Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Werewolves, Frankenstein's Monster and a Big Crybaby.

Perhaps the best thing about comic book universes is the variety of characters and genres that can be liberally mixed together without shattering the suspension of disbelief. You can, for instance, throw a superhero into a horror/mad scientist story, then mix in some spy story elements--and it all makes perfect sense within the context of that universe.

This is what happens in Marvel Team-Up #36 (August 1975), written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Sal Buscema. Spider Man is having an average day stopping a pair of armed robbers when he is mysteriously zapped with a teleportation beam. Before he know it, he's not in New York anymore. He's in a remote castle in the Balkans, strapped to a table next the Frankenstein Monster.

I've always liked the Marvel version of Frankie. His visual design is reminiscent of the Universal movies monster (though, of course, different enough to avoid copyright problems), but he has the articulate and intelligent personality of the creature from Shelly's novel.

The hero and the monster are prisoners of the obviously loopy Baron Ludwig Von Shtupf, who wants to experiment on the pair, with the intention of creating his own monsters and conquering the world.

But keeping two guys who both have super-strength strapped down isn't easy. They make a break for it and soon meet up with a lady SHIELD agent named Klemmer, who recruits Spidey to help her sneak back into Von Shtupf's castle and put an end to his plans. Since Frankie isn't any good at sneaking around, he's asked to stay behind.

But Frankie opts to follow them anyways. Good thing, as well, because when he fights is way into the castle, he finds Spidey and Klemmer facing off against the Man-Wolf--J. Jonah Jameson's werewolf son.

This leads us into Marvel Team-Up #37, which starts us off with a really cool Man-Wolf vs. Spidey & Frankie fight.

In the ensuing confusion, Man-Wolf escapes with SHIELD lady, while Spidey & Frankie are captured again. But they use their respective abilities in clever ways to escape once more and confront Von Shtupf, who breaks down in tears when he discovers his evil plans have been foiled.

I like that--it's obvious that Gerry Conway was having some fun with the mad scientist cliche, first by giving him a silly name and then by making him a big crybaby.

But there's still the problem of Man-Wolf having kidnapped someone. Though I enjoy these two issues enormously, I will say that the abrupt shift in focus into what is essentially a brand-new plot AND Frankie being left out of the main action from this point on does weaken the story.

Still, Buscema's art remains strong as we see Man-Wolf protecting Klemmer from hungry wolves and Spider Man showing up to save the day in the nick of time. The tale ends with most everyone heading back to the States while the Monster wanders off on his own.

Even conceding that the climax is a little weak, it's still an enormously entertaining story. And my main point holds true. Only in an internal coherent comic book universe can you mix elements like this together so smoothly and so casually.

If, for instance, you put a werewolf aboard the starship Enterprise, you'd have to come up with a "scientific" reason to justify it. You may very well create a good story combining SF and horror tropes, but you'd have to work at it. In the Marvel or DC universes, you could toss a werewolf into a story pretty much whenever you have a good dramatic reason for doing so. You don't have to justify it, because supernatural stuff coexists alongside of science fiction stuff.

In this case, the werewolf in question has a SF--not horror--origin. But Conway might have chosen to drop Jack Russell (Marvel's supernatural Werewolf character) without creating any problem with suspending disbelief. The possibilities and various combinations of characters are endless.

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