Thursday, July 25, 2013

Snikt!


Wolverine's first appearance in the final panel of The Incredible Hulk #180 (Oct 1974), written by Len Wein and drawn by Herb Trimpe.
Animal.  Samurai.  Loner.  Spy.  Soldier.  Killer.  Teacher.  Mutant.  Avenger.  X-Man.  These are a few of the many labels that have been applied to one of the most popular characters in modern comics, Wolverine, aka Logan, aka James Howlett.  The character is so popular that he's about to appear in his sixth film, The Wolverine (premiering Friday), in which the character is once again portrayed by Hugh Jackman.  A seventh film appearance is mere months away, as the character will play a major part in next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past.  This number of film appearances, which took place in a mere 13-year span, is exceeded among the ranks of comicdom only by Batman, and meets Superman's total over his entire seventy-five year lifetime.  (Though to be fair, Superman does have a huge lead in the old-timey serialized radio program demographic.  NPR, call me.)  Add to this hundreds of television appearances and thousands of comic book appearances, and it seems obvious that this character strikes a chord with audiences.

The first design sketch for Wolverine by long-time Marvel art director John Romita, Sr.  Romita and co-creator Len Wein specified Wolverine's small stature (5'5") on another sketch to further reinforce the kinship with his diminutive yet powerful namesake.
 
Wolverine's first appearance was in a three-part story in Marvel's The Incredible Hulk #180-182 (Oct-Dec 1974).  In that story, Wolverine was introduced as a superhero codenamed "Weapon X" who was sponsored by the Canadian government and tasked with the not-insubstantial feat of driving Hulk out of Canadian territory.  The fact that Wolverine took on the challenge of single-handedly trying to defeat a creature capable of lifting over 100 tons exemplifies his typical tough-as-nails attitude.  However, this Wolverine was quite different from the character that modern fans would recognize in several respects.  While co-creator and writer Len Wein's story indicates that he was agile, fast, and cunning, and was armed with his razor-sharp claws made of adamantium, the strongest natural metal in the Marvel Universe, there was no overt mention of his heightened senses or healing factor.  (Wein has stated that his original intention was only to give him strength and agility similar to Spider-Man)  In addition, according to several interviews that Wein has given over the years (most recently in Episode #4 of the Nerdist's Writers Panel Comics Edition podcast), he originally intended Wolvie's claws to be part of his gloves rather than a part of his body, which might explain why artist Herb Trimpe never drew them retracting into his hands (or gloves) in the origin story.

Wolverine's first full appearance in Incredible Hulk #181 (Nov 1974), drawn by Herb Trimpe, as Canada's "first and greatest" superhero.  A little piece of Captain Canuck dies inside every time he sees this cover.
Wolverine's personality did differ significantly from the character that fans would come to know years later.  This Wolverine was full of bravado and bluster, to the point of being a bit of a smart alec in combat, and lacked his rough edges.  Wolverine's morality in the story (he wasn't really a villain, yet he definitely wasn't on the Hulk's side either) established the character as an antihero, an increasingly popular trend at the time.  The most shocking aspect of Wolverine for readers in the 70's would have undoubtedly been the claws.  Traditionally, superheroes pursued non-lethal means to take down an adversary.  Batarangs, web-shooters, and boxing glove arrows (yes, really) were the order of the day.  But with Wolverine, we have a character who uses weapons that are undeniably meant to maim and kill.  This was partly a reflection of societal tastes (Dirty Harry and Death Wish, films featuring hard-nosed cops and vigilantes who shot first and asked questions later, were extremely popular at the time), and partly a break with campiness that was epitomized in some 60's comics, most notably DC's Batman.  Wolverine was a contemporary of other "gritty" comics antiheros, including Marvel's Punisher and Ghost Rider and DC's Manhunter.  The Comics Code Authority, the self-governing censorship panel of the comics industry, ensured that these characters rarely killed explicitly in these early appearances, and that blood was never shown.  But eventually these standards would loosen, and Wolverine became one of the forebears of an increasingly gritty take on superhero comics that would culminate in the "extreme" storytelling style that dominated the 1990's, where senseless violence and spectacle often trumped story and character.

While Wolverine is inexorably linked with the X-Men, he wasn't explicitly created with that team of mutants in mind.  In fact, the X-Men title was on a publishing hiatus due to a now-unimaginable lack of popularity when Wolverine debuted in the Summer 1974.  It would still be several months before the publication of Giant Size X-Men #1, which introduced a whole new team of international mutants that would take over for the original team of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Iceman.  Several sources, including interviews with Wein and the book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, indicate that the project to relaunch the X-Men had been circulating around the Marvel offices for a few years.  Wein states that he pre-positioned Wolverine as a mutant so that the writer eventually assigned to re-launch the X-Men book could use the character if desired.  As it turns out, the author designated to relaunch the X-Men was none other than Wein himself.  This stroke of serendipity insured Wolverine's inclusion in the new line-up, though not without a minor redesign from artist Dave Cockrum, featuring a new mask that did away with the "whiskers" on the face and added longer "ears."

All-new, all-different: Wolverine was one of the few already-existing characters included on the roster of mostly new creations for the relaunch of the X-Men in 1975.  Cover of Giant Size X-Men #1 (May 1975) by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum.
Modern fans might be shocked to learn that Wolverine was initially the most unpopular member of the otherwise massively popular new X-Men team.  Over the first year or so of the book's revival, many readers would state their dislike of the character in the title's letter column.  This was probably a reaction to his lack of respect for authority and hotheadedness, which Wein had introduced and emphasized in the character's appearance in Giant Size X-Men.  However, things would start to gradually turn around in the popularity department for the diminutive mutant as writer Chris Claremont began to pen the mutants' adventures starting with the next regular issue, X-Men #94 (Aug 1975).

Over the next seventeen years of Claremont's iconic run on the title (soon to be known as Uncanny X-Men), Claremont would start to fill in details about Logan's background, including the fact that his claws actually sprang from his hands (X-Men #98, Apr 1976), that his powers included animal-sharp senses (X-Men #100, Aug 1976) and a healing factor (X-Men #116, Dec 1978), and that his skeleton was also coated in adamantium (X-Men #126, Oct 1979), making his bones unbreakable and his punches land with the force of a sledgehammer.  Wolverine's personality was expanded upon, and his loner edge started to soften as he discovered that the X-Men were the family he never had.  He would become a mentor to several younger X-Men, most notably Kitty Pryde and Jubilee, and he would often engage in philosophical debates with his best friend Nightcrawler on the morality of taking a life in the interest of the greater good.  It was revealed that he was significantly older than he appeared, that he encountered Captain America in the days prior to World War II, and that he spoke fluent Japanese and spent time learning the arts of the samurai in Japan prior to finding work as a spy for the Canadian government.

In my opinion, this rich backstory and continuous character growth are why Wolverine has remained so popular when so many other one-trick antiheroes have fallen by the wayside.  Take the Punisher's vendetta away from him, and what do you have?  Ditto the Ghost Rider's compulsive need to seek vengeance.  And don't get me started on the lousy 90's wannabes like Lobo and Deadpool (I look forward to your angry letters, Deadpool fans).  Wolverine, on the other hand, has evolved from the "psycho runt" that he was initially portrayed as in his first X-Men appearances to the headmaster of a school dedicated to the memories of Charles Xavier and Jean Grey, two of the most important influences in his life.  At the end of the day, Wolverine is a character continually trying to improve himself.  He may never be a role model like Captain America, but he's doing the best he can.  And I think that's something that a lot of modern readers find appealing.

Full disclosure: Wolverine has been my favorite character since I saw him get stuck in a wall in an episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. (Not his greatest moment.  And why did he have an Australian accent?)  Realizing that many people are only aware of Wolverine through his cartoon and movie appearances, I've put together a list of what I feel are essential Wolverine comics for those seeking to learn more about the character.  I've assembled these in publishing chronology versus character chronology, because like the Star Wars films, you read need to consume these in the order in which they were made, otherwise the occasional contradictions will drive you nuts.  Also, this isn't by any means a comprehensive list of the best Wolverine stories; there are many more out there.  These are (mostly) outstanding stories that reveal something essential about the character or his history.  So, without further adieu:


1) X-Men #109: Turns out that the Canadian government didn't take it so well when Wolverine left their service to join the X-Men.  In #109, the Canadians dispatch Wolverine's former friend Weapon Alpha (aka Guardian) to bring Wolverine back.  While there were a lot of great Wolverine moments in the early issues of the new X-Men book, this is the first issue to feature shine a spotlight on Wolverine and where we really start to see him open up to the X-Men a bit.  Reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 2.


2) X-Men #118-119: Issues #118 and #119 provide an interlude wherein the X-Men end up in Japan on a long journey home after being held captive by Magneto.  In these issues we learn that Wolverine speaks fluent Japanese and we are introduced to Wolverine's other great love interest, Mariko Yashida (the first being Jean Grey).  Reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 3.



3) X-Men #133: The final panel of the previous issue, X-Men #132, is easily one of the most iconic images of Wolverine over the years: Logan, assumed dead, pulls himself out of a raging storm sewer and declares, "Okay suckers -- you've taken yer best shot!  Now it's my turn!"  That aftermath is featured in this issue, considered the first solo Wolverine adventure.  Part of the Dark Phoenix Saga, easily one of the best X-Men stories ever told, this story features Logan smashing his way through the Hellfire Club to free the rest of the X-Men.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga trade paperback.


4) X-Men #139-140: In the aftermath of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Wolverine and Nightcrawler head to Canada so that Wolverine can peacefully sort out his differences with Guardian and the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight.  This story features the debut of Wolverine's brown/tan costume that he sported throughout the 80's.  More significantly, this story really marks the beginning of the friendship between Wolverine and his best friend Nightcrawler.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Days of Future Past trade paperback.


5) Wolverine #1-4 (Limited Series) and Uncanny X-Men #172-174: Wolverine wouldn't get his own series until 1982, and this is widely considered one of the best featuring the character.  This story, which forms the basis for the film The Wolverine, features Logan heading to Japan to face the crime lord father of his love Mariko.  Also, ninjas.  Lots of ninjas, as Frank Miller introduces the rivalry between Wolverine and the mysterious Hand, previously featured in his Daredevil work.  The story then continues in Uncanny X-Men, in which the team travels to Japan to attend Wolverine's wedding to Mariko.  Reprinted in the Wolverine hardcover collection.


6) Uncanny X-Men #210-213: This run features the Mutant Massacre story arc, one of the first major crossover events in comics history, in which a group of assassins annihilate a secret society of mutants living in abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City, and seriously injure several long-time X-Men during their ill-fated rescue effort.  This series is notable for introducing the rivalry between Wolverine and his greatest enemy, Sabretooth.  Sabretooth was originally a two-bit nemesis of kung fu hero Iron Fist who was retconned to have a mysterious and complicated tie to Wolverine's forgotten past, resulting in one of the great match-ups in superhero comics history.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Mutant Massacre trade paperback.


7) Incredible Hulk #340: Returning to the book where he was introduced 14 years earlier, Wolverine and the Hulk face off in another epic battle.  Only this time, it's the Hulk (now in his original savage, gray persona) who wants to exact payback, while Wolverine, who has taken on the mantle of X-Men leadership in Storm's absence, wants to walk away.  But things don't go quite the way Logan planned, and old habits (and enemies) die hard.  Reprinted in Incredible Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 2.


8) Marvel Comics Presents #72-84: Marvel Comics Presents was an anthology title in the late 80's and early 90's that was regularly headlined by Wolverine.  In this particular run, readers finally learned how Wolverine came to be part of the Weapon X Project, and we see where and how he received his adamantium.  This story, written and drawn by the incomparable Barry Windsor-Smith, is a uniquely horror-laced and suspense-driven Wolverine tale.  Reprinted in the Wolverine: Weapon X trade paperback.

 
9) Uncanny X-Men #268: This issue revealed that Wolverine is much older than anyone previously guessed, and that he encountered a still wet-behind-the-ears Captain America in the days prior to World War II as they fought to protect a certain young girl from an alliance of Nazis and Hand ninjas.  Easily one of the most fun Wolverine stories that you'll ever read, with stunning art by Jim Lee.  Reprinted in the X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee trade paperback.  Reprinted in the X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Omnibus Volume 1 hardcover collection.


10) Origin #1-6: In 2001, Marvel's then-publisher Bill Jemas decided to shake up the fans by revealing the true origin of Wolverine, much to the chagrin of many readers.  The series reveals that Wolverine was born as a boy named James Howlett to a wealthy family of Canadian ranchers in the late 1800's.  Forced to leave after a tragedy befalls his father, James takes up the alias of Logan.  The story then follows the character's growth into manhood.  This story ranks very low on my list of Wolverine stories, but it was important for finally revealing the character's early days.  Unfortunately.  Reprinted in the Wolverine: Origin trade paperback.


11) New Avengers #1-6: The X-Men are no slouches, but in this arc Wolverine finally joins the major leagues as he becomes a member of the premier super-team in the Marvel Universe, over the protestations of Captain America.  Iron Man convinces Cap to let Logan stay when he explains that the team needs Wolverine to "go to that place that we can't.  And you know exactly what I mean."  Collected in the New Avengers Volume 1: Breakout trade paperback.


12) Wolverine #20-32 (Volume 3): These issues comprise the epic "Enemy of the State" arc, in which one of the Marvel Universe's worst case scenarios is realized: Wolverine is brainwashed by the Hand and turned into a superhero-hunting assassin.  Finally breaking free of his conditioning, Wolverine then sets to make up for the damage he's caused in the second half of the story by enlisting with Nick Fury's SHIELD.  Collected in the Wolverine: Enemy of the State Ultimate Collection trade paperback.


13) Wolverine #66-72 (Volume 3) and Old Man Logan Giant-Size #1:  These issues make up the "Old Man Logan" storyline, in which super-villains have conquered future America, and most of the Marvel heroes are dead.  Enter Logan, who now ekes out a meager existence on a farm in California, cares for his family as best he can, and has vowed never to pop his claws in anger again.  But when a blinded Hawkeye appears to offer Wolverine a job that can save his family from dying at the hands of Hulk's twisted descendants, Wolverine rides into action one more time.  Reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, this story gets my highest possible recommendation.  Collected in the Wolverine: Old Man Logan trade paperback.


14) X-Men: Schism #1-5:  The growing rift between Wolverine and an increasingly militant Cyclops exploded in this series, the repercussions of which are still being felt in the X-Men's corner of the Marvel Universe today.  Wolverine's disagreement with Cyclops causes him to form his own faction of X-Men, dedicated to providing a safe haven for the mutant children of the Marvel Universe, while Cyclops would end up pursuing his efforts to protect mutants everywhere from extinction.  Collected in the X-Men: Schism trade paperback.


15) Wolverine and the X-Men #1: The beginning of the post-Schism era, in which Wolverine, Beast, Kitty Pryde, Iceman, and others establish the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning on the site of the original X-Mansion.  This is a fun, offbeat book that features the next major step in Wolverine's progression.  Collected in the Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 1 trade paperback.

If all of this isn't enough, hit me up for suggestions in the comments...there are many more where these came from.  Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. Wolverine was also my favorite character (or at least tied with Batman) when I was a kid. I used to pretend that my DC Super Powers Kalibak action figure was the Wolverine from the cover of the trade paperback of Claremont and Miller's mini-series (where he seemed huge compared to how he was drawn in the actual story).

    And I about flipped out when I first saw him appear on Spider-man and his Amazing Friends.

    It's just too bad Marvel went and permanently killed him off and we'll never again see another comic featuring the world's first and greatest Canadian superhero.

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