…Jackass by Day : A Review of The Essential Werewolf by Night

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Let’s face it, a comic book about a werewolf just isn’t the most promising concept out there. For one thing, a werewolf only becomes fuzzy three nights per month, which kind of gets in the way of long, continuing stories. For another, werewolves are, by definition, wolves. They’re animals, living on instinct and guts rather than human intelligence and motivation. Yet somehow Marvel’s 1970s series Werewolf by Night overcame those obstacles and was able to become a wonderfully goofy member of the line. Reading The Essential Werewolf by Night and discovering these comics for the first time is a wonderful adventure in Bronze Age goofiness. The stories are weird and wacky, but that’s a big part of their charm. And also the art is generally really nice. And, oh yeah, there’s a werewolf in the comic too.

The series started out with a three-issue stint in Marvel Spotlight #2 through #4 in 1972. (The immortal Red Wolf appeared in issue #1.) The book was written by the always mediocre Gerry Conway but had magnificent art by Mike Ploog, a former protégé of Will Eisner, who emulated his mentor’s talents with panel layouts and character rendering. Seeing Ploog’s art in black and white makes it clear just how magnificent his work is. Moody and thoughtful, full of deep and sensuous blacks and inventive page layouts; Ploog’s art elevates dreadfully pedestrian plots into something that’s actually rather magnificent.

But the stories? Well, some of them were interesting, but they were always hampered by their lead character. Jack Russell (that’s right, Jack Russell, arf arf) was a jackass, and he was a tormented jackass, too. See, his daddy was a Baltic bad-ass and his mom was a student who met daddy on a vacation abroad (there’s nothing like a nice vacation in Latvia, is there? Especially in the days when it was a Russian republic). Daddy, though, had a secret. Every month for three nights he would lock himself in a tower “to study,” when he would... umm, have orgies? Menstruate secretly? Practice taxidermy? No, silly, don’t you know the title of the comic you’re reading? Daddy became a werewolf! One night a stray bolt of lightning hit the tower and bam! like a bolt of lightning, literally, the Baltic bad-ass was freed to wreak havoc. Finally, some hunters found Pops, and with a series of loud BLAMs and KRACKs, daddy was dead.
Unfortunately, the werewolf gene somehow got passed to Jack and, you guessed it, every month for three days he’d “go study.”
I love this florid writing from the ‘wolf’s intro story, Marvel Spotlight #3, from the pen of writer Gerry Conway, whose writing I always hated, but that I’ve kind of grown to like:
"Those first two years were idyllic - yet even then, when we lived in his family castle - even when you were born... and your sister Lissa was on the way... I could sense some dark secret that stood between us - a secret that blossomed like some wicked fruit once a month, when he would lock himself in the single, musty tower - and remain there, for a trilogy of days, and a trilogy of nights. He told me he studied his books on those nights, and for two years I tried to believe him - until the night of the storm - when a bolt of lightning tore out the tower's side! For, later that same night - in the village below, on rain-slicked cobble streets - the first stone of our life together crumbled as the village carpenter made his way homeward through the streets - but never made it home - never made it home, again."
I didn’t realize until I typed up this passage just how bad the punctuation and word flow is in that sequence. Granted, Mama Russell was in the hospital from injuries sustained in a car crash that she got in after trying to find her idiot son, but couldn’t she speak in complete sentences?
My favorite part of this issue is where Russell, as the Werewolf, fights some nasty dude. Nasty Dude is big, but he doesn't seem especially tough. Still, it takes the Werewolf four pages to overcome him - and even then, it’s the Nasty Dude’s sudden cowardice that does him in, not anything that Wolfie does. See, Nasty Dude isn’t scared of Jack when he thinks he’s just an idiot dressed in a mask. As soon as Nasty Dude realizes he’s fighting (and winning a fight!) against a real werewolf, he freaks out and runs away.
But logic never bothered Gerry Conway, and God knows someone like Brian Bendis wouldn’t create such rotten comics these days (ahem – yes, feel free to flame me in the message boards). It all feels so Bronze Age, goofy and weird and subject to all kinds of wandering and goofiness. The reader buys it because it’s so sincere, but the twist of Nasty Dude running away really is cheap.

No matter how crap some of the stories are in this book, the art really is gorgeous. I mentioned Mike Ploog before, and his work really is quite magnificent. Ploog drew 14 of the 27 stories in this book, and his art looks gorgeous in black and white. He has a great command of mood and shadow – there are a few scenes illustrated by Ploog that really shine in black and white. For instance, in Werewolf #2, there’s an extended sequence where the Werewolf fights a shark. By all rights, this should have been a ridiculously corny and dated scene, but instead, Ploog’s mastery of light and dark makes it not just plausible but really exciting and interesting.

But my favorite Ploog scene shows his long apprenticeship with the great Will Eisner. The first page of issue 13, introducing Russell’s girlfriend Topaz, is a direct quote from a famous Spirit splash page (“I am P’Gell, and this is not a story for little boys”). When I first found that page, I almost jumped out of my chair in excitement. It’s such a cool gift to long-term fans, such a nice gesture from Ploog, and it’s a wonderful discovery in a book like this.

Ploog isn’t the only standout artist in this book. Tom Sutton solo illustrates two issues, and inks Gil Kane on another issue, and Sutton’s work is astonishing in black and white. The beginning of issue 9, which takes place in the rain, is especially stunning. It’s an impressionistic nightmare of danger and excitement on the streets of Los Angeles, and looks absolutely stunning in this book. Even the goofy villain and hokey plotline are made spooky under Sutton’s brush. Looking at these pages, it’s obvious that Sutton is a real lost talent.

There are other fine artists in this book – Gil Kane turns in two terrific issues, Ross Andru has a typically solid issue of work, and Don Perlin and Werner Roth do professional work. But the best work is found in the single issue of Tomb of Dracula reprinted here, a cross-over battle between werewolf and vampire. Gene Colan is the artist on that story, and his work looks like it was made to be published in black and white. Like Sutton, Colan presents an intensely dramatic and exciting story, but unlike Sutton, Colan also supplies a pure dose of humanity and pathos to his characters. Colan’s art has such grace and beauty to it that every page really stands out.

You might notice that I’ve talked much more about the art of these comics than I have about the writing. Well, honestly, the writing’s a mixed bag. Conway’s work tends towards the mediocre and clichéd, but it still has some raw Bronze Age power to it. Len Wein’s four issues, detailing an adventure in a dark carnival, are more fun and interesting, and provide an interesting sub-plot. Wein also makes good use of Ploog’s art, allowing Ploog the space to show lots of atmosphere.

Marv Wolfman wrote six solid issues (yeah, the writer of Werewolf by Night for awhile was named Wolfman – pretty ironic, huh?), the highlights of which were the aforementioned crossover with Tomb of Dracula and the introduction of Jack’s girlfriend Topaz, who had magical powers. In later issues, Topaz would change the comic dramatically, allowing Russell the ability to keep his human brain when he took on wolf form.

But the writing in Essential Werewolf by Night really only picks up when Doug Moench begins his run with two late issues. When Moench takes over, there’s a sudden feeling of the air being cleared, of old dangling plot threads being resolved and a new atmosphere being created. Suddenly footnotes galore start appearing, and more logic comes to the book. For me, Moench’ s appearance was a real shock. I didn’t realize the amount of drift the book had been undergoing until Moench appeared and reminded me of it. Moench was the key writer of the rest of this series, and if we get a second volume of Essential Werewolf by Night, we’ll see the interesting direction he took the series.

In the end, that drift is both the charm and frustration of a book like this. There are a lot of individual scenes and artists and moments that are absolutely wonderful. But reading 27 issues of continuity, it’s easy to see that Werewolf by Night was the victim of the typical drift of many Bronze Age books.

Still, this is a terrific gift to give yourself for Halloween. The art alone makes it something close to essential.

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