I first encountered Laura Kinney (aka Wolverine or X-23) because of Black Widow. I happened to see a panel on the fuckyeahblackwidow blog with the two of them, and tracked down the issue in question because at the time I was busily reading every single appearance of Black Widow I could get my hands on. The issue was X-23 #20, written by Marjorie Liu and drawn by Phil Noto, and it follows Laura as she spends a night out with Jubilee. While at a club, she discovers – and takes down – a human trafficking ring, which is where she encounters Black Widow, who offers to train her.
Something about the issue hooked me. I went back to the beginning and read the entirety of Marjorie Liu’s run on X-23. Then I tracked down her introductory miniseries, X-23: Innocence Lost, followed by X-23: Target X. And kept digging, looking for more: I read X-Force solely for her, and picked up New X-Men and Avengers Academy for the same reasons. I fell in love.
The basic conceit of Laura’s character is fairly simple: she is a female clone of Logan Howlett (Wolverine) who was raised as an assassin until her eventual escape. A lot of the themes of her stories are similar to Wolverine’s: nature vs. nurture, beast and man, killer instinct and heroic urge. But the specific way those themes are executed, and the way they resonate, are unique. Specifically, Laura’s story, especially during her years as X-23, was one of struggling to define herself as more than what she is told she can be.
During her childhood, Laura was raised with very little connection to others – treated like a machine or an animal, actively discouraged from emotional attachment to others. Laura struggles to think of herself as human, and began self-harming at a young age. Her eventual escape came at the cost of the life of the one woman who showed her kindness, her mother, due to a trigger scent that forces Laura into a killing frenzy. One of her first acts after escaping is to seek out Wolverine and attempt to kill him, convinced that they are both monsters who deserve to die. Laura has been told, again and again, that the only thing she is good for is killing.
Throughout Marjorie Liu’s run, Laura gradually struggles to redefine herself by setting out on her own, and discovers her own heroism – and her own humanity – along the way. She befriends Gambit and Jubilee. She faces off with Daken – Wolverine’s son – and holds her own, calling Daken out on his amorality. In the final issue, entirely wordless, Laura fights her dark side and wins by reconciling with herself, becoming whole.
Stories about reclamation of agency are powerful. Everyone wants to have power over their own lives. Stories about people becoming heroes are also: it’s the reason we keep coming back to origin stories. But Laura’s story says something, specifically, to women.
Gender in general is a trap in a lot of ways. Femininity and womanhood present a number of double-binds: be sexy but not too sexy, smart but not intimidating, succeed at your job but be a nurturing mother. Women are told, over and over from childhood, that they have to fit into certain molds, and if they do not fit those molds are forced into them. Women are objectified and dehumanized daily and in hundreds of small gestures.
What Laura’s growth – Laura’s journey – offers is a story of a young woman who says no. Who against all of the odds, fights her way free of those who try to define her. The majority of Laura’s opponents are male, many representing patriarchal institutions or predators: sex traffickers, male scientists, a male demon (who impersonates Cyclops, an authority figure, and Logan, a father figure), the Collector. I doubt this is an accident. The one female opponent in her solo series is Mr. Sinister’s daughter, seeking to use Laura’s body as an escape as Mr. Sinister tries to take over hers: a dark and more literal mirror of Laura’s own struggle for autonomy.
Laura realizes, through her own agency and her own efforts, her own strength, that she is not a monster, not a killer, not an animal. Captured by enemies in Madripoor who are cutting her apart like an experiment, Laura suddenly recognizes the wrongness of what she is going through.
I have been on other tables. But this feels worse. It all…feels worse. Not because of the pain. Because I know better now. I am not an animal. I am not…a thing. Why did no one ever see that? How could they look at me and hurt me like they did? How was that possible? How? What was wrong with them? How could they? How could they?
Her sudden recognition, that she did not deserve what happened, that she was never what was wrong, is an incredible turning point from her words to Wolverine after her escape from the Facility: “We are weapons! We must be stopped! We must be destroyed!”
Now, in comics, Laura is Wolverine. Not only that, she’s taken on mentorship of clones of herself – other girls raised as assassins who escaped their masters. She’s come into her own, reaching out to and giving back to her child self. It feels like a kind of forgiveness – a recognition that she was never the monster. That these girls, these clones, deserve life, and freedom. Despite everyone else telling her what she is, what she’s destined to be, Laura makes herself a superhero.
In one issue of X-23, trapped in space and facing off against the Whirldemon King on an alien world, the demon claims that she is trapped, never going home. Laura contradicts him, saying that she can still see the stars; he says it doesn’t matter because she cannot touch them.
“I do not need to touch them,” Laura says. “I am made of stars.”