I’ve realized in recent days that there is a certain character archetype that bothers me – the Wolverine.
Now, I’m sure lots of people are aware that there are elements of Wolverine that are a joke, from his ability to guest-star in 90% of all Marvel comics, to his myriad convulated and complicated origins. But for a long time, I was blissfully ignorant.
You see, when I was but a wee kid, I was quite the fan of the X-Men. Not from comics, mind you, but from saturday morning cartoons, the true source of my fandoms in those days. And I watched X-Men, and enjoyed it, as did my friends.
I would, in fact, get together with my cousins and my sister, and we formed a little club where we pretended to be part of that illustrious team, each claiming one of the cast members as our identity. And I remember being delighted that I got first choice, and was able to choose Wolverine. He was my favorite, after all!
And so, remembering this fact in the present day, it was with some startlement that I realized I had come to loathe the character – or at least certain representations of him. The third X-Men movie was really what made me aware of this – while I had thoroughly enjoyed the first two, this one felt atrocious, and Wolverine’s role in it was the worst part. The movie was no longer about the team, but about him and him alone.
Shortpacked illustrates it well – every aspect of the movie seems to be focused on sidelining other characters and pushing him forward. I noticed that even Storm, who also had larger screen-time in the movie, took a back seat – despite being the supposed team leader, she’s the one following Wolverine’s orders and tactics in the midst of battle. Even the central plot point of the movie, Jean Grey and her growing instability, culminates in a scene about Wolverine as he has to make the choice to kill her for the good of all.
And I realized that, while he may be a good character at heart, he loses something when he is written so that he can do no wrong. It isn’t – quite – the Mary Sue phenomenom. Rather, it is a result being so in love with the character – or the idea of the character – that they make them into the idealized bad-ass. A character who is hardcore enough to win every fight, but also smarter and more sensitive than everyone else around.
Once I became aware of this, I started noticing similar characters elsewhere, and a lot fell into place with why certain comics were losing my interest. Fables is one of my favorite series… but I find the earlier stories significantly better than the more recent work, and realized this was why. Bigby – the big bad wolf – started out as the Sheriff of Fabletown, just one of a large cast of interesting and well-balanced characters.
And then he became a Wolverine. Other character have lost their identities and exist to show how awesome he is. He is the protector, the guardian, that everyone else has to rely upon. And so it has slowly become that whenever he shows up to save the day, I lose a little more interest in the title, and hope the action will quickly center on someone – anyone – else.
In webcomics, Johnny Saturn is the largest example of this problem that I’ve seen. I’ve been thinking about the comic a lot, lately, because it has recently pushed a little too far for my tastes.
See, I’ve enjoyed the comic for some time now. It was a true, old-school action comic, and really seemed to represent what Graphic Smash was all about. But… well, Johnny Saturn himself was so very 90’s – a grim and gritty hero who was supposed to be more heroic than all the brightly-colored capes flying around overhead.
I like many of the secondary characters in the comic, I like the setting and the background storyarcs – and let’s be fair, in the beginning, the entire comic starts off well. The opening scene is of the Utopian (who appears an equivalent of Superman) giving a speech at Johnny’s grave, talking about how easy it is for the cosmic heroes to forget what the street heroes accomplish.
It is a very good speech.
I regret that, unfortunately, we’ll continue to have its message drilled home with every panel of every page of the comic. The comic goes on to show how Johnny, despite an ordinary man with no superpowers, was able to beat the crap out of the Utopian in a one-on-one fight. Later, he was able to do the same to the Squadron Premiere, the Utopian’s superpowered allies, before going on to handle the problems they couldn’t solve.
When he then heroically gives his own life to stop a villain (as one knows will occur from the opening scene), we got a step further – he rises from the grave through sheer force of will alone! A fortunate thing, as his archenemy has done the same, returning from Hell with a demon’s power, and is singlehandedly killing dozens of superheroes at a time. A good thing Johnny, an ordinary fellow, is around to step in and imprison him in a magic circle!
This, really, is where the strip lost me. The strip goes on to show how, despite the demon being imprisoned, one of the superheroes is still dumb enough to get himself killed by it. Fortunately, Johnny demonstrates he alone has the tactical knowledge to show how the demon can be killed – by having the supers focus their energy attacks on his head and chest.
And, with that sage advice, the evil is vanquished, thanks to Johnny Saturn.
Now, this is a comic about the guy – it is allowed to portray him as a hero. He is allowed to be the focus. But there really needs to be a limit, or it stops being about a competent hero, and more about the writer specifically setting things up to cast the character in the best possible light.
There needs to be a sense of balance. I’m not simply talking power-level – but when a character is stronger, smarter and tougher than everyone else, when there is no action they can take that will not result in triumph over their enemies… well, what’s the point?
Without even the possibility of a challenge, without the outcome ever being in doubt… why am I even reading?