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Jul 5

The Incomplete Wolverine, Part 1

Posted on Sunday, July 5, 2020 by Paul in Uncategorized, Wolverine

Because you can’t spell “quixotic” without an “X”.

So the Moira thing went well, but it goes without saying you’d be completely insane to do the same thing for a character like Wolverine. Still, we had a long gap this year with no new comics coming out, and so I thought I might go back and read Wolverine’s pre-X-Men back story in chronological order to see if it made any kind of sense.

And so in this series of posts, we’re going to go through Wolverine’s history in more-or-less chronological order – some of this stuff just can’t be placed precisely, but there are certainly clear phases of his life where appearances have to go. Obviously there’s got to be a cut-off point somewhere, but we’ll cover at least his history up to joining the X-Men and see where we go from there – I’ve read up as far as Uncanny X-Men #200 at time of writing, which is around the point where he’s fully developed into the familiar character. It’s also “Incomplete” because I can’t be 100% confident I’ve caught anything, but also because it’s clearly going to stop somewhere. Once the ongoing comics are coming out again, these will probably settle into a less frequent schedule than the Moira posts – the current material takes priority.

For a chronological list of Wolverine appearances, the obvious starting point is the Official Wolverine Index from 2012, which opens with three dense pages of small print summarising his back story before Wolverine #1. There’s also the Marvel Chronology Project, whose list has been updated more recently. And there’s a site called the Wolverine Files, some of which hasn’t been updated in a while, and which also includes some retconned-out apocrypha that I won’t be worrying about.

Since I’m a masochist, I’m basically going with the official line on canon but also counting the First Class books (more on why they’re in a weird position when we get to them). I’m also going to try and keep track of the assorted Marvel Universe characters he meets as he goes along. Once we get properly under way, there’ll be quite a few short entries so that I can focus on the stories that are worth singling out, whether for their merits, or their curiosity value. Or their horrendous continuity problems.

Speaking of which…

Flashbacks in WOLVERINE: THE END #4
by Paul Jenkins & Claudio Castellini
April 2004

Yes, this is part of an alternate-future miniseries. But it has extensive flashbacks to Logan’s childhood – and since it was intended as a possible future, presumably those flashbacks are meant to be canon. And that matters, because Wolverine: The End is a companion piece to Origin – Paul Jenkins wrote both – and contains the only clear explanation of the Howlett family secret that’s repeatedly hinted at in Origin. So if you’re going to read Origin, you should probably read this too.

If it counts, Wolverine: The End #4 has Wolverine’s chronologically earliest appearance by a mile – a photograph of him as a baby in his mother’s arms.

The Howlett family’s back story is sketched out in Origin #1 by one of the estate staff. According to him, James Howlett (the future Wolverine) is the surviving son of John and Elizabeth Howlett. John’s father, who never gets a first name, is a self-made copper millionaire. The Howletts have recently built their estate. Just after it was finished, elder son John Howlett Jr became ill and died; Elizabeth was hospitalised and became a recluse. It’s also made abundantly obvious that James’s biological father is actually groundskeeper Thomas Logan, whose other son Dog Logan lives with him in the grounds. Later in Origin, we learn that Elizabeth has massive claw-mark scars down one side, which the staff clearly know about.

If you were reading Origin in isolation, you might well come away with the idea that Thomas had attacked her (though that would beg the question of why he was still tolerated on the estate, since James sacks him over a much lesser offence during the course of the story). But according to The End, 12-year-old John Jr discovered his mother’s affair with Thomas, confronted her about it, and had a screaming argument with her in which he popped his own claws and attacked her – John Jr is also the illegitimate son of Thomas Logan, and has the same powers as James. The whole family knows about this incident, and John was packed off to a lunatic asylum and passed off to the world as dead. Origin hints rather obscurely at all this (aside from the bit about John surviving), but The End actually shows it.

Flashback in WOLVERINE & THE X-MEN #26
“Savage Learning, Part 2: A Boy Named Dog” by Jason Aaron & Ramon Perez
March 2013

This issue has a lengthy origin flashback for Dog Logan, including a scene where he plays with Logan in the estate grounds. Needless to say, they are close friends tragically divided by class.

(Most chronologies have this scene during Origin, but Dog specifically says that their relationship changed later after Rose O’Hara showed up in Origin #1. Dog’s version doesn’t tally with Rose’s account as the narrator of Origin – he says they drifted apart after Rose shows up, Rose says everyone grew closer – but maybe they just remember it differently.)

ORIGIN #1
“The Hill” by Paul Jenkins, Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove
November 2001

12-year-old orphan Rose O’Hara is brought to the Howlett Estate to be a companion for the frail James Howlett. James, Rose and Dog become close friends, and class-related tension ensues. (James himself does almost nothing in this issue, because the idea is to make the readers think that Dog is the future Wolverine.)

So let’s talk about when Origin actually happens. The Index politely ducks this question with some vague mutterings about Logan being born in the last decades of the 19th century. The only date given in Origin is on John Jr’s tombstone, which bears the dates 1885-1897, placing the story somewhere after that. Wolverine: The End makes matters much worse – it repeats the tombstone dates, but also says that James was still a baby when John died. If that’s right then Origin #1 has to take place in around 1906… but that contradicts the time frame of a bunch of other stories showing Wolverine as an adult before World War I. (Not least Origin II, which says outright that it happens in 1907.)

At some point Marvel just shoved Origin back a decade. In 2011, another Paul Jenkins story, X-Men: Prelude to Schism #4 shows James and Rose living at the estate in 1891. Wolverine vol 5 #10 (a Paul Cornell issue from 2013) has a photo of Rose at the estate, which Wolverine says was taken in the 1890s. And Origin II, also from 2013, says that years have passed since the end of Origin and it’s now 1907.

So the current consensus is that Origin happens in the 1890s, and ignore the inconvenient tombstone.

There’s a lengthy gap between Origin #1-2 which accommodates a couple of minor flashbacks:

  • Wolverine: Origins #33 has a brief scene of James walking into his mother’s room and seeing the claw marks on her side. (Only Rose sees them in Origin, not James.)
  • X-Men: Prelude to Schism #4 shows a 9-year-old James hiding in a woodshed and overhearing his father and grandfather arguing about attitude to discipline. Rose is already on the estate, which would mean James is meant to be three years younger than her – that does fit with the way she’s written in Origin as a semi-carer, and she consistently treats him more as a younger brother.

ORIGIN #2-6
by Paul Jenkins, Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove
December 2001 to July 2002

Origin picks up a few years after issue #1 and it’s largely uncluttered by further flashbacks. Deep breath… Dog starts to turn on the rich folk, and eventually he and Thomas get kicked off the estate. Thomas tries to abduct Elizabeth at gunpoint, which he seems to think of as rescuing her. John interrupts, and Thomas kills him. That prompts James to use his claws for the first time; he slashes Dog’s face, and kills Thomas. Elizabeth rejects James and kills herself. James’s grandfather disowns him, but give him and Rose money to get out of town. They flee to British Columbia, and Rose notices James’s healing powers for the first time. Some of Logan’s memory problems are apparently due to his healing powers suppressing traumatic memories, quite aside from any of the active manipulation by his later employers; the fact that so many different explanations have been given for Logan’s assorted memory defects makes his back story unnecessarily cumbersome. (It also helps smooth over continuity glitches, at least up to the point where Logan does get all his memories back).

James’s distorted memory leads him to believe that he killed his parents. He takes the name “Logan”, initially as an alias, and he and Rose get work at a quarry. They stay there for over a year, with Logan being bullied by an evil cook. It’s not the most dramatic chapter of his career, but then the story requires a villain who’s feeble enough for Logan to survive him even before developing a spine at the end of the series. (More of Logan getting used to quarry work can be found in another flashback in Prelude to Schism #4, if you really want. And Wolverine: Bloody Choices has a generic flashback to a young Logan in a loincloth, which would have to go during the latter part of Origin.)

Logan takes up hunting, claiming that his skills are instinctual, and starts using “Logan” as his real name instead of just a cover identity. Cookie tries and fails to murder Logan. Rose falls in love with the foreman, Smitty, much to the besotted Logan’s horror – but he comes to terms with it after a while. Eventually he defeats Cookie (another scene expanded on in Prelude to Schism #4). Dog shows up to confront him, and when Rose intercedes, Logan accidentally kills her with his claws.

Origin is a strange series. The James Howlett name has stuck, but nobody really seems to know what to do with the costume drama back story. It really doesn’t add anything. The second half of Origin is a more conventional coming of age story that serves the character better, but isn’t exactly revelatory. And explaining Logan’s attraction to Jean Grey by her resemblance to Rose is a bit hackneyed.

If you’re wondering what happened to the Howlett estate, then according to Wolverine: The End #1, the family fell into bankruptcy and ruin… for some reason. Presumably there were no other close relatives to inherit it.

After Origin, Logan spends a period hanging around in the wilderness with a bunch of wolves. A handful of appearances take place during this period. First, a flashback in X-Men Origins: Wolverine shows a 17-year Logan hunting naked with the wolfpack. That’s it. The others have a bit more substance, though

MARVEL’S VOICES #1
“Death” by Method Man, Daniel Dominguez & Alitha Martinez
February 2020

A group of fur trappers set light to what appears to be a camp of indigenous Canadians, and everyone (including the fur trappers) dies. Logan and the wolves show up in time to see Death claim the last soul. Logan begs to die, but Death leaves without him. All very bleak. But yes, the first character that Wolverine meets from the wider Marvel Universe is the cosmic embodiment of Death.

ASTONISHING SPIDER-MAN & WOLVERINE #3-4
“Another Fine Mess”, parts 3-4, by Jason Aaron, Adam Kubert & Mark Roslan
August and September 2010

Logan and his pack come across a time-travelling Spider-Man, who’s been dumped there as a prank, and is covered in meat. Dog shows up to pursue his fight against Logan, but Spider-Man is yanked away. As a side effect, Dog is brought to the present day, where he eventually shows up again in Wolverine & The X-Men.

ORIGIN II #1-6
by Kieron Gillen, Adam Kubert & Frank Martin
December 2013 to April 2014

Certainly the best actual story in this batch, though it doesn’t seem to have had much impact on continuity. But you’re thinking of reading it then really, do that before going further, because I’m going to have to spoil the end.

It’s 1907, and Logan has been in the wilderness for several years. He’s still living with a pack of wolves, but they get wiped out in the first issue by a polar bear that’s been dumped in the forest as a scientific experiment. Logan kills the bear, but is left alone. The mad scientist shows up and tries to capture Logan – this is Logan’s first encounter with Nathaniel Essex, not currently calling himself Mister Sinister.

Logan escapes, only to get captured instead by circus owner Hugo the Great, tracker Creed and animal handler Clara. Here’s the spoiler: Origin II is written to misdirect the reader into thinking that Creed is Sabretooth and Clara is his girlfriend. In fact, Creed turns out to be Sabretooth’s younger brother Saul Creed, and Clara is his sister. The trio put Logan on display in a circus, and Clara tries to befriend him, though he remains completely animalistic. Hugo allows Essex to examine Logan; naturally, Essex kills Hugo and tries to keep Logan for good. Essex plans to use a lobotomising drug to convert Logan into a perfect soldier – the first appearance in our timeline of a recurring theme of people actively trying to dehumanise Logan and turn him into a weapon. Essex already has a squadron of lobotomised soldiers, who apparently signed up for this process because they were suicidal – these are the original Marauders. The general idea is that the loss of humanity has a certain temptation for Logan because of how awful his life and memories have become.

Clara and Creed rescue Logan and they head to New York, where Logan finally re-learns how to act like a human. He is, of course, plagued by nightmares about the deaths of his family, Rose and the pack, and winds up falling in love with Clara. Wanting rid of Logan, Creed tips off Essex, and the Marauders attack their apartment. Clara is seemingly stabbed to death in the fight, and Logan kills the Marauders in a rage. Creed – who knows perfectly well that Clara will be fine thanks to her own healing powers – then persuades Logan to join him in a suicidal attack on Essex’s castle, which is really just a device to hand him over. On finding out that Essex and Creed are in league, Logan chucks Essex out of a window (he’s surprisingly low-powered in this story) and drowns Creed in the lobotomising elixir. Clara shows up too late to stop him, and disowns him, telling him that his problem is not his animal rages, but his murderous human side.

In an epilogue, Saul’s big brother Victor Creed learns of Saul’s death and swears revenge… but Logan won’t meet him for a little while yet, and as a motivation for his rivalry with Logan, this story has never really taken root.

Next time, Sabretooth and Silver Fox.

Edited on 9 July 2020 to add information on the flashback in Wolverine: Bloody Choices and to correct the description of Marvel’s Voices #1.

Bring on the comments

  1. […] Part 1: Origin to Origin IIPart 2: 1907 to 1914Part 3: 1914 to 1939Part 4: World War IIPart 5: The postwar eraPart 6: Team XPart 7: Post Team X […]

  2. […] Part 1: Origin to Origin II | Part 2: 1907 to 1914Part 3: 1914 to 1939 | Part 4: World War IIPart 5: The postwar era | Part 6: Team XPart 7: Post Team X |Part 8: Weapon X […]

  3. […] Part 1: Origin to Origin II | Part 2: 1907 to 1914Part 3: 1914 to 1939 | Part 4: World War IIPart 5: The postwar era | Part 6: Team XPart 7: Post Team X | Part 8: Weapon X Part 9: Department H […]

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