In this week’s Leaving Proof: The process that led to one of the most memorable character designs in comics featured a combination of artistic vision, coincidence, and serendipity.
We comic book fans have a tendency to reduce the act of character design to a singular event. “Here,” we say, “on this date, Artist X and Writer Y (or Artist-Writer Z) sat down and created, whole cloth and through the sheer force of their creativity, Such-and-Such Man.”
Maybe this is true for a good many characters. It is just as likely, though, that certain characters, as they are currently known and beloved by the public, are the results of serial acts of creation involving multiple participants with differing degrees of investment. In the world of work-for-hire comics, this can be and often is a messy deal, and figuring out who came up with what becomes a task akin to untangling the proverbial Gordian Knot.
There are some characters with reasonably documented creation histories, however, and it is possible to piece together a (still-)imperfect account of how they came to their current state. In today’s post, I will trace the evolution of the most well-known design elements of Marvel Comics’ Wolverine. Please note that this exercise is focused on the visual aspect of the design and as such, the emphasis will be on the work of the various artists involved. This isn’t meant to minimize the contribution of writers, of course. It’s just that finding firm evidence for the visual design claims of artists is a much less complicated task.
It is undisputed and uncontroversial fact that the character Wolverine is the joint creation of writer Len Wein and artist John Romita, Sr., with the participation of editor Roy Thomas (who assigned the duo the task of creating a new Canadian superhero) and artists Herb Trimpe, Jack Abel, and Christie Scheele (who illustrated Wolverine’s first print appearance).
Below are Romita’s earliest Wolverine concept sketches, which he presumably drew sometime in 1973 or early 1974:
The fundamental design elements we’ve come to associate with the character are already evident here: the three retractable claws that spring from the back of each hand, the cowl with “ears” that project upwards, and Wolverine’s compact, muscular build (see the scribbled note that says “only 5 feet and 5 inches tall”).
Below is Wolverine as he appeared on the final panel of The Incredible Hulk #180 (October 1974), penciled by Trimpe, inked by Abel, and colored by Scheele (note the similarity of the pose to that of the Romita sketch):
Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum create an iconic design… by accident!
Sometimes, great designs come about through sheer serendipity. Such was the case for the modern Wolverine cowl. Artist Gil Kane, who had the task of penciling the cover of Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975), misinterpreted the original Romita sketch and gave the character’s cowl much larger black “ears” that continued downwards to cover the brow and cheeks, effectively removing the cowl’s stylized “whiskers.”
Giant-Size X-Men #1 cover inker Dave Cockrum liked what he thought was a deliberate redesign by Kane and stayed faithful to Kane’s erroneous illustration during the cover inking process. Cockrum, who pulled double-duty as Giant-Size X-Men #1’s penciler and inker, also brought the new cowl design to the interior pages. By the time the editor realized that Kane and Cockrum had strayed from the original design, the cover and interior pages had all been inked and it was too late to redraw the comic.
What started out as an honest mistake would go on to become one of the most unique and memorable cowl designs in comics.
Wolverine gets a face
Wolverine’s unmasked face would finally be revealed in Uncanny X-Men #98 (April 1976), penciled by Cockrum, inked by Sam Grainger, and colored by Janice Cohen.
Wolverine’s face is no less distinct than his cowl. The squat head, wild hair, bushy eyebrows, permanent frown lines, and extended sideburns almost look more appropriate for a villain. Cockrum originally meant for Wolverine to be a man in his twenties, but switched to the significantly aged, scruffier appearance after seeing a Romita sketch of the unmasked Wolverine as an older man. What was Cockrum’s inspiration behind the look?
To answer that question, we have to turn back the clock to 1972, when the artist was working as the artist on the Legion of Super-Heroes back-up serial in DC Comics’ Superboy. During this time, Cockrum submitted an illustrated proposal to his editor for a new team of supervillains to be called either the Strangers or the Devastators.
This is the part where it gets really interesting and even a little weird.
In a bizarre coincidence, Cockrum gave one of the characters in the Strangers/Devastators the name Wolverine (remember, this was a full two years before Marvel’s Wolverine debuted in The Incredible Hulk #180). He is the figure in the middle of the sketch below, behind the whip-wielding woman.
Here’s a close-up:
DC would reject the Strangers/Devastators concept, however, with Tyr (the guy with the mohawk) the only one making it into the Legion of Super-Heroes villains gallery. Elements of the rejected Strangers/Devastators Wolverine design would later be reused by Cockrum as the basis for his 1973 redesign of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ Timber Wolf. Note that this redesign also features a precursor of the signature hairstyle Cockrum would use on Marvel’s Wolverine.
The Strangers/Devastators Wolverine design would resurface in Uncanny X-Men #107 (October 1977)—the final issue of Cockrum’s initial run on the title—as the alien character Fang.
In a neat case of the design meta-narrative coming full circle, Wolverine defeated Fang in one-on-one combat and took his costume as a replacement for the tattered remains of his outfit.
It was Cockrum’s intent for the costume change to be permanent.
John Byrne puts his stamp on the character
Replacing Cockrum as Uncanny X-Men‘s regular penciler was artist John Byrne. Byrne did not like the Fang costume and had the character back to wearing the yellow costume by Uncanny X-Men #109 (February 1978).
Byrne had previously collaborated with X-Men writer Chris Claremont (on Marvel’s Iron Fist) and the pair were already spitballing potential X-Men designs at least a year before Byrne’s assignment as Cockrum’s replacement. In 1976, John Byrne, unaware that Cockrum had already designed Wolverine’s unmasked visage, showed to Claremont the sketch reproduced below, as a suggestion for how Wolverine would look without his cowl.
This unused design. with a modified coiffure and the addition of Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken-style sideburns, was eventually used for the villain Sabretooth, who first appeared in Iron Fist #14 (August 1977).
Sabretooth would go on to become Wolverine’s most persistent and brutal nemesis in the comics, even claiming at one point to be Wolverine’s father only to be proven wrong. In retrospect, this could have been a little in-joke meant to reference the almost-relationship between the characters’ design origins.
Wolverine’s return to the yellow costume under Byrne’s pencil was short-lived, although it was the costume Wolverine wore during the events of the top-selling Dark Phoenix Saga issues, cementing its status as one of the character’s most well-known looks. Byrne created a new costume for the character, retaining the distinct cowl and flared boot-tops of the Cockrum costume while incorporating the two-tone brown color scheme of the Fang outfit. This costume, introduced in Uncanny X-Men #139 (November 1980), would prove to be extremely popular and became the character’s standard mission attire for over a decade.
Like all strong designs, the Byrne and Cockrum costumes lend themselves to artistic reinterpretation whilst retaining their identity. Even in the hands of the most idiosyncratic comics illustrators, there is no mistaking their distinct silhouettes and color combinations. See below how the design remains “readable” despite the disparate styles of artists Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, Kent Williams, Frank Miller, Sam Kieth, and Joe Madureira:
And even though the recent Wolverine and Wolverine-related costumes have been updated to reflect changing sensibilities, the design DNA of the originals are still readily evident.