Back in September of last year, we took a look at Marvel Spotlight #2 (Feb., 1972), the comic book in which the feature “Werewolf by Night” made its debut. That issue introduced readers to Jack Russell, a modern Los Angeles teenager who, on his eighteenth birthday, made the very unwelcome discovery that he’d inherited the curse of lycanthropy from his late father, who’d been a baron in some unnamed European locale (eventually revealed to be — where else? — Transylvania) before being slain by silver bullets. We also met Jack’s younger sister, Lissa — who might share his curse — as well as his stepfather, Philip, whom both we and Jack were led to suspect by the end of this premiere episode might well be responsible for the death of Jack and Lissa’s mother, Laura, in an automobile accident.
Most of the key concepts, then, as well as the characters, that would drive storylines not only through this then-new feature’s three-issue run in Marvel Spotlight, but into the earliest issues of its own title as well, can be found in its first installment, as scripted by Gerry Conway (from a plot by Roy and Jean Thomas) and drawn by Mike Ploog. But there was one key ingredient to the series’ early continuity that wouldn’t be mentioned until MS #3, and wouldn’t make an on-panel appearance until issue #4. This ingredient was the Darkhold — a sinister compendium of mystical lore that would come to stand as perhaps the most significant contribution to the Marvel Universe ever made by the series, ultimately becoming rather more consequential in the grand scheme of things than the Werewolf himself.
The Darkhold first entered Jack Russell’s awareness (as well as that of us readers) when the young man encountered Andrea and Nathan Timly, an occultist couple in search of what they at first referred to only as “the book” — a collection of magical spells allegedly written by Jack’s father, the location of which the Timlys were convinced Jack’s mom had told him prior to her demise. When Jack professed to have no knowledge of what they were talking about, they chained him up in their basement until such time as he chose to cooperate. As you might expect, this ultimately didn’t turn out so well for the Timlys, neither of whom survived the events of Marvel Spotlight #3. But as the issue ended, Jack had a new sense of hope, having now learned of the existence of a book — the Darkhold, as Nathan Timly had named it — which might hold the answer to how his family had come to bear the werewolf’s curse in the first place, and thus might eventually even lead to a cure.
Searching through his late mother’s personal effects for a clue to the Darkhold’s whereabouts yielded no clues for Jack, but our protagonist nevertheless got lucky in Marvel Spotlight #4 when he was approached by a writer named Buck Cowan. Cowan was himself looking for the Darkhold, as part of his research for “a piece on the new interest in the occult”, and he believed it to be in the European castle that had belonged to Jack’s family — which, as it happened, had not only been recently sold by Jack’s stepfather Phillip to a man named Miles Blackgar, but had even more recently been transported by the latter from Transylvania, stone by stone, and rebuilt on an island off the coast of Monterey. Surmising that the castle’s new owner might have also transported his dad’s library, Jack made his way to Blackgar Island, and eventually discovered that, yep, the Blackgars had not only brought over all the castle’s books and furnishings — they’d even put everything back in the same place the stuff had been in the old country. Or, at least, that’s what it looked like.
Unfortunately, Miles Blackgar wasn’t exactly what you’d call a nice person; he’d been conducting gruesome experiments on human beings, hoping to find a cure for his daughter Marlene’s mutant power to turn people to stone by looking at them, Gorgon-style. This turned out to be more of a complication that either Jack or his hirsute alter ego could handle in one 21-page comic, and so the story was continued… though not in the next issue of Marvel Spotlight (which instead featured the debut of Ghost Rider, also drawn by Mike Ploog), but rather in the premiere issue of a new bi-monthly Marvel title called, you guessed it, Werewolf by Night. We’ll not take time to cover the details, but by the end of the proceedings, the Blackgars had themselves both been turned into stone, Jack had made a new friend and ally in Buck Cowan… and Jack had the Darkhold in his possession.
Unfortunately, the book was in Latin, which Jack couldn’t read. In Werewolf by Night #2, on the advice of his girlfriend Terri* as well as of Buck Cowan, our hero decided to consult with Father Ramon Joquez, a former university professor and current labor organizer…
Leaving the tome with Father Joquez, Jack headed out to spend the rest of the issue dealing with Mark Cephalos, a dying man who’d deduced Jack’s secret and wanted to steal his lycanthropic life-energy to save himself. As with the earlier schemes of the Timlys and Blackgars, Mr. Cephalos ultimately saw his plans go awry, meeting his end when the Werewolf made his helicopter crash on Mount Lee, right above the famous Hollywood sign. Hmm… at this rate, that sort of thing is starting to seem like just another ordinary night in the life of a Southern Californian wolfman… but in any event, it brings us at last to Werewolf by Night #3, and the story which will at last reveal the Darkhold’s secrets… or will it?
On Jack’s end, the line goes dead. Fearing the worst, our hero leaps into action…
Y’know, I have to say, if I turned into a near-mindless, savage beast-man three nights out of every month, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing I’d “forget”, regardless of the circumstances…
While Mike Ploog had done the complete artwork for all three “Werewolf by Night” stories in Marvel Spotlight, since WbN #1 his pencils had been inked by Frank Chiaramonte. Ploog’s expressionistic, almost cartoony style presents a challenge for many inkers, but Chiaramonte — who, like Ploog, had worked for the great artist-writer Will Eisner prior to breaking into color comics — does as creditable a job as probably anyone ever has. Back in 1972, my fifteen-year-old self probably didn’t register much if any difference between Ploog/Ploog and Ploog/Chiaromonte — and even today, it’s really only by a side-by-side comparison that I can perceive the greater amount of detail in Ploog’s solo artwork.
That said, the close-up portrait of the Werewolf in the panel shown above may not be “pure” Mike Ploog… but it’s still pretty damn great.
Having arrived at Father Joquez’s rectory, the Werewolf proceeds inside, where he finds that his arrival has been anticipated…
A knight on horseback attempted to halt Aelfric’s flight, only to have the flesh of his body (and of his mount’s, too) dissolved in a cloud of gray mist conjured up by the “mad monk”…
Well, if Aelfric wasn’t mad before…
Meanwhile, Lissa Russell has arrived at Buck Cowan’s house, looking for her brother. Finding the note Jack left for Buck, she decides to drive on to Father Joquez’s rectory — but she’s stopped en route by a police barricade…
Taking advantage of the surviving police officer’s stunned horror, Lissa drives on through the barricade, not stopping until she reaches the rectory…
Now that’s the kind of thing it’s hard to imagine making it past the Comics Code Authority just a couple of years earlier.
Aelfric orders Dragonus to attack the Werewolf, not with the intention of destroying him, but of helping him realize his capacity for evil. As explained by Jack-as-narrator: “He wanted me reduced to battle — to my most primitive instincts –”
As he carries his unconscious sister away from the rectory, and into his next adventure, Jack Russell leaves behind not only the mortal remains of the unfortunate Father Joquez, but the Darkhold as well… and when I say “leaves behind”, I mean mentally as well as physically. You’d think that at some point Jack would take a moment to reflect, “Hey, I should probably try to find out what happened to that book of magic spells that I thought might help cure me (and which is really too dangerous to leave just lying around),” but that doesn’t happen, at least not in Gerry Conway’s run. I get the impression that, having used the Darkhold as a plot device in every “Werewolf by Night” story since the second one, the writer was simply tired of it, and ready to move on to something else. In retrospect, however, it’s a pretty big loose end to simply leave dangling indefinitely.
Thankfully, one year and ten issues later (Werewolf by Night went monthly with the fifth issue, if you’re wondering about the math), a new writer named Wolfman (and trust me, Marvel got out ahead of that joke forty-nine years ago) decided to delve back into the lore of the Darkhold, beginning a storyline in issue #13 that would eventually lead to a crossover with the same writer’s Tomb of Dracula series. And once Count Dracula got involved with that eldritch grimoire, it seemed that everybody else wanted to get in the act, as well; indeed, over the next few decades it seemed that every single character in the Marvel Universe with even the slightest tinge of the supernatural about them would be drawn into the Darkhold’s orbit, from the beginning of creation on into the unknown future… from Thulsa Doom to Doctor Doom, and beyond.
Of course, as all that history grew over time, the “origin story” for the Darkhold that Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog provided readers in Werewolf by Night #3 would recede into becoming just one minor chapter in the eons-spanning saga of the sinister artifact. Even so, “The Mystery of the Mad Monk!” remains an enjoyable (if less than essential) read a half-century after its publication, particularly on the strength of its artwork.
*Incidentally, Terri (no last name given), who’d previously appeared only in Marvel Spotlight #2, never turned up again after this issue.
I’ve said before I didn’t enjoy horror comics but I guess I had an exception back then for them Marvel style. I loved Ploog’s trifecta of monstrous protagonists and also followed Tomb of Dracula, Lilith and Satana’s exploits, Frankenstein’s Monster, and even the ludicrous Son Of Satan. Modern Marvel horror not so much.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I never followed Marvel’s horror comics as a kid but I’ve enjoyed collecting the TPBs. This was a good story though the Mad Monk’s defeat has a Three Stooges quality to it — lookout Curly, you threw the Werewolf on the floor, then clumsily tripped over him and stabbed Moe!
LikeLiked by 2 people
I knew nothing about Marvel’s supernatural comics other than the names and the occasional team-ups with Spider-man or whoever over the years. I knew Gerry Conway’s work, of course, from a variety of Marvel and DC books. At one point, I even owned and read his novel, The Midnight Dancers, though I have no idea where that came chronologically in his career and a quick trip to Gerry’s wikipedia page doesn’t turn up a publication date for it. As for Mike Ploog, I had seen a lot of his work in various books, but wouldn’t know him by name until I became acquainted with the fabulous work he did in Ralph Bakshi’s animated classic(?) Wizards in 1977.
My impressions of Conway as a writer were always that he was pretty much “OK.” He wasn’t Roy Thomas or Steve Englehart or Stan the Man, but he wasn’t Cary Bates or Elliot S! Maggin, either. He was a simply a relatively dependable comic book writer, who wasn’t going to blow me away, but he would probably seldom disappoint me either. This story, reading it now for the first time, fifty years after it was written is an excellent example of that. Conway creates a decent story within the space he was given and doesn’t rush the ending or skip over important facts and over-all, the story he writes here makes sense (though I would have liked to see Buck’s reaction when he saw what Jack did to his car…)
Ploog’s work here, however, seems rushed to me, and not nearly as detailed or exacting as other examples to be found elsewhere. The comic book schedule, especially if you’re trying to draw numerous books for more than one publisher was not for everyone and perhaps that’s what plagued Mike here. It’s fine, it’s just that I’ve come to expect better from him.
As for the Darkhold, as you say Alan, Conway was probably just tired of it and didn’t think anyone would notice if it faded into obscurity. The fact that it didn’t fade and went on to become a Major Marvel MacGuffin over the years has probably as much to do with Roy Thomas’ push for greater continuity in Marvel books as much as anything else. Certainly no one could have foreseen the importance it would achieve in the world of Doctor Strange or in the MCU productions of WandaVision and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
All in all, this is as good a representation of a supernaturally-flavored super-hero adjacent comic as you were gonna get in the early 70’s and Alan, I’m happy that you read it, so that I didn’t have to…at least not until now. Thanks.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think a lot of the credit goes to Mark Gruenwald, David Michelinie and Steven Grant who incorporated the Darkhold into a three-part retcon origin for the Scarlet Witch. That exposed it to people who didn’t read the monster books and established it as Very, Very Bad.
I like Conway’s work better than you do. Not as consistently good as Englehart but most of his long JLA run was excellent and his two runs on Wonder Woman (I blogged about the WW II period here: https://frasersherman.com/category/reading/wonder-woman/page/6/) were good.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Very cogent comments, DontheArtistEtc. I like the way you think!
LikeLiked by 2 people
The only issue I own of WWbN is the one with cover pencils by Jim Starlin and inks by Wrightson. My favourite Marvel horror comics were the short-lived Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness, but they varied greatly in quality from story to story, being comics anthologies.
LikeLiked by 1 person
My comments have springboarded from an offhand remark from DontheArtist, who wanted to see a panel showing Buck’s reaction to his sporty car being wrecked by mid-transformation Jack Russell…
My remarks grew so long that I felt sheepish leaving them as a response to Don’s commentary. Let’s see how they hold up on their own, my remarks.
Poor ol’ Buck! Always left holding the bag, yet never allowed to let the cat out of it. Because it dasn’t be disclosed that Jackie-Boy’s a…(gasp!) werew—shh!
Surely Buck carried a torch for impetuous Jack Russell. Just a little man-crush, let’s say. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure Buck literally held several torches for Mr. Russell—probably in Transylvania, surely in at least two creepy old mansions, maybe in the sewers system (where Lissa wore white jeans), and possibly at a beach.
Once, (although it seems unlikely to have been an isolated incident) Buck employed a torch to fend off Wolfie in a manner that suggested he may have—at some point—used this same method to ward off a Frankenstein Monster. Somebody had to burn down a cult’s stylish crib in the Giant-Sized WBN #02 that pitted Wolfie against Frankie.
Did I call the thing “a little crush”? Good Lord, these two dudes were gay! (Full disclosure: I’m gay. And I’m making sport here.)
Bear with me on this: Buck and Jack fit right into a hoary but common gay motif: The older gay man who pines over and advances the social status of a callus, preening, and blond young male escort. (Okay, it loosely fit the motif.)
Buck may well know that his love will never be returned, never consummated, but he can’t help it—Buck goes for young bucks. I’m pretty sure that Buck even left a candle in the window for Mr. Russell one time. Subtlety went out the window.
It was, at the very least, an abusive gay relationship. How Buck did suffer for his Jack Russell! And love can be even more cruel when your homeboy is a werewolf.
Over the course of Werewolf By Night’s arduous and improbable 37 issues history, stolid and steadfast Buck was pressed into service in a lot of thankless roles…
He proved to be a reliable ATM/Sugar Daddy. “I’ll see if I can get an advance on my next book deal!” “Looks like I’ll miss that mortgage payment again this month!” “If you wrecked the convertible, I still have my new Cad—oh, wait! You wrecked a convertible? Jack, I don’t own a convertible!”
Buck fronted as a “freelance writer” who could spout off salient, plot-advancing facts like a pre-Wikipedian Mr. Spock
Buck was the equivalent of a B-movie supporting character who must explain gaffs and then get out of the way for the star. He could be the more respectable version of an insider who knows the Word On The Street.
It’s implied that Buck began as a newspaper’s beat reporter; he knew all the veteran cops on the force by name. Even better, Buck was a regular joe to the coppers, so nobody paid attention when he called in favors or pulled strings.
Buck buffered blows from jawbones of asses, took bullets intended for You-Know-Who, and served as scratching post when a werewolf couldn’t find the forest to let off steam. Plenty of times he was left twisting in the wind—once even by The Hangman’s noose.
I think he got lynched again around the build-up to the comic book’s end game, but as long as there was dirty work to be done, they’d call in Ol’ Buck!
Buck was a Whipping Boy, a coffeemaker and short-order chef; a shoulder to cry on, and a sympathetic ear when someone had to lay out their backstory in a whole mess of exposition.
Buck became an unpaid babysitter for nubile babes of indeterminant age. Lithesome Lissa could have been 30 in the early Mike Ploog renderings; she had a blowsy, hard-drinking quality to her. And the way she wore those bellbottomed white pants?! Have mercy, little momma!
Just back away, Buck, back away!
I figure Lissa needed to be around 16 at WBN’s Spotlight debut for everything to work out on the same timeline as her dreaded “coming out” during the Glitternight Ordeal. So…16, Buck. Back away!
Even more of a vexation was trying to lock down the precise age of Topaz. Her mental “gifts” fluctuated as if she were experiencing puberty, metaphorically if in no other way.
Warty old purple-skinned Taboo called her “child,” and I had a sense that it wasn’t exactly a term of endearment. He maintained that she was “as his daughter” (my paraphrasing), but we know how it goes with geezers-and-daughters from Woody Allen and Soon Yi.
Don Perlin only made matters worse by portraying both Topaz and Lissa as alarmingly young. They looked like school girls at a slumber party when the gang got together. The only thing that might have been worse is if Perlin had shown the girls missing baby teeth when they smiled.
Y’know, let’s not go there. Yo, Buck! Cut bait, and just turn and run. Leave those whiny, needy Russell kids. Call immigration on Topaz. You can make new friends; it would be hard to do worse.
Your heart might hurt, but your physical and financial states will be so grateful.
LikeLiked by 1 person