TO BE TOTALLY HONEST, most of the Hulk’s stories during the 1970s weren’t exactly groundbreaking pieces of work. At the time, the Hulk was a monstrously strong being with the mind of a child, and most stories depicted him as a misunderstood brute trying to find a place where he could get some peace from the people who hounded him. It didn’t make for imaginative storytelling, but The Incredible Hulk #181 — almost in spite of itself — became a part of history by introducing a type of character never before seen in comics.
In this issue, the Hulk’s journeys bring him to northern Canada, where he tangles with the Wendigo, a white-haired man-turned-beast. Naturally, a fight is soon brewing between the two monsters. Enter a short, scrappy masked man to stir things up even more. Codenamed Wolverine, he was introduced as a super-agent of the Canadian government, and he used his claws to preserve the peace in a most un-Canadian way.
After that first outing, Wolverine might have disappeared into the guest-star void if he weren’t brought in to be part of the new X-men lineup. Short-tempered, feisty, and always ready for a scrap, he soon proved to be a big hit with the audience, and he grew to become one of Marvel’s most popular characters.
The turning point in the character’s evolution came when the X-Men traveled to the Savage Land, and Wolverine killed one of the villain’s guards in an off-panel scene. Today, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but at the time it was inconceivable that any superhero would kill, much less use razor-sharp weapons specifically designed to inflict pain.
Over the years, Wolverine (whose unexplained past added to his appeal) became a noble but savage hero, a man in a constant struggle to contain his bestial side, but one who never shied away from doing what had to be done. After all, as he often said, he was “the best at what he did.” His popularity signaled a change in what the comics considered a hero, and — for better or for worse — there was no turning back.
There were heroes before Wolverine with personality problems, and there were heroes who never fit in with society’s “play-nice” rules. But in those Comics Code-approved days, even the meanest heroes had a heart of gold (the Hulk, for instance, was monstrous, but never murderous). The right was right, and killing was wrong. Wolverine’s violence was unprecedented, and it paved the way for more violent heroes to arrive on the scene. (Although the Punisher, a gun-toting vigilante, appeared in Amazing Spider-Man a few months before Wolverine’s first appearance, he was originally seen as a mentally disturbed person, and the level of violence in his early stories was nowhere near what it would be in his own 1980s series.)
Even Wolverine’s non-violent superpowers seemed to encourage a new level of violence. Wolverine’s mutant power is his super-fast healing factor; his wounds heal in minutes, and his super strong, reinforced skeleton allows him to take a lot of punishment before he can be stopped. In a sense, this was a messy form of Superman’s invulnerability — he could get shot like a normal person, but the wound would heal to let him fight again. It’s a detail that writers have put to gory use time after time.
Wolverine’s introduction is a milestone because his arrival forced writers and readers to redefine their definitions of what a hero should be. Is a hero someone who lives by a strict code and refuses to kill, or is he someone who does what has to be done? Should heroes offer defeated villains mercy, or is “an eye for an eye” the only way to deal with evil? And is an evil act committed in the name of a greater good really an evil act?
Wolverine was the first sign that the comic-book heroes don’t live in a perfect world where the nice guys always win. Sometimes, their world can be as messy and as complicated as our own, and not every problem can be solved with a fierce sense of justice; sometimes, it’s better just to have someone fierce.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
Technically speaking, Wolverine first appeared in The Incredible Hulk #180, when he made a dramatic last-page entrance itching for a fight. Such cliffhanger endings have a long history in comic books.
Wolverine’s claws are made of adamantium, a fictional metal that, in the Marvel universe, is harder than diamond. Captain America’s shield is also made of the indestructible alloy.
In his own 1988 series, Wolverine adopted the persona of “Patch” while looking for trouble in a corrupt Asian island nation.
A 1993 issue of the second X-Men series revealed that Wolverine’s claws were in fact made of bone that was only covered by metal, and not metal themselves.
When Australian actor Hugh Jackman won the part of Wolverine in the 2000 live-action X-Men movie, he confessed to interviewers he didn’t know much about the character. He first learned just how avid Wolverine’s fans were when an airport security guard in Toronto excitedly asked for his autograph.