X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens on Friday, but a love of Hugh Jackman can only take you so far. Here're the comics you need to read before heading to the theater next weekend.
The Essential History:
Essential Hulk Vol. 5
Ignore the title - and, for that matter, most of this book (Although there are some great examples of 1970s Marvel water-treading here, and the "Counter-Earth" trilogy has to be read to be believed); all you need to know is that this collection includes Incredible Hulk #180 and 181, AKA the first appearances of Wolverine. Looking back at it now, it's interesting to see what's changed about the character (He's no longer as quippy, and the whiskers on his mask have thankfully gone), and what was already in place (He was called Weapon X all the way back then), but either way, you'll never look at the character in the same way ever again.
Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1
From fighting the Hulk, Wolverine underwent a personality change as well as a costume change when he joined the X-Men. This great hardcover collection of the first thirty-or-so issues of the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men (ie, the ones that you know: Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Cyclops, etc.) takes you back to the days when the X-Men was part Star Trek homage, part Legion of Super-Heroes rip-off and rewriting the superhero rulebook with abandon. At the heart of it all, Wolverine starts to gain the personality that we know and love today, even if his age seems to shift around a lot in the process. And the less said about his off-duty cowboy look, the better.
Wolverine By Claremont and Miller
Just reissued in time for the movie, Wolvie's first solo series brought X-Men writer Chris Claremont together with soon-to-be superstar Frank Miller in a story that played to Miller's interests, and forever changed the character. By building on Wolverine's already-established mysterious Japanese history, Miller and Claremont cemented the image of the character as a tragic hero fighting against animal urges to become a noble warrior... Plus, you know, ninjas. The new edition of the book also contains the follow-up to the story, the X-Men storyline that brought Wolverine back to Japan, and introduced Rogue to the team.
Wolverine: Weapon X
Weirdly enough, the most important piece of Wolverine's backstory didn't come from Claremont, the writer who essentially owned the character for his 17-year tenure as X-Men writer. Instead, artist-and-writer Barry Windsor-Smith was the one who explained what happened to Logan in the eponymous Weapon X program to turn him into the adamantium-boned former Canadian agent in this weird and wonderful story that kind of makes you wonder just what mainstream superhero comics could get away with back then.
By the start of the 21st Century, Marvel had decided that fans had waited long enough to find out about Wolverine's backstory (Plus, it'd be sure to sell a lot of copies), and so came up with this... and immediately crushed a million fanboy dreams. Were fans appalled to see their badass hero as a whiny kid crying when he first popped his claws, or was it just that no story could live up to the one in their heads? It's probably both; this particular origin was slow and more dull than the character deserved, but the fact is, fans really never wanted to know the full story after all.
The Inessential Good Ones
It may be somewhat blasphemous to say, but for such a great character, Wolverine has appeared in an incredible number of shitty stories. Yes, he may be popular enough to appear in several titles each month, alongside any number of special editions and guest-spots in other people's books, but when it comes to truly great stories about the character...? They're not exactly piling up out there. But here're some worth checking out.
Essential Wolverine Vol. 1
The first couple of years of Wolverine's solo monthly series saw various creators try and work out what to do with the character, and this black and white collection is the best way to watch them do it. From Chris Claremont's Casablanca riff to Archie Goodwin and John Byrne's more feral take, different sides of the character are showcased throughout, but my favorite is Peter David and John Buscema's storyline, which pretty much pretends that he's Indiana Jones with claws and makes fun of him all the way through.
Essential X-Men Vol. 7
Again, feel free to ignore a lot of this book (Although it's right in my nostalgic sweetspot, as the X-Men try and rebuild themselves after the mutant massacre and end up saving the world and dying); the story you really want to check out is Uncanny X-Men Annual #11, where Wolverine goes up against the ultimate enemy and ends up with godlike powers. Maybe it's my inner 12 year old speaking, but this still seems like the ultimate "Wolverine As More Than Just A Killing Machine" story to me, even more than 20 years later.
Wolverine: Not Dead Yet
Warren Ellis takes on Wolverine and basically turns him into the star of the greatest John Woo action movie never made. Thrill to the incredible stunts and impressive action set pieces, ably illustrated by a young Lenil Yu (who'd go on to make his name on last year's Secret Invasion series), try to work out just who the bad guy is, and more importantly, enjoy the fast moving plot that ignores all of the cliches that the character had accumulated by this point in his history.
Wolverine: Enemy Of The State
Yet more Wolverine as action movie star, as Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. spend twelve issues pitting the character against... well, almost everyone else in the entire Marvel Universe, thanks to some brainwashing, some undead magic McGuffins and, of course, ninjas. It's like "Wolverine's Greatest Hits," only stupid, and yet that somehow completely works for the character. After reading this, X-Men Origins: Wolverine will seem like a letdown, because there aren't enough explosions sending characters flying into the air to match the levels of dumb excitement contained herein.