Wolverine Origins: Marvel artists recall the creation of an icon
Wolverine debuted in the final panel of Marvel Comics' The Incredible Hulk #180 (October 1974) and made his first full appearance in the following issue. He was co-created by writer Len Wein, who had earlier co-created DC Comics' Swamp Thing, and Marvel art director John Romita Sr., best known for his landmark 1960s run as the "Silver Age" artist who succeeded Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man, and first drawn for publication by regular Hulk artist Herb Trimpe.
Unlike Stan Lee and Steve Ditko on Spider-Man (2002) or Lee and Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four (2005), however, neither Wein nor Romita are on the official credits in the 20th Century Fox press notes. "It doesn't bother me," says Romita, 79, who lives on Long Island and occasionally still contributes to Marvel as an eminence grise. "The fans know that I did it." Romita says his role was as "a design source for all the editors" and he "never really considered myself a creator on those characters" that he designed as an art director, as opposed to those he co-created with Lee in Amazing Spider-Man. Still, he says of the film companies, "If they would send me a check, I wouldn't mind!"
Wolverine originated as a Canadian-government superhero sent in response to the Hulk's presence on Quebec soil. As a captain in "a top secret Royal Canadian Air Force tracking installation" declared, "I'm afraid we have no choice but to mobilize Weapon X!"—a.k.a., as the yellow-and-black costumed character eventually informed the Hulk, "The Wolverine." He battled the Hulk the following issue, before being recalled by the government on page one of the next for failing to capture the green goliath.
"Every time they wanted a new costume, there was a variety of approaches" that an editor would take, Romita recalls. "Some of them had a little scribbled sketch of what they wanted, or they had a drawing of a character they'd created in school. Len Wein—and [editor-in-chief] Roy Thomas was either with him then or at another time—mentioned they wanted a new character called Wolverine. That was all I would usually get from Stan [Lee] or other editors—they would just give me a name. At the time," he says with a laugh, "I thought a wolverine was a female wolf!"
The office encyclopedia, however, described "a small, ferocious creature with catlike features and claws. So I go to my drawing table and start drawing sketches" incorporating those traits. "Because I wrote 'small' on my notes, I suggested on the original sketch to make him 5'4", 5'5". I said, 'He's ferocious and he's little,' so you make him an angry little guy."
Romita's uncertain, but he thinks he also devised the claws' retractability. "When I make a design, I want it to be practical and functional. I thought, 'If a man has claws like that, how does he scratch his nose or tie his shoelaces?'"
(Wein, whose California home burned down on April 6, 2009, was unavailable to comment. Thomas told writer Clifford Meth in 2008 that he'd "met with Len Wein at lunch and told him to create for the Hulk a hero-villain who would be Canadian, short…and very fierce" and which "would be named after a fierce Northern animal… I was conflicted between 'wolverine and 'badger' and finally decided badger had the connotation of mere heckling or nagging, while wolverine virtually had the word wolf in it… I had no particular input on the costume or look that I can recall.")
Trimpe, 69, who is semi-retired in upstate New York and does commissioned art, sat across from Romita at their desks in the fabled Marvel Bullpen, and "distinctly remembers" Romita's sketch. For his part, he's happy to have been the first to show the character in motion and to draw him for publication. "The way I see it, those guys sewed the monster together and I shocked it to life!" he says jovially. But at the time, he notes, "It was just one of those secondary or tertiary characters, actually, that we were using in that particular book with no particular notion of it going anywhere. We did characters in The [Incredible] Hulk all the time that were in [particular] issues and that was the end of them."
Wolverine would go on and on and on, like the Energizer Wolverine. Dropping the "The" from his name, he became a member of the X-Men when that mutant-superhero team, which had headlined a 1963-1970 comic-book series, was revived with an almost entirely new lineup in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975). Under writer Chris Claremont, working with artists/co-plotters Dave Cockrum and John Byrne in X-Men (later titled Uncanny X-Men) and then with Frank Miller, who drew the first Wolverine solo miniseries in 1982, the character became one of Marvel's most popular.
"When I saw the first X-Men movie, I'm sitting with [my wife] Virginia in the theatre," Romita recalls. “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 onscreen. It was a great feeling."
Check out Frank Lovece’s interview with Wolverine director Gavin Hood.