Making Death Matter

"Death of Wolverine #1"

by Jack Fisher

8 September 2014

Death is a revolving door in comics so how does the upcoming death of Wolverine have meaning?
 
cover art

Death of Wolverine #1

(Marvel)
US: Nov 2014

Over the years, death in comicbooks has become about as relevant as Lex Luthor’s barber. It has gotten to a point where funerals in comics might as well double as goth club meeting. People show up, act all sad and depressed, and just pretend they’ll never be happy again until the inevitable retcon/resurrection. People can joke and complain all they want about these kinds of stories. Yes, they are gimmicks. Yes, they are overdone. However, they have one quality that makes them viable. They trigger enough of an emotional reaction to get fans to buy it. So long as people enjoy making money from comics, these sorts of stories will continue.

That’s not to say that stories surrounding death can’t be good. What sets stories like Death of Superman apart from stories like Final Crisis is extent to which it creates an emotional impact. That is what has allowed deaths like Gwen Stacy and Ben Parker to have such a compelling influence on the overall narrative. Conversely, it is also what has led to the cheapening of death with the likes of Jean Grey and Bucky Barnes, but the emotional impact still matters. And Death of Wolverine #1 attempts to lay the foundation for that impact. The results are not conclusive, but they are promising.

Wolverine has been functioning without his healing factor for nearly a year now. It has gotten to a point where he seems to have gotten a handle on things. He’s shown that he can continue to be the best there is at what he does without relying on his healing factor. However, this issue establishes that the sheer rigor that comes along with killing armies of ninjas, fighting Sabretooth to the death every other month, and drowning enough whiskey to kill half the Scottish army is taking its toll. He’s not given a death sentence just yet. But Reed Richards does warn him that if were as young as he looked, then he probably wouldn’t live long enough to collect Social Security.

The extent of this toll is the main highlight of this issue. Wolverine isn’t his normal brutish self, treating the advice of his doctor the same way Homer Simpson treats advice from his nutritionist. There are powerful moments that show just how much just being Wolverine is wearing on him. He can no longer be the tenacious fighter that helped him survive two World Wars and two separate runs on X-men by Chris Claremont. For the first time in his long history, Wolverine is nearing his physical and mental limits. It’s a strange yet compelling spectacle. It’s not unlike Brett Favre’s final season where his physical limitations finally caught up to his passions.

While this sets a clear tone for the overall narrative, it does feel somewhat muted at times. Wolverine might be ailing without his healing factor, but there isn’t much depth given to the extent of that ailment. He still snarls, spits, and swears like anyone would expect him to. He also still fights, even when it’s not in his best interests to do so. But when he has to confront multiple threats that now know he’s vulnerable, there isn’t a genuine sense of struggle.

Now normally, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect such a struggle from Wolverine. This is a man who treats a sudden attack from AIM or the Hand the same way most people treat a hangnail. But when someone like Nuke comes along hoping to collect a fat bounty on his head, the struggle feels a bit too much like it would if he still had his healing. It might be a typical Tuesday for Wolverine prior to losing his healing, but that’s exactly why a greater sense of struggle is so important to the narrative.

That’s not to say Wolverine’s struggles in this issue don’t have an impact. The battles he fights here are just preludes to a much larger battle that’s being funded by the same person who put the bounty on Wolverine’s head. It nicely establishes what is set to be Wolverine’s final battle, at least until his inevitable resurrection and return. At the moment, it’s nothing too novel or radical. But it does hit the right emotional chords, albeit not all of them.


But that’s where the whole Death of Wolverine concept is fatally flawed. It might not even be possible to hit all those emotional chords because the revolving door that is death in comics ensures that Wolverine is not going to stay dead indefinitely. No matter what Marvel claims, it a bad business practice to throw away such a valuable asset. DC did it with Superman and cashed in. And if Marvel can’t even keep Bucky Barnes dead, then there’s little chance they’ll be able to keep Wolverine dead.

Even if Wolverine’s death is destined to be temporary, the story in Death of Wolverine #1 offers a compelling foundation for an emotionally charged story. This firmly established to be Wolverine’s final battle, at least for a while. Like the movie Snakes on a Plane, there is little ambiguity with respect to the content of the story. The success or failure of the story hinges on its ability to generate the right emotional impact. It might not be possible to evoke all right emotions due to the nature of death in comics, but this issue does succeed in laying the foundation. It might be a foundation built on unstable shores, but it’s one that could still support a strong story.

Death of Wolverine #1

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