Snikt! To you, that may not sound like much, but for the past 35 years that’s been the sound of Wolverine’s adamantium claws popping out of his fists. If you don’t know who Wolverine is, or that adamantium is the strongest metal in comics, I advise you to step away from this article right now. You still have time never to learn a single headache-inducing fact about Marvel Comics’ greatest success story.
When Marvel launched its superhero line in the ‘60s—the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk—they were an instant success because they added angst to superhero comics. But then came the ‘70s, a confusing time for everyone in America. While mainstream culture was grappling with the aftershocks of the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement, Marvel Comics faced slowing sales—due in part to increased competition—and uncertain leadership as one editor-in-chief after another quit.
The solution? New characters! Between 1972 and 1975, Marvel introduced Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu (a Bruce Lee knockoff), Blade (a knockoff of blaxploitation starJim Brown), the Punisher (an antihero who killed crooks, just like Dirty Harry), the satirical Howard the Duck, and the cosmic hippie Adam Warlock. At the time, the title most likely to be canceled was the X-Men, a series about a bunch of whitebread squares introduced back in 1963 that was so unpopular that by 1969 it mostly consisted of reprints. Then, in 1975, the X-Men faced the menace of Krakoa (“the island that walks like a man!”) and gained a brand new multi-culti lineup consisting of Colossus, a Soviet superhuman; Storm, an African goddess; Nightcrawler, a German goblin/circus performer; Banshee, who was, of course, an Irish guy with an authentic Irish battle cry (“Hannigan’s Bog!”); Thunderbird, an American Indian (brought on board solely to be killed off); and, finally, Wolverine.
The new team was an instant hit, and even early indignities—like having their bacon saved by leprechauns—couldn’t dampen their rising circulation figures. They went on to sell millions of copies, becoming the biggest comic-book stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s. While Wolverine began as a supporting character, his breakout status was acknowledged when he became the first of the X-Men to get his own miniseries in 1982, drawn by Frank Miller (Sin City).
These days, Wolverine has two ongoing solo comic-book series and a blockbuster starring Hugh Jackman, opening on Friday. He features in two of Marvel Comics’ biggest franchises (the X-Men and the Avengers). He’s got his very own exhibit coming up at MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art), and he’s generated more merchandise than will ever fit in your mom’s basement. You can buy Wolverine claws, a Wolverine monster truck, Wolverine action figures and busts and plushies and bobble heads and paperweights and coin banks and novels and cologne. Wolverine not only endorses the Schick Quattro Titanium Trimmer; he also approves of 7-11 Slurpees and milk. And like all wildly successful figures in American entertainment, Wolverine is a Canadian.
In 1975, he beganas a loner with a shadowy past, and whatever character he had was mostly Canadian caricature. He loved beer and fighting; he dropped his g’s and called people “Bub.” With a superhuman healing factor, super senses, a skeleton reinforced with metal and retractable claws made of adamantium, he embodied every tough-guy cliché in pulp fiction: hints of dark deeds committed years ago that are better forgotten, a penchant for berserker rages, a love of cowboy hats and fringed leather jackets, a Clint Eastwood-style cigarillo, baroque facial hair, a motorcycle, and some of the corniest street dialogue this side of the Bowery Boys.
In his third appearance, Wolverine snarls at another character, “Just do us all a favor and spare the soap opera, huh?” This kind of repartee was the work of Chris Claremont, the soapiest writer in comic books, who authored the X-Men for 16 years. The X team leader was usually Cyclops, gifted with the power to brood endlessly, and he loved Jean “Dead Girl” Grey, who has been killed and reheated more times than last week’s meatloaf. The classic Claremont pose is either a character, head hung in shame with two enormous rivers of tears running down the cheeks as he or she delivers a self-loathing monologue, or a character with head thrown back and mouth open in a shout of rage, shaking tiny fists at heaven and vowing that the whole world will soon learn about his or her feelings.
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