It Came From the 1990s: Capwolf

This summer is the 30th anniversary of one of the more, um, unusual superhero comic book stories ever told. In the summer of 1992 a seven part bi-weekly serial entitled “Man and Wolf” ran in the pages of Captain America published by Marvel Comics. However this story is much more often referred to by another name: “Capwolf.” Yes, this is the time when Captain America was turned into a werewolf.

“Man and Wolf” ran in Captain America #402 to #408, cover-dated July 1992 to October 1992. The creative team was writer Mark Gruenwald, penciler Rik Levins, inkers Danny Bulanadi, Don Hudson, Ray Kryssing & Steve Alexandrov, letterer Joe Rosen, and colorists Gina Going & George Roussos. Ralf Macchio was the editor for most of the story, with Mike Rockwitz stepping in to begin his editorial tenure with the “Man and Wolf” epilogue in #408.

Let’s set the stage: Mark Gruenwald had been writing the Captain America series since issue #307 in 1985. From my own perspective as a reader, after several years of really good, interesting storylines by Gruenwald, for the last year or so the book had really been floundering. This dip in quality seemed to occur right when Rik Levins came onboard as a penciler. I’ve written before about how disappointing I initially found Levins’ work. So, between the drop in quality in Gruenwald’s writing and my definite lack of enthusiasm in Levins’ art, my interest in the series was really flagging.

And then came “Man and Wolf.” Okay, this is going to perhaps sound weird, but I felt, even though this was a ridiculous storyline, it was actually the beginning of an uptick in quality for the series.

I’m curious what the genesis was of “Man and Wolf.” I half-suspect that it was conceived as an excuse to bring in Wolverine, Wolfsbane and Cable as guest stars. In the early 1990s the X-Men group of comic books was absolutely red-hot, insanely popular, among Marvel’s bestselling titles. In contrast, the character of Captain America was unfortunately regarded as uncool, even lame. I mean, I liked Cap a lot, but I knew I was the very much the exception among teen readers at the time. So I wonder if Gruenwald or Macchio or someone else decided to have several mutants appear to bump up sales.

As Captain America #402 opens, Steve Rogers has decided to take a leave of absence from the Avengers to search for his two missing friends: his pilot John Jameson and his girlfriend Diamondback. Cap hears about a series of “werewolf killings” in northern Massachusetts and recalls that former astronaut John Jameson was once turned into the Man-Wolf by the mystical “Moongem” he discovered on the Moon. Cap heads to Boston to enlist the aid of the mystic Doctor Druid, who himself is planning to investigate the werewolf murders. (And, wow, it’s got to be sort of a bummer for Druid that he’s “the world’s second most celebrated authority on the occult” who everyone consults with only if Doctor Strange is unavailable!)

Cap and Doctor Druid head north to the small town of Starkesboro, where they are attacked by a literal army of werewolves. It soon transpires that these werewolves are the citizens of Starkesboro, transformed by Cap’s old foe Nightshade, the “Queen of the Werewolves” whose dual fields of expertise are biochemistry and mind control. Nightshade, in turn, is working for another of Cap’s enemies, the so-called Druid, now going by the name of Dredmund (no doubt to avoid confusion with Doctor Druid). Nightshade and Dredmund are in possession of the Moongem, whose supernatural emanations are drawing other wolfen beings to Starkesboro, among them Wolverine and Wolfsbane.

Cap and Doctor Druid are both captured. Cap is transformed into a werewolf by Nightshade. Attempting to escape, “Capwolf” gets into a brutal fight with Wolverine, who has been hypnotized by Dredmund. Realizing that Nightshade is the only one who can turn him back to normal, Capwolf returns to town. Nightshade uses her pheromones to entice Capwolf into “the Pit” where all of the “disobedient” werewolves are imprisoned. The mutant lycanthrope Wolfbane from X-Factor is one of the prisoners, and she teaches Capwolf how to speak and to think more clearly in his werewolf form.

Giving one of his characteristic inspirational speeches, albeit with a lot more growling than usual, Capwolf organizes the other werewolves in the Pit and they stage an escape. Capwolf makes his way to the town church, arriving just in time to see Dredmund slit Doctor Druid’s throat. Druid’s lifeblood empowers the Moongem, enabling Dredmund to transform into the Starwolf.

Capwolf takes the fight directly to Dredmund, but he is helpless against the cosmic-powered Starwolf. The other wolves from the Pit, led by Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, arrive and attack Dredmund’s forces.

And then Cable shows up. The gun-toting cyborg leader of X-Force has been tracking his teammate Feral, who has also been lured to Starkesboro by the Moongem. As is typical for the character from this period, Cable immediately opens fire with one of his ridiculously large automatic weapons, deadpanning “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Hoping to prevent a massacre, Capwolf leaps at Cable and the two tangle, only to be imprisoned in a giant carpet by Starwolf, leading Cable to deadpan “Whose mutant power is it to control carpets?”

A mysterious white-furred werewolf from the Pit rescues Doctor Druid, taking him back to Nightshade’s laboratory. The white wolf captures Nightshade and injects her with her own werewolf serum so that she will be forced to create an antidote. Druid manages to heal himself enough that he is able to break Dredmund’s control of Wolverine. Logan heads to the church, where he frees Capwolf and Cable, and the three of them join forces to defeat Starwolf.

In the epilogue Nightshade finally turns everyone back to normal. The white wolf is revealed to be none other than the missing John Jameson. Cap himself is injected with the antidote just in time to be attacked by an evil doppelganger from the then-ongoing Infinity War crossover event. Dispatching his dark duplicate, Cap summons the authorities.

John explains that as much as he liked being Cap’s pilot he needs to find his own path. Cap reluctantly accepts his resignation, letting John know there will always be a place for him with the Avengers. Fortunately Cap quickly gains a new pilot: ace daredevil Zack Moonhunter, who had been hypnotized by Dredmund to be his “werewolf wrangler.” His mind now free, Moonhunter eagerly accepts Cap’s job offer.

Some time later, back in New York City at Avengers Mansion, the Falcon stops by for a team briefing. Brought up to speed by Cap about his recent activities, the Falcon agrees to join his old friend to search for the still-missing Diamondback, who readers know has been kidnapped by the brutal Crossbones and delivered into the clutches of Cap’s arch-enemy the Red Skull. To be continued!

Whew! That was quite a ride. A lot of people thought “Man and Wolf” was ridiculous, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. Re-reading it again this week, I still liked it.

I’ve heard it suggested that “Man and Wolf” could have been a much more effective story if it had been drawn by an artist such as Mike Mignola or Kelley Jones who really specialized in the horror genre. I definitely think there’s validity to this. But I do think Rik Levins did some decent work on these issues. His penciling & storytelling began to show some definite improvement over his artwork from the previous year.

(Update: I feel that the point when Levins really began to step up his game was right before this, in issue #401, which Mark D. White just covered on his excellent, insightful blog The Virtues of Captain America.)

The main inker on “Man and Wolf” was Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi. Although his inking is nowhere near as overwhelmingas many of his countrymen, it is still fairly heavy. Bulanadi had already been the regular inker on Captain America when Levins came onboard. Initially I did not think the two of them made a good art team. But on “Man and Wolf” the rich, textured style of Bulanadi’s finishes really enhanced Levins’ pencils, giving the story a certain atmosphere that very much suited the supernatural elements & settings of the story.

It’s interesting to contrast the pages by Bulanadi to those done by the other inkers, which are much more of a traditional Bronze Age superhero style, and therefore not nearly as effective for this particular story. An example of this can be seen up above on the page from issue #405 featuring Capwolf fighting Wolverine, which was inked by Steve Alexandrov.

I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps Levins was hitting his stride. Or perhaps incoming editor Mike Rockwitz prodded Gruenwald to up his game. Whatever the case, the next year or so on Captain America after “Man and Wolf” concluded is one that I found really enjoyable.

I do wonder if Gruenwald might have stuck around on Captain America a bit too long, since I feel he did once again sort of run out of energy a couple of years later. But there is definitely something to be said for writing more than 100 consecutive issues of a series. Likewise, I believe Levins still hold the record for penciling the most issues of Captain America ever, having drawn the book for 36 consecutive issues, from #387 to #422.

All these years later, “Capwolf” is still remembered by readers. I think a lot of the derision has given way to bemused nostalgia. In 2015, when the Falcon had assumed the role of Captain America, he briefly turned into a new Capwolf. Several alternate reality versions of Steve Rogers as Capwolf have appeared, including in the video game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 in 2017. And last year a Funko Pop of Capwolf was released.

So, three decades after Captain America first howled at the Moon, it looks like Capwolf is here to stay. Now if we could just get a team-up of Capwolf and Captain Americat, that would really be something!

Comic book reviews: Neal Adams Monsters

With the hurricane having shut down a lot of NYC, and the subways out of service for the next few days, it looks like my Halloween is pretty much going to be confined to watching horror movies and reading graphic novels at home.  So here’s another good spooky read:

Neal Adams Monsters is, of course, the work of legendary comic book artist Neal Adams.  Here he also takes on the role of writer.  Originally serialized in the Echo of Future Past anthology published in the mid-1980s by Continuity, the material in Neal Adams Monsters was collected together in English for the first time in 1993 by Vanguard Productions.

Neal Adams Monsters
Neal Adams Monsters

In his introduction to the volume, Adams writes of his childhood fondness for monsters, stemming back to the old Universal Studios films.  One of the things Adams speaks of is his disappointment that there never was a genuine all-out battle between Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf in any of these movies.  He cites Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a half-hearted attempt that ultimately failed to deliver. 

I have to admit I agree with him on that point.  I watched that movie on television years ago.  I don’t remember very much about it, but I do recall the promised grudge match between the two creatures did not materialize until the very end of the movie, when the pair sort of grappled around for about two minutes, only to be interrupted when the villagers blew up the local dam, flooding them away.  It was quite disappointing.  So I can certainly understand how a young Neal Adams, watching this, thought to himself that he could do better.

What Adams has set out to do in Monsters is to deliver a story in the tradition of the Universal and Hammer Studios films, yet one that is unencumbered by budgetary and special effects limitations.  One of the extraordinary strengths of the medium of sequential illustration is its potential to depict literally anything, no matter how fantastical or ambitious.  The only limits are the imagination & the abilities of the artist.  Adams clearly recognized that when he originally wrote & illustrated the Monsters story.

The writing on Monsters is, admittedly, not nearly up to par with the art.  I have always felt that Adams was a much stronger artist than writer.  That is not to say his writing on Monsters was bad, though.  It was just that I felt certain elements did not come together nearly as well as they might have.  Nevertheless, Adams’ plotting on Monsters achieves the requisite task of putting all of the characters & elements into place for a huge, cataclysmic confrontation.

Whatever any weaknesses of his writing might be, Adams artwork is absolutely magnificent.  He is such an amazing storyteller, utilizing dramatic layouts & panel designs.  His eye for detail is superb.  There are a number of intricately illustrated sequences that are simply breathtaking.

The aforementioned climax is spectacular.  There is perhaps the problem of the Werewolf being sidelined for most of this sequence, but I can forgive Adams this oversight, as the struggle between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature is incredibly dramatic, a brutally stunning action sequence.  As Adams no doubt intended, he very much achieved his childhood goal of having the classic monsters of Gothic literature and horror movies meet up in an unforgettable battle to end all battles.

I would be remiss if I did not cite the vivid coloring by Louis Douzepis, Cory Adams & Zeea Adams.  The colorists’ work is extremely effective & vibrant.  It really helps to bring Neal Adams’ line work to full, dynamic life.

There are several extra pages to the Monsters collection, featuring concept designs that Adams produced for several movies, as well as his work as a cover illustrator on Marvel Comics’ horror magazines in the 1970s.  I would have liked to have seen more of this bonus material.  What I found most fascinating were Adams’ designs for an unrealized film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.  Viewing these, this is one project that I’m sorry never materialized.

Neal Adams is almost exclusively thought of for his work on such superhero titles as Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Avengers, and X-Men.  What is often forgotten is just what a great horror artist he is.  He did a superb job in the early 1990s for an issue of Now Comics’ Twilight Zone series, illustrating the Harlan Ellison story “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich.”  That was a great issue.  And, of course, with Monsters now collected and available from Vanguard, one can see another fantastic example of Adams’ work in this genre.  It’s a fun, brilliantly illustrated read, and I highly recommend it.