Saturday, May 9, 2009

Superhero Theory Extra: Choose Your Own Wolverine Origin

The origin of Wolverine in comic books runs into the same problem with longtime fans as the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Now, nobody really likes the prequel trilogy, right? Well, kids do, I suppose. We’ll get back to that in a bit. Instead let me rephrase the question: Nobody who saw grew up watching Episodes IV, V and VI and then waited for Episodes I, II, and III likes the prequel trilogy, right?

Now, we could talk about the acting in the prequels not being as good, or the writing, or the characters not being as relatable or archetypal, or the story straying too far from its adventure serial roots, or the special effects being too dependent on CGI. Some of these I agree with, some of them I don’t; I do believe that overall, the new movies are not as good from a critical standpoint, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. Because I feel there is a deeper issue, and it is this: By the time they finally got around to making the prequels, the audience had already written them in their heads.

I don’t mean to say they’d worked up elaborate fan fiction. I mean, I’m sure some did, but I didn’t write any, and most people probably didn’t either. But when characters throw around cryptic references to something called “the Clone Wars,” you might take a moment to consider what that might have been. When Obi-Wan Kenobi recalls meeting Luke Skywalker’s father, you imagine that, just for a second. Obi-Wan says he was trained by Yoda, and it requires no massive creative effort to assume at one point, a younger version of Alec Guinness was taking instruction from a slightly younger version of this Muppet.

So you have, at the very least, all these vague, half-formed notions. More like assumptions than actual story or plot. But with the gap in time between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, these assumptions are all you have, and they’ve got time to bake, to ferment. And when those prequels finally do come out, they look nothing like the version in your head. It turns out the Clone Wars were not a war against clones of some sort, as I had assumed (logically, right?), but rather fought with clones on the good guys’ side. Anakin Skywalker is a child and not Obi-Wan’s peer. Obi-Wan was actually trained by Liam Neeson, but Yoda was on the council, so it’s still kinda-sorta true, but it’s still not really satisfying.

And that “not really satisfying” is key. Because, in all likelihood, George Lucas didn’t really have these prequel movies plotted out in their entirety by 1977 and sitting in a drawer somewhere; there’s too many little inconsistencies and continuity issues to really sell that this was all one grand design. Rather, he probably wrote them some time after finishing Return of the Jedi based on hints and suggestions in the existing movies--just like the audience did in their heads. As a result, I’m not sure Lucas’ version of how the prequels happened is intrinsically more valid than the audience’s.

I know that sounds real snotty--“This contradicts my fan fiction!”--but I actually see it as a fundamental storytelling problem. Not a perfect parallel, but here goes: Imagine you’re reading a novel with a lead character named Jane. Jane is never described physically, so early on you form an idea of what she might look like in your head. Maybe it’s based on what type of character she is, maybe you know someone named Jane and you use her as a template. Let’s say you’re imagining her as tall with dark hair. You’ve got that image of her the entire book, and then at the end of the book, the author throws in that she’s blonde and short. That’s going to grate, because the author had led you to believe that her appearance wasn’t important enough to mention, and now suddenly it is. You’ve got blonde Authorial Jane fighting brunette Personal Vision Jane.

And that is the same problem Marvel faced when it came out with Wolverine: Origin in 2001-02. Wolverine’s history had been shrouded in layers upon layers of mystery for so long that’s it had become as unimportant as Jane’s hair color. And then all of a sudden, we find out that Wolverine wasn’t a badass from Day One, and fans decide “James Howlett” is a silly name. Really, it’s not any worse than “Victor Von Doom,” “Victor Fries,” or “Otto Octavius”; the real issue is everyone had thought of him as “Logan” for too long.

Compounding this in the eyes of fans: At least George Lucas wrote the prequel films himself, as creator of the original Star Wars idea. Origin was “plotted” by Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, and Paul Jenkins, none of whom created Wolverine; all three just happened to be in a position where they could authorize the telling of the story. That’s not very definitive-sounding, is it? What makes this more authoritative than the other thousands of possible origin--some elaborated in 550-page novels posted on the internet, others that could be summed up in a single vague paragrap--dreamed up by the audience? Other than, of course, Jemas and Quesada giving it the Marvel seal of approval. And I don’t think that even intrinsically counts for much--Jemas got fired soon after, remember. Regimes change.

You know what I think would’ve been smart? Instead of publishing the supposedly definitive Wolverine: Origin, I would’ve put out Wolverine: Origins with an S. Twelve issues, each one written and drawn by a different team. Jenkins and Andy Kubert do theirs, but Len Wein and Herb Trimpe do one as well, as do Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, maybe get one out of Stan Lee and John Romita, and whoever else they can rope in. Each one does their interpretation of Wolverine’s origin in whatever way they choose. The more dissimilar they are from one another, the better. Logan could be a simple man born in Canada near the turn of the century, or a lost time-travelling Shi’Ar prince; no idea is too outrageous, nor too mundane. They could even do the “mutated wolverine” origin.

And so you’d have these twelve issues, and you could put out another one as a special anytime anybody came up with a good pitch. And the audience could choose any one of these to be “their” origin. Or none of them. The very existence of multiple “official” origins would point to the real truth: Wolverine has no origin. All he has is what you, or later writers, bring to him.

I said I’d get to the kids, and here we are: Kids are okay with the prequel trilogy and with the Clone Wars cartoon show, because they came into it that way; they had no preconceived notions. Likewise, anyone who just knows Wolverine from the movies came in with a semi-coherent backstory already in place, imported from the comics. So they don’t experience that dissonance. They’ve known Jane was blonde from the beginning. To me, the prequels and Wolverine’s origin are retcons; to them, they’re Original Texts.

So this is another thing that is “my problem,” the fans’ problem. But, to some degree, this was not uninvited. When you tease an audience for that long, and you finally do deliver the payoff, you might well find out they’ve either already done the job for you, or they’ve decided it must not have been important in the first place.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Man, reading this again, that "Jane's hair" comparison is absolutely the clunkiest. Sorry to anyone who read that. Wish I could put that down to drink or fever, but alas.