While I would make perfect sense to use this weekend’s unstoppable blockbuster as inspiration to dredge up an older review of a movie featuring Marvel characters for the “From the Archive” feature, I decided to opt for something a little different, still tipping my ball cap to the latest offering that inspires moviegoers to cry, “Make Mine Marvel!” This review was written as a lark, a little act of self-mockery as I applied the rigors of critical thinking to a silly nineteen-seventies Marvel comic book (largely at the joking behest of a pal of mine who has a certain whale alter ego). Though I don’t indulge it often, I’m always tickled by the gag of applying academic over-analysis to frivolous material. Somewhere out in the untraversable wilds of my digital communication past, there exists a similarly exultant celebration of the high art to be found in the 1985 film Fraternity Vacation.
It is the common preoccupation of superhero comics: the duality of man. It manifests itself in the continual transformation between costumed titan and tepid secret identity. But there are times when this sense of pliable self, the very essence of personal identification subsumed by dreams, or nightmares, of what could be become so clear and forceful that it is no longer subtext. It becomes dominant, powerful, moving; a sort of meta-text in which the characters are consumed by the same search for meaning and truth that dominates the mind of the reader. That is not to say that it becomes overt in the text. It remains below the surface; it’s just that the surface has become as transparent as the slightly rippled top of a mountaintop lake. It’s beautiful and alluring, but you can’t help but look at what lies beneath.
That’s the startling resonance of Marvel Team-Up #12, entitled “Wolf at Bay.” The periodical’s very title keys us to the exploration of personal dichotomy to follow, the term “team-up” carrying the heavy implication of partnered participants, the scar of the hyphen serving as a harsh reminder that there is still a rupture to the unity. Two pieces can come together, but they cannot truly be one. The issue number carries its own heavy import, twelve being the number of Apostles. Despite the appearance of uniform belief and conviction that is shared, there is always the danger of unexpected dissent leading to dire consequences. This is true in a group, in a pairing, even in the cold, hard tundra of one’s own heart and mind.
The story begins with Spider-Man swinging past the Golden Gate Bridge, an unfamiliar setting for the New York crusader which establishes immediately that expectations can be callously thrown aside. Furthermore, he quickly encounters an adversary quite unlike the criminally-minded foes that dominate his adventures. The title character of Werewolf by Night is at his throat, throwing our protagonist into a highly unreal situation better suited for creepy old movies (as he himself observes when he terms the Werewolf a “refugee from a Larry Talbot film festival”.)
It also throws our story into a kaleidoscopic cascade of significant duels. We have a man who masquerades as a spider attacked by a man who is forcibly transformed into a wolf, the contrast of divergent personalities made sharper by the animal imagery adopted and endured, respectively. Further there is the vicious combat between individuals who the structure of the publication would have us believe are intended to be partners. Within those layers are more swirling contradictions, such as Spider-Man’s sense of self-preservation asserting itself at a time when he is near-suicidal over the recent loss of his greatest love.
The two eventually do forge a bond to take down Moondark the Magician, a morally corrupt prestidigitator who has mesmerized the entirety of the city of San Francisco. Published in 1973, the images of average citizens immersed in zombified trances is a clear metaphor for American complacency in the face of the ever-growing Watergate scandal, an anguished cry of political frustration that is painfully relevant today. Yet, despite the power of that message, it remains stark undercurrent to the dominant themes of the piece as our chief protagonist is driven to new heights of selflessness in the face of physical peril even as he is mired in indifference to the world that has betrayed him. It’s just another illustration of the split within us all, the unwilling capability we have to shed ourselves at a moment’s notice, discovering a drastic replacement in the recesses of our own being. It may be a spider. It may be a wolf. And even those terrifying forms may be better than the self it replaces. In the end, that existential trauma may be the most important thing to keep at bay.