Werewolf By Night and More: Exploring Marvel’s History of Monsters

TJ Dietsch
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TV Streaming Marvel Horror MCU

Just in time for Halloween, Marvel Studios will unleash one of the company’s most monstrous characters in the Disney+ Special Werewolf by Night. Debuting on October 7, 2022, the Michael Giacchino-directed presentation brings together a group of monster hunters along with some of their prey. Gael García Bernal will star as the title character — otherwise known as Jack Russell — alongside Laura Donnelly as Elsa Bloodstone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has moved into more horror territory as it has grown and developed — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness stands out as a prime example with its more brutal deaths and use of zombies — but Werewolf by Night will be the first time Marvel Studios has posted a classic monster in the title role. However, this move does not come as much of a surprise to comic fans with a long memory of just how long Marvel has dabbled in the macabre, especially the big sum of creatures the company introduced in the 1970s.

Monsters Unleashed

Monstro menaces

Before Marvel was even Marvel, it was a company first known as Timely and then Atlas. In the 1950s, EC Comics changed the game by publishing mainstream horror comics for the first time. Scary/funny books proved to be big sellers which meant that most of the other companies — and numerous new ones — got in on the action. However, in the mid-50s a Senate Subcommittee was launched to enquire juvenile delinquency, specifically in regards to comics.

At that point, numerous companies came together and established the Comics Code Authority which established a series of rules a book had to follow in order to earn the Comic Code seal on the cover, like a rudimentary rating system. Most of the rules were drawn up specifically to hobble those companies mainly profiting from horror comics. With that, the genre essentially died, though Atlas titles like Journey Into Mystery and Tales To Astonish (where the likes of Thor and Ant-Man would finally be introduced) would carry on as anthologies that occasionally delved into sci-fi territory, which included its reasonable share of giant monsters. In fact, everyone’s favorite alien tree, Groot, debuted in 1960’s Tales to Astonish #13.

The 1960s of course would see the introduction both of the Marvel name and their incredibly popular run of superhero series. In the 1970s, with those titles going strong, matters changed again when the Comics Code Authority lifted numerous of their restrictions, allowing for monsters to return to comic stands alongside the likes of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers.

By that point, the original Universal Monsters had already had their classic run and British studio Hammer had put their unique spin on most of the horror icons, with some of those characters now readily available for use in the public domain, while other times it was more about evoking the type of creature they were. The slasher movement would begin by the end of the decade and pick up with the video store boom, but before that, Marvel let loose a number of epic tales featuring some of the most well-known monster prototypes around.

Opening Dracula’s Tomb

Marvel's dastardly Dracula

Given Bram Stoker’s novel’s status as one of the most adapted works in popular fiction, it should come as no surprise that the vampire Dracula earned his own Marvel title in 1972 once horror was back on the table. The Tomb of Dracula turned out to be not just the first in a new line of horror comics, but also the longest running, as it went strong until 1979 amassing 70 regular issues, not to mention the black-and-white oversized spinoffs Dracula Lives and Vampire Tales, which could cover even more terror territory given their technical status as magazines instead of comics.

Taking cues from the source material, the series found the famous vampire rendered more like Christopher Lee than Bela Lugosi, as he reawakened in modern times and began sinking his teeth into the 1970s. Tomb also starred a group of vamp hunters lead by Quincy Harker that included Rachel van Helsing, the latest member of the famous family who’d long tried to put an end to Dracula. Tomb of Dracula is also where we got the very first appearance of another vampire hunter, Blade, who finally became quite popular in live-action via three films starring Wesley Snipes, as well as a short-lived TV show starring Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones. More recently, a new MCU version of Blade played by Mahershala Ali made his verbal debut at the end of Eternals ahead of his future new solo feature.

Even after Tomb of Dracula ended, the version of Dracula introduced there carried on his adventures throughout Marvel’s comic universe. He’s interacted with other monster characters and has even tangled with the X-Men on more than one occasion. Most recently, he became the leader of a vampire nation established in Chernobyl and tangled with the Avengers.

A Werewolf by Night Rises

Jack Russell wolfs out

While Marvel’s version of Dracula embraced his monstrous nature, Jack Russell spent most of his time in Werewolf by Night trying to understand — and then obtain rid of — his curse. From his first appearance in 1972’s Marvel Spotlight #2, Russell struggled with the reality that he would change into an uncontrollable beast during a full moon. He’d learn the truth about a family curse that lead to his own bout with lycanthropy from the Darkhold, the mystical tome that recently appeared in the MCU in both WandaVision and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Werewolf by Night came to an end in 1977 but before that original run concluded, it offered plenty in the way of horror and drama while also generating the very first appearance of Moon Knight, who went on to star in his own Disney+ series, which had its own reasonable share of horror elements at play. Since then, Moon Knight and Jack Russell have crossed paths numerous times, which could potentially be reflected in the MCU at some point.

Even without a monthly title, Russell has gone on to be a perennial furry favorite in the comics, but the Marvel Universe has a number of other werewolf characters, including Jake Gomez, who appeared in the 2020 Werewolf by Night series. And though they’re not technically werewolves, mutant Wolfsbane exhibits numerous of the same abilities, as does J. Jonah Jameson’s son John, also known as Man-Wolf. Heck, even Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson were briefly werewolves during their respective tenures as Captain America!

The Monster Lives

Frankenstein's Monster smashes

When it comes to the classic monsters, one name reigns supreme: Frankenstein. Whether you’re thinking of the angry scientist or his creation, the story of genius unrestrained by morality seems like it will always capture human imaginations. Marvel attempted to capitalize on that in the early ‘70s with the release of The Monster of Frankenstein (later renamed The Frankenstein Monster).

This title started off as a fairly straightforward adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original novel, but finally shifted the story to the then-present day of the 1970s. Along the way, the Monster met up with the likes of Dracula, Werewolf by Night and even Spider-Man! However, unlike the formerly mentioned comics, this one did not last as long, ending in 1975 after 18 issues.

The Monster may not have proven as popular comics as his counterparts, appearing occasionally over the years, but the name is sowever around in Marvel Comics. The X-Men fought a robot version from an unknown alien race, while a clone of the patchwork man served on a S.H.I.E.L.D. team called the Howling Commandos. One time, the Punisher almost died and was put back together with monster parts, leading to an incarnation known as Franken-Castle (yes, really). There’s even a kid villain by the name of Baron Maximilian von Katzenelnbogen who is the last known person in the Frankenstein family going back to Dr. Victor von Frankenstein. In other words, there are plenty of formerly established ways to bring this famous name into the MCU if they want to.

Supernatural Thrillers

Unwrapping The Living Mummy

Hearkening back to the old days, Marvel also published a number of anthology titles among the comic book monster boom of the 1970s, often with a rotating featured character. You had the likes of Marvel Chillers, Dead of Night and Tower of Shadows, which transformed into Creatures on the Loose. One comic, Supernatural Thrillers, showcased a different lead for the first six issues, including the Invisible Man in #2, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in #4 and the Headless Horseman in #6. However, it would be the character shambling to life in #5 who would go on to star in the series: N’Kantu, the Living Mummy.

Taking over from #7-15, N’Kantu was a novel take on the concept by presenting a mummy who was not of royal Egyptian lineage, but instead the chieftain of an enslaved tribe from the southern part of the continent. He was cursed to live forever by the pharaoh’s wizard before an earthquake took out the pyramid they were in. As you might expect, he finally woke back up in the then-present and ran amok. Definitely one of the company’s deeper-cut monsters, N’Kantu has been known to show up from time to time and even joined up with the aforementioned monster squad that made up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Howling Commandos.

Creatures On The Loose

Ghost Rider goes for a ride

During this era, Marvel also unearthed a number of characters with darker origins who might not be exact one-to-one comparisons with classic monsters but sowever evoked their spirit (of vengeance). The most famous of the bunch is probably the memorable Ghost Rider, sporting his trademark flaming skull, who not only made his way to the silver screen twice (where he was played by Nicolas Cage), but also became a recurring character on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he was played by Gabriel Luna.

In the comics, there have been a number of different Ghost Riders  — also known as Spirits of Vengeance — to punish sinners, with Cage appearing as Johnny Blaze in the movies, while Luna was the Robbie Reyes version of Ghost Rider on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It would appear like a safe bet that one of these flame-headed riders will reappear in the MCU before long. In fact, Ryan Gosling has put it out into the world that he would like to play Ghost Rider, which Kevin Feige even addressed.

Earlier this year, another monster from this era made his big screen debut to less than stellar reviews when Morbius debuted in theaters. The comic version started out as a Spider-Man antagonist who accidentally turned himself into a vampire-like creature while trying to cure his infrequent blood disease. Since then, he has struggled with maintaining his humanity throughout guest appearances and his own books.

Man-Thing burns in Werewolf by Night

Those who watched the Werewolf by Night trailer closely will know that it features a very quick shot of Marvel’s leading muck monster: Man-Thing! In the comics, the silent creature used to be a man named Ted Sallis who now burns anybody expressing veneration in his presence with his touch. His inclusion in the MCU not only hints at a much larger monster population, but also the potential for even more multiversal travel through the Nexus of All Realities, which Man-Thing is traditionally tasked with protecting. However, this will not be his first live action appearance as there was a little-seen 2005 Man-Thing movie that debuted in the United States on the Sci-Fi Channel before it became Syfy.

Finally, we know that Laura Donnelly plays the monster-adjacent Elsa Bloodstone in Werewolf by Night. The character may have first appeared in 2001, but her roots go back to the 1970s in the form of her father Ulysses Bloodstone. He was a supposedly immortal monster hunter with powers stemming from the Bloodgem lodged in his chest. However, when the mystical artifact was removed from his body, he passed away after living for around 10,000 years. Before dying, he put his daughter Elsa through the paces in an attempt to prepare her for a life of hunting creatures. It worked and, with his death, she carried on the family legacy with a piece of the ‘gem assisting her. It will be interesting to see how Elsa, Jack Russell, Man-Thing, and perhaps some of the other monsters mentioned above play into the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.

For a deeper dive into Marvel’s history of bloodsuckers – Dracula, Blade, and Morbius included – check out our guide to Marvel’s most notable vampires.

TJ Dietsch writes about all matters geeky, from comics and collectibles to horror and...comics.