Escape Claws: Why Wolverine Had to Die for the Sake of Marvel Comics

The character finally proved himself to be mortal, but that doesn't mean he's gone for good.

Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American superhero born in the late 1990s whose real name is Kamala Khan. She’s a Muslim teenager who worries her observant parents when she sneaks out at night, which she does (mostly) to protect Jersey City from evildoers, using her unwieldy shape-shifting powers to grow and shrink in size.

Wolverine was born in the late 1880s in the Northwest Territories in Canada. He’s served as a spy, a samurai, a soldier of fortune, an X-Man, an Avenger, a Horseman of the Apocalypse, and even as a member of an all-Canadian super-squadron called Alpha Flight. His mutant healing factor, the source of his long life and incomparable alcohol tolerance, has rescued him from every conceivable physical injury: shootings, stabbings, poisons, fires, more stabbings, magick, repulsor rays, Sentinels. The invincible adamantium lining inside his skeleton has rendered his bones unbreakable. The claws that he ejects from his knuckles with a snikt! can slice through anything.

So when Ms. Marvel runs into Wolverine unexpectedly in the sewers of Jersey City, she squees as if she’s just met Hugh Jackman. The selfie cover of Ms. Marvel #7 captures the unfiltered delight of a teenaged Jersey fangirl and the scowl of everyone’s favorite Canucklehead. Alas, for poor Wolvie, the ‘gram would be his last.

Wolverine—James Howlett to his family, Logan to his friends, Wolverine to his teammates, Patch to his enemies, Weapon X to his other enemies, Death to his other other enemies—died last month, in the aptly titled Death of Wolverine #4. He’s survived by Daken (his wicked son), X-23 (his superheroine clone), and Sabretooth (his son, his brother, or his father, maybe?), as well as the ongoing comic-book series that will continue even after his death. May the man who always let ‘em rip rest in peace. He never got much rest from Marvel.

Created as a Canadian government super-agent in 1974 by writer Len Wein and artist John Romita, Sr., his very first battle ended in a tie with the Incredible Hulk. (A tie with the Hulk. Spider-Man would call escaping the Hulk with even some of his limbs intact a hard-earned win.) After he was drafted for the 1975 relaunch of the X-Men, Wolverine became the face of that team over the course of the 1980s, thanks to the exceptional gifts of writers and artists Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne, among others.

In their hands, Wolverine emerged as a creature and a criticism of Vietnam: A restless nomad with no memory for the forces that had forged him, a reluctant but perfect weapon listing always toward a relapse into a savage berserker state. He was walking PTSD. At his most noble, Wolverine was Marvel’s failed samurai, a loner doomed to wander the earth in search of some saving grace. Logan was forever denied Captain America’s domestic morality, Iron Man’s technocratic utopianism, Thor’s assured superiority: And that’s why Kamala Khan draws Wolverine on her notebooks.

Regarding his actual death, well, Wolverine has survived worse. So much worse. That adamantium skeleton was gifted to him through a secret Canadian biotech weapons program. (That’s right, a maple-leaf military-industrial complex: Comic books sometimes require the suspension of disbelief.) Yet the adamantium X-factor wasn’t worth much to him when the god-like Avengers villain Thanos turned it into sponge during one memorable cosmic melee—one that will soon enough be a feature film—and much less when the mutant master Magneto leached the adamantium right out of his body through his pores in 1993 (a comic book I waited in line to buy). This time around, a virus sapped him of his healing factor, or something, meaning last call for Logan when his rogues’ gallery found out. In the end, the system that made him was his undoing.

The very best Wolverine story ever told—Marvel Comics Presents #72-84, drawn and written by the incomparable Barry Windsor-Smith in 1991—also concerned this Weapon X program. This arc details how Logan goes from man to beast mode in beautiful books, frequently wordless, almost unparalleled in the medium. More recent series by the up-and-comer Jason Aaron, who’s done the most to define the character over the last decade, have pushed Wolverine’s healing factor to absurd and unsustainable limits. Under Aaron’s tenure, Wolverine led a squad of mutant assassins, the ones who do the work that family-friendly X-Men can’t or won’t do, only to eventually walk away from that life into a different sort of cage: academia. (Long-time fans dissatisfied with Wolverine’s end owe it to themselves to read Mark Millar’s alt-future limited series Old Man Logan.)

It’s the students who served under him during his tenure as mutant prep-school headmaster and his former teammates from across the planet who are mourning him now. (Specifically, in the limited series, Death of Wolverine: The Logan Legacy, that runs through December). But his enemies might pour out a can of Molson for the ol’ runt, too. Wasn’t he always just a saké summit away from common ground with the Silver Samurai? Didn’t he marry Mystique a couple times? Every time Wolvie and Sabretooth took it down to claw city, wasn’t that just a family tradition (maybe)? And didn’t Omega Red—well, no, fine. Omega Red flat-out sucked.

Beyond the ongoing Wolverines comic series that will continue under his name—the death of Wolverine doesn’t have to mean the death of a salesman—the Runt will also live on in Hollywood. This is the Wolverine that Marvel Studios, the studio behind The Avengers, really wants to die. So long as 20th Century Fox keeps pumping out X-movies such as 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past every few years, they keep the film rights to Wolverine and his fellow X-Men—lest the rights revert back to Marvel, which sold them off during a financial period darker than Logan’s worst hangover. (Wolverine’s rights were sold years before Marvel Entertainment was acquired by Disney, for nearly $5 billion, in 2009.)

Studio shenanigans could be one factor in the death of Wolverine. Deep in the message boards, conspiracists whisper that Marvel has shown its hand, disinvesting creative energy in the print comics whose characters don’t work toward the ascendant Marvel Studios’ bottom line. This week, Marvel Studios announced a slew of new film productions, including Black Panther, Doctor Strange, a different woman named Marvel, the problematic Inhumans—more on them in a second—and Avengers sequels for as long as Robert Downey Jr. can muster a smirk. At the same time, Marvel canceled its long-running Fantastic Four print comic-book line, even in advance of 20th Century Fox’s reboot of the film franchise next year, leading critics to speculate that the horse follows the cart at the House of Ideas.

That may be true. Today, Marvel is putting its thumb on the scale for the Inhumans, a throwback team of super-powered characters who work sort of like the X-Men’s mutants, but without the history (or quality, or thorny Fox ownership). The hip new Ms. Marvel is one of those Inhumans. That run-in underneath the Jersey streets could have launched another classic Wolverine team-up, a pairing along the lines of his endearing apprenticeship of the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde. (Things never worked out well for Logan’s romantic interests, who had a habit of dying violently, but no character in comics had better realized friendships with women.)

And of course Wolverine would wind up in Ms. Marvel’s sewer: He’s starred or appeared in nearly every ongoing Marvel Comics book over at least the last two decades. Where he doesn’t belong is in a universe that is lurching from an X-Men–centric metaphysical foundation (homo superior genetic mutations) to one more closely aligned with the Inhumans.

Wolverine is Marvel’s team-book fullback, its definitive anti-hero, the best there is at what he does (although it isn’t very nice): Don’t expect him to stay under for long. Maybe in his next act, he’ll undergo an overdue transformation like Cap (who is now black), Thor (now a woman), or Iron Man (okay, Tony Stark only moved to Silicon Valley, but still). Wolverine was never going to be the hero to lead Marvel into its Silver Screen Age. Because he’s the long-suffering Wolverine, he had to die.

And good for him. Take a load off, Logan. Before they put it right back on you.