Wolverine: Convolution is His Middle Name.

Nov-12-08

They say he’s the best there is at what he does and what he does is…well, it’s kind of confusing, really.

Created by Len Wein, Wolverine, for all his bluster and bombast, is perhaps one of the most enigmatic characters Marvel has ever foisted upon the public. Initially, his vague background, vicious attitude and general bad-assery quickly took him to the top of the “Awesome Scale” and into the hallowed territory of Predator, Mad Max, Boba Fett, William Shatner and Patrick Swayze in Road House (but NOT Dirty Dancing).

However, since the early days, Marvel has managed to overexpose, overexplain, overuse, overdo, overwhelm and overcompensate for the character in his continued exploits. Even though his official “origin” has been published and well-received, I still can’t honestly tell you anything about him. It’s baffling. Here’s what we may or may not know: His name is James Howlett, but everyone calls him Logan. He’s a mutant from Canada but he fought alongside Captain America in World War 2. He’s been tortured, brainwashed and abused. He used to have bone claws, but those were replaced with an indestructible metal skeleton, which was then removed by Magneto. The bone claws returned, but now he’s back to metal again. He has a ridiculous healing factor, and yet he used to have an eyepatch and a stump hand and lived as a pseudo-pirate on an island in the Pacific called Madripoor. I’m pretty sure he was married, or getting married, to a Japanese girl at one point. He has connections to nearly everyone in the Marvel Universe except Howard the Duck (give it time). And it certainly didn’t help things when the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon portrayed Wolverine with an Australian accent. Sheesh.

Seriously. What the hell?

Look, I’ll admit that I was particularly enamored with Wolverine when he first appeared in the reborn Uncanny X-Men title. And the miniseries that Chris Claremont and Frank Miller threw together was pretty darn awesome. Something happened in the meantime to change my mind though. He started guest-starring in every title from Amazing Spider-Man to Get Along Gang. His character got boring. The whole feudal Japan thing. The secret Weapon X experiments that keep being changed and retold to explain continuity problems. Don’t even get me started on Patch. And the completely outrageous concept that his healing factor can rebuild his entire body from skeletal remains after being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion. It almost makes me laugh. Wolverine is the only character who could relax by smoking a cigar on the surface of the sun.

Aside from completely removing him from the 72 Marvel titles he appears in each month, what else could we do to tone down Wolverine’s image and make him interesting again?

This could be a long one…

How very interesting. We may be two of the only fanboys out there who don’t really like Wolverine, although I can say that I never really liked the character, even when he was first introduced. You say that we can’t limit his appearances as a way to make him interesting again, and you may be right, but I think limiting those appearances in some way is absolutely essential. We discussed overexposing a character somewhat when we discussed the Joker, but we didn’t really delve into it. I actually have quite a rant on that very topic, but I’ll save it for another time and place, especially since this is likely to run long anyway. I will only say that Wolverine is much too overexposed and he needs to be seen less. However, whether that happens or not, there are other areas we need to explore with Wolverine if we’re going to make him a good, viable character again.

I see two immediate problems with Wolverine, which spring to mind. The first is that Wolverine, when first introduced, was the cool guy, the Fonzie of the X-Men. He was a rebel, he was slick, and he had some style. This was all well and good, but as Wolverine became more popular, he stopped being just a slick guy and became incapable of showing weakness or making a mistake. He’s the most macho, most perfect man in comics. He can’t do wrong. He can’t BE wrong. If there’s an argument, you better believe that Wolverine’s opinion is the writer’s opinion, and whatever he’s saying, with his decades (centuries? millennium?) of life and experience, is what the writer wants the reader to believe and support. There’s simply no dramatic tension involving this character anymore; if he’s in a fight, he’ll win, no matter how many villains or how powerful they are; if he’s in an argument, he’ll win, even if he’s debating nuclear physics with Reed Richards; if he’s playing tiddlywinks, he’s sure to come out on top!

The second problem I have with him somewhat relates to the first, and that’s the fact that he’s simply too powerful. When first introduced, Wolverine had enhanced senses, metal claws, and a decent healing factor. All of these powers have been ramped up since his early appearances, which is something of the norm for comics (and it’s something I’ve mentioned before when discussing Marvel Comics). Sadly though, his powers have gone off the charts. I could complain about his fighting skills becoming legendary, or his enhanced senses allowing him to track dust mites across a desert, but it’s his healing factor which is completely out of control. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wolverine could be taken down if he took sufficient damage, and he wasn’t getting up anytime soon. It was also obvious that too much damage could kill him. As the years wore on, he began to regenerate quicker, and from more serious injuries. This may have reached it’s most preposterous heights in his comic during Civil War, when he had all of his flesh and organs seared off and was reduced to a skeleton by Nitro. A skeleton! Yes, he had no brain, no heart, no lungs….he was just a skeleton. And he regenerated to normal! This is ridiculously powerful and it has to stop.

Of course, there are other problems with Wolverine. I think that any strong book needs a supporting cast, and Wolverine doesn’t have one. This could be because he was never intended as a solo character; he was a supporting character himself, and he was a loner. When he got his own title, it became difficult to fit a cast around him, since it didn’t fit his persona. He also has little in the way of a rogues gallery; since his first instinct is to kill his enemies, it’s hard to keep them around for long. His biggest foe is Sabretooth, who’s almost as overexposed as Wolverine himself. It’s also obvious that no one knows quite what to do with Wolverine; he’s Canadian, but that’s rarely shown. He might mention it, but we don’t get the feeling that he belongs to another culture. As you mentioned, he’s shown an obsession with Japanese culture, which doesn’t seem to fit with his personality, and seems to have been added only because it’s considered cool. He has too much in his past; he’s been a soldier, a secret agent, an experiment, as assassin….he wants to be all things to all people, but that’s simply not possible.

So, that’s the problems I see. Now the question is, can we solve these problems?

Can we rebuild him? Do we have the technology? (Why do I feel like I’ve used the Six Million Dollar Man joke before…Iron Man revamp maybe?) Perhaps I should switch to a Vanilla Ice reference instead? “If you’ve got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it…”

Right.

You’ve honed in on the exact points I was glossing over in my opening rant. Too perfect. Too powerful. No sense of conflict. No real sense of danger for him. No friends. No threats. And just a jumble of history that feels like the comic book version of that Katamari Damancy video game where you roll around the world and stuff sticks to you. All in all, stripping Wolverine back down to something interesting and useful is a truly daunting and bloated assignment. And I’m not sure it can be done without taking a few giant leaps of faith. Things are going to have to be retconned, ignored and just outright forgotten.

One of the main things we must do is provide some sort of weakness, both in his powers and in his personality. I hate to think we need to introduce a villain that he can’t handle, because that would just be piling more nonsense on top of the already existing nonsense, but there needs to be a person or an event that diminishes Wolverine vastly. Something fairly monumental, I’m guessing. Or maybe not. Maybe the best course of action would be to have this take place over a length of time?

Clearly, heroes are much more fun to follow when you’re not sure if they’re able to get out of the precarious situations they find themselves plopped into. Wolverine’s bulldozer-like presence takes any of that sense of tension away. That Nitro incident is something I always point to when people talk about the silliness in superhero books (well, that and the whole Spider Clone thing…and Superboy punching the walls of reality…and…). His freaking brain was gone. Poof! There’s no function left there, nothing that could possibly trigger any defense mechanism or healing ability. And yet he reassembled like that dude from Terminator 2. Wait, I take that back. That guy was actually able to be stopped.

I look at it this way: If Bullseye happens to fling a toothpick straight through Wolverine’s eyeball, and he gets it at just the right angle that it sinks into his brain, then Wolverine should be dead. Forget the adamantium-laced skeleton. There’s nothing in the physiology of a humanoid being that would protect the soft tissues like that. If that lame villain Machete just happened to take a swing at the back of Wolvie’s neck and he managed to find the exact spot where two of his vertabrae came together and his blade was thin enough to slide through and sever the brain stem, then Mr. James Howlett would cease to be. Simple as that. I don’t care about past procedure at Marvel, dead is dead.

And knowing that, Wolverine would be more cautious, more tactful and possibly just a bit more reserved. We wouldn’t have the constant know-it-all, done-it-all attitude.

I’m not going to delve into enemies and supporting cast right now, because I think that it’s important that we discuss his ties to the X-Men first. This is his inner circle of family and friends, for what it’s worth. Let’s not concentrate on his solo title just yet. Although, I will pose this one question: When Magneto chooses to attack the X-Men, why doesn’t he just use Wolverine as his living puppet every time? Seriously, he could just take control of Wolvie and obliterate every other member of the team…and he could do it from miles away! Some snikt-snikt…a bit of blood and gore…and -BOOM- no more X-Men!

Anyway, there’s a lot more to talk about and I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. This could go on for days! We need to strip him down quickly and effectively…like field dressing a moose. What’s the first step?

The first task should be to reduce his powers and his infallibility. I’d start with reducing his powers first, since if you just start having him make mistakes, it’s going to seem odd and far fetched, but if you reduce his powers first, then he may start making mistakes based on the fact that he’s a little more insecure and feeling his way with his new power levels. As for how one reduces his powers back to mere mortal level, I could suggest a half dozen options. He could be infected with a disease; his healing factor is fighting off the disease, but it can’t defeat it. The perpetual war within his body means that his healing factor isn’t as strong and can’t work as hard on other problems (and perhaps the disease dulls his senses at the same time). Perhaps he’s hit with a weapon that is supposed to take away a mutant’s powers, like Forge’s ray gun that depowered Storm in the 1980s, but only gets a glancing blow. Or, if you want to make it a longer story, perhaps he takes a full blow, and is completely depowered for awhile. When Beast finally figures out a way to return his powers, he warns Wolverine that the procedure is untested, and it may not restore his powers to their peak levels. Turns out that the Beast was correct and his powers are restored only to our new, more reasonable levels.

You could also use any number of freak accidents (the Marvel Universe is awash in them) where he drinks a serum designed to do one thing, and then gets exposed to radiation, and the two interact, reducing his power levels. Perhaps, since he insists on hanging out with Dr. Strange in the New Avengers, he gets hit with a magic spell that reduces his powers. The possibilities are legion (and Marvel has already missed some good opportunities to reduce his powers; I would have done it when Magneto ripped all the metal from his body). It really boils down on whether or not you want to make it a story; do you spend a few months detailing the reduction of his powers, and figuring out how that affects him, or do you remove them quickly, and then move on to other stories? I think you do the former, giving readers a chance to see how, once his powers have been reduced to 1970’s levels, it affects every part of the character, making him more cautious, making him realize that he can die, and bringing him down to the same level of everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong; he can still be cool and a bad-ass. I’m not suggesting that we turn him into Timid Timmy, or making him a coward. However, he needs to get his butt handed to him every now and then; he needs to at least acknowledge that he’s vulnerable in some way and that he can make mistakes.

Were I to actually pitch this idea, I’d do a story where someone duplicated Forge’s old power nullifier. They plan to use it on one particular mutant; I’m not sure if it matters which one, but we’ll make it one of the X-Men. Wolverine and the X-Men go to stop this evil villain, and during the struggle, Wolverine gets hit by the nullifier, and his powers are gone. Boom. He’s near death, and spends some time in a medical bay at the X-Mansion. They originally think that he’ll die because of the metal in his body, but apparently his body has adjusted to having the adamantium laced to his bones (in the same way a cyborg’s body adapts to the metal parts). So, he has his claws, but he can’t use them; without his healing factor, he’d slice open his hands and bleed profusely if he did. We then spend a few months with Wolverine having no powers at all; where he’s forced to work at being a hero, and we can see him as a true mortal. I’d say he spends those months going after the bad guy who built the power nullifier. Wolverine wants him dead, so he can’t steal the powers of any other mutants.

Finally, the Beast returns Wolverine’s powers, as mentioned above. We know his powers are reduced, but by this time, the reader has had the opportunity to see what Wolverine can do without them, and they understand the character better. This guy has tons of experience, he’s strong, he’s a great fighter, and he’s brave as they come. However, if he makes mistakes, he could die. And he does, occasionally, make mistakes.

Thoughts?

Well now, that’s intriguing. There are some pros and cons about that idea, but overall I think it’s a good template to follow. I think my qualms are in the details rather than the overall effectiveness of the plot. For instance, I’d hate for this to be a rehash of the “Storm lost her powers” story and I’d be concerned that this would become the path of least resistance for any future depowerings. The convenient rebuilding of a powerful device is a bit troublesome to me. Of course, I could poke holes in the alternate solution you offered as well. These freak viruses and plagues and diseases seem to go hand-in-hand with the mutant population. And they’re rarely naturally occurring things either. Usually, there’s some sort of covert experimentation going on…someone stumbles upon a hidden bunker…or an abused mutant is found wandering the streets of some backwoods European village…call in the rescue team!

Sadly, his healing factor has been so augmented in recent years, that I’m pretty sure it kills off all foreign antibodies before they even get within ten feet of him. It’s all quite ridiculous. There has to be a new way to diminish his abilities and powers. The magic angle is interesting because it’s something that Wolverine and the X-Men don’t deal with very often. The only trouble is that most of the magic that happens in Marvel’s world is unnaturally easy to reverse. Here’s a thought you didn’t mention: What if he gets in a fight with a villain he’s never encountered before, someone with alchemical powers? I’m just throwing this out there…Grey Gargoyle. He’s been around for a long time and yet he’s a pretty enigmatic villain. He’s now part of The Hood’s crime syndicate which recently had a run-in with the New Avengers. And, in a battle with the Fantastic Four not too long ago, he temporarily turned Thing to stone. When the effects wore off, Ben Grimm was able to change between his rock and human form at will. That establishes a precedent for physiological changes. Who knows what effects his powers would have on a mutant? It could be that simple. There’s also Absorbing Man or Diablo that we could throw at him.

The reason I like something like this is that it’s easy to set up but it’s also a completely unexpected consequence of a typical superpowered battle. Instead of hailing this as one of those “don’t miss this” issues that will shatter the internet and blow your mind or pegging it into a special foil-stamped anniversary issue with back-up origins and filler stories, the plot point could just happen. Poof! No more powers. Either deal with it or wallow in self-pity.

I could also see Wolverine pursuing Grey Gargoyle and struggling with the decision of whether to kill him or not. On the one hand, he has caused this self-doubt in Logan, which is a new feeling for him. However, on the other hand, Wolverine now has no powers to follow through on a possible assassination. Maybe he uses his skills and resources to track Grey Gargoyle (who is now on the run because he fears retaliation), but he discovers that Gargoyle is already in a sad state…perhaps some sort of exotic cancer is killing him because, honestly, he hasn’t been used much recently and I don’t think anyone would miss him. This part of the storyline would establish some emotion in Wolverine and prove that he’s capable of pity and mercy.

Regardless of the solution, I do believe that the idea of showing Wolverine without any powers at all for a while is key to making this a solid story. He needs to have a reason to doubt himself. And, like you said, I can see him making mistakes like forgetting about his healing factor and popping his claws or jumping from a height that will cause damage. Those types of things definitely need to happen in order to reinforce the consequences.

I also agree that Beast would eventually be able to find a solution to the depowering. However, nothing should be that simple. Perhaps the “cure” is only a temporary fix…or his powers may come and go, like a faulty electrical connection. I’m guessing this would be some sort of DNA bypass that Beast would concoct and maybe it should permanently alter the scope of Wolverine’s powers. No more mystical interventions like Apocalypse jamming the metal back into his skeleton. No more regenerating from point-blank nuclear blasts.

How does that play for you? And, after your response, do you think we should start a Part Two of this thread for the next chapter in Wolverine’s rebuilding?

I like that a lot; it’s always more elegant if you can incorporate a change like this into a comics universe more seamlessly, and that’s what you’ve done.  As you mentioned, the Grey Gargoyle is someone who’s powers aren’t really understood well, and if he could change the Thing, he could certainly change Wolverine.  If anyone is skeptical on that score, it would be easy enough to have Wolverine be suffering some other ailment at the same time the Grey Gargoyle turns him to stone.  That does work nicely though.

Otherwise, this sounds like a plan to me.  On to Part 2!

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Top 5 Presidential Candidates in the DC Universe

Oct-23-08

Some of you may have heard, but here in America, there’s an election for president coming up in a few weeks. It’s ok if you weren’t aware of it; the news media hasn’t really been covering it much. Anyone could have easily missed it.

Jason and I thought we’d take a look at those characters in the DC and Marvel universes who might make good candidates for president. These are the characters that are, first of all, eligible: they have to be American citizens, and also have to be near the age requirement (since most companies are very ambiguous about the ages of their characters, I’m going to choose those who at least seem like they might be old enough. No Teen Titans need apply). DC Comics is first, and we’ll hit the Marvel characters closer to the election.

Who would I nominate?

1. Jay Garrick: Without a doubt the Golden Age Flash would be my top choice for President. He has a college education, he was a popular sports star before he got his powers, and as a member of the Justice Society of America, he’d be immensely popular. Plus, unlike a lot of heroes, I don’t believe he’s got any negative public events in his past. He’s never been arrested, possessed by evil, or had his name smeared. He’s a good guy, with a sensible head on his shoulders. He’s an older man, but he’s sure not any older than John McCain.

2. Perry White: It looks like he was badly wounded in Final Crisis, but for the moment we’re going to ignore that. Again, we have a figure that many in the public know. He’s a well respected journalist and has led the Daily Planet for years. He also is without scandal, and is again, a man with a cool head and the ability to survive a crisis. Plus, he’s someone who knows how to sniff out the truth, and won’t be snowed by advisors.

3. Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance: These are two who I think would make the perfect ticket, although I’ll be the first to admit that it would be a hard sell. Gordon is highly educated, but not in anything relating to the political sciences. Plus, it would be two women on the ticket, and one of them physically handicapped. However, if they’d be willing to come clean about who they are, I think they might have a chance. Gordon is possibly one of the smartest characters in comics, and she tempers are intelligence with compassion and common sense, which can be all too rare. I think Lance (otherwise known as Black Canary) would make a perfect VP; someone who can bring a little more fire to the ticket, and who’s willing to get things done. Together these two would make a very strong team, as they have for years.

4. Michael Holt (Mr. Terrific): Although he’s never held an office, he has the education, with PHD’s in both political science and law. He’s a brilliant man, and not to run this into the ground again, but he’s also a compassionate and loving man. Plus, he began life with little, and grew up with a brother who was mentally challenged, so he understands the needs and frustrations of the poor and those with disabilities. And again, I don’t know of any real scandals in his past.

5. John Stewart: My last choice has military experience, as a member of the US Marines, as well as having experience in the largest military in the Universe, the Green Lantern Corps. Stewart has the qualities that exemplify all of my choices, and he’s seen more of the universe than any of them. He’s not someone who would be cowed by a terrorist or a raving leader of a rival nation. His nerves of steel would make him a Commander-in-Chief who could not be intimidated.

I’d vote for any of them.

Really? You’d vote for Perry White? Great Caesar’s Ghost! That guy has to be about 112 years old. Scary. Could you imagine Jimmy Olsen being a heartbeat from the most powerful seat in the free world? It sends a cold chill up my spine.

It’s not often you get to overtly fuse politics with superheroes (or their supporting cast). Sure, many creators over the years have subtly infused their own leanings into certain characters. But overall, the heroes are more concerned with traveling to distant dimensions or battling imminent threats to all of civilization. They don’t have time for petty squabbles over land use rights or foreclosure crises.

When discussing this topic with John, I let him know that I always imagined DC as sort of the old school version of the GOP in comparison to Marvel’s more liberal-leaning characters and settings. And I think you can find a lot of parallels in the way the two universe are set up and how the heroes operate. DC has had government involvement in their world for decades, but when Marvel introduces the seemingly “fascist” Superhero Registration Act, the fans erupt in protest. I know that’s a simplification of the situation, but it sets up my point. DC heroes are icons in costume before they’re people. Marvel’s characters are built on their alter egos and resonant with the “common folk” more easily.

I have the same criteria for selecting these candidates as John: legal age and citizenship. Beyond that, I’m not really concerned with scouring their backgrounds for weird instances of alien possession or mind control or minor penal infractions. Hell, after all the crap that takes place there on a daily basis, I would think that the regular citizens in these universes would just be relieved to have a President who wasn’t blue and four-armed. I mean, seriously, the DC peeps elected Lex Luthor. My picks couldn’t possibly be worse than that decision!

I played around with the idea of trying to select all non-hero types from DC, but the pickings were pretty slim. People with some government or police/detective work were easy to find, but their personalities or pasts seemed to disqualify them. Names like Harry Stein, Sarge Steel and Slam Bradley came to mind. Hal Jordan seemed like a perfect GOP analogue, except for that pesky “went nuts and killed countless innocent people” thing. I was also interested in nominating Jonny Double, but only because his creator, Len Wein, described him as “a down-beat Don Quixote in a society that frowns on windmills. A once white knight in rusty armor searching for that last dragon to slay. The poor man’s Peter Pan.” Awesome.

Instead, I chose these five contenders, in descending order:

5. Lucas “Snapper” Carr: Stop laughing, I’m serious! No single non-hero knows the hero community better than Snapper. He’s been involved with the covert operations of Checkmate, held his own as a member of the inter-dimensional Blasters, and even had his hands replaced by Vril Dox. How cool is that? Snapper also relished the time he spent mentoring Hourman and Young Justice. He’s a born…uh…leader? Plus, he has a gimmick. The media LOVES gimmicks. I can already hear the slogans…”Picking the President is a SNAP!”

4. Noah Kuttler (Calculator): Look, if John is going to nominate Oracle, then I can throw in Calculator. This is supposed to be the evil GOP side of things, right? Seriously though, if Lex Luthor can win an election, anyone can. Calculator has way too many criminal contacts to NOT be able to put the fix in. He’s smart, but more in the “clever” or “conniving” sense. He’s an accomplished strategist and has the resources to dig up dirt for an overwhelming smear campaign against whoever opposed him.

3. Doctor Will Magnus: It’s funny that I gravitated towards smart, science-y types when I was thinking of presidential candidates. I guess, after the last eight years or so, that I’m not-so-subliminally hoping for some intelligence in the Oval Office…perhaps even an honest-to-gosh “rocket scientist.” Say hello to Will Magnus, creator of the Metal Men. Sure, he’s technically bipolar, aided and abetted a criminal gang and even killed a dude once. But really, who hasn’t had indiscretions in their recent, unstable past? Besides, it’d be comforting to have a president who favors the classic Ward Cleaver look of tweed suits and pipe smoking.

2. Michael Holt (Mr. Terrific): I agree with John on this one. Fourteen Ph.D’s…Olympic Gold Medal-winning decathlete…self-made millionaire. He’s a very smart man (third-smartest on DC’s Earth), an expert problem-solver and seems to always want to fight the good fight. He has government experience with his involvement in Checkmate and has leadership skills from his chairmanship of the JSA. He has felt tragic loss and demonstrated strong compassion. The only stumbling block for him might be his religion: he’s an avowed Atheist.

1. Alan Scott: All the others are plausible (especially Mr. Terrific), but this is my number one choice. Alan Scott has the ideal story to showcase his campaign. From his humble beginnings as a locomotive engineer, to his stint as head of the Gotham Broadcasting Company, to his heady days as a member of the heroic JSA, Alan Scott has lived the American Dream. Yes, he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee…and he more or less abandoned his first wife and two children…and his second wife vainly tried to sell her soul. But hey, he was on the right side of the Checkmate thing AND he now rocks an eye patch. That’s an instant winner! I could easily see a Scott administration. I’m thinking he’d probably pick someone like Jay Garrick as his running mate, a solid colleague who’s always had his back. I’m picturing King Faraday as Secretary of Defense. Maybe Michael Holt as Secretary of State. And wouldn’t it be fun to have his old sidekick Doiby Dickles doddering around as his Chief of Staff? Great Scott!