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Review of Untamed: The Psychology of Marvel’s Wolverine

By Jason Kahler

Flores, Suzana E., Untamed: The Psychology of Marvel’s Wolverine. McFarland, 2018.

It’s probably asking too much for one book to completely unpack the complex history and psychology of Wolverine, Marvel Entertainment’s extremely popular character. In fact, his popularity cannot be understated. Wolverine appears on endless merchandising efforts, stars in a hugely profitable film franchise, and features in so many comic books each month that readers might presume his superpowers also include teleportation and time manipulation. The character has been imagined and re-imagined so often, and his current status is so far removed from his depiction in his debut in Incredible Hulk #181, that a tracing of these multiple Wolverines who have appeared throughout the years is rife with opportunity. Untamed: The Psychology of Marvel’s Wolverine, by author and clinical psychologist Suzana E. Flores, fills this gap and examines these various iterations of Wolverine all at once. The resulting book is a welcome introduction to both the character and several basic principles of psychology; though the book takes some potentially uncomfortable turns for readers in its discussion of torture and trauma, it’s a strong entry into the field of comics studies and an illustration of how scholars of Rhetoric, Psychology, Literature, and Popular Culture can contribute to comics scholarship.

The book’s chapters progress from a brief explanation of the Wolverine’s significance in popular culture, re-telling his fictional origins as a mutant in Marvel Comics, and finally, his  current appearance and form in the film Logan (2017). These chapters highlight important storylines that feature Wolverine’s involvement, spanning his earliest appearances, his inclusion in the important re-boot of the X-Men series with Giant-Size X-Men (1975), his role in the Dark Phoenix Saga (1976-1977), and his most current status as an older, more experienced leader and mentor in current X-books and motion pictures.

In her discussion of Wolverine’s psychology, Flores refers to several fundamental concepts in the field. Though scholarly, her explanations are accessible to non-psychologists, and will be familiar to anyone who’s taken an “Introduction to Psychology” course. In her very strong chapter, “What Does Trauma Have to Do with It?,” Flores explains how Wolverine exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. By including excerpts from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition), and walking readers through a clinical interpretation of Wolverine, Flores treats the character like a “real” patient. It’s a terrific model of performing case studies and applying concepts like these to fictional characters. 

In fact, much of Wolverine’s behavior can be attributed as a psychological response to trauma and the resulting PTSD that follows. Although Flores never unearths the writers’ intentions over the years and we never learn how informed the creators were about these concepts or even to what extent Wolverine’s psychology was discussed among the creators, her intervention is still impressive. Particularly well-constructed is Flores’ conclusion that many of Wolverine’s classic abilities and circumstances—his berserker rage, his enhanced senses, his memory loss—are not so much superpowers, but responses to trauma. 

At the root of much of Wolverine’s trauma is the experimentation he endures in the Weapon X program, an experience that Flores connects to torture in her third chapter. This is a difficult chapter to stomach, and Flores correctly offers the appropriate warnings and disclaimers. In her attempt to “treat” the subject completely, Flores lets this chapter slide into territory some readers may find excessive or even exploitive. Even when prefaced with warnings about potentially sensitive content, perhaps there’s no good way to discuss the world’s worst evils. Perhaps, too, the only way to fight it is to bring it into the light. The point that Wolverine’s history mirrors some of human history’s darkest moments allows us to see more of ourselves in him, but this alone doesn’t make the reading any easier. 

Flores turns her keen eye to the behavior of some of Wolverine’s adversaries, as well. Many times, especially in Wolverine’s world, a case can be made that these “bad guys” and “bad gals” are, like the “heroes,” victims of trauma. For example, much of Lady Deathstrike’s behavior is attributable to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and while some people are aware of their OCD-inflicted behavior, Deathstrike isn’t, which leads her into conflict with Wolverine. But it is not her mental illness that makes Deathstrike an inherently evil or bad person, rather it is the actions she commits while unaware of her behaviors that shape her into a villainess. 

Another example is the parallel between Wolverine and his archnemesis, Sabertooth, which Flores sutures together. Sabertooth is typically considered to be what Wolverine could have become if he were to allow his worst instincts to take control. Alternatively, Wolverine represents the aspirations of what Sabertooth could have been, if only he held others in higher regard and released the resentment he feels over his own upbringing. With both Deathstrike and Sabertooth, Flores reminds us that the paths to heroism and villainhood are more like two sides of the same coin, which frequently intersect. As Flores claims, “What we sometimes fail to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told” (90). Other narratives like Thunderbolts or Superior Foes of Spider-Man—books that try to unravel the nature of being the villain and offer hope for redemption—show an increasing interest in this kind of storytelling. Even more, Wolverine himself was the villain in his original debut in Incredible Hulk. The importance, then, for these kinds of books and this kind of redemptive storytelling is for readers whose own lives have taken a turn and are working through the hurt they’ve both suffered and caused. Stories like these can be inspiring and provide a model of hopefulness.

As Flores steps through important elements of Wolverine’s characterization, other chapters separately discuss topics like Wolverine’s love life and the metaphorical positioning of the mutants of the X-Men over the years. Much has already been written about how the Marvel Universe’s mutants have been stand-ins for various minority groups over the years. Wolverine, by virtue of being a mutant, finds himself involved in mutant politics, but he’s rarely seen as a leader of the mutants. Untamed acknowledges this by focusing largely on the characters who have surrounded Wolverine over the years as Flores discusses the ways oppression is rendered in the comics. His character is usually depicted being a part of a team, which allows writers to depict his growth and the struggles he faces when attempting to adapt to “civilized” society, and when he’s starring in his own series, the books feature a constellation of allies and foes that taken together remove the gruff exterior and reveal a hero underneath. Additionally, Wolverine is a straight white male whose mutations are primarily invisible, so he makes a poor posterchild for oppression seeing as he can “pass” as normal. But as Flores writes, he has been a fundamental ally to the oppressed and discarded for much of his history.

Flores charts the complex, tragic history of Wolverine’s attempts at romance, which always end in death and disappointment with his personal life continuously being a source of trauma. Flores points out how Wolverine has been understood by writers since his self-titled mini-series from 1982, as a sort of ronin—a samurai without a master—who becomes entangled in conspiracies, with his inability to maintain healthy, romantic relationships, particularly in the light of his affairs with Yukio, Mariko Yashida, and Jean Grey. Flores discusses the psychological aspects of love, and the varieties of love as social scientists understand them, continuing the book’s efforts to connect her close reading of Wolverine’s stories to psychology concepts that are the core of the book’s scholarship.

Finally, Flores places Wolverine’s journey within the mythology of superheroes and heroes in general, leaning, of course, on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but also offering a unique and productive take on the antihero. Flores explains the antihero as someone who leaves behind the pure concepts of right and wrong in an “ends-justify-the-means” approach to justice. Often, antiheroes are born from tragedy and trauma. Wolverine’s history, especially concerning the experimentation he suffered at the hands of the Weapon X program, makes him the perfect candidate to be an antihero, but, he never succumbs to the “darkness” that usually defines antiheroes. Instead, he’s allowed to be gentle at times just as he is characteristically rugged at other times. He’s allowed to be a mentor to young people despite fulfilling the “lone wolf” archetype. He’s been transformed into a symbol of protection on the one hand and literally transformed to a child’s plush toy on the other. There’s room here for more consideration, especially for work that analyzes readers’ interests in the antihero, and the trends behind turning bad guys into good guys, at least temporarily (such as we’ve seen, for example, with Venom, Deadpool, Namor, Magneto, and Dr. Doom). For many followers of comic books, it seems that you can’t have a popular bad guy that doesn’t eventually cross over to the side of the angels. Perhaps that speaks to our instincts to see the best in people, to see the potential for people to be better than their nature. In a way, that instinct goes far in explaining Wolverine’s widespread appeal.  

In trying to understand Wolverine’s popularity, Flores focuses on his unfailing determination. His history and his nature, and more importantly, his responses to them, defines his character as the eternal underdog. His life is marked by tragedies, and yet he perseveres. His superpower is his resilience; of course, that’s the nature of his healing factor, but more than that, he survives traumas that would otherwise have left lesser people in a puddle. Seeing Wolverine overcome his traumas inspires readers and fans to overcome their own. “The Wolverine story is our own,” Flores writes in her introduction (6), her way of explaining the connection readers and fans make between Wolverine’s challenges and their own struggles. She goes on later to write:

Logan reminds us of who we’d like to be: someone who is smart, fast, and strong, and who stands up to bullies. He’s resilient and figures out ways to deal with his problems and adversaries. He also has a great sense of humor and an unwavering sense of kindness. This dualistic nature, a tough exterior combined with a soft heart, is what makes Logan stand out from other Marvel characters. (17)

In this way, we can all become the (super)heroes of our own stories, and that feeds into our admiration for Wolverine and explains his popularity.

Flores doesn’t hide the fact that she’s a Wolverine fan, and her enthusiasm for the hero  injects the book with an energy that pushes the book beyond just being read as just a psychological text. She inserts herself into the book and interjects every now and then, breaking the “fourth wall” to directly addresses the reader as a fellow fan. At times, the loss of formal, academic voice is disorienting. One imagines how this book might have been different if Flores had embraced a reader response model instead of trying to maintain itself as a strictly academic, researched piece. As it is, the book doesn’t quite straddle the two genres successfully, but that doesn’t diminish the work’s value in critical comics studies.

Students of both comics and psychology will find a lot of useful material in Untamed: The Psychology of Marvel’s Wolverine. The main lesson in Wolverine’s story, Flores concludes, is that we are judged by our overall attempts to live a life of honor, of service, and of sacrifice. Though we may fail and fall at points, like Wolverine we can dust ourselves off and have another go at it. We are meant to move forward. We are meant to be powerful.

Posted in Volume 12, Issue 1