The two trailers for Logan aka Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine have been pretty awesome. The first one features “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, as well as some serious pain and anguish for Wolverine, with a small glimpse at X-23, his clone and a fan favorite of comics readers and X-Men Evolution watchers. The most recent Logan trailer is more action packed, with X-23 showing off her own version of berserker rage, while Wolverine attacks the villainous Reavers and Professor X drops f-bombs from the backseat. It also had a pretty meta moment, with X-23 reading old X-Men comics that were specially drawn by Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer (and one of the greatest Daredevil artists), Joe Quesada, in 1980s style for the movie. The film’s tone is miles away from the utter cheesiness and gratuitous cameos of Wolverine’s first solo outing (2009’s X-Men Origins Wolverine), and feels more like a Cormac McCarthy novel than something from either the Marvel or Fox Cinematic Universe. From the trailers, it seems like Logan is a more subdued version of Mark Millar’s (Kick-Ass) and Steve McNiven’s (Civil War) famous “Old Man Logan” storyline where he is placed under mind control, kills all the X-Men, and decides to put away his claws for good to raise a family in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
So, to tide you over until Logan’s March 3 release date, here are ten of Wolverine’s best solo outings, in roughly chronological order, from his early days as a brown costume-wearing member of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men to his death in 2014, an event that still stands, even though X-23 has taken up the mantle of Wolverine in her own right. There is a good mix of one-shots from X-Men comics, as well his various solo titles and some with longer arcs, like “Enemy of the State” or “Weapon X.” All of these comics can be found on Marvel Unlimited (which is sometimes more entertaining than Netflix), Comixology, and trade paperbacks of some of the more popular storylines, like “Old Man Logan,” can be found on Amazon or at your local bookstore/library.
Smack dab in the middle of the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” writer Chris Claremont and artist/co-plotter John Byrne decided to turn Wolverine into a total freaking badass. The setup for “Wolverine Alone” is pretty simple: the Hellfire Club has captured the other X-Men, and the short, smelly, hairy Canadian is the only one who is left to save the day. He is technically the B-plot to Cyclops going to the astral plane and trying to break Mastermind’s hold over Jean Grey, but Wolverine’s storyline definitely makes the biggest impression.
Nothing really tops the atmosphere of the first few pages, where Wolverine is lurking in the rafters, ready to pounce, as the Hellfire Club’s cyborg goons definitely underestimate his abilities and call him “runt.” Claremont and Byrne cut him loose and show that he can definitely back up the edgy trash talk that he has been spouting for the past five years or so. Even though Wolverine hesitates to kill the non-cyborg Hellfire Club members, he definitely has a killer instinct, and there are pages of him slashing and sneaking his way to where the Club is keeping the X-Men. Cybernetic enhancements and even a gun to his head won’t stop him from saving his new friends.
This comic is worth reading for a wonderful one-page homage to Dirty Harry from Claremont and Byrne, with Wolverine baiting the last Hellfire goon to go for his gun, all but saying “Do you feel lucky, punk?” It’s a defining moment for Wolverine the anti-hero, as he still goes to torture the goon for information, even after the coward drops his gun in fear. The face on the Hellfire goon is the embodiment of fear and terror, and this scene shows that Wolverine isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. As a result, subsequent writers wouldn’t be afraid to make overt comparisons between Wolverine and Clint Eastwood for decades to come, especially in the “Old Man Logan” arc, which is like Unforgiven with extra Hulk incest, and a blind, wise-guy Hawkeye subbing in for Morgan Freeman’s character.
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be killed off all the way back in Uncanny X-Men #94, which was the second comic featuring the X-Men’s new-look lineup.
In 1982, Wolverine became the first X-Man to get a solo series, and it was kind of a premonition for things to come, as Wolverine is the only X-character to consistently sustain his own comic series, as well as have his own movies. Wolverine is the ultimate “Logan in Japan” story, as he returns to Tokyo to marry his love Mariko but gets caught up in a non-stop battle with ninjas, gangsters, kabuki plays, drunken sumo wrestlers, and samurai blades; basically all the Japanese pop culture stereotypes rolled up into one shiny package. Wolverine is also important because it’s a showcase for two of the greatest comics talents of the 1980s: Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. In the middle of his run on Daredevil, Miller definitely had ninjas on his mind, and this miniseries is filled with high-flying, powerful martial arts sequences that play out like Jack Kirby binge-watching a bunch of Bruce Lee movies.
Wolverine #1 is a showcase of Miller’s talent to draw on both film and older comics, as well as give them his own spin to create a visually engaging reading experience. For example, the comic opens with Wolverine hunting a grizzly bear in the Canadian wilderness. Even though it’s not his usual gritty New York cityscape, Miller gives the wilderness a majestic atmosphere, using Wolverine’s claws as a visual aid to keep the fight against the bear exciting. Wolverine dismembers the bear’s arm before killing it, and the focus on the severed limb establishes his brutality as a killer. But then Miller cuts to a close-up of Wolverine’s sad eyes, as Claremont’s writing reveals that this was a mercy killing, as a hunter had used an illegal poisoned dart on the majestic creature instead of killing it cleanly or just leaving it alone. This reiterates his job as the “dirty work” guy for the X-Men and other superheroes, because he has been trained to kill and his conscience can take it easier than, say, Cyclops or Storm. The scene also introduces Wolverine’s sense of honor (Giri in Japanese.), as he stays away from Mariko when she rejects him for being a foreigner, but later redeems her family’s dishonor by killing her greedy father, Shingen, who has besmirched the family name through his drug trafficking and back alley deals with The Hand.
There are plenty of uses of slow motion and cross-cutting in Wolverine, but Miller also knows his comics, and pays homage to Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. series in Wolverine #1 when Wolverine infiltrates Shingen Yashida’s (the main antagonist of the mini) fortress. Colorist Glyn Wein uses light blue tones for the infiltration, and Miller opens up with an establishing shot of the fortress before cutting away to Wolverine killing Shingen’s guards, but staring and talking down his dogs. Claremont takes a breather from his usually wordy narration to let Miller’s layouts breath, and there are some striking panel layouts throughout the series, including a four panel grid of Wolverine instantly reacting in rage when he sees the bruises on Mariko’s face from her abusive husband. One powerful image in comics can evoke many emotions, and Miller’s work around this time definitely proves this rule, from Daredevil weeping over Elektra’s body, to Mariko’s look of horror after she sees how violent her would-be husband is.
Thematically, Claremont and Miller explore the struggle between beast and man in Wolverine. Wolverine is a true paradox, as he can go from hunting down scents like a bloodhound to appreciating the story of the 47 Ronin and kabuki theatre. He is skilled at navigating the political intrigue of the Tokyo underworld with the help of his old secret agent friend Kimura, but also gets super drunk at the start of Wolverine #3 and picks a pointless fight with an ex-sumo wrestler. Wolverine is one messed up dude, and throughout the series, he struggles with wanting to live a stable life with Mariko but also desiring a life of reckless adventure with Yukio, who is among the pantheon of female characters like Elektra, Yukio, and Carrie Kelly that Miller has crafted gorgeous fight scenes for. At the end, he eventually finds balance and peace with Mariko, but of course, this gets screwed up in a future X-Men storyline.
Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine miniseries is a master class in showing that Wolverine is a complex character with a moral code and not just an overly violent brawler (he does get into lots of fights in this series). It also establishes his connection to samurai and martial arts stories, which (along with the Western) tend to pop up as influences in his solo stories on both a surface (fighting ninjas) or deeper level (Ultimate X-Men #41 is basically seppuku the comic).
Wolverine was born in the early 1800s, and even before his “origin” as a sickly upper-middle class Albertan orphan was revealed back in 2001, there have been loads of stories about his past. “Madripoor Nights” is a fan-favorite one-off story from Chris Claremont and a young Jim Lee about Wolverine’s first meeting with Captain America in Madripoor in 1941. There’s some humorous quips, and plenty of team-up action against the winning combo of ninjas and Nazis, as well as a Black Widow appearance. Seventeen years after “Madripoor Nights” was published, writer Daniel Way and artist Steve Dillon revisited the story in Wolverine Origins, which is part commentary on, part deconstruction of the original. Dillon masterfully captures a grieving Wolverine, who is drinking whiskey in the Smithsonian and remembering the dead Steve Rogers (killed after the recent Civil War crossover.) while dropping a hell of cliffhanger that casts “Madripoor Nights” in a less than fun light. Apparently, the friendly restaurant owner, Seraph, is some kind of geriatric assassin mentor who trained Wolverine in the art of killing, along with filling up his beer mug. Nice-looking grandmas never are what they seem.
The opening of “Madripoor Nights” is exciting and hilarious. Lee draws a confident profile of Captain America, while Claremont’s narration reveals his uneasiness about diving headfirst into combat dressed up like an American flag. Then it’s time for some sheer early-90s coolness, as he shows Wolverine taking out Hand ninjas with nunchaku while rocking a cowboy hat, all before Claremont and Lee seamlessly transition to 1990, where he joins Psylocke and an always joking Jubilee to rescue Black Widow from similar ninjas. For the most part, the flashback/present day story structure works, but the World War II material is stronger, as Claremont and Lee fill in the gaps of early Marvel history, with Black Widow super close to becoming the Hand’s top assassin. There is also a nod to actual world history, as the US and Canada work together with Communist Russia (Black Widow’s handler Petrovitch) against the greater threats of the Hand and HYDRA, who remain dangerous decades later in the Marvel Universe.
“Our War” begins as a retelling of “Madripoor Nights,” with Wolverine providing some retrospective commentary and his feelings about his relationship with Captain America, but it ends up having a great plot twist. Instead of teaming up against a common enemy, Wolverine was teaming up with Captain America because his handler wanted a super serum sample, and she needed him to build a friendship with Cap to help get access to this. The adorableness of Cap asking Wolverine to be his sidekick and getting promptly rebuffed ends up looking a lot darker and sadder after reading the end of Wolverine Origins #16. The twist hits home, because up to this point the story is straight-up action adventure, with Dillon indulging his over-the-top side, with big chases, Wolverine leaping into a Nazi getaway car, and Seraph saving the day with a couple of machine guns and an even bigger car.
In reality though, Wolverine and Steve Rogers weren’t really old, if mismatched war buddies, and this is yet another example of a dark, modern retcon of a character relationship in superhero comics. However, Wolverine’s respect for Steve is definitely on display in Wolverine Origins #16, as he reflects on his friend’s transformation from an untried, idealistic young man in an outrageous costume to the ultimate hero, one who sadly made the ultimate sacrifice around the time the comic was published.
If you’ve watched any X-Men movie or cartoon with Wolverine, his time at the Weapon X compound is sure to pop up. In almost a redundant way, it’s at the center of both the X2 and X-Men Origins Wolverine films. This whole mythos of Wolverine having wires attached to him, adamantium grafted onto his rapidly healing skeleton, and being treated as a lab rat with a weird helmet all began with Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Weapon X” storyline that was serialized in Marvel Comics Presents in 1991.
Windsor-Smith immediately strips away Wolverine’s humanity or agency in “Weapon X” by telling the story from the POV of the Weapon X employees: the Professor, Dr. Cornelius, and Hines. He’s like the monster in Alien, or the killer in a slasher movie — someone to run away from, try to kill, or at the very least, run experiments on. The Professor is set up as the antagonist, with Cornelius and Hines playing the roles of his almost unwitting victims. He slowly feeds them information about mutants, that he is trying to create the ultimate weapon, and that Wolverine definitely didn’t volunteer to have an unbreakable metal bonded to his skin.
But even though “Weapon X” shows Wolverine at rock bottom as a rage-filled killing machine who ruthlessly kills the animals and lab techs at Weapon X, Windsor-Smith gives readers a glimpse of his humanity. For example, when he is vengefully tracking down the Professor, the man responsible for making him the way he is, he doesn’t kill Hines, and even begins to speak some of his first words of the arc while the Professor tries to trap him in a nuclear reactor. Cornelius later hypothesizes that Wolverine will only kill those who pose a threat to him, or when he is hungry, and because Hines is just an innocent woman working for a sketchy government agency, she is safe.
Windsor-Smith shows the experiments on Wolverine in graphic detail, juxtaposed with ongoing, technical patter about adjusting the level of anesthetics in him and compensating for his healing factor. Marvel Comics Presents #78 is filled with close-ups of his pained, almost comatose face, as the lab techs run wires around him so that he can be controlled from a nine-mile radius in order for the Professor to test his killing, healing, and tracking abilities. But the parade of body horror pales in comparison to the grotesque things that the Professor and other members of the Weapon X program do to Wolverine, including singing nursery rhymes to his new claws, or worst of all, pouring coffee on his face in disgust. The Professor is constantly dehumanizing Wolverine, switching from calling him Logan to “Experiment X” early on in the series. He sees Logan’s new life as Weapon X to be a more useful alternative to “pummeling his way through a purposeless” between special forces/mercenary gigs. The Professor wants to hone Wolverine’s killer instinct and remove his humanity in one fell swoop so that he can achieve some kind of higher destiny. He is seriously one creepy guy, and one of the great Marvel Comics villains.
Reading “Weapon X” in one sitting is like experiencing Wolverine: The Horror Movie, as you go from rooting for him to get vengeance against his handlers to feeling bad for Cornelius and Hines even though they make no real attempt to try to blow the whistle on the Professor (this story is set in a time way before the Internet though). Barry Windsor-Smith’s depiction of violence is nauseating, and his killing of animals or hapless lab workers lacks the catharsis of Wolverine taking out ninjas, defending the X-Mansion, or finding revenge. The comic is a lasting testament to how messed up Wolverine’s past was, as Windsor-Smith finds new, cruel ways of making him feel pain in each chapter before finally stumbling out to the snow, and perhaps freedom.
Ultimate X-Men #41 is probably the most controversial story on this list. The title is “New Mutants Part 2,” but actually it is a stand alone comic from writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist David Finch about what happens when a mutant has powers that are too dangerous for the general public to be around. Basically, a teen has the power to kill everyone around him, so Wolverine takes him up to the mountains and kills the boy after sharing a beer with him. It’s incredibly depressing, but shows that Wolverine is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect the reputation of mutants around world and ensure that the students of the Xavier Institute grow up in a better place, even if there is a little bit of blood in the foundations of that new world.
Unlike his grotesquely violent art on “Avengers Disassembled” with Bendis, Ultimate X-Men #41 is fairly restrained, and Bendis even dials down his usual flurry of dialogue to show the very normal life of this young mutant. He has X-Men and band posters on his wall, has trouble getting up for a school, and is pissed off when there is no food in the fridge and his mom is nowhere to be found. The first time that something seems off is when his mom’s shirt and pants are on the floor, Left Behind-style. Art Thibert’s inks continue to be low-key, as the cars crashing in the background just…happen. Finally, the story turns from subtle to overt horror when the kid’s girlfriend gets mad that he didn’t call her last night, then fades away into dust in front of his eyes. Suddenly, he realizes the true nature of his mutant powers, and runs away to an abandoned cave.
Enter Wolverine at his calmest. There is no trace of his infamous berserker rage, and all his claw popping is off panel. Instead, Bendis has him quietly play the role of comforter, as the kid pours out all his hopes and wishes, ranging from going to a NASCAR race, visiting colleges, having sex with his girlfriend, to having different DNA. He’s just an ordinary kid, one whose DNA happens to be deadly to everyone around him. This is why Wolverine, with his rapid healing powers, can actually carry on a conversation with the boy. It’s clever in an extremely depressing way, and there are plenty of close-up’s of the kid’s tears as he talks to Wolverine.
Without a doubt, Ultimate X-Men #41 is one of the saddest and bleakest comics I have ever read. Wolverine looks pretty damn lonely walking out of that cave by himself, and Xavier’s dream is definitely not as pure and idealistic as it seems.