May 13, 2012

Classic Comics Cavalcade -- ESSENTIAL WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #1

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Classic Comics Cavalcade
Essential Werewolf by Night #1
Jason Sacks and Daniel Elkin are back again to examine, celebrate, and mourn some of the weirdness that was comics past. After spending a few weeks going through the wonderful work of some of Steve Gerber's 1970's Marvel Comics output, today they turn their attention to a comic that “creeped the shit” out of Daniel when he was wee, Marvel Comics' Werewolf by Night. Both Jason and Daniel got their hands on Essential Werewolf by Night #1 and the result was the following conversation.

Elkin: FIRST NIGHT!           
Sacks: Must find the woods! But no, I can't because someone is always chasing me!
Elkin: And I must KILL them!?!?!?
Sacks: That Werewolf, he's a really feral dude. Killing is his thing. You want a werewolf who doesn't kill?
Elkin: I want a werewolf who is aware when the full moon is during the month and what time the sun sets. Geez -- somebody get our hero, Jack Russell, a lunar calendar and a wristwatch! You would think he would get a handle on this after the third or fourth time he changed.
Sacks: Pretty much every woman can track her monthly cycle, but Jack Russell can't even ask his sister for advice?
Elkin: HA! Oh man. This Werewolf by Night ... I found I had to suspend my disbelief at such a high level when reading this that I found it very difficult to come down off of that state and enter back into reality when I put the book down. And to think I found this so horrifying when I was a kid. The comic, that is, not suspending my disbelief.
Sacks: I kind of had the opposite reaction. I had so much trouble suspending my disbelief that I had trouble getting into it.

Elkin: Aw, come on Sacks, you couldn't feel Jack Russell's pain?
Sacks: Why couldn't Jack ever be happy? Even when he moves into the swingin' singles apartment and has two girls basically climbing all over him, the poor guy is miserable.           
Elkin: Because he is a Werewolf ... by night.
Sacks: I'm like, why not just party for 27 days and then go camping for 3 nights?
Elkin: I know, right?
Sacks: Our Mr. Russell is not a genius.
Elkin: No. He is not. A matter of fact, I couldn't figure out this guy one bit. He seems to have no other character traits than to fuck up and abandon people. That and mope all emo and stuff.
Sacks: Well, he is the asshole by day.           
Elkin: Heh.
Sacks: Jack really deserves this juvenile little slam that made me laugh hard when I was in middle school.
Elkin: So, I guess we both can agree that Jack Russell is a hard hero to root for. But the Werewolf, on the other hand -- the Werewolf is kinda cool. Yes?  Especially when drawn by Mike Ploog.
Sacks: You and your Ploog obsession.           
Elkin: He does some pretty awesome work on this title.
Sacks: But yeah Ploog draws an amazing werewolf. There are some amazing pages and panels in this book. The last panel of WBN #5 is gorgeous - so much intensity on that face.
Elkin: Oh yeah and earlier in the issue when we first see Mr. Hemp. That whole layout is amazing.
With the small panel with Mr. Hemp's head inserted into the open fanged jaws of the werewolf. Awesome.
Sacks: "You're not Evans at all -- you're a dog." with the werewolf's face behind him.
Elkin: I know, right? Beautiful stuff. And pretty fucking horrifying too. It was the issues without Ploog that really got me down in thisEssentials collection.           
Sacks: Yes, Ploog is a magnificent storyteller, but the Tom Sutton issues are also absolutely stunning.
Elkin: Yeah, OK. I'll agree with you on that.
Sacks: The intensity of the beginning of WBN #9 is breathtaking.
Elkin: But the story -- Sarnak and his magic whistle -- and the Committee. The whole thing is just so ... so ... I don't know what to call it. Help me out here, Sacks.
Sacks: I kept wanting everything to be more Gerber and it never was. All the threats were physical and I kind of wanted them to be existential.
Elkin: Well, in what appears to be a nod to Gerber, WBN #11 features a Foolkiller wanna-be, The Hangman, who was a pretty fucking disturbing character.           
Sacks: The appropriately named Marv Wolfman was the strongest writer in the book.
Elkin: Yeah. He did try to go some interesting places, but it all seemed to get muddled somehow -- like they were big ideas that he had to cram into as few pages as possible and so the whole thing lost its intensity. The whole Taboo/Topaz/Algon story for example, starting in WBN #13 (which brought back Ploog!) ...
Sacks: Right - at its core there was a good story there, but it never quite took off. It never quite grabbed. There's just something lacking somehow in these stories. I want to say it's because Jack is so dull, but you can't get any duller than the Man-Thing, who literally has no brain. I think you nailed it above when you said that Jack was as shallow as shallow could be.
Elkin: I, too, want to blame it on the fact that the character of Jack Russell was so poorly developed that it held everything else back but that seems like a cop out. I think it may have more to do with the round table of creators that jumped on and off this book like it was a rabid pony (do ponies get rabies?), which ended up muddling it and losing any sort of rhythm.
Sacks: I think the core concept was intriguing enough, but Jack is such a weak central character and there's so little forward momentum that the book just kind of dies. It's pretty interesting reading the Tomb of Dracula issue and seeing how everything is well set into motion and how that book has a real sense of forward motion, then switch back to WBN and see everything be much more static.
Elkin: I was so confused during the Dracula parts. Clearly there was a story there and the Werewolf seemed to be an irritating distraction from it. Like it was a necessary crossover because well ... horror comics or something. I really hated that part. Almost as much as I hated Tigra and the Cat People.
Sacks: Putting out the fire with gasoline, indeed!           
Elkin: Heh.
Sacks: Yeah, there was a definite sense that Dracula was interrupted by this Werewolf stuff, as if Wolfman felt obliged to bring his other comic into ToD.
Elkin: Did you read Roy Thomas' "Few Frantic Words" about how the book came about? What did you think about that?
Sacks: I honestly thought it was pretty much all corporate propaganda, except for the great anecdote about him reviewing Ploog's portfolio in “the tiny Marvel anteroom."
Elkin: As much as I too enjoyed the Ploog anecdote, I think what was interesting about the Thomas “article” was that he too points to the fact that having developed the idea for the series, it quickly left his hands and was sent bouncing around from writer to writer ever since. This is really the downfall of the title, I think. Nobody sat on it long enough to ride it into the sunset. Too many cooks spoil the pudding. A bird in the hand is worth two on the flea. You know, all those clichés seem warranted in this situation.
Sacks: A watched cat never boils its spaghetti?
Elkin: Touché
Sacks: That problem is so typical for Marvel in the '70s. It was only the rare title that kept its creative staff for very long. Oddly, that seemed to happen more on the horror books than any others.
Elkin: I think the whole fuck-fest culminates in the Team-Up with Spider-Man at the end of this collection. Somebody explain to me 1) What the fuck was going on and 2) What the fuck was going on.
San Francisco? Spider-Man? WHAT?           
Sacks: Umm, yeah, what the fuck was going on there? And they were fighting living zombies too?!
Elkin: Can you say, "Hey, maybe we can boost sales if we team him up with Spidey?" I wonder how long it was until they threw Wolverine in the book.
SacksMTU might have been the biggest trainwreck series of the '70s.
Elkin: Worse than Werewolf by Night? Ooooooh ... does it have an Essentials collection?
SacksWBN has a few moments that weren't terrible. I mean, the art is nice until Colletta takes over the inking.
Elkin: Oh, I agree. It did feature some incredible art by Mike Ploog. The whole Swami and the Blood Stone story was interesting. And I liked how they stole from both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (at least they gave Hugo the credit) and The Most Dangerous Game.
Sacks: Gawd, the Hunchback issue. Another great WTF issue. Those three letters really sum this book up. W.T.F., WBN?
Elkin: And to think I really thought this was a great comic book when I was wee. Then again, one of my favorite characters was John Jameson, Man-Wolf, too. I think I just wanted a dog.
Sacks: Yeah like my taste was so perfect when I was wee. Oh, poor Daniel, your folks wouldn't let you get a dog?
Elkin: Long story that. Hmmmmm ... I think I just opened up some strange doors in my subconscious, though. I think they are doggie doors.   
Sacks: Ah, that explains the latch I saw on the back of your head.
Elkin: That's another long story.
Sacks: LOL! Well, damn it, I don't think either of us were inspired by "Asshole by Day."
Elkin: I know. And I'm disappointed in that too. Then again, after Gerber, it's hard to get much better.
The Forest ... I must return to The Forest.
Sacks: Poor guy never made it to the forest.

Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on twitter at @jasonsacks, email him at or friend him on Facebook

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