Friday, 25 July 2014

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1 contains Marvel Spotlight #2-4, Werewolf by Night #1-21, Marvel Team-Up #12, Giant-Size Creatures #1 and Tomb of Dracula #18. Bonus material includes the Werewolf's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and an alternate cover to Marvel Spotlight #4. The character's debut is plotted by Roy and Jeanie Thomas and scripted by Gerry Conway. Conway writes the rest of the Marvel Spotlight issues and some of the Werewolf by Night issues; others are written by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich and Doug Moench. Conway plots and Wein scripts the Marvel Team-Up whilst Wolfman writes the Tomb of Dracula issue and Tony Isabella the Giant-Size Creatures. The art on Marvel Spotlight and Werewolf by Night is mainly by Mike Ploog with Don Perlin taking over at the end of the run; other issues are drawn by Werner Roth, Tom Sutton and Gil Kane. Perlin also draws the Giant-Size Creatures story, whilst the Tomb of Dracula issue is by Gene Colan and the Marvel Team-Up by Ross Andru. Yet again this results in a lot of labels, so some have been placed in a separate post.

The Werewolf is often bracketed together with Dracula and the Monster of Frankenstein to form a trinity of Gothic era monsters, and some of these traditional links are respected within these pages, most obviously the crossover with Tomb of Dracula. But whereas both the Frankenstein Monster and Dracula are drawn primarily from famous novels, the Werewolf lacks a direct literary base and is instead drawn from legends that go back to at least the Middle Ages. Literature and film may have added elements to the mythology, but there's no single story to follow and no single werewolf who strides through popular culture with a distinct character. As a result creators have much greater scope here than with the other horror imports.

Here we get the story of Jack Russell, a young American man who upon turning eighteen discovers he has inherited the curse of transforming into a werewolf every night during a full moon. Although he usually retains sentience about what his wolf form gets up to, there is no control and he can only be a passive narrator to the actions of the animal man. Towards the end of the volume he does gain some temporary control, whether through the magical intervention of Topaz or thanks to a ring that transforms him at any time and leaves Jack in control, but neither method lasts very long. Jack comes with a well developed background with his father having been an eastern European noble who also succumbed to the curse and was killed in wolf form. Jack's mother has remarried and she gets killed in the first issue. Jack suspects his step-father, Philip Russell, of being responsible and in addition tensions about inheritances from both his natural parents create a wedge between the two but due to a promise he made to his mother on her deathbed, Jack is unable to take action against Philip and even his werewolf form feels restrained. Jack's closest friend is his younger sister Lissa, who has not yet reached eighteen by the end of the volume, and there's a long running question about whether she too will succumb to the curse. With some additional good supporting cast members the result is a strong set-up as Jack struggles to control his lycanthropic side and fend off a succession of interventions by those after one part of his magical legacy or another.

"Jack Russell" is one of those names that makes for a good pun but doesn't withstand close scrutiny when one realises that "Russell" is his stepfather's name yet his lycanthropic heritage comes from his natural father. Nor for that matter does it describe the breed of dog that Jack turns into. A later writer establishes that the step-father is the natural father's brother, as part of a general wrap-up of the issues within the Russell family, but, as is often the case with such revelations under later writers (and this comes under the third regular writer), it just doesn't feel like this was part of the original plan. I'm not too certain if "Russell" really is an Anglicisation if "Russoff" though as there's never been a regulator of converting names it's easy to see how some immigration official could produce that one. The other inevitable bad pun comes straightaway on the credits of issue #11 as they announce the arrival of writer Marv Wolfman.

This is another series that largely keeps to itself, with the encounters with other Marvel characters restricted to a single crossovers, one Giant-Size issue and a solitary Marvel Team-Up. Such restraint is quite remarkable given that the character is based Los Angeles at a time when so too were the Black Widow and Daredevil, whilst the Ghost Rider was also roaming the west. But instead of some of these obvious meetings we just get three guest appearances, one from Marvel's biggest horror character, one by Marvel's biggest superhero overall and one by an obscure hero being reinvented as a kind of were-woman who offers a contrast with Jack's situation plus conflict with the established terrorist group Hydra. Since the Marvel Team-Up issue is the very last one to appear in this volume I can't tell if it's a vital set-up for storylines to come in volume 2 or has just been included either to fill up pages or perhaps to get Spider-Man completists to buy it. But it does feel highly inconsequential as Jack and Spider-Man clash with a magician working undercover on the stage. The Giant-Size Creatures issue feels rather more justified, with the Werewolf taking the cover billing and the encounter being referenced in the regular series, even though it's not entirely clear just where in the tight ongoing continuity Jack found time for a holiday in Mexico. Still it allows for a team-up with Tigra, the new form of the hero previously known as the Cat but who is transformed here. However Jack's presence in the issue is a reminder of just how popular he was at the time - before Marvel rolled out a wide range of Giant-Size versions of many of their titles, they first released just a few with more generic overall titles to test the format. It's amazing to find that the Werewolf headed one of the last of these tests, putting him on an equal footing with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Dracula. Not bad for such a new character with no individual roots in either literature or film.

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be trying to strengthen the connection between the two monsters, but it just feels awkward and forced. Members of both titles' supporting casts appear but with the exception of Frank Drake from Tomb of Dracula, neither set is properly introduced for the other book's readers. The crossover fleshes out the origin of the Russoff/Russell family curse and appropriately it is dated to the Gothic era of the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately it's also tied to the history of Dracula for no particular reason. Maybe the intention was to show a long history of the Russoffs/Russells fighting against Dracula but there's no such revelation here. Instead we just learn how Jack's ancestor had killed Dracula and freed a young girl prisoner, only to discover she was a werewolf who promptly bit and infected him. Nothing in this part of the origin necessitates either the presence of Dracula or a second ancestral home to go alongside the already established Baltic castle (which is relocated brick by brick to the United States). There's also evidence of a terrible grasp of geography as Transylvania gets presented as a single village deep in the interior of Romania yet it also has a sailor with his boat moored locally. It seems the village is located on the Danube, with Castle Dracula located on the very bank of the river, again something that would not get good marks in a geography exam. All in all the crossover just feels like a rush job to capitalise on both titles' popularity and shared writer.

By contrast the bulk of the regular series generally feels as though it has been carefully constructed. All the standard werewolf traditions are in place, whether the full moon or the aversion to silver. I'm not so familiar with details such as the curse being passed by a bite or by inheritance, or whether the curse can be broken if the werewolf finds and kills another of its kind, but both aspects feel entirely in place with the rest of this neo-Gothic series. Early on the threats are predominantly one-offs, primarily pursuing the Werewolf for one mystical purpose or another, but later on there are some more recurring foes established, most notably the mysterious and, at this stage, unseen organisation known only as "the Committee" who turn out to have been behind the death of Jack's mother and the blackmail of his step-father. Another recurring foe is the sorcerer Taboo. Elsewhere, following up on a Marvel tradition, there's a villainous circus but for once it's a different outfit from the Ringmaster's lot. Then there's a latter-day hunchback who inhabits Notre Dame. Many other one-off foes fit into various archetypes of sorcerers, non-magical criminals, or even big game hunters. A few foes are introduced who would go on to memorable appearances in other Marvel series including Tatterdemalion the vengeful derelict, or the self-appointed executing vigilante the Hangman, whose name seems a bit of a misnomer as he appears to do most of his killing with a scythe. There are also a couple of vampires imported from the pages of Dracula Lives, but that and the appearances of Dracula and Hydra already mentioned are it for foes from elsewhere.

But Jack's real foe is his own altered self. Wisely he's not written as the Hulk with fur, although there are a few similarities such as the endless torn trousers and the brief attempt to get his monstrous side confined for the night under the guard of his closest male friend. Instead the Werewolf is presented as an actual animal albeit in anthropomorphic form and this makes for a total sense of helplessness as neither Jack can control it nor can anyone else reason with it. Every month he transforms without fail and the series does its best to note which particular day in the cycle it is - with the Marvel Team-Up issue managing to work in an out of cycle transformation so as to not disturb this pattern.

Jack's main supporting cast are initially his loyal sister Lissa, who is herself targeted at times by those seeking the mystical powers of the werewolf curse, and writer Buck Cowan who befriends Jack and often serves to protect him when the curse takes hold. When Jack takes up a room in a singles' building he soon befriends some of the other residents, including the actress Clary Winter who is not the only woman in the building to make moves on him. His immediate neighbour is the mysterious Raymond Coker, who turns out to also be a werewolf and desperately using whatever magic he can to keep his lycanthropic side under control. Another who turns werewolf is Lou Hackett, a police lieutenant who investigates the sightings but subsequently receives one of the werewolf rings and is himself transformed. Then there's the young witch Topaz who forms a bond with Jack and for a time is able to give him control of his wolf form but over time her powers drain and she is forced to go away and seek to revitalise them.

Overall this series is quite a surprise. Right from the outset it manages to blend elements from traditional legends with common themes developed by the superhero comics to produce a series with a strong sympathetic lead character caught in a troublesome situation and supported by a good wider cast of characters. This is not a tale of superheroics and so there's little need to establish a recurring set of foes. Instead this is a tale of one man struggling with a curse and with the trouble it brings with it. The result is a good solid read.

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