by T Trewhella
So. The season is upon us. Time to invoke the hidden knowledge and attempt to appease the unknowable soulless beings who sit above us. We lace our texts with the right glyph combination to draw in attention, money, power. Ess Eee Oh we whisper. Ess Eee Oh. With that murmured chant on my digital lips, Werewolf by Night is a Marvel comics character; was an ongoing series and occasional miniseries; and now has slunk into the moonlight as a thing enrobed in the Emm Cee You. The hideous four colour beast is made divine by the blessings of the screen. A thing for grown-ups now – something to be thought-pieced, listacled, and “Easter Eggs You Have Missed!” like its apoethised comic siblings before.
Werewolf by Night was the title of one of the hundreds of Atlas-era anthology tales which flooded the shelves in the early 1950s. Superheroes were yesterday’s news; now was the time to bring in the weird stuff. But then in 1954 the Comics Code came in – an industry acquiescing to bland out its sharp edges for its own survival. There were to be no more “[S]cenes dealing with, or intrustments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirsm, ghoulds, cannibalism, and werewolfism.…”
EC Comics – a publisher who as Educational Comics had started putting out issues about science, history, and religion, and then pivoted hard into becoming Entertaining Comics with a focus on crime, sci-fi, and horror – was hardest hit. The code from the new order was that the weird stuff was, well… not gone. But hidden. Tucked into a form which didn’t fall into any of the arbitrary “bad” categories. This is not to say that comics between the mid 1950’s and the first easing of the code weren’t odd (hi, silver age!) but that the dominant mode was certainly cleaner cut. Healthy and wholesome, with spandex and good morals. The weird was out and superheroics who fought for the status quo were on the rise. As our blessed code decreed:
Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. 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 written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.
Educational Comics could roll again, so long as the weird was wrapped in a “classic tradition” of “high calibre” works by “respected authors”. I’m doing bunny ears and waggling my eyebrows round each of those words just like the Marvel editors “definitely did” in the early seventies.
Werewolf by Night #29 “A Sister Born Of Hell!” is a product in the classical tradition of respected authors. And like all high calibre works the thing that grabs you straight away is the cover. This is absolutely something which marvel comics have lost. The art by Don Perlin and breathless text by writer Doug Moench demands engagement. This is a piece of art which cries out to passers-by. Stop. Consider. If you want to know the secrets of Dr Glitternight then you need to slap down your 9p (in 1975) and find out.
The issue finds itself as a crossroads. This is a piece which still exists technically in the wider Marvel Universe but is untroubled by the spandex nonsense occurring outside its pages. As you’d expect from a single issue plucked from the hypothetical spinner rack, it drops you in the thick of things and expects you to catch up. Unlike the worst excesses of Marvel comics from 2022, it’ll meet you halfway. There’s wider context to be gained from the previous 28 issues and an offer to come back next time for “Lisa’s Second Night: Red Slash across Midnight” but what’s here is a complete thing. It’s neither a lone island issue of the golden age nor simply a 20 page cypher, meaningless outside of its wider line’s narrative. The continuity it generates is its own. Detectives follow up on disappearances from issues past; portentous meetings in Haiti beckon us back for more.
The bulk of the issue is an extended fight between Jack Russell (allegedly not a pun according to his creators) and his sister. Both siblings have been changed into something monstrous: Jack by his family werewolf curse, Lissa by “three vectors of arcane change”. Dr Glitternight is identified in the text as the only active part of these three vectors but the art shows Jack’s companions Topaz and Taboo as partly to blame. Creator miscommunication or deliberate clash? I’d like to think the latter – something unresolved to unspool in the reader’s mind.
Horror grows from dissonance and uncertainty but Werewolf by Night is a thing boxed in by rules – Jack and Lissa’s changes are exhaustively explained; Dr Glitternight’s manifestation documented and pinned to the page, like a bug in a museum display. The unclear nature of Topaz and Taboo’s agency in Lissa’s transformation is one of many moments which present contradictions, which hint at something weirder beneath. The story looks familiar and clear on the surface but its skeletal structure is wrong; limbs bending where they should not, joints crackle into impossible twists.
The issue’s primary concern is the fight between two siblings infected by the weird. Most of the issue is narrated from the point of view of the “real” Jack who sits behind the eyes of the Werewolf. Jack’s play-by-play of the fight shows us who he is; someone who considers themselves apart from the Werewolf. When he talks about play fighting with his sister as a kid we’re told “she was always the good guy and I the bad. The roles were locked…”. The mid-scrap reminiscence ends with Jack telling us of one time that he hit his sister and refused to comfort her as that would have been “mushy stuff”. “I was wrong…” Jack concludes. We’re left to work out what he thinks he was wrong about. I’m sure it’s meant to signal to the reader that he was wrong about always being the bad guy, about being locked in a role but I think Jack’s early statements are correct. He is outwardly “The Werewolf” but because he’s detached from all that and we’re shown his cosy childhood tales and his weak-sauce self-reflection, we’re invited to think of Jack as a separate thing. A helpless passenger.
The others don’t see that separation. They all see Jack for what he is – a thing resolved to whatever he looks like. Jack notes that “The Werewolf” slinks away at the end of the fight without checking on his sister, and it’s clear that Jack believes that “Jack” is the one who emerges from the woods to make sure Lissa is alive. But we’ve already seen that Jack can be uncaring and withhold empathy because it’s “mushy stuff”. So why does Jack believe that he and the werewolf are so different? The caption notes that Jack doesn’t change back into a person but something “half-way human”. Maybe this newfound empathy and self reflection comes from the werewolf rather than from Jack’s belief in his humanity. Jack is steadfast in his belief that he has limited control of his monstrous other. Does he mean the werewolf or Jack the person? More dissonance.
Marvel Comics’ narration of the time should be giving us truths that enhance the comic but we are repeatedly presented with information which interferes with itself. This is firmly in the realm of the moon inverted from a Tarot perspective, awash with instability, inconsistency, deception and error. The weird is not limited to the page, it seeps from there to the outside through us. The stink will not stop when we close the yellowed pages. It might recede but it lingers.
Through Jack’s narration we are made onlookers like Jack is to himself. The Mood is much like some of the earlier EC comics – we are confidents of the tale teller, accessories to the horror. We don’t just watch it unfold, we are allowed into Jack’s conflicted head and asked to feel what he’s feeling. The book does not let us into Lissa’s head. We’re not permitted to understand the relationship between herself and the weredemon, to understand how she remembers Jack’s emotional withholding of their youth, to see whether she felt that the roles of good and bad were as locked and binary as Jack believes them to be. The lack of a woman’s agency in a seventies Marvel comic is unsurprising. Her views might have brought some answers to this confused moonlit book. Lissa wakes on the last page and is given two panels to write the whole change off as a dream in “the sing song voice of a ten year old”. She fell from the tower (a sign of disaster and ruin in Tarot) and rejected the reality of the weird that’s all around her. Dissonance upon dissonance, a broken chord to close the story.
In three issues’ time Werewolf by Night would birth Moon Knight, first as antagonist and later as a bona fide superhero in his own right. The form would begin to shift. Wereweird cannot hold and must return to a more palatable form.
Jack still skulks around the edges of Marvel comics, but the days of a dedicated horror line are gone. Weirdness must be sanded back to a comprehensible content form, and issues of Marvel comics cannot be a snack with an invitation to come back next month. Instead they must be a one-fifth slice of a trade paperback collection, a one-fiftieth crumb of an omnibus, a mere atom of content in the ocean of Marvel Unlimited.
2022 is a fabulous time to enjoy horror comics. From the jagged razor edged zines like those of Erika Price through to the saccharine blood swirl of W. Maxwell Prince and Martín Morazzo’s Ice Cream Man, we are surrounded by excellent horror books unfettered by the restrictions of the past. Werewolf by Night #29 shows us that even fifty years ago in an era attempting to legislate literature and wholesomeness in, that the weird will not be sublimated away. The dissonance will ring out, the inverted moon rises.
Werewolf By Night #29 “A Sister of Hell”
Writer: Doug Moench
Artist: Don Perlin
Colourist: George Roussos
Letterer: John Constanza
T is a writer who writes about comics, games, feelings, the future, and nail polish. More of their stuff can be found on Twitter over here. They are toxic.
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