Wolverine's Death: Superheroes And The Cycle Of Eternal Return
ARUN RATH, HOST:
You don't have to recognize the "X-Men" theme song to recognize the most famous X-Man - Wolverine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "X-MEN")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAWS SLICING)
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.
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