On February 12th, 2010, Universal Pictures released the remake of one of their most venerable monsters, “The Wolfman,” with Benicio del Toro in the role that Lon Chaney, Jr. made famous: Lawrence Talbot AKA the Wolfman. The original version of “The Wolfman” was released in the United States on December 12th 1941, and while it was not the first werewolf film (being preceded by “Werewolf of London,” “Wolf Blood” and a short feature called simply, “The Werewolf”), Universal’s version placed the image and legend of the werewolf firmly in the American psyche. Though Universal’s Wolfman never had any success as a comic book character, the tragic story of Lawrence Talbot’s alter-ego inspired generations of inheritors to the mantle of the Wolfman.
The success of the initial film led to a number of sequels and countless cinematic imitators throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Later, when Marvel Comics brought classic horror characters to the pages of comic books in the 1970s, “Werewolf by Night” joined “Tomb of Dracula” as the flagship Marvel monster titles, followed by “The Monster of Frankenstein” and “The Living Mummy.”
“Werewolf by Night” first appeared in “Marvel Spotlight” volume 1 #2 (Feb 1972). This was followed by an ongoing series that ran for 43 issues, firmly establishing the lycanthrope as a part of the Marvel Universe, even introducing the character of Moon Knight in issue #32. The story of Jack Russell mirrored the pathos of Lawrence Talbot, the titular protagonist of “The Wolfman” films.
The origins of werewolves in the Marvel Universe are detailed and rich, beginning with an ancient wolf god who fathered a race of wolf-people that were in conflict with other half-animal chimera, which included bird-people, spider-people, snake-people and even bat-people. The wolf-people possessed the ability to assume human form and to create more of their own kind by infecting humans with a bite or scratch. With the sinking of Atlantis and the cataclysm that caused it, the wolf-people disappeared from history.
However, stories of werewolves continued to be be passed down from generation to generation while the actual legacy of the wolf-people continued on in some human bloodlines. One of those bloodlines was that of the Russoff family, the ancestral line of Jack Russell. Jack inherited the family curse and wandered the world seeking a cure. During his travels, he often teamed up and battled Marvel’s Superheroes, like Spider-Man and Iron-Man. The character continues to spend his time amongst the colorful backdrop of Marvel’s superhero world to this day, most recently in Rick Remender and Tony Moore’s current “Frankencastle” storyline in “The Punisher.”
However, while he may be the most popular, Jack Russell is not Marvel’s only werewolf character. In the pages of “Amazing Spider-Man” #124 (September 1973), Spider-Man cast regular and son of J. Jonah Jameson, John Jameson, an astronaut, returned from a space mission with a stone that he found on the surface of the moon. John had the stone turned into a necklace and began to wear it. The ruby-like stone eventually grafted itself to the astronaut’s skin, and whenever the stone was exposed to moonlight, Jameson would transform into the Man-Wolf. The character was easily recognizable due to his tattered space-suit (which John apparently wore beneath his clothes, since the Man-Wolf always seemed to be wearing it). At one point, John found a temporary cure when Spider-Man literally ripped the stone from his skin. A character this odd-ball couldn’t stay gone forever, though – eventually, another science-monster, Morbius, reattached the gem and the Man-Wolf returned.
In “Marvel Premiere” #45 (December 1978), David Kraft and George Perez took a strange left turn with the Man-Wolf and established that the moonstone that changed Jameson into his furry alter-ego was the vessel for the Star-God of the Other-Realm. In the story, NASA sends John back to the moon where he passes through the portal to the Other-Realm and is transformed into Man-Wolf. However, in that other world, Man-Wolf is intelligent, telepathic, and has god-like powers. The return of the Star-God heralds the end of the local tyrant and John returns to Earth to become just another poor schmuck that turns into a werewolf. Not to judge, but if I had god-like powers and was being drawn by George Perez, I’d have stayed.
Most recently, the Man-Wolf appeared in the pages of She-Hulk, where he married Shulkie, accessed the powers of Star-God and beat the tar out of a clone of Thanos, the mad god of Titan. For the Man-Wolf, that’s a pretty good string of successes. Sadly for John, his relationship was short-lived and after a brief jaunt into space, he has returned to Earth once more.
Marvel was not an exclusive holder of comic book lycanthropes. DC Comics has had their share of hirsute horrors, but really only one has stuck it out long enough to have developed a following, and he’s really not the one you expect: he’s the original Big Bad Wolf, Bigby Wolf, the star of Vertigo’s “Fables.”
“Fables” #1 hit stands in July of 2002 featuring a group of exiles from various myths and legends, all occupying a small New York City neighborhood. The Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, as the area was called, was Snow White. The Sheriff? Bigby Wolf. Bigby was the smallest of a litter of seven. His mother was a wolf named Winter and his father was the North Wind (now you know what was up with all the huffing and puffing). The other cubs mocked the runt, giving him the moniker Big Bad Wolf. As Bigby grew in size and power, he would continually hunt larger prey, beginning with insects, working his way up to the three little pigs, and eventually facing humans in the form of Little Red Riding Hood. After his defeat at the hands of the young girl, he vowed to only hunt man. With each village or town he would devour, Bigby grew more enormous. During the war with the Adversary (the magical tyrant who drove the Fables into our world), Bigby was a one-wolf army that terrorized the enemy forces. During his campaign, he happened upon Snow White and Rose Red who were captives of the enemy. Bigby freed the pair and led them to the portal to the mundane world of the dark ages.
Up to this point, Bigby was just a huge wolf, however, during the Renaissance, Snow White stabbed Bigby with a knife tainted with werewolf blood to give him the power to change into a man. As a man, Bigby then took on the role of sheriff and protector of the fables. Bigby’s style was that of a Dashiell Hammett gum-shoe detective, and he was very good at his job. During the course of his career, he ferreted out murderers and criminals from among the Fable population with great skill and protected their society from invasion through his ability to smell the corruption in the Adversary’s forces. He also kept tabs on Fables around the world through a network of secret-agent Fables that travelled abroad.
Over the centuries, the tension between Bigby and Snow White grew into love and the two were eventually married. Snow gave birth to seven cubs, only one of which was born human. With the birth of his children (and an insult from the new mayor, Prince Charming), Bigby and his wife retired to private life. After travelling abroad, Bigby returned and led the final battle against the Adversary, both in his wolf form and as a man, strategizing the battle plans of the exiles. After the victory, Bigby took charge of the restoration of their war-ravaged society. On a personal note, the “Fables” series is a work of genius and has been critically acclaimed, but without the creative and innovative depiction of Bigby Wolf, the story wouldn’t be half the epic that it is.
Our final stop on this lycanthropic journey takes us to another clever take on the werewolf legends; the werewolf turning his curse into a blessing as a superhero. I refer, of course, to Robert Kirkman’s “The Astounding Wolf-Man,” which debuted in May of 2007 from Image Comics. “The Astounding Wolf-Man” tells the story of Gary Hampton, a CEO who is attacked by a werewolf and contracts lycanthropy. For those unfamiliar with Kirkman’s work, he is an incredibly talented writer that loves to turn the standard genre conventions on their ear, as he has done to acclaim with “Invincible” and “The Walking Dead.”
At the beginning of the series, Gary’s new werewolf life is typically tragic. He attacks people in his werewolf form and wakes to remember the events only as nightmares. His life is out of control, and his family and business are a shambles. That’s when the series takes a left turn. After the classic pathos of the werewolf is established, a new character enters the scene: the vampire Zechariah. Zechariah trains Gary to control his powers and garbs him in a super-hero costume that will allow him to maintain his werewolf form for short periods after the moon has set. In Gary’s first outing he teams up with a group of heroes called the Actioneers, but under the light of the full moon, he loses control and kills a member of the team, Sergeant Superior. Confronting Zechariah over the events results in very little as the vampire tells Gary that he wanted him to know that it was possible to lose control, but it was also possible to fight it. Call me crazy, but advice from a vampire just sounds like a bad idea from the start.
Gary’s finances continue to falter, and he and his family take up residence in his secret lair while Wolf-Man continues his life of fighting crime. On two occasions, Wolf-Man and Zechariah are attacked by a pack of werewolves. The second attack is much larger than the first, and during that encounter, Gary learns that Zechariah killed the child of one of the werewolves. Together, Gary and Zechariah fake the vampire’s death in an attempt to assuage the pack; Gary’s reasoning being that he, too, had killed the innocent and that Zechariah deserved the same second chance Gary wanted so badly. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a terrible idea as Zechariah is revealed to be a villainous character who kills Gary’s wife and engineers the death of the Actioneers at the hands of a vampirized (yes, I made that word up, I’m not sorry) Sergeant Superior. So, as you can see, even the life of a Werewolf superhero is one of tragedy. It is a curse, after all.
Jack Russell, John Jameson, Bigby Wolf, and Gary Hampton are all iconic examples of how the werewolf legend has become psyche pop culture standard thanks to Universal Picture’s “The Wolf-Man.” I’ll be in line to see the latest incarnation of this classic. Hope to see you there!