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine 2: Wolverine

(Isaac at Parabasis and I are blogging through Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. Isaac's first and second posts are here and here. Mine is here.)

"I'm the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn't very nice."
- Wolverine

That line comes from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's limited series, Wolverine, which predates Kitty Pryde and Wolverine by about two years. It's quoted about 20 times in the course of the six issues of KP&W. Seriously, every time he appears the first time, he says it. It's a great line, but it gets...a little annoying. It is, though, the line that basically changed comic books forever.

When Wolverine was introduced, he was a bit of a throwaway character: this odd, short, belligerent Canadian in a brightly colored suit and these big old claws popping out of his hands. There was no explanation for him, no real depth to the character, just wackiness, a step above comic relief. They almost randomly threw him in with the X-men, without ever really explaining his superpowers or mutation. Slowly the details came out: healing factor, adamantium claws, the obsession with Jean Grey, and the ever-popular amnesia/Man-With-No-Name thing. He had one name: Logan. In short, a useful badass. And that was pretty much it.

Then the Wolverine limited series. Now, all of a sudden, he was a failed samurai, with a code of honor, and a lady love that was all star-crossed and tragic. He had a soul. In a way, Wolverine became one of the first modern comic book characters with a soul. There had been dark shadings to characters in the past and, of course, indie and underground comix out there, but in the world of superhero comic books, in the '80s, perpetually tortured souls were a new thing.

Of course, though, there's only so much torture you can have in a superhero comic. I mean, really, eleven year old boys don't want to spend issue after issue with a character sitting around moping about his love life and keeping his bad-ass berzerker in check. Screw that. You gotta let him out. But you also have to make it safe. Parents don't want their kids looking up to a sociopath who kills willy-nilly (well, at least not yet).

So KP&W is about more than just the maturation of Kitty Pryde, it's about the softening of Wolverine from wild card into, as Isaac points out, a father figure and more benign mentor. Sure, he's full of tough love and leaving his charge out in the snow, but it's all in service of making Kitty Pryde stronger. He's still gotta kick some ass by the end, but he's also in position to lead the X-men.

This push and pull runs underneath a lot of modern, mainstream comics. Comic book are still meant to be entertainment for children and, post-Comic Code Authority, that means it's got to be nutritional, too. The characters who bring danger and complication into the world have to be tamed and smoothed out. The good comics make it about maturation and growth, which KP&W does well for Kitty, but I find Wolverine's path less convincing. It's all pretty easy for him. Except for beating Ogun, of course. Which is when they let the bad-ass out again.

This volume also cements what I think of as the oddest character trait in comics: Wolverine's Japan fetish. The writers grafted it onto a Canadian berzerker and then ran with it. This series pulls Kitty Pryde into it, but, from the get-go, you know it's just a prelude to Wolverine showing up and spouting on about peace and tranquility while standing in a zen garden. Given the vaguely Asian look that artists tend to give him, and his blank slate past, you'd think that it would turn out to have more meaning, but...not so much.

Comic books and kung fu are two of the pillars of a 1980s boyhood and Wolverine was the perfect bridge. He was the first introduction of the ninja to a lot of young kids. The fact that he could take on about twenty of them at one time just increased his legend. Reading it now, though, it's...a little iffy. Not Long Duk Dong iffy, but close. The Japan of X-men comics is always a place of inscrutable, mysterious men, codes of honor and tales of noble samurai, with only two types of women: crazy, overactive badasses with spiky hair and beautiful, distant, unattainable, proper beauties. And they're all in love with the gaijin. Not that comics are particularly known for their sensitive racial depictions, but to have the bulk of the comic set in this, well, comic book version of Japan, all Blade Runner and Seven Samurai, leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. But that's what it looks like now, more than two decades (!!!) later. At the time, it was just about Wolverine, Canadian bad-ass who loves Japan.

And, despite the second billing, and the Kitty-centric story arc, the second half of this book is really about Wolverine and setting the table for his future. From here, Wolverine became the signature character for the X-men and, in a way, for Marvel Comics. He's not as recognizable as Spider-Man outside of fandom, but, after the movies, he's close. And he's certainly more beloved, defended and argued about. For a while, his Wikipedia page was blocked from editing because there was a three-year long flame war going about whether or not he had super-strength (the jury's still out on that). Wolverine brings that out in people. And here, in these six comics, we catch him in the middle of his journey from comic book character into mythic figure.

Thinking about Wolverine and reading these comics again, it reminds me of that adolescent intensity and passion, the kind that got me buying the full set of the Handbook to the Marvel Universe to learn exactly how much Spider-Man could bench (10 tons, just in case you want to know). Isaac, is it having the same effect on you?

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