The oral history of Wolverine, the unlikely superhero who saved the X-Men
Inverse catches up with Wolverine’s most important storytellers from every era to share the behind-the-scenes history of Marvel’s most captivating mutant.
In early 1975, the X-Men were in bad shape.
For five years, readers only got reprints of older issues featuring the original five X-Men — Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Iceman, and Angel. Their last new story had been told in March of 1970 with issue number 66, and due to lackluster sales, issues 67 through 93 offered nothing new. It seemed Marvel had given up on its mutants, but the tide turned in April of 1975 with the debut of a new quarterly book called Giant-Size X-Men.
In the story, the original X-Men are captured and only Cyclops escapes. So Professor X assembles an international team of mutants from every corner of the globe. From Germany, there was Nightcrawler; from Russia, Colossus; from Kenya, Storm, and from an Apache reservation in Arizona, Thunderbird. He also recruited the Japanese Sunfire and the Irish Banshee, both of whom had previously appeared within X-Men’s pages. Finally, from Canada, there was Wolverine, an obscure angry little man who had battled the Hulk a year earlier
“He had to be short and bad-tempered because wolverines are small and bad-tempered.”
Giant-Size X-Men was a huge success, so much so that instead of continuing as a quarterly book, Marvel decided to resume publication of the bi-monthly X-Men title with Xavier’s new recruits. At the time, Wolverine was just another guy on the team. He wasn’t a breakout character and received about as much of the spotlight as the soon-to-be-killed Thunderbird. No one could have predicted Wolverine would eventually become the most popular, compelling, and enduring member of the X-Men — not only within the pages of the comics but on television and the big screen as well.
Wolverine’s cinematic journey began with the release of X-Men in 2000 and, as far as we know, concluded with Logan in 2017. Now, on the fifth anniversary of Logan’s release, Inverse catches up with Wolverine’s most important storytellers from every era to share the behind-the-scenes history of Marvel’s most captivating mutant.
Five years after Logan's swan song, Inverse celebrates all things Wolverine. Read more.
Wolverine vs. The Incredible Hulk
Before it was even decided that he was a mutant, Wolverine was introduced as an enemy of The Hulk. He was teased at the very end of The Incredible Hulk issue #180 and in issue #181, he had his showdown with the green goliath. He was never meant to be a longstanding enemy of Bruce Banner though, as Wolverine co-creator Roy Thomas reveals.
Roy Thomas (former Marvel editor-in-chief, co-creator of Wolverine): In 1972 I was associate editor at Marvel, which basically meant that I was the number two editorial guy. When Stan Lee was promoted to president of Marvel, I became editor-in-chief. One thing I wanted to do was to introduce more international characters. I had created a couple when I was doing X-Men — Banshee and Sunfire — and I wanted more. Also, my job at that time was to sell more comic books, so I thought we’d sell more comics in Canada if we had a character that was Canadian.
“I thought we’d sell more comics in Canada if we had a character that was Canadian.”
I sat down with the broadest idea of what this character could be. I didn’t know he was a mutant, he was just a character that I knew was Canadian. I chose the name “Wolverine” because I was obsessed with animals as a kid and I knew wolverines were from Canada. I mean, I couldn’t call him “Moose” because that wouldn't sound good. I thought about “Badger” but badger also meant “to annoy,” so I didn’t like that.
Wolverine just made sense, even if not everyone knew what it was. John Romita, who would design the character, he thought a wolverine was a female wolf!
Wolverine had to be introduced in Hulk because Hulk went all over the place. Bringing the Hulk to Canada was no big deal. Even though Wolverine was fighting Hulk, he was never meant to be a villain, that was just a good way to introduce him. I knew he’d be a hero eventually. So I called in [Hulk writer] Len Wein and asked him to, within the next month or two, bring in a character named Wolverine. I told him that he was Canadian and that he had to be short and bad-tempered because wolverines are small and bad-tempered.
Separately, John Romita designed the character. He’s the one who had the idea to give him these three claws. Len decided later they were made of Adamantium, which I liked because I’d come up with Adamantium when I worked on Avengers. Creating Wolverine was really a combination of Len, Romita, and me, along with Herb Trimpe, who would first draw him in The Incredible Hulk. Marvel doesn’t consider Herb a co-creator of Wolverine, but I do.
Wolverine joins the X-Men
Wolverine would appear again in May of 1975 when Charles Xavier recruited him in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1.
Thomas: I went to a meeting with Stan and a guy named Al Landau, who operated a separate company that sold Marvel comics abroad. Al and I didn’t agree on anything, but in this particular meeting, Al made a great suggestion. He said, “If we had a group book with characters from several different countries, it could sell really well in places we want to sell comic books.” I was trying to come up with ways to revive the X-men, so I said, “That would be a great way to bring back the X-Men!”
I wasn’t around to see it happen though. I left the editor-in-chief position a few weeks later, but before I left, I assigned Mike Friedrich to write it and Dave Cockrum to draw it. I know it got shelved for a few months at one point and when they decided to do it, Len Wein would write it. It was his idea to bring in the international characters which already existed — Wolverine, Banshee, and Sunfire — and he added a bunch of new characters. That’s when Wolverine became a mutant, it would have been Len who made that decision.
This was when Wolverine got his iconic mask, too. Romita had designed a cat-like mask for Wolverine, but Gil Kane, who designed the cover of Giant-Size X-Men, changed the mask by mistake! He was a wonderful artist but he had kind of a slap-dash attitude when it came to costumes, but it worked out pretty well, I’d say.
Giant-Size X-Men would be when X-Men really shifted. Rather than just being a team of five or six guys, it was an ever-expanding group of mutants. But the guy who really made that happen was Chris Claremont. Claremont was the guy who made the X-Men happen more than anybody.
Enter, Chris Claremont
Following the success of Giant-Size X-Men #1, Marvel decided to continue the story of Xavier’s “All New, All Different X-Men” with a bi-monthly book. The last reprint of X-Men would be issue #93 and new stories would commence with issue #94 in August, 1975, with a young writer named Chris Claremont at the helm.
Chris Claremont (X-Men comics writer, 1975 to 1991): When Len Wein decided to step down as Marvel editor-in-chief [in 1975], he took on four monthly series, which left him without enough time to do Uncanny X-Men. I had been his number two when he and Dave Cockrum were putting together Giant-Size X-Men and I guess you can say I fell for the characters. When he decided to give them up, I, for want of a better term, tackled him and told him, “I want the book!”
We opened up issue #94 with all 13 or 14 characters that had been collected for Giant-Size, but, within a few pages, most of them had left. All that remained were Scott and the new ones. Taking over the book at that time, where there were a half-dozen characters who had just been created, it was like getting the Fantastic Four when they'd just been born. There were also no expectations because the X-Men were a dead duck, so I was basically given the keys to the kingdom. It was a unique reality and one never to be repeated.
On the subject of Wolverine specifically, there were a few important details we established in the first few years. Len’s perception of him was that he was a teenager, but neither Dave [Cockrum] nor I were particularly thrilled with that. So I said, “Let’s age him up and see what happens,” and we just kept going. We made him older than the others, which gave him infinitely more experience.
Len also had the claws as a part of his gloves. Then, around issue #98, Dave came in with a sketch that had Logan’s fist with three claws coming out of it. I remember looking at it and going, “Oh my God, that’s disgusting.” The decision to make the claws come through his hand made him more human. Every time he uses his claws, he’s slashing his hand open — that hurts, he shouldn’t get used to that.
“X-Men were a dead duck, so I was basically given the keys to the kingdom.”
It was epitomized onscreen in the first X-Men movie when Anna Paquin looks up at Hugh Jackman and asks, “Does it hurt?” Then he takes this marvelous five or ten-second beat and says, “Every time.” I remember jumping up at the premiere and saying “Yes!” at the top of my lungs. Not only because it was my line from the comics, but it also epitomizes the character.
David Hayter (screenwriter on X-Men and X2): I got that line right from Chris Claremont. It’s such a great line because it works on so many levels. Not only does it hurt Logan when the claws come out, but other people get hurt as well.
Wolverine goes solo
In September of 1982, Wolverine was given his first miniseries. It was a four-part story pairing Claremont’s writing with the artwork of Frank Miller. Years later, beginning in November, 1988, Wolverine was finally given an ongoing monthly comic.
Claremont: For the first Wolverine mini-series, I was pitching it to Frank [Miller] and his blunt response was, “I don’t want to do four issues of some musclehead cutting people open.” I said, “That’s good, neither do I.” So we started talking about who Wolverine is as a person and how he got to be where he is. Throughout the course of a four-hour traffic jam on I5, we evolved the concept that we wanted to play with. It had nothing to do with hacking and stabbing or him being a superhero. It had everything to do with him being a man and trying to reach for something beyond his grasp [Mariko, his love interest] while also dealing with the prejudice of Mariko’s father who views him as nothing more than an animal, and Wolverine struggling to prove he’s more than that.
When it was proposed that he get a monthly book though, I fought it tooth-and-nail. There was a tremendous desire for more Wolverine material, but I worried about burnout. I did it for a while and then other writers took over. Eventually, it got to Larry Hama who would do it for several years. It was not what I would have done, but it was fun.
Larry Hama (Wolverine comics writer, 1990 to 1997): When I came onto Wolverine [with issue #31], it was really close to being canceled. I guess they figured Hama couldn’t screw it up any more than it already was, so they let me do whatever I wanted. Two years later, it was the number two book in the country.
See, I’m not a story guy, I’m a character guy. To me, a plot is just a basic framework to hang great characters on. I was concerned about Wolverine’s inner self — his moral and ethical center and how that contrasts with his gruff exterior.
“I guess they figured Hama couldn’t screw it up any more than it already was, so they let me do whatever I wanted.”
Another great character I got to explore was Sabretooth. Sabretooth and Wolverine are two sides of the same coin. Wolverine actually represents restraint. He’s got all these powers and he keeps it tamped down and, once in a while, it breaks out. That’s the dramatic tension.
Sabretooth is always jumping. He’s always over the top. That's the essence of Sabretooth — he doesn't have restraint and he’s always worse than you can imagine.
Scott Lobdell (X-Men comics writer, 1992 to 2001): One thing that is a testament to the character of Wolverine is that he has gone through so many iterations and yet people still find him interesting. He’s a character so strong that he can withstand so many different interpretations, yet still remain intact.
Wolverine gets animated
While Wolverine was the most popular character within the pages of the X-Men comic books, much of the public — particularly children — would first be exposed to the character via the immensely popular X-Men cartoon, which ran from 1992 to 1997.
Eric Lewald (executive producer on the X-Men animated series, author of Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series): Prior to 1992, if you were to ask 100 kids who the X-Men were, maybe 10 would know — we had our work cut out for us. We spent a lot of time figuring out the right line up would be for the team; everyone from Marvel to Fox to us had our own ideas, but at the top of everyone’s list was Wolverine. By the time the cartoon came into production, Wolverine was the unabashed superstar of the X-Men comic books, so he was always going to be there. We actually had to work at times not to give him too many scenes because he’s so easy to write for — he’s so dramatic.
We made a point to have a balance with Wolverine. There’s a Clint Eastwood, Man with No Name, kind of element to him, but that's just the surface. When we killed Morph, we spent the most time with Wolverine because he’s the most torn up and the most vulnerable to it. It wasn’t really intentional, we were just trying to tell the best stories we could, but he ended up being the one who was the best character to pour out that kind of emotion.
Mark Edward Edens (head writer on the X-Men animated series): In a group like that, you want a guy who’s out of control, a guy who can create conflict especially when the leader is such a straight arrow like Cyclops and he’s in love with Cyclops’ girlfriend Jean Grey. That's part of what makes Wolverine interesting. He’s the guy who maybe shouldn’t be in a group. He’s guided by his emotions and he took it all personally.
Wolverine on film
In the year 2000, the modern era of comic book films was born with the release of the first X-Men movie. For Wolverine, despite a significant height difference, Hugh Jackman would embody the character in one of the most iconic and long-running roles in cinema history.
David Hayter (screenwriter on X-Men and X2): Everything in the movies was shaped by my love of Chris Claremont's work. Wolverine is the ultimate badass, but, thematically, he’s also the fulcrum between Magneto and Charles Xavier. Xavier fights to do the right thing and so does Wolverine, yet Magneto wants to protect mutants by any means necessary, and Wolverine is a by-any-means-necessary kind of guy. He’s such a brilliant creation and such a pivotal character for the X-Men, He’s also just one of the greatest comic book characters ever created, so I just wanted to do right by him.
I was there for pretty much all of the casting and the first time Hugh Jackman read, he didn’t get cast. He was great, but he was the nicest guy in the world and he was very tall and super handsome, so we didn’t think he was Wolverine. Tom Rothman, the head of Fox, said it was going to be Dougray Scott, so we cast him while he was doing Mission: Impossible II and we kept getting calls from Tom Cruise saying, “We just need him a little longer.” When we were about to start shooting the movie, we hadn’t seen Wolverine or fit him for costumes so we sent costumer Louise Mingenbach down to Australia to fit him, and it turned out he had been in a motorcycle accident shooting Mission: Impossible II and he’s dropped down to like 150 pounds. It just wasn’t going to work.
“Hugh’s real strength came from the humanity of Wolverine. All that was left was to find the viciousness.”
[Producer] Lauren Shuler Donner said, “Let’s bring back Hugh Jackman.” So she had him flown out and they did coaching sessions with him to really get him to that sort of Clint Eastwood hardass edge. Then he came in and did his audition and there was this one moment where he turned to the camera and he looked like young Clint Eastwood. That was the moment.
I think one thing Hugh captured with Wolverine is his heart. Hugh is such a lovely, caring guy and that really came through in the character. Hugh’s real strength came from the humanity of Wolverine. All that was left was to find the viciousness.
Claremont: When it comes to Hugh Jackman’s performance, the stock answer I give is this: Wolverine is 5’ 1” and Hugh Jackman is 6’ 2” — who cares. He nailed the character. I cannot think of anyone who could do it better or even as well. I’m sure someone will come along eventually, but for me, Hugh Jackman embodied all the things that made Logan real to me as a creator. It was a mysterious something that just clicked.
Hayter: His arc in the first film was pretty simple. It was all about, “Can he open himself up to other people?” He’d shut himself away for so long and then he runs into these people who need him, so it’s about him risking his heart again. In X2, we wanted Wolverine to face his history, so we wanted a story about pain and trauma and reconciling your past.
Of course, we all got fired after X2 because [Fox] wanted to reach some arbitrary date. I watched all the movies though because X-Men was a huge part of my life. Some elements afterward were great and some were not so great. I really loved X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan, I thought, was epic. It was everything we wanted to do back in the day but couldn't because it was PG-13.
By the way, one of the proudest moments I had on the first film was when I was called into one of the producer’s offices and they said to me, “Hey, can we just find Wolverine in Alaska instead of Alberta and make him American?” I knew this was coming, but I was ready. I told them, “Everybody knows that Wolverine is Canadian and the fans will kill you.” I had no power in this situation, but I stood my ground and he stayed Canadian.
I don’t like to call myself a true Canadian hero, though. I’ll leave that to others.
Old man Logan
In June, 2008, within the pages of the monthly Wolverine book, acclaimed Marvel writer Mark Millar presented an eight-part story in a desolate alternate future. 50 years after giving up the mantle of Wolverine, Logan lives as an old farmer in “The most important Wolverine story of the 21st Century.” The comic also loosely inspired, Logan, Hugh Jackman’s X-Men swan song (for now) from director James Mangold.
Mark Millar (excerpt from Marvel Interview, 2013): Wolverine [is] kind of the archetypal Clint Eastwood character — when he first appeared he looked kind of like Clint Eastwood and everything. So that was kind of the genesis of [Old Man Logan]. But one of the other things was that I liked the idea of even Wolverine having his super-sense fooled by an enhanced Mysterio; fooled into killing the X-Men… I also liked the idea of, like [Eastwood’s character] William Munny in Unforgiven, a guy who was the world’s greatest killer who hadn’t killed anyone in a long time.
Steve McNiven (artist on Old Man Logan and Death of Wolverine comics): Mark Millar and I had worked together on Marvel’s Civil War and he asked me if I was interested in working with him again and I said, “Yes.” When I was ready to start, he already had everything written. I jumped in and we tossed around ideas. I drew up some ideas of what I thought he’d look like. We went back and forth on that and settled on a design.
We were trying to get a different look for him. There had been Days of Future Past Wolverine with a bit of gray in his hair, but we went more “grizzled farmer” with our look. It was a departure from his classic look, but in the beginning of the story, you had a Wolverine that had given up on being Wolverine. He just wanted to be a farmer and raise a family so all of the extra, stylistic parts of Wolverine — like the hair and the mutton chops — would be something he would move away from. It was an incredible story, Millar is such a good storyteller.
Hugh Jackman (excerpt from 2015 Comic-Con Panel announcing his final film as Wolverine): I've got three words for you guys, "Old Man Logan."
The future of Wolverine
While Hugh Jackman may be done with Wolverine following Logan (again, as far as we know) there are still countless stories to be told with him in the years to come. In time, he’ll work his way into the MCU and, right now, a reboot of the X-Men cartoon is in production. As for the comics, many of Wolverine’s classic storytellers are returning to the character.
Thomas: I’m actually working on a Wolverine story now for X-Men Legends. Funny enough, even though I’ve told some stories with him here and there, this is the most I’ve done with Wolverine since I co-created him back in 1974!
Adam Kubert (Wolverine comic artist 1993 to 1997, 2021 to present): In the early part of the pandemic, I did Wolverine: Black, White and Blood and now I’m drawing a four-issue arc with him and Deadpool. All these years later — some 25 years since I first did Wolverine — I still love drawing the character. He’s got such a rich history and he’s so much fun to draw.
Hama: I got to return to Wolverine recently for Wolverine: Patch and it was great. It was like coming home. I still love writing for Wolverine because he’s still interesting to me. Wolverine is a guy who’s got a big heart and a lot of empathy, but he never likes to show it.
“Everybody knows that Wolverine is Canadian and the fans will kill you.”
He’s also very protective — that’s what I think is the biggest part of his appeal, especially to children. Wolverine is the fantasy of the extremely loyal friend. That doesn’t exist in the real world. As soon as a kid enters Kindergarten, they learn that betrayal is just around the corner at any given point, so the loyalty fantasy is really strong in kids and Wolverine speaks to that. Wolverine would never let you down.
Claremont: There’s a certain seduction when it comes to Wolverine. In some ways, he’s truly horrible and some of his teammates know just how horrible he is. But he’s their friend and they’re fighting for him the same way he fights for them. He’s horrible, yet there’s something about him that is vulnerable, something maybe even redeemable. It’s something that has reached out and grabbed the readers for almost 50 years.