Ouhrrr! Werewolves of Malibu

A begrudging appreciation for the original Werewolf By Night comic series

When I first got into The Sandman back in 1988, it was the first I became aware of the long tradition of horror comics that inspired it. And I realized that I especially had this nerd-cultural blind spot for the history of EC Comics, and its later successors like Creepy and Eerie in the mid-1960s.

The stories quickly become formulaic and predictable — often a few pages of setup ended with the exact same reveal of a character saying “For you see, I am a ghoul!/vampire!/werewolf!/zombie!” But the art was often phenomenal, with artists like Jack Davis doing incredible black-and-white line work. Reading those helped me better appreciate why series like Swamp Thing were such a big deal: they finally combined longer-form horror storytelling with the kind of highly-stylized artwork that had been overshadowed by super heroes, and brought it all to the mainstream.

It wasn’t until Marvel announced the Moon Knight series that I became aware of the horror-inspired side of the Marvel universe, running in The Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf By Night in particular. It’s fascinating, because while you can trace a direct line from early horror comics through DC’s anthologies all the way up to Swamp Thing; the Marvel side feels like something entirely different. At least with these two series, they’re 100% Marvel super-hero comics that happen to feature a werewolf and a vampire, heavily influenced by the Comics Code Authority and what creators are allowed to show.

Werewolf By Night is the much more interesting one to me, since it is the “no, but”ingest piece of collaborative storytelling I’ve seen since the Star Wars sequels.

First of all, no matter how many times you hear it, it remains hilarious that the hot teen lead character of Werewolf By Night is named Jack Russell, and nobody involved seems to be aware of how hilarious that is.

But the comics themselves are a fascinating example of an episodic series trying repeatedly to find its footing and then changing its mind, over and over again. Maybe this is common to comic book series of the early-to-mid-70s, and I just haven’t read enough of them to realize it. I know that Tomb of Dracula is a lot more consistent, which also makes it a lot less interesting.

Werewolf By Night sets up its premise as if it knows exactly what it’s going to be: a hip and contemporary take on classic werewolf stories. Hunky teen Jack Russell has inherited a curse from his late father, activating on his 18th birthday, turning him into a mindless werewolf for three days every month. He vows vengeance on his evil stepfather for ordering a hit on his beloved mother, but has to feign civility for the sake of his younger sister Lissa. All while trying to find a way to break the curse, and to do it before Lissa falls victim to it when she turns 18.

That premise lasts for the first few issues: “cool” and “with it” 1970s teen slang as written by men in their 30s; tons of Los Angeles references; a recurring “FIRST NIGHT:”, “SECOND NIGHT:” series of captions with the werewolf mostly complaining about wanting to get back to his beloved forest; and a comically un-intimidating monster that doesn’t ever really do much of anything.

Then everything goes off the rails, and if you’re used the kind of episodic storytelling where the creators have things planned out in advance, it’s fascinating to see so many disparate ideas being thrown out in the hopes that something would stick.

Characters are introduced, forgotten about, re-introduced, killed off, re-re-introduced. Shadowy, super-powerful villains are hinted at over multiple issues, then anticlimactically killed off in a single story. Plot threads are set up and forgotten, or hastily written away. Jack moves to a swingin’ bachelor pad and gets hit on by upcoming young actresses. There are multiple hard-boiled and corrupt police detectives that replace each other as the previous one is killed off but no wait we want to use that story again. An ancestral home from Transylvania is rebuilt brick-by-brick off the coast of Malibu to keep the action closer to home. The main conflict set up in the first couple of issues is unceremoniously resolved in a few panels. A love interest is introduced, goes away for a while, and then reappears in the story a while later.

Some of this is due to the creative teams changing, but the bulk of it just feels like the writer and editor have a too-short attention span and keep changing their minds about what they want the story to be.

And throughout, it tries to flow itself around the limitations of the CCA and the target audience, telling a story about an unstoppable killing machine that can’t ever actually kill anyone. Every villain is an even match with the werewolf, with battles always going across at least two issues and our hero barely making it out alive. It must have been satisfying for the writers of the TV adaptation to have a werewolf free to go around killing dudes.

Still, it’s all kind of fascinating, seeing it shift and change before your eyes like the T-1000 or the water aliens in The Abyss. Or, I guess, like a werewolf, although it’s telling that that wasn’t the first thing to come to mind. The series seems to ignore almost all of the dramatic tension built into the core premise of a werewolf story. I’m over 30 issues in at this point, and the werewolf has only just now injured someone close to his human form.

It is wearing thin at this point, especially since the last issue I read just comes out of nowhere with pages of the werewolf, Jack Russell, Moon Knight, and the often-forgotten women characters repeatedly berating some bad guys for being fat. The series also often has wildly outdated and offensive ethnic stereotypes — East Asians and Haitians in particular — and comes with a Marvel disclaimer page at the issue acknowledging that the content is offensive.

Based on the attempt at a synopsis of the rest of the series that someone wrote on Wikipedia, it sounds as if it devolves even further into Marvel team-up nonsense, and I won’t be sad to see the series end. I also have zero interest in the more modern take on the premise from 2020, since the whole thing loses all of its charm the second you take any of it seriously.

But for me, the standout aspect is still reading a long-running episodic story where the guard rails have been taken off and thrown away. No doubt a lot of the chaos is due to super-tight deadlines and overworked writers and artists, which is a drag, but it also feels like there’s a “what the hell” mentality that you rarely see anymore outside of a Ryan Murphy series. I also think it serves as a reminder, in the days of “premiere” series and mini-series, that episodic storytelling can be inherently engaging even if you don’t overthink it.

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