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Horror Unlimited: The Terror of WEREWOLF BY NIGHT

Welcome to Horror Unlimited! Comic books are a wide-ranged world full of confusing plot lines that include (but are no means limited to) time traveling, relatives from the past, future and other universes, alien races, and an infinite number of mutants, superheroes and villains, and wacky soap opera antics. Somewhere, in the middle of this, horror is alive and well inside the medium.

Horror Unlimited is a column that will take advantage of the Marvel Unlimited comic subscription service to unearth and highlight Marvel horror titles, characters, and storylines. Then, after a look at the weekly spotlight, suggesting a title outside of the Marvel universe to pair with it.

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In the debut entry of this series, we’re going to take a look at Marvel Spotlight issues 2 through 4. The comic hails from about ten years into Marvel’s tenure as a comic book company, with #2 hitting stands in February of 1972. Marvel Spotlight was a series that would take characters that couldn’t necessarily shoulder their own title, or that Marvel was searching to give a flagship book, and give them a brief run to gauge public interest. With issue #2 of the series, the world was introduced to Jack Russell, otherwise known as Werewolf By Night.

No, you did not read that wrong, his name is Jack Russell, as in terrier. Yet, if you believe Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, the creators of Werewolf by Night (alongside artist Mike Ploog), have sworn for years that they never made the canine connection. Nevertheless, Jack Russell is our maligned hero.

So a quick background: way back in the sixties, the Comics Code Authority was introduced and it was this incredibly restrictive guideline that comic companies adhered to. Why? Because The Seduction of the Innocent was released and a multitude of parents suddenly thought comics were causing their children to be violent, aggressive teenagers. It was essentially a ton of misdirected nonsense but a generation of parents attached to it and took it very seriously. EC Comics, the publishers of horror juggernaut Tales from the Crypt, were nearly forced out of business because parents started taking a little symbol on the cover of comics so seriously. If your comic wasn’t stamped with the approval of the Comics Code, parents suddenly stopped buying. This led to the publishers sticking to the restrictions that the Comics Code Authority suggested, which were ridiculously  stringent, to the point where comics couldn’t even publish the words “vampire” or “werewolf.” COULDN’T EVEN PUBLISH THE WORD.

1971 saw some of those restrictions loosen and comic creators were hungry to see what they could do with the world of the supernatural that they had been forbidden from using for years. Based on an idea by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog created Werewolf by Night in Marvel Spotlight #2 in 1972. Almost as an affront to the Comics Code, there it was, emblazoned on the cover: “Werewolf”. No clever superheroic name, no play on words. ”Werewolf”. Not only that, a four-panel cover showed a full-blown transformation sequence, a ‘50s inspired group of teens surrounding a boy transforming into a fully hair covered, claws out lycanthrope.

So we join Jack on his origin story for three issues. We’re thrown straight into the narrative that will continue through this three issue stint and well into his solo series. Each issue we follow Jack on a “monster of the week” style formula while also getting further into his backstory.

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Now, this backstory? It’s great. It has all the trappings of the best kind of comic book storytelling. It still follows the course of traditional werewolf lore: we have a man in Eastern Europe. No, sorry, don’t let me gloss over this. He is actually in Transylvania. Yes, that Transylvania. Gregor Russoff has married Laura and birthed Jack, with sister Lissa on the way. Unfortunately, Gregor comes from a long line of cursed souls. He’s also a warlock who owns the Darkhold, a mystic book of the damned that is the most potent book of black magic in the world and written by the Elder God Cthon.

God damn, I love comics.

Oh, that’s not even half of the insanity. So Gregor traps himself up in a tower every month but, after a well-placed lightning strike, he escapes and the townspeople kill him. Laura moves back to America and marries Philip Russell.

PLOT TWIST. Philip is Gregor’s brother. But that’s neither here nor than there. Most of this is revealed to Jack on his mother’s deathbed, where she has found herself thanks to a hit taken out on her by his own stepfather, his own uncle, Philip. COMICS, am I right?!

Conway does use that classic monster of the week formula but flips it on its head. Our main character IS a monster, so instead we get a “human of the week” story each week. While Jack is internally struggling with poetic prose from Conway, he’s also facing off against some sort of malevolent human with diabolical plans. What makes it a lot of fun is that Wolfie doesn’t have his own book yet and he’s also not a traditional superhero; hell, he’s barely a hero. He keeps ending up in situations where he fights people but they mostly just happen to be bad guys.

Even more coincidentally, these bad guys are all heavily invested in Jack’s life by proxy.  By the end of the Marvel Spotlight #4, after a gang of bikers and a metal-clawed Igor-esque servant, we finally get a superpowered villain with Marlene Blackgar, a gorgon.

They all want the Darkhold or are connected to his stepfather or something and it makes for fun reading. You see, that’s one of the things that it most fun about comics, is the writer ignoring any semblance of reality and instead asking, “How do I force this square peg in a round hole in the most entertaining way possible?”

Conway’s writing is great, his narration reading like a gothic horror novel while his dialogue is as hip and trendy as the era it was created in. Ploog does his best to fit the decade, with flared collars, sideburns, bell bottoms, and stained glass lampshades but he absolutely shines when it comes to drawing fight scenes. Sinewy muscle, razor-sharp claws and teeth, kinetic and erratic outlines in otherwise static holding positions. While some of his expositive scenes are muddy and blurry, it’s a sharp contrast once the full moon hits.

Now, to pair this with a comic. I know it’s an easy way out but it’s just too darn charming. I have to stick lycanthrope with lycanthrope and guide you in the direction of Jughead: The Hunger, from Archie Comics. Based in the non-canon world of the Archie Horror imprint, a label that sees horrific twists on our favorite teens of Riverdale, Jughead: The Hunger plays on the decades-old trope of Jughead’s never-ending appetite by giving it a more bestial explanation. Frank Tieri created the series and continues to write the irregularly published title, and with prior work on Deadpool and Wolverine, Tieri has experience with both savage violence and biting humor, both of which are highlighted with Hunger. Michael Walsh has tackled art for the majority of the series, while Pat and Tim Kennedy and Joe Eisma have also tagged in, and they all bring the aesthetic of an old school horror comic. It’s a great ride, with Betty as a werewolf hunter and even eventually introducing FrankenMoose, and it’s great that Archie Horror continued the story after it’s initial one shot.

Thanks for diving into Marvel Unlimited and come back next time to meet The Son of Satan!

At a young age, Ryan Larson read an issue of X-Men where the merry mutants fought Dracula himself, thus launching into a lifelong obsession with horror and comic books. Now, whether it’s cereal mascots or Nicktoons, Disney or television shows that lasted a season, Ryan is obsessed with pop culture in all its shapes and sizes. When he’s not nose-deep in an issue of Spider-Man, he’s usually just trying to get his wife and dog to watch weird movies from the eighties with him. Having written for Blumhouse, Shock Til You Drop and Diabolique, you can find his writing at Ghastly Grinning, his own horror site he launched in 2018, and can hear him dissect horror movies as a co-host on the Keep Screaming podcast.

Written by Ryan Larson

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