I often say I don’t care about Wolverine, but that’s not really true.
There are Wolverines that I love. This includes the one named Laura, the James Howlett one who loves Hercules, and the ones in fanfiction and fanart who are various kinds of queer. Sometimes, I also love ones named Logan who appear in licensed comics, cartoons, and films. The Wolverines that I love challenge stereotypes related to masculinity and violence and the supposed inseparability of the two. These Wolverines struggle, heroically, against what a bad world wants them to be or else don’t give a fuck about stereotypes, because they’ve seen it all and know who they are.
Then there are Wolverines I don’t love. This includes the ones mired in white savior tropes and cultural appropriation and especially the ones who uncritically glorify violence, graphically murdering untold scores of people who are usually bad people but still, nonetheless, people. These Wolverines never change yet always demand forgiveness through their enduring popularity and the seemingly boundless acceptance of their less-murderous friends.
But despite knowing which Wolverines I love and don’t love, I frequently struggle to decide how I feel about specific stories starring Wolverine. Take the first four issues of the recent X-Men Unlimited Infinity Comic, written by outgoing X-Men franchise impresario Jonathan Hickman with art by Declan Shalvey.
Marvel’s Infinity line makes use of webcomic-inspired vertical scrolling and is designed to recruit new readers to the company’s digital comics platform. This introductory context makes the latest iteration of X-Men Unlimited a useful lens to consider who the Logan version of Wolverine currently is—how is the character presented in a new reader-friendly comic experimenting with a (relatively) new format? This story also distills character beats familiar to veteran readers, providing a simultaneously sophisticated and clumsy reckoning with Logan’s internal and metatextual conflicts. It’s clumsy because it doesn’t resolve anything, and sophisticated because it seems to know it doesn’t resolve anything and doesn’t really care. Which is cool—like Wolverine. And problematic—like Wolverine. This essay’s going to reckon with this reckoning (and lack thereof), with a little help from Nightcrawler.
The opening sequence of X-Men Unlimited #1 is stripped down yet dense with meaning. There’s no dialogue, but over views of a monumental technological wonder suspended in a dark starfield, Logan narrates the setup: a strikeforce from A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics), a super-evil super-science army, have kidnapped three mutants from The Peak, a very tall (or long?) space station staffed by a mutant superteam currently using the acronym S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department). But none of these acronyms really matter. What matters is that bad guys have kidnapped good guys. And Wolverine’s going to fix it—by jumping out of a spaceship toward another spaceship, with nothing but a yellow spandex onesie to protect him.
As he falls, Logan describes his emotional relationship to the story’s inciting incident: “Some nations would call these acts of war that demand a response. Not me. I don’t care much for war. It’s too big. Too impersonal.” This narration presents a moral framework for Logan’s violence. He isn’t like “some people.” He’s different and supposedly better, because he’s willing to get his own hands (and claws) dirty; he’s the type of leader who takes responsibility instead of delegating it. This harkens back to Logan’s many origin stories, in which various organizations have tried to exploit his biopower to suit their purposes, transforming him into an amoral killing machine. Logan choosing how and when he uses violence—and declaring this choice—is important to both Logan’s personal story about himself and this story’s story about Logan. It also alludes to Logan’s bloodlust, but we’ll get to that. Because it’s grounded in personal responsibility that’s in turn grounded in specific traumas as well as the larger traumatic persecution of the mutant race, Logan’s violence is righteous and sympathetic. The next frames of the sequence expand on both themes.
Logan is pictured as a tiny brownish spec dwarfed by the black vastness of space while characterizing himself as “retribution and rescue all wrapped in one package.” If you’re wondering how Logan could survive such an experience, the next frames tell you—because he’s Wolverine. Logan is intensely vulnerable in the long-shot that emphasizes his smallness, but becomes more self-sufficient as we zoom closer, which allows his body to dominate more of the frame. Logan’s masked face with its empty white eyes fills the canvas, his blunt nose pointing decisively downward adjacent a deeply etched frown, as he states his catchphrase: “I’m Wolverine. I’m the best there is at what I do.” This catchphrase perfectly captures Logan because it’s equally direct and diffuse, referring to a specific thing and any thing. “What Logan does” means slicing up people/monsters/robots with his razor-sharp claws. But Logan does a lot more than that; baddies confuse a Swiss Army Knife for a meat cleaver at their peril. Moreover, Logan’s ability to be successful at anything, from stabbing specific stuff to saving the universe, requires superhuman determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Most of the time, it also requires overwhelming pain. Logan is a superman who’s also just a man; his dramatic fall through the starfield ends with a painful “CRUNCH” and a burst of swearing as he crumples, face-first, against the hull of the A.I.M. ship.
At this point of the story, I love Wolverine. I also understand, with wonderful, transcendent clarity, exactly why I love him. Through this scene and so many other reckless acts, Logan can be used to explore what makes our culture’s masculine ideals at once appealing, tragic, and toxic. Even when they seem to perpetuate toxic masculine myths about violent forms of power or the all-importance of stoic individualism, the Logans I love are always better than these reductive tropes. In this opening sequence, this is communicated by the play of vulnerability and self-sufficiency, power and pain; here and elsewhere, Logan is well-versed in the queer art of failure. I also like the way Logan’s connotatively masculine individualism, aggression, and violence might be baked into his genes or might not be. Directly or indirectly, Wolverine stories often debate nature vs nurture—is Logan violent because of his mutations, or did bigots and patriarchs turn him into an animal? And what does it mean to be an animal, anyway? All animals engage in violence. But only human animals know violence is wrong and do it anyway.
Logan is intimately familiar with these moral quandaries because he’s intimately familiar with the consequences of violence. His flesh always heals, but as he reminds us and himself in X-Men Unlimited #2, “It always hurts. Every single time.” This is where I don’t just sympathize with Logan, but also empathize and even identify with him. I’m not a man. But I have, like Logan, been hurt by masculinity. Yet despite this hurt, for reasons that might be biological or cultural or maybe a little of both, Logan and I both continue to invest in masculinity. For better or worse, Logan and I are both determined to make amends for masculinity and preserve the parts of it that bring us emotional and physical joy, enduring considerable pain for the sake of this improbable retribution and rescue. I also identify with Logan’s self-sacrifice, which might be masculine, but is pretty darn feminine, too. That’s the thing about gender—when you try too hard to make it behave, it often rebels and even goes berserk, hurting and helping people in seldom-predictable ways. Remind you of anyone?
Before he’s fully recovered from the “CRUNCH,” Logan pops his claws and starts cutting into the spaceship. His narration continues to moralize his violence: “I don’t care what’s motivating these guys. Because rescuing my friends… That ain’t negotiable.” Logan could describe his fellow mutants as teammates, but doesn’t. Instead, he calls them friends and puts friendship on a pedestal as the Most Important Thing. Logan will probably always be a stoic individualist, but linking him to a community of chosen bonds emphasizes his capacity for empathy, which makes his individualism less toxic. Yet it’s equally important that the ellipsis isn’t empty. The physical space between one line and the next is filled with death; in the wake of Logan’s slashing claws, a dense cluster of A.I.M. goons levitates into the vacuum of space, flesh balloons not long for this world. Today’s X-Men don’t kill; “Murder No Man” is one of the mutant nation of Krakoa’s three central tenets. But we already know how Logan feels about rules.
At this point, I start to love Wolverine less. I suspect the creators of this comic would say I’m supposed to—that mass death is another consequence of Logan’s violence, which I’m meant to acknowledge and ponder. I can almost talk myself into that, except—what are the actual consequences of Logan’s actions? There’s little suggestion we’re meant to feel anything for the A.I.M. goons. Logan has a face and friends he’s trying to save; he’s humanized, prosocial, and reactive. The A.I.M. goons are literally faceless, unindividuated cogs in a bureaucracy dedicated to world domination; they are inhuman, antisocial, and they’re the ones who started the fight, motivated by hatred and greed. The helplessness of the goons as they drift to their inevitable deaths grants them a glimmer of basic sympathy, but even this dehumanizes them relative to Logan. Where Logan conquered space like an arrow—fast, hard, and sharp—the A.I.M. goons limply surrender to fate and physics, unable to fight or die like men. The surviving A.I.M. goons show some spunk, detonating an explosion that burns off most of Logan’s skin. This can be considered a consequence, but under the circumstances, it’s one that continues to justify Logan’s violence rather than questioning it.
Using dehumanization to sanction lethal force makes me uncomfortable. Yet I’m more uncomfortable with the comparably humanized violence that follows. In X-Men Unlimited #2, Logan shotguns a beer before conducting a one-on-one interrogation. Which is a nice way of saying he brutally and lengthily tortures a guy, partly because he needs information in a hurry, and partly because he seems to enjoy it. Over the course of 24 vertically arranged panels, Logan delivers 13 detailed punches to the kisser of a single A.I.M. goon. His adamantium-laced fists destroy the goon’s mask, then his nose, and finally, most of his face, leaving behind a pulpy, misshaped mess of bloody flesh.
From a formal perspective, the depiction of violence in comics is extremely complicated. On the one hand, the obvious aestheticization and unreality of violence in comics suggests it might be inherently thoughtful; while films and comic books both employ spectacular violence, drawn images are, in theory, better suited to contemplative distance. On the other hand, the same obvious aestheticization and unreality can make violence in comics especially intimate and affecting. In his classic treatise Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud uses violence to demonstrate the uniquely participatory nature of comics, which require readers to actively make connections between fragmented images in a process McCloud calls “closure.” McCloud’s primary example of closure involves an axe murderer. In one panel, a snarling man raises an axe as his presumed victim reels in terror. The next panel is a long shot of a cityscape, with a scream written across the sky. McCloud explains the sequence this way: “Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice. An equal partner in crime known as the reader.” “I may have drawn an axe being raised,” McCloud continues, “but all of you participated in the murder. All of you held the axe and chose your spot.”
The interrogation sequence in X-Men Unlimited #2 requires less closure than McCloud’s example. Each time Logan punches the goon, we see both the collision and the aftermath; this sequence is more maximalist than minimalist. But it certainly encourages participation, in part through how it employs the vertical scrolling format. Each punch and subsequent view of the goon’s increasingly pulpy face is an isolated fragment surrounded by substantial white space. This encourages the reader to spend time with each image, slowing their journey through the sequence. In addition, connecting each punch to each pulpy aftermath requires the physical involvement of the reader, who must manually push the frames upward with their thumb or finger. Small disruptions in the rhythm of the sequence encourage further involvement. For most of the sequence, punches connect on the left side of the digital canvas, while views of the goon’s face run along the right side. But in two instances, Logan’s punches land on both the left and right side, indicating a series of quick hits. It’s not a complicated sequence, but properly parsing it does require an attentive reader.
Clearly, this sequence implicates us in Logan’s violence. But to what end? Are we implicated in a contemplative way, or a spectacular way that discourages contemplation in favor of visceral thrills? And who—if anyone—are we meant to identify with in this sequence? This specific A.I.M. goon is more humanized than his brethren; he’s given dialogue, and he’s the only one to have his face revealed, which bleeds and breaks like a human face should. In contrast, for most of the interrogation sequence, Logan’s face is off-panel; we only see his arm and hand. As such, he’s a what, not a who; he’s effectively reduced to what he can do, which, as the second part of his catchphrase tells us, isn’t very nice. Narratively, though, the A.I.M. goon continues to garner little sympathy. Prior to the interrogation, Logan gives him a chance to cooperate. The goon responds, “Get bent, you murderous mutant scum.”
But while comics usually provide visual and textual cues that encourage us to read sequences in certain ways, the participatory nature of comic reading ensures meaning is always subjective. If you’re very invested in the fantasy of Logan demolishing an unrepentant bigot, the interrogation sequence in X-Men Unlimited #2 may be cathartic. That’s incredibly valid. It’s also valid to enjoy this sequence just because it looks cool; it should be a truth universally acknowledged that Shalvey’s action scenes kick serious ass. But if those reactions are valid, so is mine. When I scroll through this sequence, I can’t help remembering that because I’m a woman, I’m far more likely to be a victim of a white man’s violence than to be saved or redeemed by it. My fist will never look like Logan’s—large, hard, and hairy. But my face could look like the goon’s when Logan’s done with it—after I begged him to stop and he didn’t. I’ve been taught to fear white male violence, and I do. I read this sequence and see more reasons to be afraid. Maybe I’m meant to feel this way. Logan’s an antihero, after all. Alternatively, the people who made this comic might not care how I feel. Maybe that’s also valid, like Logan’s selective empathy is valid—or so this story tells me.
Logan fights a computer next, and that’s fine. I like computers more than Logan does, but who doesn’t sometimes want to stab them? Yet Logan slashing his way through cerebral holograms isn’t what kept me reading this series. That’s attributable to what happens at the end of X-Men Unlimited #3, when Logan finds a stasis tube containing one of the three kidnapped mutants. He opens it and smiles a sublime smile, his face bathed in angelic light. His blue irises are shaped like actual hearts when he gazes down at the rescued mutant, and says, “Now, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” An eager scroll reveals the subject of Logan’s loving gaze—he’s looking at his best friend, Nightcrawler.
I bring a lot of baggage to this moment, because of my well-known affection for Kurt Wagner and because I’m also very fond of the relationship between Kurt and Logan. I like complex masculinities, and historically, Kurt and Logan complexify each other through a set of complementary contrasts. According to The Claremont Run, the social media arm of an academic study of the Chris Claremont-penned X-Men comics that continue to shape the present, at their best, Kurt and Logan complete each other:
Kurt aspires to traditional masculinity… and thus his apprenticeship to Wolverine helps to define Logan’s hypermasculinity. Wolverine aspires to mental and spiritual peace, or even just happiness, things Nightcrawler exhibits more than any other character. Their friendship is based on mutual aspiration and admiration and thus, when together, they function holistically as the best of both worlds come together.
In other words, Kurt and Logan’s bond explores different ways of being masculine, contesting harmful understandings of masculinity as singular or stable. Read in this context—while Logan making heart-eyes at Kurt doesn’t make me okay with his violence, it does help me understand it. Logan makes Kurt a better man, which is why he’s so desperate to get him back and why he slips into bad habits in his absence. It also reframes the first arc of X-Men Unlimited as a love story, which I very much want to fall for—because I love love stories and when Logan doesn’t so much break the rules as queer them.
But if Logan loves Kurt, he’s got a funny way of showing it. Kurt’s always been firmly planted in the “X-Men shouldn’t kill” camp. A decade ago, he tried to quit the X-Men when he discovered an X-Force team led by Logan was using lethal force, and he’s recently taken issue with the cavalier treatment of death on Krakoa. While I strongly believe Kurt should never preach at Logan or anyone else, there was a time when these friends debated moral justifications of violence. But in X-Men Unlimited #4, Kurt silently watches, and implicitly condones, the mass slaughter of A.I.M. goons. Admittedly, there are efforts to shield Kurt from Logan’s violence; some of the grisliest kills seem to happen while Kurt and Logan are in separate locations. But there are also images where Kurt and Logan appear together, Kurt delivering non-lethal kicks and using teleportation to avoid the goons while Logan continues to slash. And Kurt clearly sees the stacks of corpses. When Kurt rescues Chamber from the second statis tube, Chamber wakes in a rage and fries a roomful of goons. In the wake of this conflagration, a close-up on Kurt’s numbly fascinated face—an image that’s replicated on the cover of the issue—does a lot of heavy lifting. Yet he never speaks a word of protest, and ends the story happily supporting his teammates’ methods. X-Men Unlimited #4 concludes with Logan ordering Kurt to teleport them to the next A.I.M. base, presumably to do the whole thing again. Over a candy-pink “BAMF” sound effect, Kurt cheerfully agrees: “Okay, Logan. Off we go!”
By the end of the first arc of X-Men Unlimited, I don’t identify with Logan or even really like him. Instead, I find myself identifying with Nightcrawler. That’s something I often enjoy, but here, in this story, it sucks. Kurt’s not a woman, but this story treats him like one, in stereotypical ways I know well. Beginning in childhood and continuing through school into our adult lives and careers, women are taught to worship masculine men—to praise them, humor them, and forgive them, as many times as necessary. Family, teachers, friends, judges, and bosses shake their heads and say—boys will be boys. You can’t change them, and why would you want to? That’s just how men are. We’re told that as long as we’re nice to certain men, as long as we accept that they can’t always control themselves and agree not to punish them for their many inevitable transgressions, they might protect us from other men. Just like Logan protects Kurt—as long as he lets Logan hack human beings into stacks of corpses and never tells him not to.
It’s impossible to talk about violence in pop culture, let alone intersections of gender and violence in pop culture, without sounding like a scold. I’m sure someone will read this and call me that. If it helps, I’ll repeat: I don’t think Hickman and Shalvey’s X-Men Unlimited story is evil. My claims are much milder than that. I think it’s a story that makes me think about other stories. I also think it’s not always as thoughtful as it could be about the types of stories it references, and how this neglect might affect different readers. By “stories” I mean other comics as well as bigger stories we tell each other about ourselves—the kinds of stories that inspire us to make comics and read them. These critiques are nothing new– you could say the same thing about a majority of superhero comics. But does it have to be like this? Is this just how (male-oriented) popular stories are? Do I have to accept the Wolverines I don’t love for the sake of the ones I do?
I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know why I often say I don’t care about Wolverine. It’s because I care too much about Wolverine, and often wish I didn’t.
Ironically, I think Logan would understand this very well. Which is precisely why I care about him. And why I continue to hope he can do better, or at least try to try—for his friends, for me, and for himself.