Wolverine has always been my favorite X-Man. When I was a kid, it was the costume and the claws. He was just so cool. As I grew up, I became fascinated with the depth of Wolverine – not the flashy, badass superhero, but the tragic, near-immortal man struggling to find balance in his life. I think it’s easy to see why he’s been such a fan and cultural favorite since first appearing in The Incredible Hulk #180-181 in Oct/Nov 1974. At his core, Logan represents the very human struggle of being caught between who we are and who we want to be. That resonates with all of us. Who wouldn’t identify with that?
I know I do. I also know I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time (we’re talking about my adult life here people) thinking about being Wolverine. Every comic book/superhero fan has entertained this question. If given the choice, who’s powers would you want for yourself. David and I have discussed this at length and we always come back to the same answer – WOLVERINE. The heightened senses would be helpful. The claws are obviously as intimidating as they are functional. And that healing factor!! Is there anything more badass than basically getting back up after anything? Let me answer my own question – NO. During the day I often drift off and imagine Wolverine’s claws popping from my hands or living with his healing factor. Kalie, however cut our argument apart advocating for Superman’s power. When I objected, saying Wolverine’s powers are so much cooler, she countered, “If you had to really choose between getting shot, feeling every ounce of pain, having your body push the bullet out, and then healing back up or having everything just bounce off you leaving you none the worse for wear, who would ever pick the former?” I…okay, she’s right. Damn. Well played Kalie. If I REALLY got to choose a superhero power set and I REALLY got to keep it, I’d go with Superman. I think just about everyone would. But I still think Wolvie has the most badass power around.
Envying his powers and loving his action sequences isn’t all that fuels Wolverine fandom. We all struggle with that tension of who we are and who we want to be. We all wrestle with making peace, living in the moment, and loving who we are while still striving for/trying to figure out how to be who we really want to be. That struggle is the hallmark of Wolverine as a character and the theme that runs through all of his tales.
We see this most directly in his struggle with the darkness within. From the moment he joined Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s revamped version of the X-Men in 1975 Wolverine has perfectly illustrated the question – what are we as human beings? What is our true nature? Are we our more loving impulses and urges…or our darker ones? Is there a universal? And, from a religious standpoint, if we are made in the Image of God, what do we do with our darker impulses? Are they part of us? Are they an aberration? Do we give into them or fight to control them? How do we find a balance? Can we? Our anger, our judgment, our lashing out…all the parts of us that feel base and animalistic, Logan is constantly seeking to master and control those tendencies. We appreciate and (more importantly) we all understand his struggle in our own way.
In the introduction to the graphic novel version of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s seminal 1982 work Wolverine, Claremont describes Logan in this way, “…the essence of Wolvie’s character was a ‘failed samurai.’ To samurai, duty is all, selfless service, the path to their ultimate ambition, death with grace. Every facet, every moment of their lives, is absolutely under control….Wolverine, however, is almost a primal life force, totally beyond control, as graceless as can be. The one might be considered the ultimate expression of humanity – wherein the will, the intellect, totally overmaster all other aspects of existence – while the other is totally animal.”
Walking the line between light and dark, tempering the animal within, this is perhaps Logan’s most famous example of balance. He is always seeking to balance his darkness, to quell his berserker rage, and become the person he wants to be. In Claremont’s Wolverine Logan states, “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” These are the opening lines of the book. Wolverine owns his skill with utilizing the darker aspects of our nature. That’s how he sees himself. In the same comic he goes on to identify himself as the most fearsome and deadly creature on earth. He is a hunter, a killer.
But Logan refuses to accept that’s all he is. In the same series, Logan has an epiphany. After a battle he realizes, “The fight took place in a private garden – patterned after the classic Zen Gardens of Kyoto – a place of transcendent beauty, of peace and tranquility. No longer. The garden has been wrecked! Its patterns broken. Order has turned to chaos. The story of my life. No matter how hard I strive for inner serenity, I screw up. So why bother? That’s Yukio’s philosophy – be what you are. Why fight it? By nature, we’re both scrappers. We like it. An’ when the need arises, we can kill. Yukio wants me the way I am. Mariko makes me want to change, to grow – to temper the berserker in me. I love ’em both. I failed ’em both, Worse, I failed myself, Because…I lost myself. And yet, the patterns of life are as fluid as those of this gravel. I smooth the stones – new patterns emerge – chaos becomes order. The wheel turns. And from that order – peace? Perhaps that’s the answer? The key isn’t winning – or losing. It’s making the attempt. I may never be what I ought to be, want to be – but how will I know unless I try? Sure, it’s scary but what’s the alternative? Stagnation – a safer, more terrible form of death. Not of the body, but of the spirit! An animal knows what it is, and accepts it. A man may know what he is – but he questions. He dreams. He strives. Changes. Grows. You took my dreams from me Shingen. But only for a time. Because I’m a man, Shingen! Not a beast. A Man!” That is powerful. And that power is why Wolverine has spoken to so many for so long. The existential questions of theology, of philosophy, of nature are illustrated in Logan’s life and he inspires us to find the best. No matter what, Wolverine always fights on. He never gives up.
A very practical component to Logan’s refusal to back down from the physical fights in his life is his healing factor. But this defining trait of Wolverine’s brings another difficult balancing act all its own into Logan’s life. With his body aging at such a slow rate (due to the healing factor) and the fact that it can handle just about any disease, injury, accident, and/or damage it encounters (again, due to the healing factor) Logan is essentially immortal. As seductive as the idea of immortality is (c’mon, who hasn’t fantasized about seeing the crowning of Charlemagne and the Court at Versailles and VE/VJ Day and whatever 2285 holds…while remaining unchanged?), any artistic exploration or honest reflection on actually living forever ends in sadness. Immortality can only lead to a sad, lonely life as you routinely watch everyone you care about die while you just…endure.
How do you find happiness, how do you find meaning, how do you find purpose in life when it may never end? The fact that life ends is a struggle. As Joseph Campbell brilliantly points out in The Power of Myth the issue for all mythologies is to reconcile the mind to the brutal precondition of life. Life can only be sustained by killing and eating other life. (Even if you are a vegetarian, you are still killing and eating life to survive. Fruits and vegetables are living things too, even if they aren’t conscious.) For all of our existence as sentient, self-aware beings we’ve struggled with why we die. But all the meaning we find in our earthly life is anchored in the awareness that life is finite. We live, we love, we create with the knowledge that we won’t be here forever. Knowing that things are impermanent grounds us in the present moment and allows us to appreciate everything. With his healing factor however, Logan is always at a distance from this reality. He lives as human a life as he can while always knowing he will go on.
Think of that for a moment, honestly. What is life like if you’re unsure you will ever die? Imagine infinity in regard to the wars we wage with our heart. We all experience heartbreak and suffering, pain and loss. We all end up very, very broken at times. Sometimes it seems like we can’t ever heal as we wrestle with how the darkness of heartache and loss cripple us. For Logan, his heartache goes on forever. As such, he serves as a guide for how we climb out of that hole and heal. It’s tricky…we can’t give up our scars from love without giving up a part of ourselves.
When the six issue miniseries Wolverine: Origin ran from 2001-2002, readers finally learned the truth of Logan’s past. He was born James Howlett, a sickly child, in Canada in1882. His father owned a plantation until he was murdered by their violent groundskeeper Thomas Logan. In the shock of his father’s death, James’ claws extend for the first time and, as a child, he kills Thomas and injures his equally violent son Dog. His mother Elizabeth mumbles, “Not you too…” and rejects James once she sees his powers. James flees the family home, followed by his childhood friend Rose. James’ healing factor tries to protect him from heartache by essentially blocking the memories of his father’s murder and his subsequent murder of Thomas.
Rose cares for James (giving him the name Logan, to help conceal his identity should they be pursued by the police) as he grows into a strong young man. They assume the identity of cousins (again, to help with their cover) so Logan is unable to act on his growing feelings for Rose. Despite her being his first love, Logan does nothing when his boss Smitty proposes to Rose. He lets her leave…putting her happiness before his own. His pain wouldn’t end there as Dog returns and he and Logan battle. As Logan prepares to kill Dog, claws extended, Rose gets caught in the middle and is impaled on his claws. Logan goes mad with grief, retreats to the wilderness, and his healing factor creates another mental block, robbing him of more of this past.
While Logan eventually returns to humanity, he never finds the love he seeks. Love – our experience and understanding of it – is the most important human experience. Nothing is more central to us and to the meaning of our existence. Nothing puts us closer to the Divine. But for Logan, it’s the same, tragic story again and again. Rose, Atsuko, Mariko, Jean Grey – he’s loved them all but something always stands between him and realizing his love. As adolescents, we can relate to the feelings of unrequited longing of our first crushes. We “get” what it’s like to be in Wolverine’s shoes. But as adults we can feel the real pain – the deep, burning ache of being so close to a love we will never be able to realize for any number of reasons.
This leaves a mark, as we see in the opening pages of Brian K. Vaughn and Eduardo Risso’s moving 2008 miniseries Logan. Returning to Japan with his memories intact, Logan opens the first issue narrating, “I’ve made a hell of a lot of enemies over the decades, but I don’t lose sleep over ’em. No, it’s the women who keep me up at night, the handful of girls I was dumb enough to fall for over the last century or so. See, I can recover from just about anything…anything but getting my heart ripped out.” By its very nature, the pursuit of love is dangerous. Nothing can hurt us like love since nothing else requires us to give the whole of our being so completely over to it. Here again, Logan’s life serves as a model in seeking balance…and moving forward despite the pain.
We all long to find our Soul Mate. For over a hundred years Logan’s sought love only to end in heartache. Perhaps we see this pain most clearly in his connection with Jean Grey. Logan finds a soul mate in Jean Grey…but Jean’s already found a soul mate in Scott Summers. In his soul-stirringly beautiful novel Brida, Paulo Coelho poses the idea that “we can meet three or four Soul Mates [in one lifetime], because we are many and we are scattered.” His idea is that original souls created by the Divine continue to divide as the population grows and the goal of each life we live is to find a part of that original soul we came from.
That certainly seems to fit with Jean’s experience in regard to Scott and Logan. However meeting two soul mates in one lifetime is not a pleasant experience. As Coelho continues, “when that happens, the heart is divided, and the result is pain and suffering.” Never is this pain more clear to the reader than on the day Jean marries Scott. Logan isn’t at the wedding. How could he watch his Soul Mate marry another? There is more depth to the metaphor though as the wedding happened in X-Men #30, during a time in the 90’s when Logan had lost his adamantium and devolved into his most animalistic form ever – both physically and mentally.
The symbolism is not lost. Without love, we regress to the darkness. Yet, once again, Logan refuses to be complacent with an animalistic life. He fights to slowly regain his humanity. He is successful in doing so, in part perhaps because he lives so fully in love. Despite his feelings for Jean, Logan doesn’t interfere. She has chosen Scott and, because he loves her (and not in spite of that fact) he lets her go.
This shows us Logan’s love in action. His love is more powerful than his anger or hate. Most impressively, his love is more powerful than his own obsession or desire. This raises some important and penetrating questions. Is this what unconditional love looks like? Does love tame those darker impulses, is it stronger? Also, is it true that – when we truly love someone – we won’t deny them anything, even if they love another? Do their wishes become ours…even if only at a distance at times? It is as beautiful as it is challenging to consider.
Paulo Coelho assures us, “Above all, though, we are responsible for reencountering, at least once in every incarnation, the Soul Mate who is sure to cross our path. Even if only for a matter of moments, because those moments bring with them a Love so intense that it justifies the rest of our days.” Maybe, in the wake of all his heartache, Logan’s learned this lesson. Maybe this helps him with that ever elusive idea of balance. He can’t have the love he seeks…but he’s touched it and that light can help fill the darkness.
I hope that’s true for Logan. He deserves a little light in all the decades of tragedy. He constantly struggles with his darker, animalistic impulses. He has yet to find a way to live his seemingly endless life in peaceful contentment. And every time he pledges his heart to another it ends up returned and broken. But he doesn’t stop. He never gives up. Maybe that’s why he always make such a good mentor. Kitty Pride, Jubilee, Laura Kinney – he always seems to be teaching, always serving the youth as a mentor/teacher/big brother. He shows them how to balance the tragedy of life and still move forward, always striving to be better. And, as readers, he teaches that to us too!
This is why we’ll always need Wolverine. This is why he’s been so popular for over thirty years. The lessons he teaches resonate as much as his powers/costume/attitude is cool on the superhero scene. However, in 2014 under the guidance of Charles Soule and Steve McNiven, the once unthinkable happened in the Death of Wolverine miniseries. Wolverine had lost his healing factor and with it, his immortality. Logan found himself hunted by a shadowy force, as old enemies came to take a shot at this now killable hero. Despite the shift in his power set, Wolverine remained the same man he always was. He faced his own mortality with humor, grace, dignity, and honor – fighting for those who needed him until the very end.
The series was filled with some emotional moments. In a conversation with Kitty Pride he tells her, “I lost my healing factor, sure, but there’s a good side to that. It means I can get old. No more chances. No more doing something horrible and telling myself I’ve got until the end of damn time to make up for it. No. Just one lifetime, where every choice matters.” At his end, Logan shows us how to die with dignity and, in so doing, gives one more lesson in how to live. Every choice we make matters. That’s what the French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida called the gift of death. When we realize we are irreplaceable in death (we all must die, no one can always do it for us) we realize that we too are irreplaceable in every moment of our life. As a result, we need live each moment as responsibly as we can.
As I first started the draft that would become this piece over a week ago, it was very dark in tone. I was exploring the tragic nature of Logan’s past. As I wrote I experienced one of the amazing things about comic characters in general and Wolverine in particular – if they are the lens through which you view that darkness, they will always direct you towards the light. We all struggle with being caught between who we are and who we want to be. So I say again, this is why we need Logan so much. He is our model for that delicate balancing act in life, for always seeking to elevate ourselves, for never giving up. He will always direct us towards the light, no matter how much darkness surrounds us.
Now, with Logan dead, the 616 Marvel Universe has a few Wolverines to choose from. In the wake of the Secret Wars, Mark Miller’s version of the character – Old Man Logan – has found himself in the main Marvel Universe. But I’d argue that he isn’t the important one. No, that title goes to Laura Kinney. In the wake of Logan’s death she’s left behind her identity as X-23 and become the all new, all different Wolverine. She’s taken up Logan’s mantle, to follow in his footsteps. That’s what we’re all called to do, to follow Logan’s model in life and in love – until he returns (as he inevitable will) to inspire us again.