The countdown of the best Wolverine comics you should read before seeing Logan in March continues (see here for #6-10), this time going full blast into the 21st century with some storylines by comics royalty Mark Millar and Brian K. Vaughan, an underrated all-ages gem, and the hairy Canadian badass’ last stand in 2014. (He’s still dead, although X-23 has taken up his mantle.)
5. Wolverine #20-31 “Enemy of the State” (2004-2005)
“Enemy of the State” is a sprawling, Marvel Universe-hopping storyline from the future Kick-Ass creative team of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., answering the question of what would happen if Wolverine’s abilities were used for evil and not for good. The first six issues are non-stop bonkers, as Wolverine goes from a usual solo trip to Japan to being brainwashed by The Hand and taking out SHIELD agents, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, and saddest of all, the X-Men. Wolverine’s thoughts while working for The Hand range from the unintentionally hilarious (he gets taken down by Rachel Summers because he is too busy having dirty thoughts about her) to insightful (yes, Sue Storm is the most competent superhero in the Fantastic Four). The second arc is a straightforward revenge narrative that Millar would later re-explore in Giant-Size Old Man Logan #1, with Wolverine summarily dismantling The Hand, HYDRA, and the mutant cult, Dawn of the White Light. Plus, he gets a Sentinel sidekick and some cool spy gadgets along the way, kills tons of ninjas, and has searing chemistry with Elektra, another violent loner who has been conscripted into doing SHIELD’s dirty work.
As one of Mark Millar’s first works set in the main (not the Ultimate) Marvel Universe, “Enemy of the State” feels like a kid gleefully overturning a giant box of toys. For example, a brainwashed Wolverine gets to wreck Johnny Storm’s car while he’s gossiping with The Thing about the difficulty of dating two girls at the same time, and douses his flame with a fire extinguisher while he painfully heals from crazy burns. He gets to play with salt-and-pepper-sideburns Nick Fury, who wields a couple of machine guns and holds off B-list villains that have been brainwashed by the Hand for quite some time before making a sacrifice play to call in Wolverine. Millar has some genuinely clever ideas in this comic, like using a special simulation to help Wolverine get out his blood lust and regain his morality after being brainwashed. He makes progress by sparing a pregnant SHIELD agent after gutting the rest. Also, Wolverine’s costumes should always have a jetpack.
However, Millar plays to his collaborators’ strengths by giving John Romita Jr and Klaus Janson plenty of opportunities to draw large scale ninja battles featuring Wolverine and Elektra (who they both drew in classic stories with Frank Miller back in the 1980s and 1990s). The action is especially powerful when Romita and Janson zoom into cool details of the larger scale battles, like a panel of Wolverine holding up a bunch of Hand bodies to block out a hail of arrows in a similar vein to Frank Miller’s 300. The second half of “Enemy of State” is Wolverine relentlessly trying to find redemption through violence, and the plot is non-stop battles against ninjas and evil mutants, leading up to a big time showdown against Gorgon, the Big Bad of “Enemy of State.” Gorgon is an enigmatic figure; his goal is to unite HYDRA, the Hand, and his mutant death cult to create an evil nihilistic empire and bring about the apocalypse, and he even kills off old HYDRA leader Baron Strucker. His mutant power involves turning people to stone with his gaze, but he prefers to best his opponents in hand to hand combat. He’s a great bad guy because he’s always four or five steps ahead of SHIELD and the superheroes, and he has the bright idea of killing and resurrecting heroes for the Hand — not just random ninjas.
“Enemy of the State” isn’t as introspective as many of the other comics on this list, even though Wolverine’s whole arc is atoning for letting his friend’s son go missing, die, and then letting himself be brainwashed in the process, but it’s a hell of ride, as you see the various heroes and organizations of the Marvel Universe deal with a rogue Wolverine. There’s no better way of dealing with a guilt trip than with non-stop violence.
4. Logan #1-3 (2008)
Logan is a Wolverine love story that is mainly set in Japan during WWII, and is a showcase of storytellers Brian K. Vaughan’s and Eduardo Risso’s abilities to tell intimate, character-driven stories featuring big-time corporate characters. If you saw the 2013 film The Wolverine, the scene where Wolverine survives the atomic bomb in Hiroshima comes from this comic. The story opens up as a riff on the prison escape genre, until the American soldier Warren reveals himself to be a twisted, hateful figure who wants to gun down Atsuko, a Japanese widow who gives them shelter. Warren has similar healing abilities to Wolverine’s, and is drawn as ugly as his hate, even though he goes on and on about how the Japanese are savages, and they are fighting a war for civilization. He represents the ugly spectre of racism in WWII.
But Logan isn’t all about hatred and death. At its core is the tender romance between Wolverine and Atsuko, expressed beautifully through Risso’s art, and the melancholy shadows of Dean White’s colors. Vaughan explores the younger Wolverine’s more vulnerable side in a conversation with Atsuko about how the men in his unit make fun of his hair and smell, and that he’ll never be with a woman. Wolverine is truly happy when’s he with Atsuko, and they hold each other after Atsuko tells him about the death of her husband, the kamikaze pilot. Atsuko also has a badass side, and fights off Warren with a katana when he comes back to “recapture” Wolverine. But sadly, there is nothing left of her except memories of soft kisses, splashes in the tub, “hot iron and dead blossoms” after the atomic bomb is dropped and kills everyone except for Wolverine. This hurts him, and Vaughan reveals that a broken heart is the one thing that Wolverine can’t heal from.
Warren also survives, a burning yellow spectre of hate now haunting Wolverine’s meditation in Japan, one that he must battle to find some kind of peace. He takes corporeal form by eating Wolverine’s form, but this also makes him killable, and Wolverine isn’t about to be merciful to a man who killed the woman he loved decades ago. Logan concludes with a flurry of violence juxtaposed with red and black silence as Wolverine watches the rising sun of Japan, and this final image from Eduardo Risso encapsulates Wolverine’s beautiful, yet tragic relationship with Japan throughout his character’s history.
3. Wolverine First Class #1-4 “The Rookie” (2008)
Most of the comics on this list are tragic and dark, but hey, Wolverine can be fun too. Wolverine: First Class is an all-ages comic from writer Fred Van Lente and artists Andrea Di Vito and Salva Espin, told from the perspective of Kitty Pryde during her first few days at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Professor X basically blackmails Wolverine into being her mentor in return for helping unlock his memories, and many hijinks ensue in these standalone one-shot or two part comics. There are volleyball games, ninja-themed restaurants, Dazzler concerts, and furries, as Kitty learns to be a better superhero, while Wolverine learns to open up out of his loner shell a little bit. Wolverine First Class was also one of the first X-Men comics I read after becoming a fan of Wolverine through movies, cartoons, and video games.
Van Lente gives Kitty Pryde and Wolverine a great sassy repartee, while Di Vito and Espin draw hilarious reaction shots of them getting on each other’s nerves. Wolverine’s responses to Kitty asking him for advice about her crush on Colossus or picking a codename is priceless. Wolverine First Class #2 is the funniest of the four, with Kitty throwing a surprise birthday party for Wolverine, including a meal for him and his girlfriend Mariko at a ninja themed restaurant in Tribeca, so that he’ll chauffeur her and some frenemies from her dance class to a Dazzler concert. This is because Wolverine is the only X-Man who has a driver’s license, thanks to Angel being a rich pretty boy. The dialogue for the ninja waiters is super cheesy, and they run away when Wolverine starts fighting Sabretooth as the comic goes into chaos mode.
In the two-part storyline “Knights of Wundagore,” Wolverine First Class gets flat-out weird, as Wolverine and Kitty end up going to a mountain inhabited by animal/human hybrids who believe a myth about how a weasel (named Gulo, as in the scientific name for wolverine.) and cat saved them from the mysterious Man-Beast. This storyline reminded me of old Silver Age comics where Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen kept getting transformed into random superheroes, as Kitty is transformed into an all-out Furry, and Wolverine loses the gene that gives him berserker rage, thanks to the Higher Evolutionary. But Van Lente and Espin hit some emotional notes that are present in all the classic talking medieval animal stories (like Watership Down, Redwall, or Mouse Guard) when the lemur, Prosimia, dies after he convinces Kitty to take up the mantle of the Knights of Wundagore in order to save the day while Wolverine is dealing with his lack of berserker rage.
Along with the strange adventures and sarcastic comedy, Wolverine First Class is the perfect introduction to Wolverine in one of his most prominent roles: grumpy mentor. This began when he basically taught Kitty Pryde to be a ninja in 1984’s Kitty Pryde and Wolverine miniseries, continuing in his work with Jubilee in early-1990s issues of Uncanny X-Men, and culminating in his position as headmaster of the Jean Grey School in the 2011-2014 Wolverine and the X-Men. By helping the next generation of heroes, Wolverine is distracted from his own terrible past, and his dark edges are softened, as he doesn’t want to lose control of his anger in front of the kids he’s supposed to be setting an example for.
2. Wolverine #66-72, Giant-Size Old Man Logan #1 “Old Man Logan” (2008-2009)
“Old Man Logan” is certainly the most ambitious Wolverine story, and writer Mark Millar, penciler Steve McNiven, inkers Dexter Vines and Mark Morales, and a whole squad of colorists craft a dystopian world where the villains finally got their act together, killed 90% of the superheroes, and divided the United States between themselves. It’s kind of an ingenious premise, as the bad guys overwhelm the heroes through sheer force of numbers. Also, Wolverine is a pacifist who goes by the name Logan, has a wife and two kids, and hasn’t popped his claws in 50 years. He looks a lot like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and is a farmer barely scraping by to pay rent to the descendants of Bruce Banner, who did the whole incest thing with She-Hulk. For the most part, “Old Man Logan” is an epic storyline with a sparkplug of an ending, but it’s kind of gross where the Hulk family is concerned. At least they all die at the end.
The basic plot skeleton of “Old Man Logan” is Wolverine and a blind Hawkeye taking a West Coast to East Coast road trip to deliver a shipment of drugs so that Wolverine can have rent money. It’s not the cleanest work, but hey, Red Skull is president of the United States, so morality isn’t as big of a deal any more. And Hawkeye is fine to drive; he just needs someone to read the GPS in his souped up Spider-Mobile (“Old Man Logan” is filled with all kinds of Marvel lore and Easter Eggs). The first few issues of “Old Man Logan” are kind of a slow burn, with all kinds of a crazy subplots, like Wolverine and Hawkeye unwittingly helping his daughter Ashley become the new Kingpin, running away from Venom/T-Rex combos, and escaping from the mole creatures from the first issue of Fantastic Four. The arc really hits its stride in Wolverine #70, where McNiven and Vines’ stark, photorealistic art style captures the triumph and horror of Wolverine after he think he has killed 40 supervillains, but in fact is surrounded by all the X-Men and covered in their blood thanks to some powerful illusions from Mysterio. After this issue, “Old Man Logan” sets up a chain reaction that makes him finally pop his claws in the final issue, the wait that much more cathartic. And the way that Wolverine defeats the Red Skull is too cool to even spoil (even for an 8 year old comic), as he uses the heroic tradition of Marvel superheroes to take out an annoying Nazi bastard (it’s a good thing Old Man Logan hasn’t met Richard B Spencer…).
The final chapter of “Old Man Logan” is a thrilling and graphic revenge story, even if it gets stupid sometimes with references to Jim Belushi, and the Hulk getting a stomach-ache from swallowing Wolverine whole. For the most part, it’s Marvel Comics by the way of Sam Peckinpah, with a Sergio Leone-esque shot of Old Man Logan riding into the sunset with a baby on his shoulder to top things off at the end. Wolverine has had to hold back the fact that he is the ultimate killing machine for eight issues, and finally gets to cut loose and get vengeance for the senseless deaths of his wife and kids. McNiven and Vines are masters of mayhem, and don’t hold back from showing every shot of green blood, claws through brains, and some pretty cool explosions. But Millar and McNiven pull back at the end, trading the merciless violence for some hope. They have Wolverine spare the young son of Bruce Banner, who he will train to become the first of a new generation of superheroes, bringing justice to this post-apocalyptic hellscape. It’s kind of poetic, as Wolverine first appeared as an antagonist in Incredible Hulk #181, and now he’s finding redemption by raising and mentoring his old enemy’s son.
1. Death of Wolverine #1-4 (2014)
The title Death of Wolverine definitely brings back terrible flashbacks of when characters, like Superman, Steve Rogers, and the Human Torch, were killed off to boost sales, only to be resurrected months or a year later after loads of variant covers and never-read comics were sold. But it is actually a damn good swan song for Wolverine, as writer Charles Soule, penciler Steve McNiven, inker Jay Leisten (Who gives McNiven’s pencils sad, gritty life), and colorist Justin Ponsor have him confront his past demons and be a hero, not a monster. In each issue, Wolverine confronts a certain segment of his past in Canada, Madripoor, Japan, and finally, the Weapon X base in Nevada. He gets to be the bar brawler, sexy secret agent, noble samurai, and finally, the lab-experiment-turned-hero covered in adamantium (which actually made me tear up when I read the issue when it first came out).
Death of Wolverine is a delight to read on a purely formal level. Soule uses captions not to describe the action going on in the panel, but to highlight what Wolverine is smelling, feeling, and how he’s hurting, using different-colored word balloons that blend magically with the story, thanks to letterer Chris Eliopoulos. There are also some killer bits of fight choreography; because popping his claws is very painful, Wolverine resorts to head butting, martial arts, last-minute Kitty Pryde phasing, and finding samurai armor skills to live to fight another day. The twelve-panel grids in Death of Wolverine #2, where he fights the Hand and Sabretooth one last time, are especially spectacular.
In his plot structure, Soule works backwards from Wolverine the superhero to Wolverine the experiment. He finds closure at each place, and the story also keeps moving as Wolverine starts to realize his death is inevitable. The final double-page spread is a fitting farewell to Wolverine, as he remembers his life as a superhero, teacher, secret agent, and human being, even as his “maker,” Dr. Cornelius, says that he has done nothing with his life. Even his final act was heroic, as he destroyed Cornelius’ adamantium processors so that no one would ever undergo that painful process again.
And that’s Wolverine in a nutshell. He’s grumpy, angry, and a little messed up, but he will get into the big scraps to save his friends and the world.