Thursday, May 7, 2009

Superhero Theory: C'mon Wolvie, And Rescue Me

I’ve decided to write about Wolverine this week, partly because it’s timely with him having a solo movie now in theatres (although since he was pretty much the focus of the three X-Men movies and finds himself surrounded by a different group of brawling mutants in this one, it’s tempting to just look at it as Wolverine And These Guys He Hangs Out With, Part IV har har har), and partly because it might actually get my brother to read one of these posts in full.

Okay, so Project Rooftop is doing a “redesign Wolverine” contest, and during a procrastination session the other day I gave it some thought and came up with an idea, just as a mental exercise. I’m not going to submit it, though; I’m not a good enough artist to compete with the talent that contributes to Project Rooftop, and I don’t have Photoshop or any better way of coloring the thing other than MS Paint … and color is pretty essential to my particular idea.

Besides, I figured, my redesign isn’t actually all that different from the Wolverine costume from the ­X-Men Evolution cartoon:

So I simply made a few minor adjustments within my meager means of image manipulation and came up with this:

So let me talk about the choices I’ve made here.

I kept the mask because it’s a classic design element unique to the character. Of course you want to lose it in the movies because it’d look silly in real life and be a logistical nightmare to construct, but it works really well in a drawing. “But Wolverine doesn’t really have a secret identity, so he has no reason to wear a mask!” I totally do not care, dude.

My one concession to “realism” and practicality is in the lack of sleeves, even editing out the bit of costume covering the deltoid muscles (those are deltoids, right?). Since wielding claws is dependent on arm movement, I figure he wouldn’t want anything to restrict range of motion at all (as much as I liked the Frank Quitely look, I think a leather jacket would really hamper him). But I suppose even sheer practicality is never just that: if his arms were covered, he’d look like a pretty standard superhero, but Wolverine, to some degree, is not meant to be a traditional superhero, and so having those big, exposed arms nicely spoils the superhero look without completely ruining it.

But the most important bit of the design, I think, is the color. In case it’s not clear, it’s meant to be neon or blaze orange, kind of reflective; I couldn’t get a real accurate color because I just messed around with tints and color balances in Windows Photo Gallery. Now, blaze orange suggests a hunter’s outfit, which is appropriate enough for Wolverine, but not what was necessarily intended. High-visibility colors also suggest rescue personnel, and that is something Wolverine would be well suited to.

See, writing Wolverine as a solo character is somewhat awkward. He’s not a traditional superhero, so he doesn’t go out on patrol and fight bank robbers, and having him fight the Evil Mutant du jour makes it just another X-Men story. Some writers remove Wolverine from the superhero aesthetic entirely and cast him as a plainclothes action hero with hand-blades, but you lose the iconography you get from costumes and codenames. The most common solution, therefore, is to make Wolverine’s conflicts personal; this usually takes the form of a grudge match between Wolverine and someone from his past (Sabretooth being the most obvious example), with Logan having to avenge some friend or lover killed thirty-plus years ago. This gives you a story with strong conflict and emotional resonance that lets you keep the superhero stuff but also is distinctive enough from the rest of his adventures with the X-Men. The downside is it makes for a convoluted (and, in my opinion, absolutely tiresome) backstory, as writers have to find the few scraps of Wolverine’s personal history left unexplored and retcon in some new blood feud.

I proposed an alternative in a comment on this post at the Fractal Hall Journal:

I agree 100% with “survival as superpower,” and I’d like to see more comics that emphasize this along with those often-overlooked tracking abilities. Add those two together and it suggests Wolverine’s natural milieu: Rescue missions.

A lot of people think Wolverine’s healing powers are *too* powerful and that it robs the stories of any tension because you can’t kill him (this same argument is applied to Superman). But I think this ignores that a superhero’s primary goal is not to survive the latest battle (otherwise you could just stay home), but to save *other people*.

The conflict in a Wolverine story should never and can never legitimately be “Will Wolverine survive this issue?” (If I were writing a Wolverine comic, I would have him narrate everything in the past tense just to emphasize that no matter what happens, Wolverine is getting out of this one alive.) The conflict is whether who he’s trying to save will survive the story, or whether Wolverine will be left standing in a smoking crater filled with charred bodies that used to be his friends.

It’s a natural fit, I think. The problem with any rescue mission is there’s always the risk the rescuer will also be captured or killed as well, but this isn’t a problem with Wolverine; even if he fails and you’re left with that smoking crater at the end, at least he’ll make it back to tell you what went wrong. It would make for a fine storytelling engine (it’s Wolverine as Bionic Commando), introducing new concepts and characters that would allow you to focus on the present and future instead of dragging up the old rivalry with Sabretooth again. I also like it thematically; Wolverine was created to be a living weapon, but he’s choosing instead to focus on saving good guys instead of killing bad guys. Nice and simple.

And this is where the high-visibility orange comes in. I imagine a lot of the entries in that contest will put Wolverine in camouflage or in all black; a common complaint about Wolverine’s original/’90s yellow-and-blue outfit is this notion that Wolverine requires “stealth.” I’m not so sure that’s necessary--since he can run through a minefield under heavy gunfire and live to tell the tale, how much does he really care if you see him coming or not? In fact, pairing Wolverine’s notoriety at being nearly impossible to kill with bright colors and that instantly identifiable mask could give him a distinct edge. The hostages see the bright orange and feel safe, knowing that help is on the way. And the bad guys? If they recognize those colors and that mask, they would do well to just get out of the way and avoid slashy-stabby time.

It’s not just a costume redesign … it’s a new approach to the character. The trouble is, of course, to convince everybody else of that.

(Hey, by the way, I ended up writing two posts about Wolverine. I know, I'm as surprised as you are. Come back tomorrow for more.)

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