I Heart Wolverine
How a ridiculous Canadian mutant conquered the world.
Under Claremont's purple pen, abusive boyfriends and illegitimate children came crawling out of the woodwork, girlfriends died and their mourning lovers married their look-alikes, who, predictably, also died. Most importantly, he spotlighted the fact that the X-Men were mutants, a persecuted minority in the Marvel universe whose trials and tribulations were thinly veiled commentaries on real-world racism. The slightly insane but entertainingzenith of this cheesy melodrama was the 1985 publication of the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, a morality play about racial discrimination in which passages from the Bible are quoted and the leader of the X-Men, Professor X, is crucified on top of the World Trade Center.
Claremont, despite his histrionics, never violated the central tenet of Wolverine's appeal and left the Canadian's mysterious past mysterious. Alas, when he left the X-Men in 1991, suddenly everyone wanted to play with the coolest character in the Marvel universe. In just a few years, writers and editors clumsily managed to graft every single antihero trope onto his backstory. According to his new biography,Wolverine has been, at various times, a Canadian cowboy, a ninja, a private eye, a secret agent, a bootlegger, a mercenary, a bodyguard, a caveman, a victim of the Holocaust, a Vietnam vet, a World War II vet, a corrupt cop, and a lumberjack. Also, he was raised by wolves; he was raised by native Canadians; he is the reincarnation of a warrior from a race of humanoid dog people; he was at Hiroshima when the bomb fell, and all his girlfriends died (11 to date). Oh, and he's saddled with five children. (One died in utero, one is an evil clone.)
As embarrassingly complicated as all this is, Wolverine has not only retained his appeal among comic-book readers; he has gone from being a pastiche of '70s tough guys to becoming the badass icon of the '90s, thanks to his cartoons, video games, and, now, his Hollywood blockbusters. What's most incredible about this is that two generations of young men have grown up with their notions of extreme machismo inextricably linked to our neighbor to the north. Wolverine performed many of his dark deeds in the service of Canadian Intelligence, and the Canadian wilderness was the crucible in which his hard shell of manhood was forged.
Informed that his secret son (torn from the womb of his dead Japanese wife) hates him, Wolverine snarls, "That makes two of us!" This kind of sheer manliness makes the blood run cold. Wolverine may be severely disadvantaged—as short and hairy as Robin Williams—but he's fond of uttering romantic, I'm-crying-on-the-inside lines like "I got no use for Christmas, bub!" and "I've got plenty of scars—but it looks like this one's going to be on the outside."
And yet it would be a mistake merely to chalk his appeal up to pop culture's insatiable hunger for hard men. The genius of Chris Claremont was that he made mutants a generic stand-in for all minorities and made Wolverine their Malcolm X. Black, gay, disabled, and Jewish readers could project their own experiences onto the trials and tribulations of the X-Men, but so could misunderstood teenagers, nerds (who only started being cool once the 2000 X-Men movie raked in big bucks), fat kids, skinny kids, kids with braces, kids with glasses, and anyone who ever felt persecuted (read: everyone). Wolverine refused to apologize for his identity, he refused to compromise, he refused to hide. On top of that, if you had a problem with his peeps? He'd kick your butt, bub.
Standing 5 foot 3, weighing 300 pounds (thanks to that metal skeleton), he's a hairy-backed fashion victim from a country nobody takes seriously. But look around any high-school or college cafeteria during lunch hour at the armies of hairy-backed, height and weight disproportionate fashion victims and you'll quickly realize that these are his people. If you're a nerd, a loser, an outcast, or a misfit then there's only one all-purpose tough guy for you. Wolverine: He's just like us. Only Canadian.
Slate V: The critics on X-Men Origins: Wolverine and other new movies
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Still from Wolverine © Marvel Characters Inc. 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.