Werewolf By Night Comes Alive Through Power Records
"The man I attacked....was dead."
These are among the first words spoken by Jack Russell in a very ominous tone. They are the first words that really hit us after the narrator boldly proclaims "Power Records presents....THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF!"
So, the "fact" reported in the 1980's Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe that noted "the Werewolf never killed anyone" simply isn't correct. Perhaps the editors meant the Werewolf hadn't killed anyone since his first appearance in Marvel Spotlight #2.
Finding back issues of Marvel Spotlight's second issue was not going to be easy - or cheap - in the 1970's and early 1980's, but the (partial) reprint of the debut of Werewolf By Night remained available through Power Records. The imprint of Peter Pan Records, a popular Newark, NJ producer of children's LPs and 45s, released this as one of their horror titles along with other 1970's era (excellent) Marvel monster comics. The book and record (and record only releases) remained in circulation from 1974 to around 1982.
Retitled "Curse of the Werewolf" - likely after the Hammer Wolfman movie of the same name - this issue edits pieces from various different issues of Werewolf by Night to arrive at a semi-coherent story. The re-edited narrative deals with Jack Russell's slow discovery he is a werewolf and then moves into the origin of the Russell family's werewolf curse. Attempting to end things on an ambiguous level via an inconclusive battle with Dracula doesn't work and it is too abrupt. Still, the beginning is exceptionally memorable as was the bulk of the original comic series.
The first two-thirds of the book is both scary and haunting. Turning Jack Russell/The Werewolf into a psychological study helps deliver such a result.
Jack Russell's Werewolf Thoughts
For children who grew up with images of Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolfman, the striking thing about the opening of the Power Records tale is Jack Russell, the alter-ego of the Werewolf, narrates from a lost and confused perspective. Jack Russell does not know he is a werewolf. He simply wakes from dreams with fragmented memories of awful excursions the previous night. In the opening sequence, as the Werewolf runs from the police officer who shoots him, Jack Russell's narration presents raw confusion and emotional pain.
These are not exactly elements commonly found in werewolf films of the 1970's nor in previous eras. Gerry Conway took the narration approach to flesh out the character and make him more than something that merely snarled and growled. Mike Ploog's outstanding artwork brought forth a werewolf who was both frightening and vulnerable.
Matricide and Patricide in Children's Comics
18-year-old Jack Russell discovers he suffers from the curse of the werewolf, but there are worse terrors the young man must deal with. He lives with his stepfather, mother, and sister. After he transformed into the werewolf one night, his mother went out searching for him. She was involved in a car accident and, near death, she tells Jack Russell about his father. The elder Russell was a werewolf who was eventually killed by villagers after a rampage. Jack Russell's mother reveals his father was a very good man, but the curse of the werewolf turned him into the proverbial wild animal.
Having lost his father, Jack Russell now loses his mother as she succumbs to the injuries from the car wreck. Young Russell's stepfather definitively puts guilt on the shoulders of the young man by saying had Russell not be out that night, his mother would not have been searching. The accident would not have happened had Jack remained home.
Of course, Jack Russell did not leave of his own accord. The werewolf's curse is what led to the tragic scenario. And this is the true curse. As long as he remains a werewolf, Russell will always be a threat to others and never be able to live a stable home life. His father made the mistake of trying to live a normal life. The consequences were tragic. And the true tragedy is the curse of being a werewolf led to the death of both Jack Russell's mother and father. Matricide and patricide are deep subtextual themes to be found in a terror comic. During the early 1970's, D.C. and Marvel comic books did delve into social commentary quite overtly. In this work, the commentary is more subtle but no less impacting.
The curse of the werewolf could take on many forms. The connecting thread among these forms would be the symbolism of a destructive element capable of ruining a family. The fantasy tale could be transformed into a real one with few alterations by simply changing "werewolf-ism" to alcoholism. A father's alcoholic tendencies may lead to his death and, genetically, a potential for alcohol abuse could be carried through genetic and hereditary lines.
Powerful themes, indeed. Whether they were intended or not when the original story was first written in the very early 1970's is not known. Regardless, the strong themes do come through.
A Nod to Artist Neal Adams
Although Mike Ploog was the brilliant artist whose masterful work made Werewolf By Night so memorable, the amazing cover created by Neal Adams of Green Arrow/Green Lantern social commentary fame for Marvel Spotlight #2 absolutely deserves a mention.
Likely, Roy Thomas wrote the text since he held an editorial position and was the person who came up with the idea for a monthly werewolf comic book. All those who came up with this cover deserve massive praise. From a marketing perspective, the cover absolutely is perfect. Any horror comic book fan who saw this amazing, eye-catching cover had to be hooked at first glance. Any wonder why this cover was chosen to grace the Power Records adaptation?
Interestingly, the man who turns into the werewolf looks nothing like Jack Russell. And the burly wolfman looks very little like Werewolf by Night. Is this a completely different werewolf? Possibly. Is the cover a masterpiece? Absolutely. The multi-panel Neal Adams art combined with Tom Palmer's inks is solid 1970s comic book artwork.
The slow transformation of the young man into the beast under the light of the full moon captures the frenzy and confusion of the werewolf's curse. And that last panel of the hulking beast roaring off to the side in the shadows as unsuspecting people go about their business really is exceptional.
The presentation of the werewolf in the foreground and humans in the background has nice subtext to it: the strange, mysterious, and the unknown often lurk right around the corner of known reality. That is the approach that makes horror work best.
Essential Werewolf By Night
If the Power Records adaptation intrigues you, check out the collected reprint of Jack Russell's 1970's adventures in Essential Werewolf by Night Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Consider it a worthwhile investment to purchase the other Marvel horror Essential titles as well.