Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wolverine As A Cultural Icon

There are literally hundreds of popular comic book characters today in a hobby that is going through a true BOOM. From Iron Man to Green Lantern …Witchblade…Buffy….Archie …Doc Savage…comics are rippling with great and popular characters. But far more rare are characters that fall into the category of ICONIC.

An iconic character is more than just popular. For a character to be iconic, it must become a part of the cultural consciousness. In the real world, people like Charles Chaplin, Muhammad Ali, and Frank Sinatra are all considered iconic because they have become so intertwined in our collective culture that what they actually accomplished is beside the point. Say SINATRA to anyone…well nearly anyone and they will know you mean FRANK.

For Television…say Beam me up Scotty and people who NEVER saw Star Trek will know what you mean. THAT is iconic.

For a comic character the , the definition is about the same. Mickey Mouse and Superman are known by people who never ever picked up a comic, or saw a movie about them. They are iconic in the same way that Babe Ruth is iconic. You did not need to be there to know who they were.
In the world of comics we have Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Charlie Brown/Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, and Spiderman and that is about it. Spidey was the last iconic comic character created and that was back in the very early 1960’s! And then there’s Wolverine…

In my opinion, Wolvie is the last, newest comic character to enter the pantheon of iconic characters.

What makes a character Iconic? I believe that for a character to achieve this status it must do two things:

1) It must speak very strongly to the period in which it was created and
2) Have the capacity to be reinvented for new audiences.

Plus it helps if they LOOK really cool!

In the case of Wolverine he very much spoke to the time he was created (1974) and continues to do so today. Wolverine represents the individual standing up against the status quo. He pursues the same goals as more mainstream characters but does so according to his own rules. Unlike most other Superheroes, Logan WILL kill but not in the capricious way that The Punisher does. In that way, Wolverine is more akin to Captain America in that he is as much a soldier as he is a hero. He is, in fact, and Anti-hero. Where we can see Superman standing tall with the flag waving behind him, the product of a more innocent time, Wolverine fairly drips with post Viet Nam cynicism and disillusionment. Wolverine is a very close relation to cinematic heroes Billy Jack and Buford Pusser (Walking Tall). By the end of the 70’s Logan’s place in the pantheon of iconic characters was well on it’s way to fruition, but it would not be until the events of 9/11 that his place would be cemented.

By the early 80’s marvel had taken much of the edge off of Wolverine as our culture moved into the “Me” generation. It was no longer politically correct to have Wolverine behave in a manner similar to The Punisher while being a key leadership figure in the company’s flagship title. Over the course of the next decade or so Wolverine was either a traditional superhero, Dutch uncle, gaijin , or superfluous guest star used to pump up sales in flagging books. Like Superman and Batman before him, Logan had become a victim of his own success. He was no longer interesting.
However, the post 9/11 culture that produced 24 and the TV version of Wolverine (sans claws) Jack Bauer, gave Wolverine a new energy and something of a return to his roots. In order for Logan to work as a character he HAS to be dangerous. Take a look at his appearances since about 2005 and you will see the dangerous Wolvie in full swing, once again a relevant reflection of his times. And now he is an iconic figure, rated #1 on Wizard’s top 100 list of all time comic book characters.

Still in order for a character to be iconic, it also needs a hook. Something that grabs you. For Superman it was flight, for Cap it was the flag, Chaplin had the derby and cane, and Spock has his ears. Logan has a GREAT hook. Those wonderful claws. They GRAB us and fire our own fantasies. Who wouldn’t like to be able to pop a full set of adamantium claws and slice into …anything? It is very visceral and essential to the iconic image.

Icons, unlike merely popular characters don’t come along too often. Logan has only recently become truly iconic. Wolverine has certainly earned his place alongside Superman, Spider-man et. al. …and stands alone as the ONLY iconic character to come out of the Bronze Age of Comics.
What do you think? Are there other characters who are iconic? Let’s talk about it!

That’s 30!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While the post 9/11 culture may have had an influence on Wolverine going back 'to his roots', it's not solely responsible for his re-surge in popularity. When 'X-Men' the movie came out in 2000, that was the beginning, as a whole new generation was introduced to him for the first time, and those of us that knew him before saw him perfectly played by Hugh Jackman. In 2001, they decided to give Wolverine an official backstory with 'Origin', and yes, around 2005 he did get 'dangerous' again, because Bendis had him regain his memories after 'House of M' and he went on his quest for vengeance. But I think his direction was just the natural progression of his character, and an example of how you need the right writer at the right time to get the best possible story, because let's be honest, they did neuter Wolverine in the 90s, but he wasn't uninteresting, just over used and needed a jolt out of his routine. Just as a side note, the first episode of 24 aired in November of 2001, so I'm not even sure that the post 9/11 culture is responsible for that series either. The co-creators of 24 worked on a show before that from 1997-2001 called 'La Femme Nikita', which has many of the same themes that 24 has utilized (counter terrorism, tragic choice in order to serve the greater good, etc), so 24 is not that original in that regard (the real time concept is probably the most original thing about the show). And Jack Bauer is not the TV version of Wolverine, by any stretch of the imagination. There have been many TV characters that would 'do whatever is necessary to get the job done', and are even 'the best there is at what they do', it's just that with the desensitization of people in this country, you can show more 'up front' on television now than you ever could. Jack was not the first, won't be the last, and certainly is not the best character that fits into that mold.