From the perspective of a half century later, the horror boom in American comics in the early 1970s looks all but inevitable. The appeal of the classic movie monsters to young audiences had been clear ever since the first syndicated collection of old Universal horror films started showing up on TV sets in the late 1950s, quickly becoming widely popular. The subsequent success of Warren Publishing’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (originally produced in 1958 as a one-shot publication, but almost immediately converted into an ongoing periodical), can only have reinforced the sense among U.S. comics publishers that there was gold to be mined in those dark, storm-blasted hills of Gothic horror — as must have Warren’s following up FMoF in the next decade with the black-and-white comics magazines Creepy, Eerie, and, as the 1960s drew to a close, Vampirella. Then there was the mid-to-late Sixties success of Dark Shadows, the daytime television serial that began its broadcast life firmly planted in the genre of Gothic romance, but soon morphed into a much more freewheeling fantasy show, happily recycling the tropes of both classic horror fiction and old monster movies, and bringing vampires, werewolves, zombies, and their ghastly ilk into America’s homes five afternoons a week.
But however much DC, Marvel, and most other publishers of traditional color comic books might have wanted to get in on the action, they were stymied by the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority — restrictions that they’d accepted of their own accord back in 1954, in an effort to avoid government regulation. (Ironically, the only color comics publishers who were able to get away with featuring vampires, werewolves, etc. in their publications during this era were those who’d bypassed the Code entirely — e.g., Dell and Gold Key, who’d depended on their squeaky-clean reputation as the licensed publishers of Walt Disney’s characters [and similar family-friendly fare] to keep them out of trouble — and thus were able to give the world such titles as Dell’s 1966-67 Werewolf [featuring a hero who wasn’t actually a lycanthrope], as well as Gold Key’s licensed Dark Shadows adaptation, which began publication in 1968.) So, when the CCA loosened up a bit in early 1971, adding a clause to the Code that stated: ““Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works…”, it was practically a foregone conclusion that the publishers would respond.
No, what seems strange to me looking back fifty years later isn’t that the horror comics trend itself happened — rather, it’s that I, personally, was so well primed to embrace it when it finally arrived. Because, as I’ve written about here on the blog before, I was pretty averse to “scary stuff” as a kid, at least prior to 1970. Though I eventually got over that, obviously, I was as a result regrettably late arriving to the party where Dark Shadows was concerned, as well as in sampling what then passed for horror in Code-approved color comics (such as DC’s House of Secrets and its companion anthology titles). Nevertheless, by the fall of 1971 I’d not only become a fan of the above*, but I was even starting to pick up those non-Code-approved, “mature” Warren black-and-white magazines from time to time; indeed, I was even buying Famous Monsters, despite the fact that I had yet to see many, if any, of the classic horror movies of the 1930s and ’40s that it focused on.
Funny thing, though… somehow, in the mid-1960s, I acquired one in the series of Aurora monster model kits that were launched early in the decade to capitalize on the movie monster craze. It was The Wolf Man. I’m not sure exactly how I obtained this item, though I’m sure I had to ask my parents, either for the kit or for the money to buy it; they certainly wouldn’t have gotten it for me on their own. If I had to guess why I wanted it in the first place, considering that if I’d had a chance to watch the movie that had inspired it (1941’s The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr.) — or any other werewolf movie, come to think of it — I’d likely have been too scared to do so, I’d surmise it’s because ads for the kits were all but ubiquitous in the comics I was buying at the time. (Yes, that’s right — you couldn’t read about werewolves in a DC or Marvel comic book story back then, but you could look at ’em in ads all day, no problem.) And those ads made the kits look awfully cool, even to a wuss like me. Hell, they were cool — or at least that’s how I felt about my Wolf Man, who held his menacing pose on the top of a chest of drawers in my bedroom for years.
Anyway, all of that suggests to me that as ready as I was in September, 1971 to read a Marvel or DC comic book starring any kind of classic movie monster, one in which the main character was a werewolf would probably have a leg up. (And no, not because he was lifting it.)
Technically, the “new age of Marvel monsters,” if we want to call it that (distinguishing it, of course, from the “old age” represented by the Atlas monsters like Fin Fang Foom and his brethren), should probably be seen as beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #101, which introduced Morbius, the Living Vampire. But though Morbius would eventually go on to become a headliner in Marvel’s new crop of horror comics, in his original conception he was simply a new foe for Marvel’s flagship superhero Spider-Man — a “scientific vampire” who split the difference between traditional undead bloodsucker and conventional Marvel supervillain. Nevertheless, his advent prepared the way for the coming Marvel’s first marquee monster star of the Seventies — Jack Russell, better known as Werewolf by Night.
The idea for what became Werewolf by Night appears to have originated with Marvel associate editor Roy Thomas, who provided this account for the thirteenth issue of Comic Book Artist in 2001:
I had this idea for something called “I, Werewolf.” I wanted it narrated in first person, and Stan loved it. It sort of combined Spider-Man with I Was a Teenage Werewolf. My wife Jeanie and I plotted the first issue one day when we got bored with a car show at Columbus Center in New York City, but I didn’t like to write that stuff, so I’d always give assignments like that to Gerry, as I did with Tomb of Dracula and the first Man-Thing story, which I plotted with a few suggestions from Stan. Stan liked everything but the title “I, Werewolf.” He wanted to call it Werewolf by Night, and since all I cared about was the concept, not the name, that was fine by me. It was still narrated in the first person. I told Gerry to do it that way, and it worked out very well…
Lee’s idea for the name of the series may have been derived from his recollection of a short story of the same title that Marvel (or, if you prefer, Atlas) had published in the pre-Code days, in Marvel Tales #116 (Jul., 1953) — though we’ll probably never know for sure. In any event, the feature would debut not in its own title, but in the second issue of Marvel Spotlight — the first of the three Showcase-type tryout titles launched by the publisher in 1971.
Marvel Spotlight #1, featuring the Western hero Red Wolf, had been released in June as a standard 32-page comic, at a cost of 15 cents; soon after its production, however, Marvel decided to raise their books’ page counts to 48, with a corresponding rise in price to 25 cents. By September, that experiment was over, with most titles reverting to 32 pages (though at a new, higher price point of 20 cents). Nevertheless, for two months after the shift, Marvel kept their two tryout books that were already in production at the 48-page size.** As a result, the second issue of Marvel Spotlight — and only the second — came out as a giant-size 25-center. And, as a consequence of that publishing decision, the debut episode of “Werewolf by Night” would enjoy more than the usual amount of space in which to make a first impression on readers.
Fronting the comic was a cover pencilled by Neal Adams, and inked by his frequent collaborator at Marvel, Tom Palmer. I have to confess that, as big a fan of Adams as I was in 1971, I didn’t immediately recognize this cover as his work; and, to be honest, I’m not sure I would even today — to my eye, it looks less finely detailed than Adams’ rendering usually is — but, regardless of my opinion, that is indeed the work’s provenance.
Below, you can view Adams’ original pencil rough sketch for the cover — which includes notes to “Neal” penned in red ink by someone at Marvel — paired next to a color guide that was produced using a photostat of the completed cover art:
If you compare either the sketch or color guide to the cover as published, you’ll notice that the background in the fourth and final panel has been changed, with the addition of several figures and a park bench. According to the Grand Comics Database, these alterations were the work of John Romita.
More interesting, however (at least to the mind of your humble blogger), are the differences to be found between the visualization of the Werewolf (in both his human and hirsute guises) on this cover — including the small figure shown at upper left — and how he appears within its pages. Though, of course, before you can really make a judgment about those differences, I’ll need to let you actually look at some of those pages — so, without further ado…
The “old folk poem” quoted as an epigraph at the top of page 2 is actually anything but — rather, it comes directly from the 1941 Wolf Man movie (screenplay by Curt Siodmak), and was (is?) probably under copyright — though I’d be surprised if anyone ever came after Marvel for it.
These first four pages should be sufficient, I think, to make evident the differences between how the Werewolf (and his human alter ego) are depicted on the cover and how they appear within the story. I strongly suspect that the illustrators involved — Adams for the cover, Mike Ploog for the interior art — worked without any reference to what the other was doing. Marvel probably just figured, “hey, a werewolf’s a werewolf, and a kid’s a kid”.
In the fall of 1971, Mike Ploog was a newcomer, at least to mainstream color comics; this story’s twenty-seven pages of art, all fully pencilled and inked by Ploog, represented the then almost 30-year-old’s first job for Marvel. It was also almost his first credited job, period, as the only comics work he’d yet seen published under his own name were a couple of short black-and-white pieces for Warren Publishing, which had recently appeared in Eerie and Vampirella, respectively. Prior to that, however, Ploog had worked for a couple of years as an assistant to Will Eisner on the U.S. Army instructional publication, PS, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly. — and the strong influence of Eisner’s style on the younger artist was obvious.
It was obvious, that is, if you were familiar with Will Eisner’s work — and in 1971, it’s likely that my fourteen-year-old self had never even seen or heard that esteemed cartoonist’s name. Eisner’s most famous creation, the Spirit, had ceased appearing in newspapers in 1952, and most of the artist/writer/entrepreneur’s energy since then had gone into the aforementioned PS. Indeed, when Warren began reprinting the original “Spirit” stories in 1974, I was frankly stunned by how much this vintage material reminded me of Mike Ploog’s work; I suspect I was far from the only comics fan who had that experience.
In September, 1971, however, Ploog’s art wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before — stylized in a manner some might label “cartoony”, though, if that were true, it was a cartooniness that lent itself quite readily to drama — and to horror.
Yes, our protagonist’s name is “Jack Russell”. Like the terrier. That must have been an intentional joke, right?
Probably not, actually. Our story’s scripter, Gerry Conway, told an interviewer in 2014 that if he did name the Werewolf’s human identity after the dog breed, he did so unconsciously: “I’m pretty sure I would never have thought of it; I didn’t own a dog, I wasn’t raised with dogs, and the idea of calling a character Jack Russell—who turns into a werewolf—probably would’ve struck me as hilarious if I had thought of it, but I don’t think I did.” (Back Issue #71 [Apr., 2014], p. 7.) I see little reason to doubt Mr. Conway on this; speaking personally, I don’t recall ever hearing of the Jack Russell Terrier until well after Werewolf by Night‘s heyday, and, indeed, Wikipedia indicates that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the breed started becoming popular again after a long fallow period. So this was probably a completely coincidental occurrence — though that doesn’t keep it from being amusing to a contemporary audience, obviously.
The “he” that the Werewolf is thinking of in the last panel above is a wolf who, unfortunately, has wandered out of his natural habitat into western Los Angeles.
This is probably as good a place as any to note that the SoCal locale Marvel chose for “Werewolf by Night” set it apart from all other Marvel series of the time, the great majority of which were based in New York City. According to Gerry Conway, the L.A. setting was his idea: ““It was an effort to do something different. I had just come back from spending a month in Los Angeles and staying at Harlan Ellison’s place and I thought L.A. was a really interesting city, but I thought it was phenomenal to set things in.” (Back Issue #15 [Apr., 2006], p. 35.) It was also a congenial setting for Ploog, who had lived in the city for years before moving to New York; as he told an interviewer decades later, “L.A. and the palm trees and the bikers and all of that stuff, it was more conducive to what I knew.” (Roger Ash and Eric Nolen-Weathington, Modern Masters Vol. 19: Mike Ploog [TwoMorrows, 2008], p. 22.)
Entering the eerily deserted clifftop mansion by breaking through a glass door, the Werewolf soon encounters his intended prey…
Having the Werewolf fight, and ultimately kill, a real wolf allows our storytellers the opportunity to demonstrate the character’s strength and savagery — but without racking up too high a human body count, too soon (our protagonist has already killed one mugger, after all, and this is still a Marvel comic book).
After slaying his adversary, the Werewolf staggers away, instinctively heading for home as the night wanes towards morning…
A family tragedy, and a teenager wracked with guilt… not at all unfamiliar territory for a Marvel hero’s origin story…
Jack pretends to comply with the hospital’s “no visitors” policy, but moments later, sneaks into his mother’s room. Laura Russell is extremely weak, but conscious and lucid — and determined to tell her son the truth about his biological father, while she still can:
Laura identifies the country where she met, married, and settled down with Jack’s father as “a small Baltic state“. Later stories, however, will tell us that Jack’s ancestral homeland is in fact Transylvania — which isn’t a Baltic state (at least not in our world), but is, of course, where every kid in America knows monsters are supposed to come from.
Critics cognizant of how Will Eisner’s Spirit and the classic Universal horror movies were both influenced by the German Expressionist filmmakers of the 1920s might be surprised to learn that Mike Ploog considered the Eisner strain in his own style to be something of an impediment to creating horror comics, at least in the beginning:
The thing was, I kind of fought the style. I didn’t fight it in the sense that I didn’t like it. I loved it. It was easy and it was flowing, but it was rather soft. I spent a great deal of time trying to develop something that was a little bit harder and a little bit more oriented to horror, which is not easy. I’m kind of a natural cartoonist, and in horror, you have to have a sense of reality to it to make it believable. The only way I could really do that was through acting. Somehow or another involve the reader in the emotions of the characters and just hope like hell that I was pulling it off. (Modern Masters Vol. 19: Mike Ploog, p. 21.)
Speaking as a fan, I’m not sure that Ploog really needed to work that hard — but it’s hard to argue with the results.
The Werewolf exits the hospital through the window, and then — following an impulse supplied by Jack’s not entirely submerged consciousness — goes to the South Street warehouse Jack had heard his stepfather discussing with the chauffeur, Grant, earlier in the day. Once there, he waits in the shadows…
Ploog’s decision to draw the Werewolf as a beast-man of medium build — he’s a wolf-man, not a bear-man or gorilla-man — makes it seem plausible that a really big, strong guy like Grant could give him a good fight of several pages duration; which, of course, is just what happens here.
Thus ends the premiere episode of Marvel’s first continuing series with a horror-genre protagonist — if not exactly on a cliffhanger, then still with a narrative hook that, vaguely reminiscent of the hero’s dilemma in Hamlet, would be sure to bring readers back for the next installment; at least, it would bring this reader back. And, as things turned out, I was hardly the only one.
In years to come, “Werewolf by Night” — which would headline two more issues of Marvel Spotlight before graduating to its own title in the summer of 1972 — would be seen as having established the template for the approach to the horror comics field Marvel would follow for most of the rest of the decade; a tack that was markedly different from that taken by its chief rival, DC Comics. To wit, whereas DC would continue to focus primarily on anthology titles in its “mystery” line (though with some notable exceptions), Marvel would keep the emphasis on the formula that had already brought it to its current level of success (though here, too, there would be exceptions). That formula relied on series featuring ongoing characters, with strong issue-to-issue narrative continuity, and a prominent role for the protagonists’ personal troubles and foibles.
And no later series, or character, ever fit this template more perfectly than Werewolf by Night. Not only was it able to easily lean into the “angsty teen hero” trope represented by Spider-Man and at least a few of the original X-Men (Cyclops, especially), but it also took advantage of an even older Marvel mainstay: the “heroic monster”. That trope went all the way back to the dawn of the “Marvel Age of Comics”, and the Fantastic Four’s Thing — though the Werewolf clearly had even more in common with a slightly later creation, the Hulk. Like Jack Russell, Bruce Banner was a basically good man whose transformations into a dangerous brute, and back again, were out of his control. It might be an oversimplification, but you could almost say that in Jack Russell, Marvel had mashed up Bruce Banner with Peter (Spider-Man) Parker, and given the result a nice, heavy, coating of Gothic horror.
Of course, along with the Gothic horror aspect came a considerably greater amount of bloodletting and death-dealing on the part of these series’ protagonists than Marvel’s readers were accustomed to seeing from their “heroes”. But Conan the Barbarian had already broken new ground for Marvel in this area; Jack Russell wasn’t the first Marvel star to leave a body count, and he would by no means be the last, either.
Body counts or no, however, the Werewolf by Night and his successors would ultimately be thoroughly integrated into the existing Marvel Universe — the same fictional world in which Spidey, the Hulk, and the FF had their mostly fatality-free adventures. Of course, the fact that Jack Russell’s alter ego prowled the dark streets of Los Angeles, rather than Manhattan, meant that he was unlikely to run afoul of Spider-Man — or any other costumed adventurer — in the very near future.
It would happen eventually, though. (See: Marvel Team-Up #12 [Aug., 1973]). And Werewolf by Night’s most lasting and significant contribution to the Marvel mythos — that unsavory compendium of eldritch lore known as the Darkhold — would be showing up quite a bit sooner than that. In fact, the first tidings of that accursed tome would be heard as soon as the series’ next installment, in Marvel Spotlight #3… but we’ll leave that topic for discussion in a later post.
While “Werewolf by Night” may have taken up most of the available pages in in Marvel Spotlight #2, it didn’t quite fill the issue. And so, the back of the book featured a reprint:
Actually, although the story it prefaces is a reprint — “Where Gargoyles Dwell!!”, originally published in Venus #16 (Oct., 1951) — the Bill Everett page shown above is new, apparently drawn just for the occasion. While Everett didn’t create this version of the goddess Venus for Timely, he did write and drew a number of her adventures, and seems to have had fondness for her in later years — a statement I make based on the fact that he brought her into modern Marvel continuity about a year after this reprint’s publication, in Sub-Mariner #57 (Jan., 1973).
The eight-page story itself finds the incognito goddess of love getting involved with an office building’s thirteenth floor that comes and goes, and is inhabited by a flock of stone gargoyles who can’t move their limbs — they’re statues, what do you expect? — but can talk, as well as propel themselves through the air as deadly missiles. It’s completely bonkers, but also a lot of fun — at least, I think it’s a fun read now. At age fourteen, I probably greeted it with the same basic mixture of resignation and mild curiosity I granted to most reprints I encountered as filler. Still, I’m sure that when Venus mounted her comeback in the pages of Sub-Mariner in October, 1972, I was pleased to be a reader “in the know”, having already made her acquaintance.
*Of course that meant I’d had to mourn the passing of the Dark Shadows TV series when it was cancelled back in April; I could still buy the Gold Key comics, however, and I continued to do so.
**All three tryout books were originally published on a quarterly schedule. Thus, Marvel Spotlight‘s sister title Marvel Feature, whose first issue had come out in July in the new giant-sized format, would have one more issue released in that format in October, before transitioning to the 20-cent/32-page format in December. The third title, Marvel Premiere, didn’t launch until November, and so was only ever published in the smaller format.