He’s the ragin’ Canadian, the ol’ Canucklehead, and the best there is at what he does, bub. Sometimes he goes by Logan, other times it’s James Howlett and, often, he’s known by reputation alone. The Wolverine is not just one of the most notable superheroes in the world, but he’s now one of the most famous and well-known fictional characters, period. Wolverine’s basic attributes, like his claws, his healing factor, and his bad attitude, are widely recognizable, and his masterful portrayal by Hugh Jackman in many X-Men films has only helped his visibility. Wolverine is undoubtedly one of the most valuable properties that Marvel Comics owns, but it wasn’t always that way.
The interesting thing about Wolverine’s climb to fame is how late of a start he got when compared to other superheroes. Classic characters like Batman and Superman got their start in the 1930s, Captain America was around in World War II, and even Silver Age heroes like Spider-Man and the Avengers showed up in the ’60s. Wolverine, on the other hand, didn’t make his first appearance until 1974. Despite this delay, Wolverine became popular almost immediately, and it wasn’t long before he was considered one of the very best Marvel had to offer. However, the character needed to experience plenty of change, growth, and development to become the Wolverine that he is today. Over the years, countless creators have contributed to crafting the mutant hero that we’ve all grown to love and admire.
Many of the core concepts behind Wolverine were in place before the character himself was even invented. Marvel editor Roy Thomas, who was a well-known comics writer in his own regard, knew that he wanted a Canadian character created so that sales north of the border could be boosted—or, as he put it, he “detected a need to exploit the Canadian market.”
Thomas researched Canadian wildlife and settled on the wolverine, a small but ferocious predator, as the ideal inspiration for the new Canuck hero. He passed the project on to Len Wein, who was writing The Incredible Hulk. Wein came up with a few further details before passing the task of design off to the artists. Wein fit Wolverine into an upcoming storyline in which the Hulk would be fighting the Wendigo, a type of northern mythological creature.
In terms of aesthetic design, Wolverine has two main creators. When Roy Thomas first conceived of the character, he wanted the costume done right, so he turned to respected artist John Romita Sr. Romita mocked up a look that contained all the basic attributes that Wolverine is now famous for; his claws, his pointed mask, and his blue-and-yellow color scheme. From the beginning, Wolverine’s surly attitude was meant to be reflected in his design, despite the bright colors. Years later, Romita still took pride in his contributions. After Wolverine made his Hollywood debut, he said, “The first time he retracts his claws, I nearly jumped out of my chair. I got the biggest rush when I realized something I created was being used on-screen.”
In his comic debut, however, Wolverine would be drawn by a different artist, Herb Trimpe. Trimpe was the first to draw Wolverine in action and helped determine that, despite his ferociousness, Wolverine was not the biggest character in the Marvel universe, and certainly not compared to the Hulk.
Wolverine would go on to become a great superhero and a member of several major teams, but he began his publication history as an antagonist of the Hulk. This was actually a fairly common trick that Marvel used to pull back in the day, as they used a confrontation with a popular character as a “backdoor pilot” for a new character. The Punisher got his start as a Spider-Man villain in a very similar fashion. Wolverine’s first appearance, in The Incredible Hulk #180, consisted of a dramatic reveal on the final page, before he actually got into the action in #181.
This debut did not establish very much about the character at all, save for the fact that he had claws of some sort and worked for the Canadian government. These two factoids would soon spiral into one of the most complex and convoluted character backstories in comic history. For the record, the first battle between Wolverine and the Hulk ended in a bit of a draw.
Wolverine arrived in comics at the perfect time. The X-Men, who had gotten their start back in the '60s, had been effectively canceled for a number of years, with only reprints of their adventures being published. The original team of five had proven boring and Marvel was looking to rebrand with a completely new team of mutants. This led to Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. Writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum sought out a multinational group of heroes to add a little diversity to the Marvel lineup and, while they had to invent most of their roster, the already-created Wolverine seemed like a perfect fit. Wolverine’s gruff attitude made him the perfect “team loner,” although his character would not be developed too far beyond that quite yet. For the time being, Wolverine was just one interesting member on a very interesting and successful new superhero team.