The Bold and the Forgetful: Amnesia, Character Mutability and Serial Narrative Form in The X-Men – Radha O’Meara

“Mutation is the key to our evolution,” according to the voice-over introduction to the X-Men movie (Brian Singer 2000) by Professor Charles Francis Xavier. Mutation is also, it seems, the key to characterization in serial narratives. Characters in serial narratives are ‘hyper-mutable,’ that is they change many times and in many ways. The X-Men are used here as examples of characters presented in serial narratives, that is narratives released and consumed in instalments through series of comic books, TV episodes and films. Specifically, three levels of character mutability in the character Wolverine will be outlined here to demonstrate a multilayered aesthetic of character ‘hyper-mutability.’ Character mutability on formal, narrative, and thematic levels is inherently connected in serial narratives.

The X-Men characters including Professor X, Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Wolverine are members of a mutant humanoid breed called ‘Homo-Superior.’ They are also the most popular superhero team in history. While the first X-Men comic was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963 (Uncanny X-Men #1), Wolverine stormed into the Marvel universe with a surprising defeat of the Incredible Hulk in 1974 (The Incredible Hulk [second series] #180-1). Wolverine is known for his retractable claws and fierce fighting, and was one of the first superheroes to acknowledge the dark side of his character. Wolverine has the ability to accelerate the healing process and has a super-strong metal skeleton. But Wolverine isn’t just a big, bad fighting machine, he’s also a sensitive, new-age superhero: Wolverine is plagued by chronic amnesia. Wolverine has apparently suffered amnesia throughout most of his 120 year life. His memory loss is first introduced in t! he comic books in the context of his work with the Canadian and US governments. Wolverine has some vague memories of the Weapon X experiments set in the 1960s, when the indestructible metal adamantium was bonded to his skeleton (Marvel Comics Presents #72-84). However large tracts of his past remain hidden to him, and Wolverine’s ultimate quest is to discover his identity.

There is, of course, a long history of characters suffering amnesia in literature, film and television stories. In literature one important example of the amnesia plot is in William Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, originally published in serial form in 1859-60 (Collins 1975). On television, amnesia plots have been used in series from Amos ‘n’ Andy, Peyton Place and Mr. Ed, to Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and 24. Irna Phillips, who was instrumental in developing the form of the soap opera and created enduring successes such as The Guiding Light, As the World Turns and Days of our Lives, is credited with inventing the amnesia convention now rampant in soap operas (Cassata 1985, 134; Simon 1997, 18).

Character instability and fragmentation has previously been analysed in cultural terms, often focussing on understandings of fragmented, postmodern subjectivity. Amnesia stories tend to be critically understood as a response to erasures of cultural memory, or even to the ‘end of history’ (Blackmore 2004; Burns 2001). Issues of unstable superhero identities have already been analysed in cultural terms, notably in Scott Bukatman’s analysis of representations of bodies in the X-Men comics (Bukatman 1994). While cultural understandings of character mutability have deepened our theoretical understandings of these characters, this work can be extended with closer consideration of the textual construction of these hyper-mutable characters. Issues of unstable character identity will be explored here in formal and narrative terms, explaining amnesia as part of a larger aesthetic of character mutability.

Amnesia is understood here as one trope in a range of articulations of character instability and mutability, linked to the form of serial narrative. Characters in serial narratives often seem to have multiple identities and multiple lives. For example, serial characters can die and be resurrected, be possessed, and are often doubled. In the X-Men, Jean Grey is cosmically resurrected or possessed by the Phoenix, according to two explanations for her return from the dead [1]. Jean is also cloned in the form of Madelyne, and most of the characters are doubled in the parallel universe, Days of Future Past. In this way, serial characters are particularly fragmented, disjointed, and paradoxical. So Wolverine’s amnesia can be understood as one example of this character fragmentation. My interest in Wolverine is in explaining how and why the device of amnesia is used to represent him as an unstable, fragmented character.

Wolverine’s character is presented through serial narrative. This means that even in a single, continuing story, we encounter different versions of Wolverine in different issues of a comic book. To complicate matters further, the character of Wolverine is made up of numerous representations in various texts and media: he appears in hundreds of issues and dozens of comics titles, two animated television series, two feature films, computer games, and of course plenty of merchandise. Few audiences would encounter Wolverine in a single text. There is no primary, canonic text, which unifies the diversity of representations of Wolverine, yet he is recognised by audiences as a single character.

This understanding of character mutability in superheroes is informed by William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson’s chapter, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in their book The Many Lives of The Batman (1991).It would be practically impossible to completely eliminate the diversity of character representations in serial texts, and, as Uricchio and Pearson argue, it is economically prudent to exploit this differentiation (Uricchio and Pearson 1991, 187-90). Uricchio and Pearson suggest that the creative and legal forces behind the character of the Batman encourage diversity for three reasons: firstly, the creative desires of artists; secondly, economic incentives for authors to differentiate their own work; and thirdly, the desires of publishing companies to differentiate their product, thereby expanding the market (Uricchio and Pearson 1991, 187-9). Wolverine is clearly subject to similar forces as the Batman, which allow for an! d even promote degrees of diversity in character representation. I argue that the serial form of the comics, television shows and films which represent superheroes like the Batman and Wolverine always produces representational differentiation. Uricchio and Pearson suggest that there is an inherent tension between diversity in character representation, and the maintenance of key recognisable elements of character (1991, 190). Audiences must be able to recognise different versions of the same character across different representations.

Uricchio and Pearson’s argument is chiefly confined to what I call a formal level of character mutability, which refers to differing visual and aural forms of character representation. This argument will be extended here using some ideas from critical understandings of soap opera, incorporating other levels of character mutability in serial narratives. This is inspired by Mimi White’s 1994 article “Women, Memory and Serial Melodrama,” which argues that in soap opera, themes of unstable character identity are an overt expression of instability in character. White argues that in soap opera the formal mutability of character representation is rehearsed in narrative themes: “In other words, the whole question of doubles, impostors and replacements can be played out literally on the surface of the drama when different actors play the same role. But it is also continually thematized and rehearsed in narrative terms, in plots of impostors, doubles and unexpected returns and revivals” (White 1994, 34
8). In this way, Wolverine’s amnesia can be seen as a thematic expression of the representational mutability of his character.

Essentially, Wolverine’s amnesia is understood as an overt textual acknowledgement of several layers of character mutability: characters in serial narratives such as Wolverine change repeatedly on a formal level, on a narrative level and on a thematic level. Formally, Wolverine takes on a number of outward appearances; narratively, he has the ability to change repeatedly between the identities of Logan and Wolverine. Finally, I will return to the focus on Wolverine’s amnesia, to outline how it makes character mutability a thematic concern.

Formal Hyper-Mutability: Representational Diversity

This section will concentrate on the formal representation of characters, that is the way they are depicted through visual and aural construction. The formal hyper-mutability of comic book characters such as the X-Men is readily apparent in the diversity of their outward appearances: characters may be drawn in different proportions, rendered in different artistic styles, or be performed by different actors. Characters may appear ageless and even change their trademarked costumes. Variations in the representation of a character may reflect artistic trends, changes of authorship, adaptations to accommodate different media or sheer convenience. This diversity of character is both promoted and contained within the industrial context of comic book publication (Uricchio and Pearson 1991). It is also promoted and contained with the appearance of the same characters in other entertainment media including film, television and computer games (Uricchio and Pea! rson 1991). This formal mutability of character can be seen in the different versions of the X-Men presented in different comic book panels, issues and titles, as well as episodes of television series and films.

Aspects of the X-Men’s appearance change size and shape in different panels, issues and titles of comic books. For example, Wolverine’s claws often appear as smooth metal, occasionally as jagged; sometimes they are barely longer than his fingers, sometimes they are the length of his arms. The inconsistent proportions of Wolverine’s body can generally be explained by the demands of panel composition. For example, his claws are drawn shorter when long ones would not fit in the comic book panel, but drawn longer when dramatic impact requires them to be the focus of the panel.

The X-Men are drawn in an assortment of different graphic styles. These styles can vary according to era, artist, and title. The X-Men of the 1960s and 70s were drawn in the simplified cartoon style associated with Jack Kirby, who created the X-Men with Stan Lee. The Kirby-esque style typically shows chunky, well-built characters in action poses, surrounded by speed lines and energy dots involving highly dynamic compositions. The faces often lack detail and therefore the characters can be difficult to distinguish by face alone. Wolverine was drawn in this style when he joined the X-Men: his face is largely covered by his mask, and we can’t even see his eyeballs, but he is recognisable by his claws, his costume and his ready-to-pounce posture. In the 1990s, in titles such as Marvel Universe Onslaught, Wolverine was seen drawn in a manga-inspired style with a large body and tiny feet. Recent comics have shown further manga influence with the la! rge eyes and exaggerated actions of titles like Marvel Mangaverse X-Men. Other recent titles like New X-Men show more stylised and more detailed figures, where Wolverine’s face is stubbly and gnarled. Origin is a self-consciously arty title depicting rounded faces in a naïve, painterly style against richly detailed backgrounds.

Up to ten “authors” (including writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers and editors) are credited in each issue of a comic book. Authors such as Chris Claremont and Barry Windsor-Smith make their name with audiences and in the industry by initiating character change. Marvel clearly promote the different, concurrent versions of characters in their comics: in 2004 alone Wolverine appeared in at least ten different comic book titles published by Marvel (X-Men [second series], Uncanny X-Men, Ultimate X-Men, Astonishing X-Men [third series], X-Men Unlimited [second series], Wolverine [third series], Wolverine The End, Wolverine/Punisher, Wolverine/Captain America, Weapon X [second series]).

Variations in the use of colour are also notable in creating differences between representations of comic characters. In many X-Men comics Wolverine’s skin is cast in a solid, pale pink, and his costume is coloured in solid, bright yellow, blue and black. In this style of colouring, shadows on the body are created by cross-hatching (or by Wolverine’s own abundant body hair inked to create a cross-hatching effect). The more expensive and computer-painted comics show greater variations of light and shade. For example, in New X-Men the contours of Wolverine’s body are rendered in gradations of painted colour rather than ink. Barry Windsor-Smith also uses cross-hatching in Weapon X: The Origin of Wolverine, particularly on the body of Wolverine, but this creates a sense of surface texture as areas of light and shade are already signified through colour. More expensive comics also have a greater range of colours available to them, and artis! ts like Windsor Smith use these colours in more abstract and self-conscious ways. In Origin, digital painter Andy Richard creates a nostalgic impression by using a limited palette based around the earthy tones of yellow and brown. Wolverine’s body is marked as much by sketchy pencil lines and dappled watercolour effects as it is by the muscles for which he is renowned. In reprints of older issues, comics are often printed cheaply in black and white, where only the ink and not the colour is reproduced (for example, The Essential X-Men, vol. 1).

In The X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-97), the cel animation represents bodies as smooth and shiny, using cross-hatching very sparingly. The characters are subject to obvious lighting effects including flashes of coloured light, which are used to create a sense of movement in different environments. The composition of shots here owes more to conventions of television drama than to the panel composition of comics. Canted angles are used in the comics regularly, but in the television show only in sequences of high-action. In the X-Men movies (X-Men, X2; Singer 2000, 2003), Wolverine’s metallic claws are just part of a larger fetishization of metal, also expressed in the gleaming surfaces of Cerebro, Magneto’s helmet and Professor X’s wheelchair. The layered sounds of knives sharpening replace the “SNIKT” of Wolverine’s emerging claws in the comics. In addition, the mutants in the live-action films are largely depicte! d in a more realist manner than in the comics and animated programs. This is probably partly the result of the representational photographic process of the medium, and partly an aesthetic choice to make these teens look like lots of other teens (or at least lots of other teens in Hollywood films). Wolverine’s hair style is dramatically toned-down in the film compared to the comics: it’s more Elvis, less 1950s Chevy fins. This comparatively realist visual style reinforces the theme of humanism voiced in the film’s narrative.

Just as characters may be drawn differently in graphic texts, they are performed differently in film and television texts. Wolverine is performed in different ways in different episodes and films: his voice is generally more surly but his character is more team-spirited in The X-Men: The Animated Series, whereas his voice is generally more laconic and his character more reserved in
the feature films. In addition, the role of Wolverine is performed by different actors: in The X-Men: The Animated Series he is voiced by Cathal J. Dodd; in X-Men: Evolution he is voiced by Scott McNeil; and in X-Men and X2 movies he is performed by Hugh Jackman. In addition, characters may be personified by different performers during the course of a series through the practice of “recasting.” For example, in The X-Men: The Animated Series, the Storm/Ororo Monroe character was played by Iona Morris in 1992 and Alison Sealy-Sm! ith from 1993-97, and the Gambit/Remy LeBeau character was played by Chris Potter from 1992-95 and Tony Daniels from 1996-97. Recasting is common in excessively serialised television narratives such as soap operas. It is important to note that recasting is different from, for example, the standard Hollywood use of stunt doubles, in that recasting overtly acknowledges the dissimilarity of performers in the same role. According to John O. Thompson, stunt doubles, “supply presences to the screen which have to seem indistinguishable from those of the actor or actress who is being stood in for: here much trouble is taken to ensure that the actual substitution of one body for another makes no difference to the text” (Thompson 1978, 58). In contrast, serial texts tend not to elide the differences. Indeed, in the days when soap operas had announcers, recasting would be announced at the beginning of an episode: “Today, Wolverine will be played by…”. As! with other aspects of the formal mutability of characters in serial n arratives, recasting is accepted as part of the diversity of character representations.

One of the key devices for identification of superheroes is their costume, and costumes are just as variable as other elements of a superhero’s character. On the cover of The Incredible Hulk #181 in 1974, Wolverine was seen in a costume very similar to the one he wears in most X-Men comics today: it is a tight, bright yellow suit with big blue underpants (on the outside, of course), blue knee-high boots, blue gloves and blue and black ridges to accentuate his powerful shoulders. The main difference is that the early version of this costume has him wearing a simple mask covering his eyes and hair in yellow, blue and black. By the time of Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975, Wolverine’s mask has developed large black “wings” extending from his eyes outward into points. It is interesting that these “wings” have become part of the characteristic Wolverine look, but were not part of his original costume. Indeed, the 1970s an! d 1980s X-Men comics bear a trademarked icon of a group of X-Men faces, in which Wolverine’s face is only distinguishable by the “wings” of his mask. The “wings” have therefore come to stand in for Wolverine’s identity, but have not always been part of his appearance. Wolverine has even been seen in a completely different superhero costume, which is brown and orange (Uncanny X-Men #228, Wolverine and Punisher: Damaging Evidence #1-3). In the feature films, Wolverine never even dons a mask, but sports a black costume like a motorcycle suit, and the natural “wings” of his hairstyle are diminished. Of course the “smaller” hairstyles worn by the characters in the X-Men movies can be seen as a reflection of fashion in the early new millennium, and the “big hair” of the comic book characters a reflection of sixties and seventies fashion. Wolverine is relieved to sport the black costume again in the New X! -Men comics, as he declares, “Suddenly I don’t have to look like an idiot in broad daylight” (New X-Men #114).

These are just some examples of the ways that Wolverine and the X-Men are represented differently in different issues, titles and media. These characters are also represented variously in other forms such as computer games, merchandise and toys, and continue to be represented in different ways as texts continue to be produced and consumed. Differing representations of characters are inherent to the form of serial texts, and are regularly negotiated by producers and audiences alike. However, it is important to acknowledge that despite this formal mutability, characters must also maintain some key elements in order to be recognisable across a range of expressions in various texts. In his 1995 book Engaging Characters, Murray Smith argues that film spectators must always construct continuous characters from sets of textual elements, and this recognition is the first key element of his theory of identification. Smith argues that characters may de! velop and change, but maintain “(at least) bodily discreteness and continuity” (Smith 1995, 82) however we have seen that this is more complex for characters of serial narratives such as Wolverine. Recognition across instalments of serial narratives is more than being re-identified in different hairstyles, costumes or lighting in different scenes of a discrete text. Serialised characters such as superheroes are often drawn differently by different artists, voiced differently by different actors, performed differently by different performers, age arbitrarily and their trademarked costumes are not even consistent. Such significant variations in representation requires considerable flexibility in the process of the audience’s construction of continuous characters.

Narrative Hyper-Mutability: Repeated Transformations

The notion of transformation is closely linked to our understanding of character in narrative. Audiences of all genres expect characters to change throughout a sequence of narrative events. Characters generally undergo one significant transformation within a narrative of the classical Hollywood paradigm, currently a dominant mode of storytelling (Bordwell and Thompson 2004, 70). However characters in serial narratives change over and over again. While audiences may expect a significant character transformation in a movie or novel, they expect repeated change in serial narratives. In the case of superheroes, repeated change is often built into the fundamental nature of the character. Superheroes usually have two states, and they alternate between them frequently.

It is typically the possession of superpowers which gives the superhero their super-identity. Superpowers generally mean specific and extraordinary abilities which set the character apart from the population at large. The Flash runs faster than the speed of light, The Atom can shrink to the size of an atomic particle and Spider-man can spin webs and crawl up walls. Greedy superheroes like Superman possesses many extraordinary abilities such as vast superhuman strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly. In the X-Men, Wolverine has lethal claws, Rogue can absorb the energy of those she touches, Colossus can armour his body with steel, and Nightcrawler can teleport himself. Superheroes use their superpowers repeatedly, often several times within a single issue of a comic book or a single episode of a television program.

There are two main narrative constructions of superpowers: characters who must change state in order to access their superpowers, and characters who always possess their superpowers. Characters who are ‘cursed’ with always possessing their superpowers are reminiscent of mythological figures such as Thor, and must learn how to control their powers. In the X-Men, Ororo Monroe must concentrate intently to become Storm and control the weather; whereas Scott Summers/Cyclops cannot naturally control the laser beams which shoot from his eyes (until he acquires specially-designed glasses). In both cases, the narratives emphasise the importance of the characters’ control of their superpowers. Professor Xavier teaches the young mutants at his academy to control their powers: their extraordinary abilities must be able to be turned off. In this way, superheroes generally have two states: their human form and their superhero form, in which they can exercis! e their superpowers. Therefore the ability to repeatedly change between states is fundamental to the character of most superheroes. There is no one, true identity for a superhero: they change between different identities frequently.

A character’s two states are generally aligned with the dual identities maintained by most superheroes. A character’s dual identity is represented by dual costumes and dual names[2]. In his chapter “Costumed Continuity,” Richard Reynolds observes that superhero costumes serve two functions: “the role of the costume as a narrative device (giving Iron Man the powers he needs to fight villains) and its role as a sign of identity (to wear the costume is to become Iron Man)” (Reynolds 1992, 26-7). In many superhero stories the dual identity is based on secrecy: Superman and Spider-Man live their days as Clark Kent and Peter Parker, keeping their superpowers secret from their families, friends and colleagues. Like most superheroes, the X-Men have dual identities: Logan/Wolverine, Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, Peter Rasputin/Colossus, Hank McCoy/The Beast. Logan usually dresses in his rebel Canadian look with a white singlet and wool-li! ned jacket, but can instantly change into the underwear-on-the-outside, wings-on-his-mask Wolverine.

While there is not such a premium on individual secrecy in the world of the X-Men, the stories regularly reinforce the idea that mutants are not welcome members of mainstream culture. Characters like Rogue and Kurt Wagner are not welcome in their home communities. Mutants are regularly the subjects of alarm and derision in wider society, especially at government level where there are plans to eliminate, contain, and control mutants. Professor X’s “School for the Gifted” is a disguise for his mutant community. Interestingly, the leader of the X-Men, Professor X, maintains a public identity as (non-mutant) Professor Charles Frances Xavier, but his dual identity does not influence his superpowers. Professor X has enormous psychic powers, which enable him to locate and communicate with people and mutants in far flung places. However he is often subject to involuntary connections and communications: Professor X/ Professor Xavier cannot always! control his powers and psychic communications may strike him in any state. While Professor X does not appear to have a costume as such, his wheelchair, emblazoned with a large X on the wheel, or the specially built Cerebro room, in which his psychic powers are honed, may be understood as his costumes.

It is notable that most superheroes, including the mutant X-Men, tend to discover their superpowers during puberty. In the origin stories of Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, the characters develop their superpowers at the same time as they are confronting issues of sexuality, and personal and social identity. Interestingly, the initial transformation of many superheroes is caused by an accident early in life (for example, Peter Parker is bitten by a radio-active spider), whereas the X-Men are born with a mutant gene, which generally activates itself during puberty. For example, Rogue first realises that she absorbs the energy of people she touches when she kisses a boy. The boy ends up in a coma and Rogue flees to discover what’s wrong with her. This association between the development of superpowers and puberty gives the stories a more normalised “coming of age” context. Scott Bukatman describes one of the earliest superhe! roes, Captain Marvel, who transforms from a young boy to a super-strong man, as “an allegory of pubescent metamorphosis” (Bukatman 1994, 100). In this way, the characters’ superpowered transformations are tied to more realist tropes of character change.

The comic book obsession with continually restaging and redefining myths of origin is an obsession with the original moment of character transformation, which is merely re-enacted in all subsequent stories. The story of adamantium being bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton by the Weapon X team in the 1970s is retold many times. In comics this is told in varying versions in Marvel Comics Presents #72-84, Wolverine #64 and X-Men Adventures #5; in several episodes of X:Men the Animated Series the experiment is shown in flashback; it is also replayed in the film X2. Origin appeared in 2001-02 after the Weapon X story of origin had already been restaged a number of times. It traces the story of Wolverine’s original transformation back to James Howlett’s childhood in nineteenth century Alberta. Wolverine first extends bone claws from his hands as a boy, when his father is traumatically killed in front of him. This momen! t of initial transformation is the subject of a single panel, full-page cliff-hanger. It is also painted in bloody detail on the cover of issue two, “Innerchild,” depicting a close-up of Wolverine’s hand with bone claws protruding from the knuckles (#2/6 Origin, 2001).

The superhero’s use of their superpowers represent physical, psychological and emotional changes. In the X-Men film, Rogue stares at Wolverine’s knuckles and asks him “Does it hurt?” referring to the process of metal claws extending from his knuckles. “Every time,” Wolverine answers, showing a rare touch of emotion. Each time Logan transforms into Wolverine, it is a character transformation for him. This process is often elided in the “gutter” between panels of comics, and inferred by the “SNI
KT” sound bubble. In the film and television versions, this transformation is frequently the focus of close-ups. Similarly, Professor X and Jean Grey often suffer extreme mental exhaustion from the use of their psychic powers, which is represented in facial close-ups in the comic, film and television texts. Rogue later discovers that when she draws energy from those she touches, she may also absorb their superpowe! rs and their memories. When she absorbs the powers and memory of Carol Danvers (Marvel Superheroes, second series #11; Uncanny X-Men #236), it takes her years to come to terms with the effects. The physical and psychological changes brought about by superpowers also represent moral and ethical changes in the characters: this is encapsulated by Spider-Man’s oft-quoted line penned by Stan Lee: “With great power must also come great responsibility.”

The need for characters in serial narratives to repeatedly transform is fulfilled by the classic superhero construction of a character, who frequently changes between two states. In some cases, superheroes actually have several states, and transform in multiple ways. For example, Wolverine’s mutant abilities allow him to extend bone claws from his hands and quicken cellular regeneration, accelerating the healing process. Fortunately for Logan’s lifestyle, this superpower also means he doesn’t suffer hangovers. Wolverine is regularly physically transformed through his healing powers, as he demonstrates in an early scene of the X2 movie when he extinguishes a cigar in the palm of his hand and the skin burns, then heals within seconds. However Wolverine’s mutant transformation is just the beginning. He is doubly transformed when Weapon X, a division of the Canadian government, take advantage of his fantastic healing powers and bond the impenetra! ble metal ‘adamantium’ to his skeleton. Wolverine’s mutant powers allow him to recover from this horrific process, and the result is that metal claws can now extend from his knuckles. Therefore Wolverine is, in a sense, doubly transformed. Hank McCoy/The Beast experiences a secondary mutation when he turns into a feline in New X-Men, and Jean Grey/Marvel Girl is also doubly transformed when she becomes the cosmic girl, Phoenix. The concept of multiple identities was taken to extremes in the X-Factor, in which the X-Men each had three identities: their ordinary, non-superpowered identities; their superpowered identities where they were able to use their powers, but kept their mutant identities in the closet; and their superpowered, mutant-outed identities. Superheroes conventionally change between dual identities, but can also transform in new ways. So on a narrative level, superheroes such as Wolverine show repeated physical, psychological, moral and emo! tional change through their frequent changes between dual identities a nd their use of superpowers.

Thematic Hyper-Mutability: Acknowledging Change

Wolverine’s amnesia depicts him as a character with psychological and emotional problems, and this is certainly part of his popularity. More importantly, it characterizes him as a man who struggles with defining his own identity. Themes of complex, fragmented identities in serial narratives are an explicit acknowledgement of character mutability. Wolverine’s fragmented identity is continually thematised through the repression, suppression, recovery, tainting, falsification, and manipulation of his memories. Wolverine underscores the connection between his memory and identity in statements such as “My true nature, I wish I knew what that was,” and “I came to find myself” (X-Men: The Animated Series, episode “The Lotus and the Steel”).

When Logan set out to explore the sites of his happy memories of Silver Fox, his former lover, he uncovered sets for created memories (memories in Marvel Comics Presents #130). The structures had no depth, no dimension, and could not have been the real locations of lived experiences (Wolverine [second series] #48-50). Logan realised that his happy memories of Silver Fox had been created and implanted. So in addition to missing many memories of his past, Wolverine could no longer trust his existing memories. In the story “Nightmares Persist,” Logan suffered from severe physical and psychological pain after Magneto had ripped the adamantium from his bones. Jean and Professor Xavier travelled into Logan’s mind, where they discovered that his memories were attacking him. Jean and Professor Xavier watched scenes from Wolverine’s memory: being attacked by Lady Deathstrike and Sabretooth, being infused with adamantium. Jean sugges! ted to Xavier that they use their psychic powers to alter Wolverine’s memories, and save him the suffering. However Xavier would not risk modifying Logan’s whole mind and personality. Jean withdrew from Logan’s mind, as she was disturbed by seeing such personal moments of his life, and Logan survived when he came back to help her (“Nightmares Persist,” Wolverine [second series] #75). Logan’s adamantium skeleton was finally reinserted by Apocalypse, who also brainwashed him in the process.

Logan has been tempted by the potential to regain his lost memories, but his dream of a complete past never really eventuates. Sabretooth offered him the so-called “Logan Files,” records of Logan’s true memory kept by the Weapon X program. However when Wolverine opened the case, it was empty. Sabretooth explained that Logan’s true memories never existed, that his memory has always “healed itself” through his natural powers of regeneration (“The Logan Files,” Wolverine [second series] #175-6). A similar story transpired in the New X-Men: Assault on Weapon Plus, when Fantomex promised Wolverine they would find his true memories at the site of the program that implanted his false memories. In this version, Wolverine apparently does discover some secrets of his past, but this information is not shared with the reader. Logan has recovered “new” memories of his past as recently as 2004 in the ! comic Wolverine The End, and the process will doubtless continue. The centrality of the amnesia stories to Wolverine’s characterisation ensures that his identity will be forever unstable.

Seeing amnesia as part of a larger tendency to thematize character mutability helps us to understand how it functions in Wolverine’s stories. The changing status of recovered and false memories changes relationships both within and beyond the diegesis. When Wolverine discovers that his memories are false, it has the same effect as Dallas‘ dream season of 1985-86: that is, while the audience initially viewed the events as real, they must later reinterpret the events as part of a different diegetic reality. In these dramatic reversals, the histories of serial narratives are constantly engaged in the process of narrative development. In this way, the text becomes a palimpsest, where the past is constantly rewritten but previous versions are never erased. Logan’s stories of amnesia serve the same functions in each narrative: redefined events transform and renew relationships between existing characters and for the audience. This redefinitio! n of characters, relationships and events is fundamental to the progression of serial narratives.

Stories of amnesia are part of the aesthetic form of serial narratives, because they explicitly acknowledge and articulate the effects of formal and narrative character mutability. Amnesia doesn’t just bring new perspectives to old situations, it articulates the character mutability fundamental to the representation of serial characters. The X-Men comics, television shows and films bear the roots of science fiction in their diegetic explanation of these tropes (see Trushell 2004), where soap opera engages traditions of family melodrama. There are also obvious differences in media between the two forms, meaning that narrative continuity is simpler to track for f
ans of hardcopy comics than broadcast soap opera.

Soaps and comics are linked through their use of serial narrative, which requires character hyper-mutability on formal, narrative and thematic levels. The thematic character mutability expressed by Wolverine’s amnesia redefines relationships between characters in the same way that representational differences and multiple identities continually redefine the relationships between audiences and characters. Stories such as Wolverine’s amnesia overtly articulate his character’s palimpsestic nature in thematic terms. Thematic character mutability helps audiences acknowledge the way we create an intelligible, recognisable character from the hyper-mutable representations we encounter in the text. As Martha Nochimson writes in her article “Amnesia ‘R’ Us”: “Contrary to popular belief, the soap opera team’s search for new narrative energy in old situations is not an act of desperation or laziness, but part of the aesthetic of the form ! itself” Nochimson 1997, 29). Stories of amnesia, doubles, and resurrection are central to the aesthetic of serial narratives in comic books and soap operas, as character mutability is played out on multiple levels of the text.


Primary Texts: Films, Television Programs, Comics


X-Men (Brian Singer 2000)

X2: X-Men United (Brian Singer 2003)


24 ( Fox, USA, 2001-)

Amos ‘n’ Andy (CBS, USA, 1951-53)

As the World Turns (CBS, USA, 1956-)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, USA, 1997-2003)

Dallas (CBS, USA, 1978-91)

Days of our Lives (NBC, USA, 1965-)

Mr. Ed (CBS, USA, 1961-66)

Peyton Place (ABC, USA, 1964-69)

Star Trek (NBC, USA, 1966-69)

The Guiding Light (CBS, USA, 1952-)

X-Men Evolution (WB, USA, 2000-03)

X-Men: The Animated Series (Fox, USA, 1992-97)


Astonishing X-Men [third series] #1-6, New York: Marvel, 2004.

Marvel Comics Presents #72-84, New York: Marvel, 1991-92. Reprint: Weapon X: The Origin of Wolverine New York: Marvel, 2000.

DC vs Marvel #1, New York: Marvel, 1996.

Defenders #16, New York: Marvel, 1974.

Essential X-Men, vol. 1, New York: Marvel, 2000.

Giant Size X-Men #1, New York: Marvel, 1975.

Incredible Hulk [second series] #180-1, New York: Marvel, 1974.

Marvel Comics Presents #130, New York: Marvel, 1993.

Marvel Mangaverse X-Men #1, New York: Marvel, 2002.

Marvel Superheroes [second series] #11, New York: Marvel, 1991.

Marvel Universe Onslaught, New York: Marvel, 1996.

New X-Men: E for Extinction #114-7, New York: Marvel, 2001.

New X-Men: Assault on Weapon Plus #139-45, New York: Marvel, 2003.

New X-Men [second series] #1-11, 2004-05.

Origin #1-6, New York: Marvel, 2001-02.

Ultimate X-Men #39-52, New York: Marvel, 2004.

Uncanny X-Men #1-457, New York: Marvel, 1963-2005.

Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past #141-2, New York: Marvel, 1980.

Weapon X [second series] #1-28, New York: Marvel, 2002-04.

Wolverine [second series] #48-50, New York: Marvel, 1991.

Wolverine [second series] #175-6, New York: Marvel, 2002.

Wolverine [third series] #1-26, New York: Marvel, 2003-05.

Wolverine and Punisher: Damaging Evidence #1-3, New York: Marvel, 1993.

Wolverine The End #1-6, New York: Marvel, 2004.

Wolverine/Captain America #1-4, New York: Marvel, 2004.

Wolverine/Punisher #1-5, New York: Marvel, 2004.

X-Factor #1-149, New York: Marvel, 1986-98.

X-Men [second series] #1-168, New York: Marvel, 1991-2005.

X-Men Adventures #5, New York: Marvel, 1994

X-Men Unlimited [second series] #1-7, New York: Marvel, 2004-05.

Bibliography: Secondary Sources

Blackmore, Tim. “High on Technology – Low on Memory: Cultural Crisis in Dark City and the Matrix.” Canadian Review of American Studies 34.1 (2004): 13-54.

Bordwell, David, and Kristen Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Bukatman, Scott. Remembering Cyberspace? , 1994.

Burns, Christy L. “Erasure: Alienation, Paranoia, and the Loss of Memory in the X-Files.” Camera Obscura 15.3.45 (2001): 195-225.

Cassata, Mary B. “The Soap Opera.” TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Ed. Rose, Brian G. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 131-49.

Collins, William Wilkie. The Woman in White. All The Year Round 1859-60. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Nochimson, Martha P. “Amnesia ‘R’ Us: The Retold Melodrama, Soap Opera and the Representation of Reality.” Film Quarterly 50.3 (1997): 27-38.

Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. Batsford Cultural Studies. Ed. Izod, John. London: B.T. Batsford, 1992.

Simon, Ron. “Serial Seduction: Living in Other Worlds.” Worlds without End : The Art and History of the Soap Opera. Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title at the Museum of Television & Radio, New York and Los Angeles, December 5, 1997 – March 8, 1998. Ed. Simon, Ron. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1997. 11-38.

Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Thompson, John O. “Screen Acting and the Commutation Test.” Screen 19.2 (1978): 58.

Trushell, John M. “American Dreams of Mutants: The X-Men – “Pulp” Fiction, Science Fiction and Superheroes.” Journal of Popular Culture 38.1 (2004): 149-68.

Uricchio, William, and Roberta E. Pearson. “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise.” The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Eds. Pearson, Roberta E. and William Uricchio. New York and London: Routledge and BFI Publishing, 1991.

White, Mimi. “Women, Memory and Serial Melodrama.” Screen 35.4 (1994): 336-53.



[1] Jean Grey is actually replaced by a celestial being, Phoenix, rather than transformed into her, but it takes the X-Men years to uncover this deception.

[2] In fact, not all superheroes have controllable superpowers, dual names and dual costumes. Exceptions include Batman and Green Arrow, who have no superpowers; The Hulk, who cannot control his rage; Rogue, who does not appear to have another name and the Fantastic Four, who have no secret identities. Despite this, superheroes generally seem to manifest dual identities changing at least two of their key attributes: powers, names or costumes.

Author Biography

Radha O’Meara is a postgraduate student in the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Melbourne. Her PhD topic deals with serial form in television and the cinema.
Email :: romeara@