Brand Echh: Werewolf #1

We’ve covered this point many times in this feature, but just to set the stage once more: by the mid-1960s, the super hero fad in comic book publishing had grown into a nationwide obsession thanks to the appeal of the BATMAN live action television series, which premiered on January 12, 1966. Super heroes as a category had been on the ascent since the very late 1950s, but BATMAN launched them into the stratosphere, and positively everybody in and around the publishing field rushed to showcase their own brand of costumed evil-battlers, so as to get in on a portion of the gold rush. One of the more unlikely entrants into this race was Dell.

At one point, Dell had been the largest and most successful single publisher of comic books in the United States, specializing in licensed properties–whether the well-known Walt Disney characters, characters from animation in general such as Huckleberry Hound, and live action television and film properties such as the Lone Ranger. Dell did it all, and their output was so sanitized, so absolutely above reproach that they were able to bypass the scrutiny of the Comics Code Authority–the only major publisher to do so. Their pledge was often spelled out as a top or bottom strap line inside the pages of their books themselves: “Dell Comics Are Good Comics.”

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and a series of interlocking mistakes doomed Dell’s fortunes heading into the 1960s. Firstly, they were the first publisher to raise their cover prices, and they went up to a staggering 15 cents a copy, which took a tremendous bite out of their sales, even after their rivals settled out at 12 cents an issue–a price that Dell would eventually adopt as well. More crucially, they had experienced a parting of the ways with Western Publishing, the outfit that actually produced all of the content that they published. Without Western, Dell soldiered on, but the immaculateness of their output was gone. They still released good books, but the work overall was more journeymanlike and crude, a far cry from the polish of their best days. But despite being fatally wounded, the once-titanic company continued to struggle on, hoping for teh big break that could put them once more on top.

And in 1966, super heroes seemed like they might be just what the doctor ordered. Dell had an advantage in one area, and it’s where they decided to plant their super hero flag: unlike the companies who were bound by the restrictions of the Comics Code, Dell wasn’t in any way prohibited from using any of the classic monsters. Son in a rather strange decision, that’s the spot they decided to mine for their super hero properties. They’d already published a single issue of DRACULA that was based on the original novel, but in teh second, the character was recast as a modern costumed here. Elsewhere, FRANKENSTEIN was made over into a champion evil-fighter. All of which brings us to WEREWOLF.

WEREWOLF was the work of writer D.J. Arneson and artists Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallarico, and it concerned Air Force pilot Wiley Wolf, whose plane crash-lands within the arctic circle. Wolf survives the crash but is rendered amnesiac by it, and is forced to survive by his wits for teh next six months. He befriends a wolf he names Thor and is permitted to join the pack. Eventually rescued, he has been changed by these experiences into someone who wants to weed out the “bad wolves” that spoil things for the pack that is humanity in general. Resigning his Air Force commision, he is instead recruited by the CIA–surely, there are no “bad wolves” to be found in that august organization! spies were also hot in 1966, so making their character a super hero super spy made a lot of commercial sense.

Wiley is rigorously trained by the CIA and turned into a singular super-operative. He’s given a slick all-black stealth suit that makes him difficult to detect and which’s frictionless coating allows him to glide along at impossible speeds. the thing is also bulletproof and contains a built-in gas mask, among other features. Codenamed Werewolf, he’s set loose on the enemies of freedom and democracy across teh globe as a special secret agent super hero.

It’s not the craziest origin story for a super hero, especially during the era when “camp” was seemingly one of the elements that was making BATMAn work. But it also isn’t particularly good. Dell tended to make their stories simpler and more stripped down–there is markedly less copy in WEREWOLF than in any contemporaneous Marvel or DC book. Additionally, Fraccio and Tallarico’s artwork is sparse and open–often, the pages look like something out of a coloring book. There isn’t any great visual snap to the series.

WEREWOLF only lasted three issues before Wiley Wolf returned to the wilderness whence he’d come permanently, another also-ran in a field of not-quite-ready-for-the-big-leagues crimefighters that popped up during the throes of Batmania. It’s all eminently forgettable.

4 thoughts on “Brand Echh: Werewolf #1

  1. This had me sold at “and you simply must forgive the pun..” Foolishly passed this by in ’66, with a preteen’s snobbery of “they’re not even TRYing to reference their source!” Thank you for covering this; it’s far better than I expected. Tallarico and (?) Fraccio were never as good in the “mainstream” as they were in the Classics Illustrated line, but they told their stories well.

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  2. This is a real case study where one can see the reasoning, the “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. And maybe it’s not even wrong reasoning. It just didn’t work, because even many good ideas don’t pan out when the product is launched. Taken on its own terms, a superspy with the codename of “Werewolf” and a wolf companion, is not an unreasonable adventure character. It doesn’t have anything to do with the werewolf monster, but Batman isn’t a werebat either. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much to distinguish itself from all the other knock-offs around. The name “Werewolf” isn’t nearly enough, as they clearly aren’t doing horror. Mediocre isn’t enough to win a crowded market.

    Note the African-American pilot “Jerry”. That’s a nice touch for the time.

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