Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Rise of Wolverine and Fall of Marvel

This is "special" to the blog, i.e. my newspaper audience wouldn't be that interested, but I feel like the exercise. If you don't enjoy comics, you'll probably want to skip this one.

I haven't gone to see Wolverine and undoubtedly won't-- I barely tolerated the first X-men flick and barely made it through the second and wouldn't even rent the third one from Netflix.

For me, the ascent of Wolverine as Marvels leading character parallels Marvel's loss of most of what made it an important comics company.

Stan Lee's genius back in the 60's was to re-imagine comic book stories as metaphors. The DC universe was moribund, populated with characters so unimaginably perfect that teen sidekicks were introduced in hopes that young readers could see some character to identify with. What Lee figured out was that it wasn't simply age that made a character identifiable.

His first launch, the Fantastic Four, doesn't really count. It was a genius move of its own, a grafting of monster movie conventions into comics pages (Reed Richards did in fact make his first appearance in one of Lee's monster books). The scientist--man of action--damsel triad was augmented with the teen hot-rodder (think Steven McQueen in The Blob) to create a perfect team to fight the monster of the month. It was smart, but it wasn't what made Marvel great.

That was best personified by Spider-man. For Peter Parker, super powers became a metaphor for everything that sucked about growing up-- new responsibilities and a secret self that made it harder and harder to connect with the people around you. It became the Marvel formula to present a hero who struggled against personal issues (Jules Feiffer once smartly observed that Clark Kent was just Superman without his cape, but Spider-man was just Peter Parker in a costume).

Peter Parker was an unpopular skinny geek. Tony Stark had heart problems. Matt Murdock was blind. Bruce Banner, worst of the lot, had an uncontrollable, destructive secret self. All of them harbored love for a mostly-unattainable woman. All of them found that what made them special separated them from the people around them, made it harder to live a normal life. There wasn't a teenager who didn't get it. Clark Kent may have been the man we wanted to be, but Peter Parker was the guy we were pretty sure, sadly, that we actually were.

The X-men took that concept of the alienation of power and ramped it up. In their first incarnation, they didn't do well. For some reason (perhaps Lee didn't quite yet have a handle on scripting a large group) they had a rep as the talkiest book in the stable. Even some genius work by Neal Adams and Roy Smith didn't save them.

But the 1970's group, created by Len Wein and written thereafter by Chris Claremont, refined the Marvel formula to perfection. These were heroes whose abilities made them outcasts of the society they were sworn to protect.

The centerpiece character was Cyclops, Scott Summers-- quiet, sensitive, and certain that his unique self made it impossible for him to live among "normal" folks, he dedicated his life to his work. Like every other Marvel lead, he had a frustrated love for a woman he thought he could never have because of his nature, and their love story was the cornerstone of the book for decades.

But by the nineties, something was happening in Marvel.

Peter Parker, once a shy skinny geek struggling to get by was a hunky successful photographer with a smokin' hot model girlfriend/fiance/wife. Newer characters, like the Punisher, were simply acting out revenge fantasies-- people who crossed them got shot, a lot.

Marvel heroes had once been metaphors for the search for self and growth and a place in the world, but with a heavy twist-- "With great power comes great responsibility." Somewhere along the way the subtext became "With great power comes the chance to do whatever-the-hell you want to."

No long-standing characters showed this better than the X-men and Wolverine. In his earliest form he was a rough and insensitive bully, a thug who needed to learn to play nice. His crush on Jean Grey came early, and a scene showed him arriving at her hospital room with flowers, sure that he would score big points; instead he is surprised to find her room filled with many other people because it had not occurred to him that she had friends, and this is what friends do.

But after a few years, he was a new Wolverine, his signature line that he is "the best at what he does." He was a fantasy on steroids, able to beat anyone up, a colorful past, comfortable in any setting, man of the world, attractive to numerous babes. Fans clamored mercilessly for Jean Grey to dump that wuss Cyclops and pair up with Wolvie, and while the main continuity line stayed faithful, Marvel never passed up the chance to use alternate realities or mental planes to put the two together.

By the time the movies rolled around, Cyclops, the central character for years, the leader and linchpin and the identifiable character for a generation of readers-- well, he was reduced to minor status.

Once Marvel comics showed us who we were and who we might become. On their best days, they even showed us how we might grow into that person. Now Marvel, led by Wolverine, is simple wish-fulfillment fantasy. We don't want to know who we are-- we just want to imagine being the biggest baddest best mother on the block.

There's nothing wrong with that. Millions of comics have been sold on the promise of attractive fantasy, improbably physiology, and sheer escapism. But for me it has been a slow step backwards, and nothing personifies that regression more than the character of Wolverine, grown to become popular and successful and as perfect and alien as that amazing stranger from the Planet Krypton (it is ironic that as Marvel has become progressively less interesting, DC has become more so-- but that's a discussion for another day). The man of adamantium today is no more interesting than the man of steel used to be.

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