How did I get these mutton chops?

Quick! Count the Wolverine things he doesn't have.

Quick! Count the Wolverine things he doesn’t have.

Wolverine, sheathe your claws! In fact, go away. (Denial … crumbling …) All right, I admit it, that would be covering up for my 80s self who dribbled all over the hairy bastard like everyone else.

Right, so I owned Hulk 181-182 from my original stash, one of the latest issues of the ones my brother gave me, and I bought X-Men 97-105 or so myself off the stands. Then came a superhero hiatus of about six years, as I’ve written about before. So that means, when I received a big pile of comics to borrow from my friends John and Edd in 1986, who should be so pleased as me to see that Wolverine had become a major character. My girlfriend fell head over heels in love with him and I wasn’t far behind. And then … we kept reading … and it seemed as if he weren’t a major character after all, but a location onto which more and more “characters” were piled.

I’m not focusing on the linear sequence of his changing physical depiction at least not as such, because it’s been done a lot and it’s easy to be funny, as in Ten of the wildest, weirdest, & worst hairstyles in comics. Instead, I want to stay with the logic I presented in Doom’s face, that the term “retcon” is a lie, that changes in comics characters don’t “work backwards” but rather fully replace whatever’s been done already, with consistency being a rather minor variable, and themselves only to last until the next time. The question for me about Wolverine is what each new tray of replacement material actually is, how and when it came to a point which “comic-booky” is pitifully inadequate to describe, and how each one designates a different story role and commercial entity.

[May I take this moment to mention how much I hate the Wikipedia entries which rattle through a character’s abilities and history in fictional chronological form? Come on, people! We have the Marvel Wikia for that. Can no one provide actual encyclopedia-worthy material on the chronological and creative publication of the characters?]

So here’s a preliminary list of Wolverine stuff and when it was introduced, and more-or-less by whom, which you can help me make more accurate. Selfishly, I’m confining it to the time I was engaged with the character, such that “Later” designates the period after the character got out from under Claremont’s effective control and was written and added to by a whole bunch of writers and artists, so the changes are both harder to track and not very interesting to me.

You can quibble with my table design, but for the most part, I either already know or don’t care. Yes, I know John Romita Sr. drew the original design, and yes, I know that everyone disagrees about whether the original claws were retractable or not (and into what). Yes, I know there’s a Wein-Cockrum step between Wein-Trimpe and Claremont-Cockrum. Yes, I know Claremont was co-author with Byrne and Miller; yes, I know that Byrne’s run on Alpha Flight tied into all of this and added stuff too (just call that part of the Byrne column). Yes, there are tons of little one-off moments in other titles or special issues that I’m not citing, preferring to think of them as subsets of the relevant time periods.

I know some things are ambiguous or possibly wrong too, partly due to text and partly to my memory. Wolverine has a temper in the “Cockrum I” period, but I don’t remember his genuine uncontrollable bloodlust thing getting going until Byrne’s involved. There’s something similar with the Jean Grey crush too, in that he’s at least sympathetic to her during the Cockrum I period and gets mad when she’s hit in the face, but I’m similarly inclined to think that a genuine torch isn’t there until Byrne. I’m not sure when he started whining about how much it hurts “every time” to pop out his claws, but I remember Byrne talked about it in an interview in the late 1970s, so I listed it under him. I’m pretty sure that his healing was speedy and cool fairly early (maybe even in the Hulk? don’t remember), but didn’t become a anti-cancer, anti-aging, poison-resistant, limb regeneration, recover from being digested, completely ridiculous thing until … maybe … about the Brood story, I’m thinking. I’m willing to correct those or anything similar if there’s strong text to show I’m mis-remembering. Did the Cockrum run give him animal senses, or the Byrne phase? Was it Miller who upgraded his senses to effective cosmic awareness, or did that kick in later? Correct me too if I’m simply wrong about designating a feature to the right period, for instance, I really don’t remember exactly when his beer-drinking became a constant reference but I remember it being a Nightcrawler-buddy thing, so I put it in with Byrne. I also can’t recall if the lost-dead wife was introduced in the Weapon X series or later.

Regarding things I don’t know, should there be a column for Larry Hama and John Buscema in the long-running titled Wolverine comic that began in 1988? I never read it. Is there any feature, from any period, which I missed and should be in a new row?

I mentioned something about story roles. Let’s see:

The 1974 Hulk version (pictured in the lead image) introduces a slightly offbeat hero or maybe not-hero, a hard-core Canadian Captain America or something like that, who’s intriguing because he’s foreign, short, human, and willing to take on the Hulk and the Wendigo at once. Herb Trimpe’s combat depiction is incredible – the new guy’s mix of fast-and-savage outshines both behemoths throughout the pages; Kirby himself couldn’t have done better. Definitely in the “I’d like to see more of that little hard-case some day” category.

I shall now upstage the Wendigo.

I shall now upstage the Wendigo.

The nid-late 70s Cockrum I version, who owes a lot to Timber Wolf and possibly to the Beast under his mask, wasn’t a super-cool scary character, but rather fit in well as a “team piece.” He was enjoyably tough and mean, with useful but not absurd senses and stuff to make him interesting. He pulled his weight well enough, but could get smacked down hard in the fights, and he generally came off as a shrill loudmouth, consistently backing down when scolded by Storm and Cyclops.


wolverine2 #98 (top), #97 (bottom)

The Claremont-Byrne version is when the disproportionate effectiveness upgrade kicks in – if I recall the interviews correctly, Byrne generally visually emphasized him in comparison to Cyclops, whom he disliked, and probably started the whole “Cyclops is a wuss” thing going. A little bit of the authorial Sue crept in almost simultaneously with the cool, giving him the last word and being right all the time; it’s hard to tell where the one stops and the other starts.


Kiss me, I’m the artist’s favorite.

Looking at my table, I think the Miller version is where the door swung wide into not only Sue, but Sue-eeeee! territory. I can’t really fault it, as a business thing it was right there to do, it made a zillion dollars, and it kept Miller on both sides of the Marvel-DC grittydark arm’s-race, the prime weapons-dealer if you will.



The weird thing is that Wolverine then becomes Claremont’s big Sue too, in the main title. He became the ultimate in emotional-sensitive tied to the ultimate in amoral, as well as the ultimate in moral authority tied to the ultimate in license-to-kill. It’s a Nixon effect: “if the president does it, then it becomes legal” – if Wolverine does it, then it can’t be wrong. That’s really different from the Byrne-centric gut-level, claw-thinking, entirely non-abstract bad-ass.

wolvmoralsueThose three steps add up to a brilliant disaster. From there it’s a cash cow, he’s Marvel’s Batman, just slap him on a cover or spout the lines we all know and love, and add some more back-story to any of the things I listed already, and watch it rollll on in. As I said, I didn’t read or frankly, even know about the Hama-Buscema series, so I can’t say it was mere fluff, but one of you can tell me.

Uh-oh, John, your Conan is showing.

John, your Conan is showing.

One more solid dose of backstory and angst (and very lovely imagery) did the job for good. I did read it but I confess that all I recall is a lot of metal penetrating a lot of flesh.


Suffering = 3.2 Jesuses

All told, no one can say it was a bad idea for anyone who stood to gain from it, and if the arc of comics-character history is long but bends toward something, well, Wolverine today is it. My observation is that the “it” is many layers of plaster encasing a void.

My call: once there was a character, the shriveled remains of whom rustle inside the plaster when you turn it over and over, but when? Maybe hardly ever. The window between “hey, there’s some potential here, let’s see him do more” and “OMG phenom, cross him over everywhere, repeat the catch-phrase, give him some more origin” seems pretty narrow. Just about at the point when he was most interesting to me and part of what was going on, I’d say maybe at the Cockrum-to-Byrne transition, the Sue process kicked in and became institutionalized, to the extent that all those Liefeld and Lee characters took the resulting bloated, balloon-cheek-stuffed Wolverine as a baseline. The resulting pile-on of content for him and all the knockoffs ultimately yielded the brilliance that is

… such that the only value remaining to the character lies in parody. Not that Dave Sim didn’t see that coming back in the 80s.

So one final point: once Wolverine effectively becomes a central character, then who’s the, or his, bad guy? As a team character during the build-up phases, he didn’t have one, and then, I think the Sue/franchise effect swamped subsequent attempts to make one. Let’s see, Lady Deathstrike, Sabretooth in various concept-packages, umm, probably more. I’m tempted to categorize all post-1990 Wolverine phases or shifts in concept as the hunt for a credible, personal, and interesting opponent, in the context that it’s already too late. Once he’s not credibly stoppable or has any reason to fear anyone, then opposition has to be emotional, and once you exhaust the “oh no I can’t remember / oh no this is what I remember” mine (which has to be exhausted eventually), then his built-in emotional tapdance between “lose control freak out slaughter everyone” + “sanest man in the room” takes care of the rest. That’s a whole post waiting to happen, isn’t it, potential guesties?

I’m not saying a Wolverine story can’t be done well in pockets or moments, only that it’s (i) unnecessary relative simply to having him present and (ii) is well into Batman territory, i.e., each story unit has nothing to do with an ongoing series-story but is rather its own personal painting using similar raw materials. That’s probably the only way to resolve the piled-on powers + bathos he became.

Links: The Fifth Color: What do we want from Wolverine?, A look back (and forward) at Wolverine over the years, The evolution of Wolverine

Next: 90s (H)ero [guest post]

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on July 14, 2015, in Heroics, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. epweissengruber

    You got the two kinds of physicality that attracted my attention as a casual comics reader and leeching borrower: the little ball of dynamite bouncing around between behemoths / the dealer of lethal force from the ends of his fists. Of the first kind: he is like a martial Spider Man, zipping around from all kinds of impossible angles and delivering truly creative smashes. Of the second kind: what’s with the endless Liebestod? Wolverine is sweaty, often shirtless, and face to face with someone. The claws are off screen, presumably at waist level. Then the dreaded “snikt” and suddenly someone is gaping for breath, convulsing, and collapsing, eyes rolled backward.

    And sometime you will have to address the flood of Japanese instruments of stabby-stab flooding Marvel comics. As for the 80’s it is a blur of “a lot of metal penetrating a lot of flesh.” Katanas and trenchcoats abounding. It there some line crossed somewhere, when the knife goes from being a threat or a scar-maker, to veiled stabbing, to explicit slicing and dicing?

    I can’t find the dissertation of the scholar who studied the representation of battlefield wounds in the epics. But IIRC she pointed out that even the most unlikely-seeming wounds from axes and spears have been proven possible by medical researchers or physical studies of the weapons’ properties and the capacities of the people who wielded them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Moreno, James, and anyone else, keep your damn fingers away from Frank Miller, ninja(s), Elektra, and much else. I want to talk about it. [OK, I did! Frantic fingers, re-activate!]


    • Erik, the phenomenon you describe has many roots. One of them concerns the first generation of Americans brought up with martial arts as an easy-access childhood activity, now in positions of creative control, as well as these activities’ marketing value based in pure orientalism, devoid of their genuine history in 19th-20th century militarism.

      Another concerns the role of the Golan-Globus cinema phenomenon, which can fairly be said to have replaced the drive-in movie culture in the U.S. during the late 70s. This was an Israeli company with incredible market penetration, characterized by feeding real martial arts champions into leading roles and by its incredible, consistent ideology which can only be described as fascism in its rawest, most brownshirt form.

      Golan-Globus deserves much scrutiny, especially since its clearly deranged world-view quickly became the new normal for cinema in general and then for the casual U.S. political culture. The idea that courts were revolving doors that let psychotic criminals “back on the streets” regularly … the acceptance of “here’s my warrant” when smashing someone in the face as heroic police behavior … a degree of slobbering flag-and-family worship directly from the pages of the John Birch Society …

      As a subset point, it is also the gayest cinema in the history of the form, of which the volleyball scene in Top Gun is a mere echo. The crossover between non-ironic homoeroticism and fascism is a taboo topic today, and to my knowledge has never been seriously addressed regarding its incredible presence in the 80s. Your description of a Wolverine combat comes directly out of these movies, and I am talking about hundreds of them produced and viewed within an incredibly short time.

      Yet another concerns the deep strain of personal bullying and political militarism in comics and SF/fantasy geekdom, and the absurd pass it receives from everyone in the subculture due to … I don’t know why, actually. I stress that I perceive this strain across every overt ethical or political identity in the subculture. My current catchphrase about it goes, “The Nazis love Ripley.”

      Frank Miller became Marvel’s Golan-Globus in a strange way, beginning with an almost whimsical addition of “ninja grit” to Daredevil which preserved and even celebrated the character’s ethical foundation, and then shifted into non-ironic or even passionate sadism, accompanied by startling racism. Claremont was not far behind, and again, their infinitely famous and influential collaboration on the Wolverine mini-series may be the tipping-point for superhero comics in this topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wolverine as a non-team character: I remember thinking around the time I was reading his early Madripoor adventures (I imagine he’s come back there since then many times) that there really isn’t any particular reason for why Wolverine couldn’t and wouldn’t work as a traditional pulp adventure hero – he’s American, seems to be at home in the orient, has a distinctive identity as an exceptional person and so on. I have no idea if they followed through on that, but aside from the awkwardness of writing Sax Rohmer style pulp in the 1990s (and if Indiana Jones works, why wouldn’t this), it seemed like a pretty natural direction to go. You’d see Wolverine solve all sorts of native issues with his superior western values and skills, and acting as a safe medium/translator/guide to Eastern Wisdom for the western reader. I’d probably write in some background for him as a plantation owner in colonial Indo-China, too, recasting his savage wildman period as a disappointment-induced depressive reaction to the death of the colonial lifestyle 😀

    In the X-Men context: I’ve never been satisfied with the emotional logic of Wolverine’s joining the X-Men, to be frank. I know that this is really petty, as it’s not like the comic book ever was most logical about the social workings of the team (it’s more of a “we’re friends because we’re a team” than “we’re a team because we’re friends” situation), but Wolverine in particular is just weird about why and how he hangs about despite being a non-academic adult clearly preceding the exacerbating of the mutant issues, with a legit life outside Xavier’s clubhouse, and apparently no idealogical attachment to Xavier’s dream whatsoever. This is pretty distinctive compared to most of the cast who are explicitly either Xavier’s old friends of more or less his own generation (e.g. Banshee), children he’s been grooming into super-agents for years (the old X-Men in their entirety), or exchange students whose visas he’s holding (e.g. Colossus).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. epweissengruber

    “The crossover between non-ironic homoeroticism and fascism is a taboo topic today, and to my knowledge has never been seriously addressed regarding its incredible presence in the 80s.” That’s why I pointed out the Theweleit book to you. It’s addresses the homosocial bonding between men as expressed in the pop-culture consumption, personal diaries, letters etc., of the men who ended up in the Freikorps, the SA, the SS, and so on. Homosocial = hot dudes revelling in each other’s hotness but not actually “doing” anything (at least when no one is looking).

    Golan-Globus, with Saban playing catch up on T.V. There has been a movie in film studies to get away from global discussions of the ideologies of cinema of generalized notions of cultural production and capital. Some writers want to address particular firms or sets of firms and their concrete activities. Carroll & Bordwell’s “Post Theory: Reconstruction Film Studies” has essays in this line. But its good to see you ahead of the curve and really examining the comics and film industries as INDUSTRIES in all their particularity, the relation of lived experience to that industry, and the substance of their textual products.

    The fascination with bodies in peril is enduring. But the way that gets worked up into distinct cultural packages is hella problematic.

    “Yet another concerns the deep strain of personal bullying and political militarism in comics and SF/fantasy geekdom”: I recall photos of Leiber initiating some Spider/Snake cosplay at a sci-fi con. This was a guy who regretted his 30’s pacifism and who was hyper-aware of the fascistic and authoritarian strains in his German background (and in his own psyche). He was right out front with being a conflicted German American during and after WW II. So he is working through … something … by concocting a spooky pseudo-Nazi uniform with emblems from his fictional universe. I can’t fault anyone for working through their problematic stuff. But when you have Stormtroopers doing organized marching, and offering Imperial daycare for the kiddies while parents explore the BiMonSciFiConventicon, something has gone off the rails somewhere.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As an incredibly uptight youngster, I was exactly the wrong age for the mid-to-late-80’s Wolverine-mania, which fed into Punisher-mania and the grimdark Batman-mania of the period. “A hero doesn’t kill!!!” Somewhere around 1989 or 90, I realized that super “heroes” were going to a place, ethically, that I thought was kind of disgusting; that was one factor in bailing on comics for 12 years or so.

    He became the ultimate in emotional-sensitive tied to the ultimate in amoral, as well as the ultimate in moral authority tied to the ultimate in license-to-kill. It’s a Nixon effect: “if the president does it, then it becomes legal” – if Wolverine does it, then it can’t be wrong.

    That is it exactly, especially around ’85-86 and afterward. Wolverine’s character flaw was being too awesome. Naturally I hate that about him, recognizing the same flaw in myself. He would have been a lot easier to take if Claremont hadn’t ridden him so damn hard.

    That said, I don’t think Wolverine’s a void, exactly: there’s a point around ’82-85, probably bookended by the Claremont/Miller series and Uncanny X-Men #205 where Wolverine emerges as a genuinely interesting character–one of the very few that Marvel’s ever had. (For my money, the others are Peter Parker and Ben Grimm.) He’s a dude who’s life was stolen from him, he’s got traumatic PTSD and terrifying anger-management issues–and while he says he wants to grow as a person, he suspects that’s not really true at all and this is all he’ll ever be. Plus, he’s got kind of a gruff fatherly thing going on with pre-teen girls, suggesting that he may have been a dad in his past life. That’s not a lot to work with, but it’s more than, say, Nightcrawler or Colossus ever deserved.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Also, supposedly the original idea for Wolverine is that he was, like, a wolverine super-evolved by the High Evolutionary. I want SO BADLY for this to be true.


  6. James Nostack

    Man, I hate to triple-post, but over the past ten years or so it seems to have emerged that Wolverine’s arch-enemy is fate.

    He’s a guy with a normal human longing for love, family, and soft living. But he’s got decades upon decades of bad karma dogging his heels. The only way he knows to cope with bad karma is to escalate the fuck out if it. And the only way to escape the cycle of violence is to transcend himself, but if that was ever going to happen, it probably would have happened long before now. In the final analysis all you’re good for is turning people into meat, and that’s fun a lot of the time, but it’s kind of a shitty way to live.

    To paraphrase a quote I can’t recall exactly, Hemingway committed suicide when he got sick of being Hemingway. Just imagine how sick Wolverine must be of himself.

    Wolverine’s enemy is the very nature of modern comic books: he’s unable to grow or change, and destined to hurt people directly or by association, forever and ever.

    This is kind of a modern take on him, supported by Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine and Remender/Opena’s excellent Uncanny X-Force (2010 series; there have been a few other comics using the same title through the years). It is implicit in the mid-80’s Claremont “I don’t want to be an animal anymore!” phase, but back then, he was climbing his way upward, and maybe there was a chance he’d become a real boy after all. But since, for commercial reasons, he’s not really allowed to reach spiritual enlightenment he’s just gotta plunge back down the sine wave. It requires kind of a light touch, since Emo-Wolverine would be unbearable, but small bits in service to a larger story I think it’s effective.


    • “Would” be unbearable?! You have a way stronger stomach than me; as I see it, the post 1990 Wolverine is already so emo he’s the male romance novel – a whole franchise of’em. The Douglas video for me is brilliant because it doesn’t have to exaggerate the comics content a bit.


      • Hey, I said I was a Mopey Spider-Man and Self-Pitying Thing guy. The only surprise is that the Lee/Buscema Silver Surfer is too much even for me, which I didn’t think was possible.


  7. My favorite Wolverine moment is definitely X-Men #205. Barry Windsor-Smith art, NYC at Christmastime with trigger-happy cyborgs running amok and a plucky girl on an adventure with Mr. Logan.

    Great stuff as always, Ron. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Autobiographical confession: I instinctively dislike most things that are too popular, or I like the less-popular pieces of popular things. Growing up and discovering the X-men in the late 80s and tracking down the back issues meant doing a lot of eye rolling “What the blue blazes? Another Wolverine issue? Gah!”

    Post-1990 I agree that there is nothing left of the character. He’s just a superhero celebrity that Marvel throws onto weaker books to boost sales. “Avengers sales are down? Let’s kill the team and then reform it with Wolverine and Spiderman for good measure!” I agree completely with James that Wolverine’s nemesis is the nature of comic book publishing itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This had to be said, again and again: “[May I take this moment to mention how much I hate the Wikipedia entries which rattle through a character’s abilities and history in fictional chronological form? Come on, people! We have the Marvel Wikia for that. Can no one provide actual encyclopedia-worthy material on the chronological and creative publication of the characters?]”. Using the characters ret-conned fictional; chronology instead of their real history is… childish and stupid. It’s something i would expect by children in kindergarten, not by a “encyclopedia”.

    About all these changes, it’s not only about Wolverine: the first (best) phase of Claremont’s writing changes totally each time he changes the artist. OK, they often (not always) are credited as co-plotter, but it goes beyond that: the way he writes dialogues, the character’s voices, changes so much each time he changes the artist that one wonder if there is a “real” Chris Claremont or if its a total chameleon.
    This happen with Cockrum, with Byrne, and with Paul Smith, and with Miller. And then stop. When Paul Smith leaves the X-Men, Claremont get stuck into “faux-Miller mode” and the reader has to slot a lot of purple prose with characters saying the same thing all the time every two pages (“I am the best at what I do but…”…. that phrase is Frank Miller’s worst crime in his entire career: he was smart enough to use it a single time, but he should never, ever let Claremont read it. How many readers have suffered for it?)
    At last, after Miller, Claremont had a personal style. The style of an hack who shamelessly copied a phase of Miller’s style….

    Personally, i like Byrne’s version. He is the May-Sue bad-ass but he’s still a team player and he’s not infallible or “the group’s conscience”. That phase of the X-Men is strange because there are at least three characters (Phoenix, Wolverine and Prof X) unbelievably effective that could make mincemeat of any opponent but are stopped by moral/ethical limits. Using Wolverine as the guy who tell other people THEIR ethical limits is a nice kind of counter-characterization, once. The first time he does it. But then you have a ruined character.
    (and the way totally ruined characters made a shitload of money in the direct market is a clear sign of what little value had “reading” at that time in the hoarder/collector/fan subculture)

    P.S.: I think Garth Ennis enjoyed immensely writing the issue of The Punisher where Frank Castle beat wolverine

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I not sure you know about this BUT do you know how Logan was supposed to look like:


    • Hi Louis! I knew that he’d worked on early designs, but hadn’t seen them before. That’s an interesting blog.

      Forgive me for taking this opportunity to criticize your phrasing: “supposed to look like” simply doesn’t make any sense in comics. You’re showing what Byrne designed him to look like, which is definitely interesting, but it’s not like Byrne had any prior authority or mandate which merits “supposed to.” An artist who isn’t assigned to a given book can sketch whatever about any character in it, with the result being a big So What.

      That auteur fixation is so strong in comics fandom – the idea that a character must be created wholly in one guy’s head and exist in there in an original and pure way. It’s why that Kirby sketch of Doom’s face has spawned a whole school of “is” for the character. For all we know it was a one-off joke or lark – but my point is that even if it wasn’t, it carries no weight or interest in terms of the textual character.


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