Wolverine’s first appearance was in 1974, but he went more than two decades without anyone knowing much about him, including himself. Young fans like me were content with this status quo, though when writers gave us nuggets of information through new characters and villains who had a secret history with him, we never stopped turning the pages to find out more.
But in 2001, Marvel Comics decided to do the unthinkable: they were going to reveal Wolverine’s origin. After the wildly successful 1999 X-Men movie, Marvel knew that it needed to tell Wolverine’s origin story before Hollywood did, and the pressure was on to tell a story that encapsulated everything that we find synonymous with a good Wolverine arc—while not betraying 27 years of storytelling continuity. The resulting series, Origin, was satisfactory in my book. It did exactly what it set out to do: it began as a mystery as we tried to figure out which character was our beloved Logan, and there was tangible violence, pain, and tragedy that put the young man born James Howlett on the path towards being a loner too damaged to ever find happiness. All these elements didn’t just make for a good story, they made for a fitting Wolverine story, and as a bonus the comics even managed to include proof of his speculated Canadian citizenship. However, something about it didn’t seem to fit. It might have been that the story was too perfect a match to what I already knew about Wolverine at the time; in the end, it didn’t enhance my vision of who this larger-than-life character is.
One leg up that DC has always had over Marvel is the mythic quality of its heroes, who have always been more iconic. Iron Man will never be as inspirational as Batman, Captain America will never be as symbolic of hope as Superman, and it might still be a while before any women in Marvel have the feminine majesty of Wonder Woman. When we talk about superheroic mythology and look at scholarly work, there is a far deeper examination going on about DC’s holy trinity than there is about Marvel’s top 10 characters. Last year I wrote an article speculating how superhero mythology might evolve with the times, and one character that I have been thinking about a lot of since then is Wolverine. He is a character who I think has the potential to have as lasting an impact as DC’s best.
When I consider what elements stick out as being the most iconic for Wolverine, strip away the limitations set by Origin, and take into account the broader cultural awareness that Marvel Comics is starting to consider, what is the “true mythology” of this character?
Brian Michael Bendis is the writer for Ultimate Spider-Man, which starred the half–African American, half–Hispanic American Miles Morales. In January 2015, in an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, Bendis commented that “When you think about Spider-Man, and all the elements of Spider-Man, he would be a kid of color—it makes a lot of sense.” Bendis wrote the entire run of Ultimate Spider-Man and has also written Peter Parker’s story in different media as well, including video games and animation, so he has a deep love for the Spider-Man character. Changing a superhero’s ethnicity or background is a bold step for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t blindly advocate it for everyone. Daredevil, for example, should certainly remain Irish-Catholic, as that heritage is a part of his identity.
But when I think about what makes Wolverine Wolverine, I have come to believe the background that fits him best is Native American. I am not Native myself and am far from considering myself a scholar on Native history, but there are elements of the Wolverine mythos that just make sense for him to have ties to that culture. I believe reenvisioning Wolverine as a Native hero would be beneficial to the character’s legacy for a number of reasons.
Let’s start with something superficial: his hairdo. This might even be the most controversial aspect of suggesting a reimagining, because if you were to draw a simple pen drawn outline of Wolverine’s hairstyle, every comic fan will know who it’s meant to be. Part of the fun of looking through old Wolverine comics is seeing how our favorite artists draw his hair. It’s so iconic of the character that we take offense when we see it on any other fictional character. I remember having instant disdain when I first saw the Daredevil villain Owl, because he had the same hairstyle. It didn’t matter to me that it made Leland Owlsley look more like an owl than it made Logan look like a wolverine.
But then the live-action movie came out, and we all had to reckon with the simple truth that hair just doesn’t grow that way. For Logan to have hair in that shape, he would have to style it. But can anyone see gruff Wolverine gelling up his hair horns in front of the bathroom mirror every morning? As fans of Wolverine, we have always overlooked this mismatch of personality and vanity. However, if he were part of a Native American tribe whose members paid attention to their hair as a way of proudly honoring their heritage, then it would make sense. What hairstyle he would have would depend on the tribe he was from, and it would take someone a lot more knowledgeable than me to narrow that down. It would be sad to lose the iconic head horns, but we would stand to gain a Wolverine who doesn’t just happen to have cool-looking hair but is invested in it for a meaningful reason, which would in turn strengthen the character’s overall persona.
Besides looks, a solemn but integral part of Wolverine’s story is tragedy. This is often reflected in the death of a love interest, and on at least three occasions it has been compounded by Wolverine being the one who kills them. (Spoiler alert: Jean Grey, Mariko Yashida, and Rose O’Hara.) Sad as this was the first couple of times, it has become trite after happening so often. Logan is also a soldier; in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, following the reenactment from the comic book of Wolverine popping his claws for the first time, we see him go to war after war after war. The movies thus far have not stood up to the expectations of die-hard Wolverine fans such as myself, but that war montage is the most true to his mythos. Captain America is iconic for being in World War II, but Wolverine has fought for America in every war since 1880. He is, by far, the truer American supersoldier. If Wolverine were to be reimagined as Native American, then both of these components of tragedy and valor could be expanded on. His origin could even go back further than 1880, to before or during colonization by Europe. This of course would mean that as a soldier fighting for his people, he would have lost the first war he was in—the fight for his native land—and that would be a far greater tragedy that the recurring story of a dying damsel. And not to be insensitive, but he was always going to outlive his first love, Rose, but there is no outliving the world he knew then and the colonized world we all know now. Add to this the complexities involved in serving in American forces, including the children of the people who massacred his tribe, and we truly have a heroic American story more heartbreaking than Superman’s.
In regard to his powers, aside from his healing factor, Wolverine also has keen animal-like senses, which run parallel with animal sensibilities. A Wolverine story that has stayed with me ever since I read it is a 12-page piece called “Game,” written by Doug Moench with art by Mark Texeira and colors by Marie Javins. It is the last story in the X-Men Unlimited issue that celebrates Wolverine’s 25th anniversary. The story begins with Logan in a bar close to rural wilderness, thinking about the difference between man and beast. While there, he finds out about a trio of “hunters” who shoot their guns in the air to scare as many animals as they can into running into a pit they can’t get out of—they then set up their hammocks, shoot the animals at their leisure, and leave them be without harvesting the meat. Angered by this, Logan embarrasses them, sabotages their equipment, breaks their guns, and sends them running scared for the closest civilization. The story finishes with Wolverine giving the animals a send-off prayer and saying that if an afterlife “don’t hold true for animals as well as men, you can keep heaven and I’ll go with the beasts.”
It should be acknowledged that we see fictional Native American characters connected to animals so often that it has become a stereotype. Yet if Wolverine were to be as old as I perceive him to be, and Native, his mutant power would fit in with the sensibilities of a time and place when animals and nature were revered. And although this connection would be rooted in the culture of a Native American tribe, all of us have the means of connecting with this side of him, as all of us, no matter what part of the world we are from, have ancestors who respected nature and animals so much that they embodied them as deities. In this fashion, and in our more environmentally conscious times, Wolverine would bring us closer to an American culture and tradition that respects the earth. With characters like Iron Man who are futurists focusing on technology and progress, we need some superheroes who will remind us forcefully of this country’s precolonized past.
As you might have gathered, I am deeply invested in the myth of Wolverine. My favorite stories that feature him have been those in which he is situated among native peoples and cultures. I always got the sense that this is when he is most in his element. However, as passionate a storyteller as I am, beyond making this suggestion I am not qualified to take on this task. I would love to see a new origin story written by a talented and knowledgeable Native American writer who is also passionate about the story of Wolverine. I truly believe that if this were to be done right, it would take everything that makes Wolverine the best there is at what he does and raise him to the level of American folklore. In turn, it would create a positive cultural impact on our relationship with America’s history and values.
A special thank-you to Rob Callahan for his help in reviewing this article.