Sunday, August 11, 2013

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #18: Those Marvel-ous Monsters!

by Peter Enfantino

Go no further, ye who have not been warned! There be spoilers ahead!

The following is a slightly different (and updated) version of an article I wrote for the Special Werewolf Issue of The Scream Factory way back in Autumn 1994. This piece looks at the entire run of Werewolf By Night and contains spoilers. If you'd rather not know how the whole saga ends (and believe me, you don't want to know anyway!), stop reading now and come back in a couple years once we've finished our continuing look at the character. -PE

Marvel's Werewolf By Night was the first strip to feature a werewolf as its continuing character. Incredibly (you'll know what I mean if you’ve read any issues), it also became the longest-running werewolf title yet, spanning over 50 issues in three separate magazines, plus the obligatory "perks," like guest-starring with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, and appearing on Slurpee cups with the other Marvel heroes in the early '70s. The Werewolf actually got his start in Marvel Spotlight #2 (Feb., 1972) and soon after graduated to his own title.

When our hero isn't a werewolf by night, he's teenage rebel Jack Russell. Our young hero discovers on his 18th birthday that he's finally getting hair on his chest. Because his father was a warlock and werewolf, Russell is cursed to follow in daddy's paw-prints. In the first installment, we're introduced to: Russell; his foxy and ultra-hip sister Lissa; his meek but filthy rich mother Laura; his greedy and self-centered stepfather Philip; and the family's sinister (and gratefully not much else) chauffeur, Grant. Evidently, Philip and Grant are not just drawn bad, they are bad, as they join forces to put Laura into an early grave, thereby leaving all the moolah to hubby. But even a nasty car crash can't keep Laura from telling Jack all about his seedy father and the nasty legacy handed down to him and presumably Lissa as well. Jack then begins his long and arduous journey to find a cure for his lycanthropic ways.

As mentioned above, I find it incredible that this strip could have lasted five issues, let alone five years. Admittedly, any comic that goes through eleven different creative teams in its first 21 issues is going to have its up and downs, but aside from three or four issues, it's close to unreadable.

And when WWBN finally got a creative team to stay on for more than two or three issues, it was one that few would categorize as even competent (Doug Moench, writer and Don Perlin, artist). But the writer and artist weren't the only problem with this title. Like a lot of the Marvel comics at the time (and moreso today), WWBN suffered from a lack of foresight, mediocre to downright lame foes, and weak characters. Literally weak in the case of the title character himself. The reader never witnesses that the werewolf is a deadly threat, since he's always being pushed around by common thugs. A werewolf with clipped claws?

And how about some of those villains? Let's see, there was...

 Agatha, who may or may not be a witch (it would help to be filled in on these minor details), kidnaps Jack to get ahold of a mysterious book (The Darkhold) written by Jack's ol’ debbil dad. After Kraig gets the kibbosh, Agatha ups and dies. Why? You tell me.

 Jack must travel to a California castle where he meets the goofy Blackgar, who is creating mutants to cure his daughter's affliction. She has the amazing habit of turning folks into stone with her stare. In the end, she gets the old Medusa-looks-into-a-mirror-and-turns-herself-into-stone trick.

 Father Jocquez falls under the spell of The Darkhold after he successfully translates it for Jack. Aelric resembles an illo for an old Hugh Cave story, but the best is saved for his laughable Minotaur bodyguard, Dragonus.

Other stories, which featured guest stars like Dracula, Brother Voodoo, Tigra, and Morbius, were at least interesting. In fact, the Dracula story took place during Marv Wolfman's 5-issue tenure on WWBN, a short but effective cycle of stories that attempted to endow Russell and his supporting crew with lives. Wolfman had already revolutionized continuing horror series characters with Tomb of Dracula but, unfortunately, quit WWBN and went on to other projects (I'd say bigger and better, but he quit WWBN to work full time on Crazy, Marvel's low-rent ripoff of Mad), and another team came in to return us to mediocrity.

In WWBN #9 and #10, Jack Russell is shadowed by a creepy misfit who doesn’t talk much other than to mutter "Sarnak orders it," or as Jack Russell describes him: "...a stinking mold of a man, encrusted with slime and moss, reeking of dried wine and fouler smells." We still have to wade through the endless flashbacks and recounting of "our story thus far,” but for half a storyline, we at least get something that dazzles, art-wise. That's thanks to artist Tom Sutton, who filled in on WWBN for two issues, and in that short time showed all who had come before him what a werewolf looks like. Sutton's werewolf is a vicious beast (though still constrained by Marvel and the all-mighty code), one you wouldn't take to bed or feed a biscuit to. Now if only Sutton had written the damn thing as well!
Writer Gerry Conway comes up with an Interesting hook in the creepy little monster stalking the wolf, but by the second issue, when we find out who Sarnak is, and why he wants the wolf (would you believe that Sarnak works for a bunch of crooked billionaires and plans to use the wolf to scare the common man into buying more products and thus reinvigorate the economy? I didn't think you would.), he's blown his golden opportunity. Still, compared to the earlier issues, this is Will Eisner material.

Towards the end, writer Doug Moench, probably on orders from higher-ups, "re-invented" the Russell werewolf and transformed him into a superhero. Sales were horrible, so Moench had to grasp at anything he could, but this is really where the strip got wild. Jack's sister Lissa finally gets all hairy and manages to retain a rather discreet appearance with a well-placed ripped bodice. Another werewolf is introduced, a black character who, of course, turns into a black werewolf (does that mean that Russell—being a brown werewolf—is actually Mexican, not Irish as stated in the premiere episode?). All this culminates in the final WWBN story (#43, March, 1977), the impressively titled "The Terrible Threat of the Tri-Animan," in which the werewolf, having attained "superhero status," visits the Avengers mansion with Iron Man and is fed hot broth by the Avengers' butler, Jarvis!

The one event that Moench and Perlin accomplished during these last few issues (and the only thing that makes WW collectible) was the introduction of fan favorite Moon Knight, a bounty hunter sent to capture the werewolf, in #32.

Jack Russell also featured in a long text story, "Panic by Moonlight," broken up into two pieces in Monsters Unleashed #6 and 7 (June and August 1974), written by Gerry Conway and featuring spot illos by Mike Ploog

Marvel re-booted Werewolf by Night in 1998 (after having perpetrated the same on Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, and Dracula) but don't ask me if it was any good. I had finally grown up by that time and stopped reading funny books.


  1. Owoo, werewolves of Los Angeles...

    Fine job, Dean Enfantino. Took a break from writing my next post to read yours, so you should be highly honored, but it was time well spent for both the information and the entertainment value.

    Paradoxically, despite my lifelong obsessions with both horror films and Bronze- and Silver-Age Marvel Comics, I was never drawn to Marvel's monster comics of the '70s, although the fact that I already spent the gross domestic product of an emerging nation on buying virtually their entire super-hero output may have had something to do with that. It's so nice to know that at least in the case of WWBN, which lacks TOMB OF DRACULA's cachet, I wasn't missing much.

    I'll admit that most of Moench's stuff falls outside my jurisdiction, but despite the inexplicable popularity of Moon Knight (aptly, a WWBN spin-off, as was Tigra, by the way), what little I've read left me largely unimpressed back in the day, outside of Deathlok, which was perhaps more Buckler's baby than his. Moench's one-two punch with Herb Trimpe--who really should have stuck to the Hulk--on GODZILLA and THE SHOGUN WARRIORS was part of the pummeling that drove this Marvel fan to his knees, and ultimately out of the ring for good. As for Perlin, the only thing of his I specifically remember liking is his latter-day run on THE DEFENDERS, and since that was inked by the maestro, Joltin' Joe Sinnott, well, you do the math.

    Surprised you didn't take the obvious step of deriding the Minotaur as "Drag-anus." But that's our Paste-Pot, a class act all the way... I will not, however, belabor the hilarity of a "Wolfman" writing WWBN.

  2. On a sorrowful but unrelated topical note, I just discovered--while looking up Dan Adkins in connection with my review of his outstanding work on SUB-MARINER #56--that he'd died this past May, at the not-terribly-advanced age of 76. R.I.P.

  3. Peter is right. It is a wonder that WWBN was published that long. It was never very good. Which is kind of baffling as a few ideas were solid. Even some of the created characters had some longlivety like Topaz or Moon Knight which got re-tooled as the poor man's Batman. Just seems that they never could get a decent storyline in place. Even the Moench issues were mostly lame and I say this as a Moench fan.

  4. Andy and Matthew-

    I'd definitely recommend those Tom Sutton issues when they come up on the radar. They're a lot like reading 1930s shudder pulps. They don't make a lot of sense, you won't admit to reading them, they offer no nutrients, but they'll leave a smile on your face.

  5. Great article Dean Pete! I don't know whether to continue laughing from the great zingers or to cry because there's no way I can even attempt to top this when WWBN starts weekly. Well, there's always the Hunchback issue!

  6. I liked WWBN at the time, so I guess it's better to keep those memories intact and not revisit the actual comics!

  7. I have a deep nostalgic fondness for WWBN, and actually DO re-visit the issues from time to time. True, the writing was usually pretty pedestrian, and sure, Jack Russell was your typical Conway morose malcontent, and yeah, a werewolf that never gets to kill anybody is absolutely weak tea -- but the art in the early part of the run more than makes up for the shortcomings. Ploog's stuff was fun and atmospheric for the most part and those two issues by Tom Sutton are outstanding. I mean, SERIOUSLY great -- two of my favorite horror comics of all time.

    The Moench / Perlin run -- not so much.