Friday, 24 October 2014

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 2

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 2 consists of issues #22-43 plus Giant-Size Werewolf #2-5 (issue #1 was under the title Giant-Size Creatures; it's not clear why "by Night" has been dropped from the title) and Marvel Premiere #28 which contains the first and only appearance of the Legion of Monsters. All the regular and Giant-Size issues are written by Doug Moench with the Marvel Premiere issue by Bill Mantlo. The regular issues are all drawn by Don Perlin who does some of the Giant-Sizes as well; others are by Virgilio Redondo and Yong Montano. The Marvel Premiere issue is drawn by Frank Robbins.

Giant-Size Werewolf #3 brings a return visit to Transylvania to free Topaz who has been captured by a gypsy woman wielding magic and in the process face a mob of outraged villagers clutching torches and pitchforks so cliched that the captions actually comment on this. But in the process it's revealed that the woman is Jack's grandmother and all the confrontation and hate stems from the reaction to the curse first visited upon Jack's father. Jack only discovers the woman's identity as she lies dying, having realised who he is and that he is not responsible for all the anger and hatred that has flowed from the werewolf curse. The issue also tries to tidy up the confusion of the multiple family castles - one is apparently a summer home that was left in Transylvania and the other a winter home transplanted to the States.

The other Giant-Size issues are fairly inconsequential to the regular series. Two of them are standard team-up issues, bringing the Werewolf into conflict with first the Monster of Frankenstein and then with Morbius the Living Vampire. After the already crossed-over-with Dracula these two are the most natural to appear with the Werewolf. The Frankenstein Monster is searching for a real body and succumbs to the claims of a Satanic cult, only to wind up turning on them when he realises the cult are using the sacrifice of the Werewolf to bring forth the spirit of Satan in the Monster's body. The Morbius story is a rare appearance by the Living Vampire that actually works, telling the tragic tale of how he found a formula that could cure him only to lose the only copy in a fight with the Werewolf. The series rounds out with a past set story as Jack and Buck try to obtain help from a demonologist only to get caught up in a struggle on another world. In general these tales are as non-intrusive as possible and sensibly placed but the final Giant-Size is placed between issues #31 & #32 that not only have a direct continuation of story between them but also come at a critical stage in Jack and Buck's friendship. It feels odd to jump from the events of issue #31 to a fairly run of the mill adventure even though Jack's narration is at pains to point out that this happened some months back. But overall this isn't a terribly great set of Giant-Size issues and there's no great sense of loss at the line coming to an end.
Dear Bill, I have an idea. Let's capitalise on the popularity of the monster books by teaming them up. Can you put together an issue combining Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, the Werewolf and Morbius? We'll stick it in one of try-out books and see how it goes. Cheers, Marv.
Dear Marv, This isn't a workable idea at all. Half the monsters can't even talk, one's based in Los Angeles while another is in Florida, most of them are violent loners who get into pointless fights whenever they have or are a guest star, and only Ghost Rider comes close to being someone who would hang around in a team for the common good and even then we're stretching things to include him in the Champions. Still you're the editor and what the editor wants he gets. Here's an issue that brings the four of them together and shows why they just won't work as a team. Yours, Bill.
I have no idea if an exchange like that ever took place, or whether the idea came from the editor, writer or even the sales department, or even if Marv Wolfman was the editor at the point of commissioning (as a try-out book, Marvel Premiere stories could easily sit around for months or even years on end to be used as and when there was a space available). But the Legion of Monsters feels like a concept produced on order from someone who didn't think through the fundamentals and the issue is pushing back to show why this can never work as a regular series. With only eighteen pages there isn't room to show all the problems and so how the Man-Thing makes it all the way from the Florida swamps to downtown Los Angeles must remain one of those questions we just weren't meant to ask. Otherwise this is a rather dull tale of a lost civilisation returning with no consideration for those who have built over their old home's location in the meantime. The powerful Starseed seeks a paradise Earth but the hostility on the monsters leads to a fight that fatally wounds him. There's no attempt to even give a stock "Think of the good we could achieve by working together" speech and the monsters all go their separate ways, showing why the Legion of Monsters could never work. It's surprising that this issue was included here when it isn't included in the Essential Ghost Rider volumes, given that he rather than the Werewolf is the lead character. (For that matter it's also not in the Essential Man-Thing volumes.) This may be down to timing and a lack of foresight as this issue came out during the run covered by Essential Ghost Rider volume 1 but it really doesn't feel like a Werewolf story and above all others and could easily have been left out from here.

Of the regular issues in this volume the best known are probably #32 & #33 which introduce Moon Knight, here working as a mercenary on behalf of the unimaginatively named organisation called "the Committee". On the face of it a moon themed villain is a natural foe for a man suffering from the werewolf curse, and Moon Knight's use of silver on his costume means that the fight between the two of them feels like a suitably level pitch. But the storyline takes a twist when Moon Knight realises the Werewolf's inner innocence compared to his corrupt paymasters and turns on them. The character's depiction here will surprise those who are only familiar with his later adventures and indeed an awkward retcon had to be introduced to explain away his origins and actions shown here. At this stage he's just a mercenary for hire with a supportive helicopter pilot and the costume is developed entirely by the Committee for the purpose of handling the Werewolf. It's easy to see why this had to be changed to open the character out for his own adventures but it also means this series is deprived of a strong and resourceful foe who proves able to capture the Werewolf and hold him past dawn. Still the Werewolf's villain's gallery's loss is herodom's gain and an illusion of Moon Knight appears in  Belaric Marcosa's house as projections of the Werewolf's three greatest foes. The other two are the Hangman, who makes a brief reappearance in the flesh early on, and new foe Doctor Glitternight, a magician who initially tries to control Topaz through stealing her soul and subsequently turns out to be the exiled member of a quintet all-powerful beings from another dimension. One-off foes include Atlas, an actor out for revenge after his face was burnt on set, DePrayve, a scientist whose experiments on controlling human aggression turn him into a modern day Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the Soul-Beast, a monster created by Doctor Glitternight out of Topaz's soul.

The volume sees the tackling head on two of the most basic questions of the series. Early on Lissa's eighteenth birthday approaches, sparking the fear that she too has inherited the curse and an unsuccessful search for ways to prevent her ever changing. To make matters worse Doctor Glitternight's interference means that on her first night she transforms into an even fiercer monster - a Were-Demon. However Taboo's soul intervenes and sacrifices its remaining life essence to free her, curing her of the curse in the process. It was probably inevitable to avoid having two werewolves regularly running about but it's a little too neat a solution for my liking. Meanwhile Buck Cowan starts to get some happiness when he meets single mother Elaine Marston and her daughter buttons. Unfortunately a skiing holiday turns to tragedy when Buttons wanders out into the snow near to where Jack has transformed to the Werewolf. Buck comes to her rescue, risking his own life to protect the child despite a fight that both he and Jack have long feared. Buck is nearly killed and only recovers with the help of a spirit, and is still confined to a wheelchair at the end of the volume. Despite this he forgives Jack.

As part of the search for a cure for Buck's near death state, Jack, Topaz, Lissa and Elaine venture into the haunted house once inhabited by soul eater Belaric Marcosa and spend several issues fighting against the spirits and madness there in a tale of full on horror where friends find themselves literally at each others' throats and it becomes impossible to know what is real and not. At the time spread over multiple months, made worse by the series going bimonthly midway through, this storyline must have seemed a drag and the ending not quite the series climax it was briefly billed as, but when read altogether it hold up well and fits in with the dark magic themes of the series.

The last issues of the series show panic buttons being hit with the book going bimonthly and taking a new direction with guest-stars. Initially it seems as though issue #37 was going to serve as a conclusion but instead the series went on for another six issues in a team-up with Brother Voodoo. A very long running subplot involving Raymond Coker's affairs in Haiti, and Lieutenant Northrup's investigations pursuing him, is resolved in a battle with Glitternight and his "zuvembies". It's a dramatic conflict on an interdimensional basis but it feels well outside the norm for the series. There are some good individual moments - my favour one pokes fun at the inability to say "zombie" in a Comics Code approved book as Jack asks what is a "zuvembie" and upon being told by Brother Voodoo the reply is "You mean they're zo--" before an interruption prevents the full word coming out - but overall this doesn't feel like a natural Werewolf story. It's a pity because this tale finally sees both the end of Northrup's pursuit of the Werewolf, having seen Jack as a hero, and Jack get control over the transformations, allowing him to control his lycanthropic form.

The final two issues see Jack temporarily in New York where he teams up with Iron Man against the Masked Marauder and his latest creation, the Tri-Animan, a robot that combines the abilities of a gorilla, an alligator and a cheetah. It's not the most spectacular point for the series to suddenly be cut off at, but it presumably shows the intended new direction of making the Werewolf a more conventional superhero with Jack in full control now. This may have been deemed necessary to overcome a sales slump as the initial fad passed, but it's not a direction I care much for. In any case it was too little, too late as the series suddenly ended. A subplot is left dangling involving a mysterious being breaking into Buck's house and kidnapping him with a caption added at the bottom of the page for this edition stating that the plot is resolved in Essential Spider-Woman volume 1. It's nice to have an actual pointer but it's a forewarning that the volume itself is going to end unsatisfactorily.

Overall this volume is a letdown after the first. There's a few too many stories that drag on for longer than they should and a move away from the basic concept. There are some good moments and a few good storylines but a lot of this is turgid. There's also a few too many attempts to team-up one of the ultimate loner characters with others but fortunately the Marvel Premiere story proved to be the Legion of Monsters' sole appearance. All in all this is not one to remember.

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