Wolverine's Death: Superheroes And The Cycle Of Eternal Return

Oct 13, 2014
Originally published on October 13, 2014 6:47 pm

The fourth and final issue of the weekly, four-issue Marvel Comics miniseries Death of Wolverine, written by Charles Soule and drawn by Steve McNiven, will be published Wednesday. This prompted an incredulous text from a friend, Golfrguy, to NPR's nerd-about-town Glen Weldon:

Golfrguy: dude they're killing off wolverine???????

Despite Golfrguy's concern, he's really a non-comics-reading "normal" — someone for whom the death of a superhero is still an astounding event. For Golfrguy and all the other normals out there, Weldon — aka Ghweldon — has improvised the rest of the conversation.

Ghweldon: Yep. Well I mean "killing" off. You know, for now.

Golfrguy: whuuuut but he can't be killed that's his whole thing

Ghweldon: No, sure. You'd think. But they've been setting this up for a while, actually. A little over a year ago, Paul Cornell, who writes the solo comic, Wolverine, took away the guy's healing factor.

Golfrguy: how

Ghweldon: "How?" Never mind how. Not important.

Golfrguy: seriously tell me

Ghweldon: It's ... It's pretty nerdy.

Golfrguy: yeah I figured tell me

Ghweldon: ... I really don't think you're ready for this nerdy jelly, pal.

Golfrguy: DUDE.

Ghweldon: He got possessed by an evil mind-controlling world-conquering sentient virus from the Microverse.

Golfrguy: ...

Ghweldon: Yep. It blew out his healing factor like the guy was a Radio Shack sub-woofer.

Golfrguy: wait whats the microverse

Ghweldon: You know, we should really take a step back here. This is the death of a superhero in a comic book, after all. And I've told you before: In comics, death is not, as Hamlet called it, "that undiscover'd country/from whose bourn no stranger returns."

No: It's Tijuana, and there's a shuttle.

So don't worry about Wolverine. He'll be back. They all come back.

Golfrguy: wait back up the microverse is that where the micronauts were from? Same place?

Ghweldon: Now, I know what you're gonna say....

Golfrguy: hows a virus control a dudes mind huh

Ghweldon: You're gonna say but Glen, when Mike Marts, the Marvel editor in charge of this whole thing, spoke to Entertainment Weekly back in April, he claimed that THIS death would be different.

"The concept of 'death' in comic books can seem a bit tenuous," EW wrote, understating like crazy, " ... but Marts says that Marvel approached this event 'from a standpoint of finality, of closure.' "

That sound you hear? Is the noise made when millions of nerdy eyes roll and roll and roll.

Here's the thing: Wolverine is a corporate-owned, heavily licensed nugget of intellectual property. He's one of the company's flagship characters, and he fuels a vast merchandising machine that includes movie franchises, video games, toys and clothing. If anything about him changes — if, Crom forbid, he dies — the bottom drops out of the Wolverine footy pajamas market.

Here's another thing: Comics are essentially soap operas: ongoing, open-ended narratives that deny their characters the very thing that makes a story a story: the ending. Endings give shape and weight to a narrative by providing exactly what Marts so disingenuously promises: Finality. Closure.

In lieu of an ending, then, superheroes go on adventures, endlessly iterating the same spandex Ragnaroks over and over. They can change, albeit in carefully proscribed ways (I'm evil now! I'm good again! I'm dead! I'm back!) but they can't grow, they can't learn, they can't emerge from an adventure wholly and permanently different from how they were before.

Writers of corporate-owned superhero comics make their peace with this: They know their tenure with these characters is finite, that they are essentially taking Daddy's precious vintage toys off the shelf and playing with them for a period of months or years. They know, too, that when they finally, gingerly return those toys to the shelf, they must ensure that they remain unscathed, unchanged, pristine.

Which is not to say that great, nuanced, character-based work can't be done in the genre. Matt Fraction is writing a hugely entertaining take on the Marvel superhero Hawkeye, turning him into a world-weary, long-suffering schlub who just wants to do right, and who finds himself perpetually overmatched by life. Writers like Kieron Gillen, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Gail Simone, Brian Michael Bendis, and Wolverine's own Paul Cornell take their characters and invest them with human frailties and specific personalities.

But when they leave the book, everything they've brought goes with them, and the character returns to starting position. It's the nature of the medium.

So now, yes: Wolverine is dying, as so many have died before him. One of the many infographics found in Tim Leong's searingly clever book, Super Graphic, compares the relative lengths of comic book dirt-naps, ranging from a few scant months (Superman, The Human Torch) to multiple decades (Robin II, Bucky).

Well you may wonder: Don't you Nerds get sick of it? Don't you tire of these endless cynical ploys to goose sales, when you know that Marvel will eventually dig up and reanimate whatever corpse they're making such a show of burying?

By way of answer, I direct you to the fact that Death of Wolverine is currently the No. 1 comic on the market: Sales of the first issue topped 260,000 copies.

We nerds have come to accept the cycle of eternal return as permanent feature in the landscape of superheroic narrative. It's become just another genre trapping, like the secret origin, the evil doppelganger, the dance tights.

You might as well ask if romance readers get sick of all that kissing, or if football fans get bored with all that endless running to and fro.

Golfrguy: ... ok but a sentient VIRUS?????

Ghweldon: Got to go.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


You don't have to recognize the "X-Men" theme song to recognize the most famous X-Man - Wolverine.


FAMKE JANSSEN: (As Jean Grey/Phoenix) He has uncharted regenerative capability, which enables him to heal rapidly. It also makes his age impossible to determine.

RATH: Wolverine's special power - his mutation - makes him basically immortal and heals up his hands when those distinctive metal claws pop out.


RATH: Now, if you don't want to find out what happens to him in the comic books this week, I suggest you turn off the radio for the next few minutes. Because in spite of that regenerative capability, in a new mini-series due to wrap up this Wednesday, Wolverine will die. To make sense of this, we turn to our resident comic book expert Glen Weldon.

GLEN WELDON: His healing power has gone away and that's kind of setting him up for the inevitable death. The particulars don't matter so much because he is a superhero. And what's true for superhero comics is the same thing that's true for soap operas. They're both ongoing open-ended narratives that deny their characters the one thing that makes a story a story, which is an ending. And that's because they are all heavily licensed nuggets of intellectual property that corporations own that they use to feed this gigantic merchandising machine of movie franchises, video games and clothing and toys. So they can go back and forth between good and evil. They can die and come back. But they can't grow, because that's what fiction does. And this is a different format. This is a different medium.

RATH: You know, there's another reason though aside from the lack-of-character-development reason, which is that they move a lot of product that way, right?

WELDON: Absolutely, because this Wolverine mini-series - and it's a four-issue mini-series that's coming out weekly - is the number one book on the stands. I think the first issue sold about 260,000. The second issue sold 129,000. Compare that to, say, the number of people who saw the most recent "X-Men" film. And when it comes to shaping the idea of this character, movies and television are just a hell of a lot more powerful. Most of the people listening to us talk right now don't think of Wolverine as the guy in the comic books like nerds like me do, they think of him as Hugh Jackman.

RATH: At some point though, Glen, isn't it going to get to be like Kenny on South Park - oh my God, they killed Superman. Isn't there a point of diminishing returns where it's just going to get boring?

WELDON: You'd think so. But the number of people who hang around like me and keep reading these things throughout their entire lives is perilously small. What they're counting on is new people coming in and then cycling through. They just have to keep people around for maybe 10 years. And then they can do whatever they want, ecause this whole idea of the superhero death has been going on forever.

As you note, Phoenix, one of the original X-Men, was killed off in 1980. She came back. In 1988, they killed Robin. They had a phone vote. And the readers elected to kill that kid off. He was the second Robin. And in 1992, of course, as you mentioned, they killed of Superman. Now that guy didn't stay dead for a full year. It was about eight months before they brought him back.

And nobody who was reading comics, nobody in the industry thought at the time that DC Comics would kill off their flagship character. This is not the way it works.

But a huge number of people outside of comics thought that was going to happen. Consequently, supply and demand - that's the way that works. DC Comics printed a hell of a lot of - millions, literally millions and millions of these comics.

So if you have the issue that Superman died somewhere squirreled away in your attic and you think you're going to be able to retire on it, just remember that there were millions and millions of those out.

RATH: That's Glen Weldon. He's a regular on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. His most recent book is called "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography." Glen, pleasure speaking with you as always.

WELDON: Thank you, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.