Wolverine Through the Years - Rolling Stone
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Wolverine Through the Years

From his debut to his new movie, discover the many faces of Marvel’s mightiest mutant

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Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox

He's the best there is at what he does – and he does a lot. Famous for his razor-sharp adamantium claws, a healing factor that makes him all but indestructible, a bad haircut and an even worse attitude, Wolverine is the most iconic antihero the superhero genre has ever produced, both in its original comics stomping ground and its post-millennial takeover of multiplexes worldwide. But Wolverine was never intended to be anything but a nasty piece of work for bigger heroes to tangle with. The story of how he went from bit player to the anchor of this weekend's summer blockbuster The Wolverine is nearly as unlikely as Wolverine's own tortured past. Now pop those claws and take our hand as we guide you through the visionary creators and major turning points that made Wolverine the mutant he is today.

By Sean T. Collins

Giant-Size X-Men #1 wolverine

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Enter the X-Men

When Wein wrote Wolverine's first adventure, he'd unwittingly caught a glimpse of his future: the X-Men. At the time, this team of mutants – people born with innate superpowers which typically activated during adolescence, rather than acquiring them through spider bites or gamma bombs – was that rarest of beasts: a co-creation of Marvel prime movers Jack Kirby and Stan Lee that never quite clicked with audiences. Wein had heard scuttlebutt that Marvel was looking to bring the title back, so in addition to making Wolverine an operative of the Canadian government, Wein called him a mutant. This way, any future X-Men revival would have another character to draw from. Little did he know that he'd be helming that revival himself in the form of May 1975's one-off Giant-Size X-Men #1. After a directive from Marvel brass to seed the title with international characters in order to maximize its global appeal, the Canadian character fit right in alongside the Russian strongman Colossus, German circus freak Nightcrawler, Kenyan weather goddess Storm and the rest of the cosmopolitan crew. A costume tweak by artist Dave Cockrum was further modified, albeit accidentally, by cover artist Gil Kane, whose accidental extension of the points on Wolverine's mask so impressed Cockrum that he redrew the interior pages so that Wolverine would match it throughout.

Uncanny X-Men #141 wolverine

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

The Claremont-Byrne Years

Under Cockrum and regular writer Chris Claremont, who'd stay with the title from its official relaunch, August 1975's Uncanny X-Men #94, for another 16 years, the all-new, all-different X-Men became one of Marvel's big hits. But it was the team of Claremont and subsequent artist John Byrne that cemented the mutants' status as Marvel's premier franchise, and Wolverine as its breakout star. (Byrne was allegedly instrumental in pushing his fellow Canadian to the fore.) Together, they'd introduce Wolverine's Kramer-esque mononym "Logan"; give him a makeover with his grim and gritty brown costume from the Eighties; provide him with his Japanese love interest, Mariko; depict a convincingly terrifying rampage against the Hellfire Club – a real "holy shit" moment for his young fans at the time; and place him at the forefront of the series' two most inconic storylines – the operatic "Dark Phoenix Saga," in which his unrequited love, Jean Grey, goes mad with power and dies from its abuse, and the wildly influential "Days of Future Past," in which a grizzled and graying Wolverine in civilian duds leads the mutant resistance in a dystopian future. A hero who killed, a loner at the heart of a team: Wolverine's internal contradictions made him irresistible.

Wolverine #1 1982

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Going Solo

It's hard to believe in this spinoff-saturated era, but Wolverine didn't get his first turn in the solo spotlight for some eight years after his debut. It was worth the wait. A collaboration with soon-to-be-legendary artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300, The Dark Knight Returns), 1982's four-issue miniseries Wolverine took Logan to Japan for an adventure that played up his tortured-romantic side and showed how the code of the samurai helped him contain the animal within. The series proved that the character's forgotten past was full of mysteries (how did this mad mutant of the Canadian wild become a ronin, anyway?) that could be plumbed for entertaining stories almost endlessly and that the ol' Canucklehead could carry his own series away from the confines of the X-Men proper.

Marvel Comics Presents #73 wolverine

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

Weapon X

Arguably the most important and the most visually impressive Wolverine storyline of all time, the original "Weapon X," which was serialized by writer-artist Barry Windsor-Smith in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents in 1991, revealed much about the character by destroying huge chunks of him. In painstaking and painful detail, Windsor-Smith depicts the mutant's remaking at the hands of a clandestine government agency devoted to manufacturing a super-soldier – welding the unbreakable metal adamantium to his bones, implanting him with false memories, and finally failing to contain his berserker rage as he breaks free to roam the wild. The imagery and ideas contained in this tale were a primary influence on the X-Men films, and throughout comics and science fiction its imitators were legion.

X-Men #1 wolverine

Courtesy of Marvel Comics

He’s a Nineties Bitch

The Nineties belonged to Wolverine. He co-starred in 1991's X-Men #1, the start of a brand-new series by Claremont and superstar artist Jim Lee which with eight million copies sold to retailers was the best-selling comic of all time. He brought his claw-wielding antiheroism to countless other series, where his mere appearance on the cover could boost sales – and unlike the Punisher, Ghost Rider and other "extreme" heroes of the Nineties, his star never faded through oversaturation. Meanwhile, the 1992 debuts of both the X-Men animated series on Fox ("JEEEEEEEAN!") and the X-Men console game in arcades seared him into the memories of millions of people who've never set foot in a comic shop. He may have lacked the wholesome mainstream appeal of Superman or Spider-Man, but his fans wouldn't have wanted it any other way, and before long nearly the entire superhero genre had remade itself in his edgy image.

z-men hugh jackman wolverine

20th Century Fox / Everett Collection

Silver-Screen Wolverine

You could be looking at a photo of Dougray Scott right now. Instead, the Scottish actor who was originally cast as Wolverine in director Bryan Singer's ambitious, stylish, zeitgeist-altering X-Men (2000) was stuck playing the villain in Mission: Impossible II, and the scheduling conflict resulted in the part going to a little-known musical-theater actor from Australia named Hugh Jackman. It's hard to overstate how much this casting not only ensured the success of the films – Jackman managed to be every bit the badass that comics fans had imagined for decades while injecting the formerly short, squat, hirsute Logan with lean, mean sex appeal – but, in the sense that X-Men's blockbuster status paved the way for the superhero-movie boom that continues to this day, it changed the shape of pop culture at large. Finally, Wolverine could stand alongside the Man of Steel, the Dark Knight and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man at the top of the superhero heap.

Origin #1 wolverine

Courtesy of Marvel Comics


In 2002, Wolverine's past finally caught up to him. With the encouragement and guidance of Marvel's controversial president, Bill Jemas, and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, writer Paul Jenkins and artists Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove revealed that Wolverine was in fact . . . James Howlett, a sickly rich kid from 19th century Canada whose life on the run began when he first used his mutant claws to kill his father's murderer – who was actually his real father, and whose last name of Logan he adopted as his own. Clearing up much of the mystery about Wolverine's age and origin was a gutsy move that paid off in sales while doing little to affect how the character has been handled in the present.

Wolverine & The X-Men #1

Courtesy of Marvel Comics


Has Wolverine gone respectable? Yeah, more or less. Throughout the '00s, the fortunes of Marvel's mutants worsened – they had their numbers magically reduced from millions to just a couple hundred mutants worldwide, their savior figure Professor X was sidelined after multiple revelations about his sketchy past behavior, and their leader (and Wolverine's longtime romantic rival for the affections of the frequently dead-and-resurrected Jean Grey) was slowly radicalized to the point of adopting his enemy Magneto's by-any-means-necessary tactics. That left it to Wolverine, an animalistic trained killer with the blood of literally tens of thousands of people on his claws, to fill the gap and serve as both the heart and head of the team. Under writer Brian Bendis he joined the Marvel Universe's premiere super-team the Avengers, while Wolverine and the X-Men scribe Jason Aaron made him headmaster of the new Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. From his debut through his superstardom to today, Wolverine has had an honest-to-God story arc – and in a genre based on telling the same kinds of stories for decades at a time, his growth from lone badass to warrior wise-man is remarkable.

The Wolverine hugh jackman

Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox

A One-Man Franchise

2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine may have made a hash out of some of the richest material in the character's backstory, but making $373 million worldwide anyway earned Len Wein, Herb Trimpe and John Romita Sr.'s creation a lot of latitude. That includes The Wolverine, a loose adaptation of the classic Claremont/Miller Wolverine-in-Japan story, much beloved by Jackman himself. The movie's milieu will take Wolverine even farther from his superheroic roots, and marks Jackman's fifth turn as the character, a rarity in the frequently shook-up world of superhero casting. But it's increasingly difficult to imagine anyone else filling Logan's claws and sideburns – or to imagine when the Wolverine was just a name, a concept and a way for the Hulk to pass the time, instead of one of the most bankable characters of the past 40 years.

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