OCTOBER 31, 2014
AS A CHILD of the 1970s, before I learned to read, I spent a lot of time looking at the pictures in the book-and-record sets issued by Power Records. Each one included a 45-RPM disc with voice actors melodramatically reading the story’s word balloons and text boxes. “The Action ‘Comes Alive’ As You Read!!” declares the cover of 1974’s The Curse of the Werewolf. These sets, designed for young readers, included excerpts from stories first published by Marvel Comics in titles such as Marvel Spotlight, The Tomb of Dracula, and Werewolf by Night.
I expected that reading The Curse of the Werewolf again would bring back a pleasant feeling of nostalgia, and that I would write a Halloween essay about how the comic book inspired my love of reading. I could, for example, contrast a story about Jack Russell — the teenage werewolf introduced by Roy and Jean Thomas in 1972 — with the bland images of an impossible (and impossibly white) childhood found in the books for slow readers that were given to me in first grade. But I made an unexpected discovery: the themes of guilt and shame in The Curse of the Werewolf echo the leitmotifs of my own family narrative. Just as Jack Russell’s family had secrets, so did mine. I just didn’t discover the source of them until I was in my early 30s.
My childhood was haunted by the phantom presence of my maternal grandfather, who died when my mom was 12 in 1960. Years later I learned that my grandfather — the son of Italian immigrants, a World War II veteran who’d served in North Africa, and a man who spent most of his life as a buffer at the International Silver Company in Meriden, Connecticut — had been treated for “nervous disorders” at Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown, Connecticut. Just a day after his release, he committed suicide. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or clairvoyance, but I wonder if, as a preliterate child, I identified Jack’s troubles, and his research into the origin of his curse. After all, my own family contained a secret, unspoken loss that had shaped us just as profoundly.
Marvel Comics published The Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night during a short-lived horror fad in American comics in the early 1970s, titles that provided the source material for The Curse of the Werewolf. The fad was a direct result of changes to the code. American comic-book publishers had introduced the comics code in 1954 in response to public outcry against violent horror and crime comics. The later changes followed Marvel Comics’ decision to publish three anti-drug issues of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1971. The code did not allow images of drug use, so the company had no choice but to issue these comics without the Comics Code Authority (CCA) seal. “For the first time in fifteen years,” Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones point out in The Comic Book Heroes: From the Silver Age to the Present, one of the major comics publishers “had, at the risk of poor distribution, defied the code.”
In her definitive study Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code, Amy Kiste Nyberg writes that, following the publication of these issues of Spider-Man, “restrictions on the presentation of crime and horror were liberalized. Ghouls, vampires, and werewolves, which were prohibited under the original code, would now be allowed,” a decision that enabled Marvel and DC Comics to publish a flood of new monster titles. Although Marvel had already turned its attention to supernatural characters with a swamp creature named Man-Thing in 1971, these changes opened up other possibilities too. Suddenly editors, writers, and artists had permission once again to include depictions of terror and violence that had been so popular in American comics in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even the back cover of The Curse of the Werewolf, one of several book-and-record sets in the Power Records “Monster Series,” carries the CCA seal in the upper left-hand corner. Beneath a drawing of Dracula plunging his fangs into the Werewolf’s neck, a blue text box explains that the comic and the record have “been especially designed so that you can read the story and follow the record word for word. This is a real learning aid and creates a desire to read as it entertains […].” Despite the gory content, this statement must have pleased my grandmother, who probably bought the set for me in the record and tapes department of Kmart or Caldor’s. I couldn’t read any of it: I just liked the pictures.
The nightmare images that filled the pages of postwar American comic books are evidence, I think, of what Samuel R. Delany in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue calls, “an unstated and inarticulate horror whose lessons were supposed to be brought back to the States while their specificity was, in any collective narrativity, unspeakable, left in the foreign outside, safely beyond the pale.” The reappearance of zombies, werewolves, and vampires on the pages of American comics in the early 1970s brought with them a possibility of return. While the introduction of the code had put an end to comics that reflected this “unstated and inarticulate horror,” those terrors, although silent and neglected, persisted. I understood this intrinsically. My grandfather died 13 years before I was born, but something of him remained as a tangible presence during my childhood. Another ghost of the 1950s suddenly returned, like the era’s horror comics, asking permission to speak.
The Curse of the Werewolf betrayed all this, too. In the narrative, after several uncanny transformations, Jack tells his mother with tears in his eyes, “You might as well know what you’ve probably already guessed — the curse is mine!” Reading it again as an adult, I understood why my mother wasn’t able to visit me when, a few years after I first learned the circumstances of my grandfather’s death, I was hospitalized for suicidal ideation. I was convinced that I, too, might suffer his same fate. My mother had lived this story once before, and my stay in the hospital must have reminded her of the 12-year-old girl whose father went missing in January 1960.
Jack and his mother also have a close relationship. As a kid, I probably admired him for his dedication to his family, as well as for his ability to battle Dracula. What kid wouldn’t want to travel to Transylvania and fight vampires, as Jack and his friend Topaz do in the comic? But I now believe I also loved Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, because of his measured and careful response to family trauma. He’s no superhero. To redeem himself and his family, he doesn’t get a job as a reporter (like Clark Kent), or put on a mask (like Batman), or learn a magic word (like Billy Batson). After he speaks with his mother and begs her to reveal family secrets, he does something far less dramatic: he goes to a library.
Specifically, he and Topaz visit Russoff Manor in Transylvania, his ancestral homeland. Russoff, it turns out, is his last name, not Russell. “Among these old books we’re bound to find … some of the answers … God knows!” Jack explains in dramatic comic-book speak. In that moment, he was more powerful than any of the other superheroes I adored as a kid. He could read — which seemed like magic to me — and he used those skills to imagine an escape from the curse. He finds his great-great-great grandfather’s diary, and, studying it, he discovers his point of origin, the source of his troubles. The Curse of the Werewolf is one of the few comic books I can think of in which the protagonist’s power is based on an act of reading.
Russell’s melodramatic story, stitched together from the work of several different writers and artists, is about silence, memory, and guilt. Jack and Topaz soon discover that Dracula murdered his ancestor’s wife. After plunging a stake into the vampire’s heart, Baron Russoff encounters a young woman named Lydia trapped in Dracula’s castle. After he releases her, the Baron makes another terrible discovery: Lydia is a werewolf, one so powerful that even the King of Vampires could not control her! (I find myself compelled to use as many exclamation points as possible as I summarize the plot, in violation, I think, of the grammar rules I learned in Catholic school.) After Lydia attacks Baron Russoff, he, too, becomes a werewolf by the light of the full moon.
After reading the diary, Jack comes to believe that the vampire imprisoned Lydia because of her supernatural powers: “Maybe that’s it, Topaz,” Jack says in a panel adapted from Werewolf by Night #15, written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Mike Ploog with inks by Frank Chiaramonte. “Maybe if I can defeat Dracula, the curse of the werewolf will be broken!” On the last two pages of the Power Records set, Jack (in his werewolf state, he resembles a furry Hulk) finally confronts Dracula. The six-panel fight scene, also scripted by Marv Wolfman but drawn by Gene Colan with inks by Tom Palmer, appeared in its original form in The Tomb of Dracula #18 (dated March 1974). The six vertical panels on these pages are filled with indistinct shapes, large pools of shadow, irregular and startling compositions. Tom Palmer’s inks give weight and beauty to Colan’s eccentric pencil layouts. The brushwork is at odds with the flat, dull colors — all purple, lime green, and pale blue. While Palmer’s inks invite us to look closer at each cobweb and brushstroke, those colors, mechanical and cold, keep us at a distance.
Despite Colan and Palmer’s clever, evocative designs, I still find the ending, in which Dracula allows Jack and Topaz to leave his castle, disappointing. Jack is filled with malaise when he realizes that Dracula cannot help him. Worse, the vampire doesn’t seem to remember Jack’s ancestor, or Lydia, or the curse itself. Jack has discovered the source of his illness but not its remedy. After all, he is a character in a comic-book serial. If he loses his powers, he won’t be back for another issue. There can be no resolution for him. No matter how many books he reads, or how many other monsters he fights, he will always be what he is: the kid who inherited the family curse.
My mom wasn’t able to visit me when I was in the hospital, but she did write me a letter. This is one of the few letters we’ve ever exchanged, since we spend plenty of time talking on the phone (recently, she’s also learned to text). I had asked if she could tell me anything about her father. She tried to remember, but she admitted that she knew very little about what had happened to him. She reminds me to think about him on his birthday in December. I try to imagine someone I never met. I’m told I resemble him. I sometimes happen upon his ghost in the unlikeliest of places: newspaper articles, family photographs, old comic books, book-and-record sets. That these last were my introduction to reading — my introduction to literature — only underscored the depth of secrets that could be revealed when, as the cover promised, “The Action ‘Comes Alive’ As You Read!!”