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Friday, January 6, 2017

Cover Story - Top 15 Werewolf By Night Covers

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Earlier in the week I mused on the way vampires didn’t truly survive their popular peak during the transition years from the 2000s to the 2010s.  I considered making a similar opening but about werewolves but when you get down to it, I can’t say werewolves were ever as popular as vampires.  The biggest standard bearer for the werewolf genre in the modern era is probably Teen Wolf and good though that show is I had to check to make sure it was still ongoing.  My point is that it didn’t come with the same impactful popularity as Twilight/True Blood/Vampire Diaries. 

No, the true last hurrah for the werewolf was the ‘70s, when films like American Werewolf in London were redefining the subgenre.  In that spirit and because I want to double cash-in on Underworld: Blood Wars, I’m taking a look at Marvel’s big hit werewolf book of the era- Werewolf By Night.  This was seriously one of Marvel’s most successful horror comics alongside Tomb of Dracula, running about half the decade and spawning characters that persist to this day like Moon Knight.  It’s a fun dive into the weird blend of comic book spookiness, early horror-xploitation aesthetics, and superhero storytelling that we’re going to honor here today. 

We’re starting out light on this list but the ‘ritual of the blood!’ cover does strike a lot of notes on what’s to come.  The most striking element to me is the circus/freakshow setting, which is a shockingly common situation for werewolves to be in.  There’s something about the creepy circus mentality that just attracts the wolfmen of fiction, maybe it’s that they’re a more bestial and showy boogeyman than the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein.  I do wish this cover had given us more of the show’s freaks, who are just hovering in the background, but it’s still a pretty cool concept. 

What really stands about this cover, however, is the scale of what we’re seeing.  The ‘70s was a serious time of transition for cover art as artists were moving away from the smaller size and busy action of the ‘60s and embracing a larger, character-centric design that more accurately reflected the internal content.  

There’s a lot of that going on here even though Werewolf by Night ended up a real bridging concept.  The way the cover creates a binary split between the werewolf and his victim became a standard for cover creation that eventually showed up in bigger books of the era like Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk.

We’re jumping way ahead here to the modern era because I couldn’t find enough classic, ‘70s covers to fill up a full 15.  At the same time, however, this is a really cool cover.  By contrast to the #15 entry, this cover is infinitely more modern, especially in the way it blends symbolism and literalism.  The giant floating heads and totems that make-up the backdrop are obviously meant to be symbolic of the werewolf’s inner struggle between man and beast, with that creepy wolf mouth in the center as a great touch.  However, the young boy in the foreground is accurate to the book’s content and adds a great layer of ‘70s satanic horror to the visual style.  

The kid and the scene remind me a lot of The Omen trilogy, both in terms of the evil suited child mirroring Damien, the villain of those films, and there being a scene in one of the movies involving death by wolf pack.  It’s a clever use of horror iconography that’s helped by the fact werewolves and mysticism rarely go together.  Think about it, we’ve got plenty of series where vampires have all kinds of extra magics and cultural lore but werewolves usually just end up packs and beasts, this is a subtle subversion of that. 

This actually isn’t the Werewolf by Night’s premiere but it was his first solo comic an it’s become a real iconic moment for Marvel.  Superhero comics are built on iconography, from the ground up, so when one of them puts out a cover that really sticks like this is it ends up a traditional cornerstone to be referenced, reworked, or recreated down through comic history.  In this case a lot of that has to do with the very unique framing and border design for the image.  Most comics at the time might feature a block banner color to separate the logo from the page to make it easier to get the logo onto the image but not this one.  

This cropping boundary technique is most reminiscent of some of the early Star Trek comics where they used actual photos from the show for the cover art and I’m not really sure why they went with it here.  Whatever the reason it’s incredibly striking and, again, the binary divide of the page helps highlight the werewolf action in a way that makes it very easy to recreate.  I would also point out that, for the time, the insane collection of clothing on display here like fluorescent orange pants or a bright purple shirt were considered the norm- it was the ‘70s after all.

Weirdly enough this is the only cover I could find from the Werewolf that actually features Were-WOLVES.  I don’t know if that was an intentional choice or just a bizarre accident, maybe they felt having that much wolf action in the cover would overpower things.  

In this case, it’s led to one of the few triangular covers I’ve seen from this era, in that the focus is split between three unique elements.  There’s a lot of good stuff in this image, especially the background that creates a unique blend of ‘70s urban decay and Gothic horror standbys like that gigantic moon.  It was also smart to make the second werewolf a definably different color to help us really differentiate between the two.  

The only problem is that they really dropped the ball on the lead werewolf, whose name is Jack Russell (like the terrier, get it?)  For some reason he’s drawn here like a hairy mole man type without much of a snout or even that defined ears.  Even his head is far too human compared to the strange neck design on the counter-werewolf.  The blonde cowering in fear is Jack’s sister and a reoccurring character in the comics, we’ll see her again before this is over. 

I’m actually really curious as to where exactly this scene is meant to be taking place.  The visual design of the beast breaking free is a great image and giving this cover a singular point of action breaks with the comic’s tradition very nicely.  There’s so much more detail on this one page it thoroughly enhances the action and allows the uniquely warm color work to stand out.  I’d also point out that the red banner is back but in a more normal fashion- backing up the logo.  

But back to my initial point- where IS this cell meant to be?  I can accept this is a jail cell even though I don’t think any jail in the ‘70s offered you a pitcher of water, an eraser, and the world’s biggest ashtray.  Even excepting that, why is the window of his cell at street level and also huge?  We can see the sidewalk coming to an end just at the start of his cell, and the window seems to begin at bed level and go all the way up.  Even if this guy wasn’t a werewolf this cell is horribly designed. 

Given that Dracula was the only other Marvel monster to enjoy the same level of success as Jack Russell it was pretty much inevitable that the two would end up going head to head.  Actually, the idea of werewolves vs. vampires is one of the most fundamental concepts in monster fiction going back to the days of the Universal monster movies.  

Even though the Wolfman met Frankenstein first he ended up going head-to-head with Dracula eventually, with the two being framed as archenemies in the final Universal monster movie Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Since then werewolves and vampires have just been natural enemies, all the way up to nowadays with the Underworld films. 

As for this cover, it’s another really great example of the binary design while also diving deep into the gothic imagery.  That makes sense given the antagonist is Dracula, so adopting a more castle/village esc design was pretty much a given, and those gargoyles do end up a really nice touch.  

What baffles me about the cover, however, is where Dracula’s right arm has gone.  We can see it’s not under his cape or sticking out, it just seems to have disappeared.  Maybe that was a goof on the artist’s part, though I do like how Marvel always insisted on having the Count appear in his full, classic costume. 

I told you Jack’s sister would be back.  She was a pretty prominent part of the book as she was the only person who knew Jack’s secret and would seek to help him.  Additionally, the whole idea of Jack’s werewolf curse was actually pretty removed from classic werewolf lore.  

Rather than being bitten by a wolf he had a family curse, passed down by his father as part of some really unrewarding business to do with Dracula and a book of intense mystic power in the MCU called the Darkhold.  A lot of this lore stuff was added later or only explained in exposition so it all tends to blend together, especially given how often the werewolf by night has slipped in and out of actual Marvel continuity. 

As for the cover, this is probably he most wolf-like Jack has ever looked.  The hair around his head creates a much more lupine look than his usual “hairy face” design and he’s got a way more pronounced snout than usual. 

Combine that with the extremely pointy ears and hunched rather than curled physique and this is a seriously wolfy design.  The binary work here is also really well conceived, with the brighter colors on Jack’s sister Lisa giving clearer visuals compared to the falling rocks and chains of Jack’ dark corner. 

Well that is truly terrifying.  I really have no idea what a “soul-beast” might be other than that it’s absolutely monstrous and looks really cool.  Actually, based on the name and shapeshifter design I’d hazard a guess that this is meant as a knock off of the Shoggoth, a monster from the Lovecraft canon.  

They were described as hideous shapeshifters that usually showed up as a mount of tentacles, eyes, and orifices like the one we’re seeing here.  Granted, the Shoggoth tended to be pink, lived in the Antarctic, and were pretty much unstoppable but this seems like a rip-off so I’ll let it slide.  

Funny thing actually, comic creators have been ripping off Lovecraft ever since he became more accepted into the horror pantheon but Marvel didn’t technically need to rip him off.  At the time they were publishing a comic adapting Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, a book that was in-continuity with the rest of the Marvel Universe.  

The thing is that the Conan mythos and Cthulu mythos are in canon with each other, with Howard even writing several installments of the Cthulu cycle.  This is because Howard and Lovecraft were actually good friends in real life, so Marvel actually could’ve just featured an actual Shoggoth here, though I’m not sure the name ad all that much cache to it at the time. 

Surely you didn’t think Dracula was the only other monster we’d see in this comic.  As I’ve mentioned, Marvel was producing a ton of horror content at the time, a lot of which has become canon with the universe as a whole like the Living Mummy or the Manphibian.  

The Hunchback never had his own series, though I believe he spun out of a Marvel book adapting classic horror literature and later appeared fighting the Hulk, even making it into the 1980s animated Hulk TV show.  As for this cover it’s actually the farthest from the ‘70s style of cover design we’ve yet seen.  As you can see, all the focus points of the image are scrunched so that they fit on the single page with our focus split between the bell, the hunchback, the werewolf, and Lissa.  

I actually think that approach is somewhat warranted here to impart the actual size and impact of the bell they’re fighting on.  I’m assuming this is meant to be in Notre Dame as it’d be a little weird if Quasimodo was cheating on the cathedral with some other bell tower, except for the fact Notre Dame doesn’t look like this.  The action in this scene is really what elevates it, it’s just so dynamic, even accepting that there’s no way the Hunchback could actually hold onto that bell. 

Meet the Moon Knight, one of Marvel most enduring cult heroes and one of the coolest dudes in the MCU.  I could talk forever about Moon Knight’s deal as there’s so much weirdness involved it’d take an entire other article dedicated to it.  In his premiere, however, he was a vigilante tasked specifically to hunt werewolves by a group known as the Committee.   All his weapons were silver, and he was moon themed because…the Committee likes irony, I guess.  Either way, this is easily his best cover in the Werewolf By Night series, mainly because of its balance.  

This cover is actually part of why I’ve been bringing up the binary divide in ‘70s covers as it actually features a split within the content of the image thanks to that rope ladder.  What’s more, this cover actually features symmetry of action, with Russell and Moon Knight’s poses acting as reflections of one another.  It’s a very well realized visual, even if the background perspective is a little wonky when you think about how small the city is against how gigantic the moon is. 

This one probably would’ve been higher on the list if they hadn’t given away the twist in the intertitle.  I mean, the idea of vampires vs. werewolves on the moon sounds amazing, especially given how massive the Earth is in the background there.  What’s more, I really like the visualization of the action here, especially Dracula in full costume trying to hold down Jack Russell in his full tuxedo and clearly being awkward about it.  It’s also very impressive that Dracula is able to make his loud threats on the Moon regardless of how little atmosphere is there is.  

All of that is absolutely great and I would be 100% down with this cover if it were what was going on; but it’s not.  The give away is in the ‘haunting of Hollywood Hills’ inter-title, thus implying this is probably just a Moon sound stage set-up in Hollywood.  That’s an astounding in-comic cop out of an idea but it’s way worse that they put the answer right there on the cover.  Still, if you ignore that particular bit of stupidity this is an absolutely splendid cover; just a shame the text ruined it. 

This is jumping back to the modern series again but it’s such a striking and memorable cover I had to include it.  The visual here is one of my favorite techniques of modern comic covers, the way a character’s silhouette forms the canvas for the cover.  It’s such a cover-specific form of art, enhanced here by the inclusion of Jack Russell’s creepy maw and ice blue eyes.  What’s more, I really love how spooky most of the imagery is here.  The blood red sky, dead tree, and skeletal remains are all very unnerving and manage to convey a lot of story detail without being explicit. 

Combine all of that with that exquisitely rendered hunter and you’ve got a real magnificent cover.  The hunter is what honestly ties it all together, giving the implication of dark wooded country to the situation and framing the skulls and the werewolf in a unique way.  You definitely get the sense the environmental aspects are representative of a killing field; you’re just not sure who’s hunting who out there. 

This is the most classically gothic cover in the bunch, even paying off my constant Moon jokes by giving us the biggest, ugliest Moon of all time.  In all seriousness, I actually really dig the skull/moon visual look, and it’s never actually bothered me when the moon is made to look so massive in the artwork.  I actually really like the way the moon is rendered here with that deep blue and violet cloud filtering over top of it.  What’s more, the moon ends up our second focus point, giving us another binary split in the cover’s design.  

As for the werewolf, the pose of the monster carrying the unconscious woman may be the most iconic scene in all monster fiction.  I’m hard pressed to think of an image more ubiquitous of this entire subgenre of horror short of an angry village mob or weird science laboratory.  It’s great to see Werewolf By Night’s take on the concept, and I really like the way it’s been nestled into this icy blue concrete landscape. 

This is definitely the cleverest cover of the entire run, playing around with perception and viewpoint in a fascinating way.  For the first time, we’ve eschewed all the classical designs of character focus points for a straight, first person view point.  Even nowadays this kind of cover is really unique, largely because it doesn’t have a ton of versatility but these kinds of monster moments are exactly what it was made for.  Additionally, the reflection of the werewolf in that gigantic rearview mirror is probably the most lupine he looked in any cover of the entire run.  

It’s the first time his nose actually resembled a snout and his cheeks formed something closer to jowls as opposed to his typical “hairy human” design set-up.  I do wonder a bit what the situation here is, given that the woman in the front seat means this probably isn’t a taxicab.  It’s possible this was just one of those nights for Jack Russell but it’s not like a full moon is hard to predict, this really should’ve been avoidable for him. 


It’s interesting that amid all the uniquely ‘70s covers here in, emphasizing full scale characters and binary focus splits, the best cover of the bunch is a complete departure from that style.  That’s not a coincidence, the whole reason covers like this stand out is that every cover of the ‘70s was indulging in those other tricks and trades while covers like this are hardly seen even now.  The idea of featuring a full werewolf transformation on panel is incredibly ambitious but it’s by far and away the most accurate thing to put on a Werewolf by Night cover.  

The basic truth of the werewolf subgenre is that the transformation scenes are always the biggest selling factor, they’re the bread and butter of the entire genre.  Just up and owning that fact, bearing it all on panel from the get-go is a great way to accept that while this book couldn’t match the intensity of the movies it was absolutely going to be its own unique entity.  

The idea of seeing every stage of the transformation at once is a brilliant concept and the way Jack’s human face is dwarfed in the background against the looming wolf head is a superb visual metaphor for the beast’s domination.  Combined with the deep, midnight blue sky and the sickly yellow sky and the whole thing creates an incredibly unique and classically spooky vibe that could only be achieved through comic cover art. 

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