Consider the Man-Wolf: Marvel’s misfit lycanthrope

Marvel Comics in the 1970s was this great mad sprawling bestiary of ideas. Comics were hip, and Marvel was cool with Smilin’ Stan Lee always out hustling, but we were a long way from billion-dollar blockbusters and everyday people on the street knowing what Wakanda was. 

There’s always been a soft spot in my heart for the coulda-beens, the never-was of Marvel’s 1970s. Comics like Black Goliath or Human Fly or Shogun Warriors. And of course, the Man-Wolf, whose entire gloriously weird short resume has been collected in the new Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection TPB.

The Man-Wolf remains obscure. He’s a werewolf, see, but he’s Spider-Man’s werewolf. He’s also an astronaut, and the son of tabloid terror J. Jonah Jameson. Oh, and he carried a sword for a while and fought aliens. Gloriously weird, indeed.

The Man-Wolf first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #124, one of the oldest Spidey comics I owned until my moth-eaten copy fell apart. It’s a groovy Gil Kane cover practically ordering you to read it. The Man-Wolf ticked all the Spidey villain boxes – creepy animal alter-ego, tragic backstory, plenty of guilt. He must’ve been popular in the early 1970s, because he suddenly got his very own starring role in Marvel’s C-list Creatures on the Loose comic.

It’s weird because Marvel actually already HAD a star lycanthrope, Werewolf By Night. But this was the monster-filled 1970s, where Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, “living vampires,” mummies and zombies all had their own comic books. The problem was nobody at Marvel really seemed sure what to do with Werewolf #2, who mainly differed from the Night guy by being greyish-white instead of brown, oh, and an astronaut.

Reading Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection is the diary of a character who never entirely fit in. Was he a rampaging beast, a quasi-superhero who battled the Nazi villain the Hatemonger, or something else? 

In one of those glaring comic book about-faces that gave fans whiplash, suddenly he was a “chosen one,” the Star-God, saviour of another dimension in a strange fantasy adventure, drawn by a great young George Perez and featuring on one of the most honestly daft comic book covers of all time – he’s a Man-Wolf! In Space! With a sword! 

This collection follows the wolf’s rambling travels across dimensions and comic books, from his short-lived solo tales to guest appearances with Spider-Man and a very odd stint in Marvel’s Savage She-Hulk comic, one of the most blandly generic titles ever published. It all ends with the werewolf curse being kicked… for now. 

The Man-Wolf’s appeared since his ‘70s heyday, but really, this book collects the best of his strange saga, and while I’d balk at calling it great comics, it’s tremendously fun comics, the story of a C-list character who never quite caught on.

But you never know… by the time Marvel Studios gets to Phase 5 or 6, a space werewolf with a sword epic starring Timothée Chalamet might just be the ticket. 

The Irishman: Scorsese and the death of the American dream

I try and stay away from stupid internet controversies, because they’re usually stupid internet controversies. This year’s king so far is the whole “Martin Scorsese vs. Marvel Movies” stoush. 

I believe you can be a fan of both – and arguing about what’s “real” movies is kind of pointless. Scorsese is entitled to his view, and god only knows the internet will share its own views. The art stands by itself.

And while I adore the Marvel movies and will never stop being thrilled by seeing Thor or the Black Panther fly across the screen, I don’t think I’ve ever been left haunted by a Marvel movie in the same way that Scorsese’s best films affect me. 

I’ve been on a big Scorsese binge the last few weeks, after watching his epic The Irishman unfold gloriously over 3 1/2 hours on a big screen (thanks Hollywood Cinema!), which is the only way to really appreciate a movie like this.

Watching The Irishman at home on a laptop between checking your Facebook feed and feeding the dog isn’t the same thing at all. It’s the antithesis of binge, binge, binge multitasking culture, a contemplative, mournful coda to Scorsese’s career of misguided men lashing out in their hunt for the American dream. 

Returning to movies such as The Wolf Of Wall Street (a glorious monument to hedonistic excess that just gets better with each viewing), The King of Comedy or Goodfellas, we can see how Scorsese has been weaving this tapestry his entire career, all the way back to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Toxic masculinity, if you want to call it that, has always been his biggest theme. For those who superficially watched Goodfellas and thought, wow, the gangster life sure looks glamorous, The Irishman is Scorsese’s final damning rebuttal.

The haunting final half hour or so of The Irishman sticks with me, as a damning indictment of a life full of regrets and passive evildoing. While watching The Irishman requires a commitment, it’s worth it. Robert DeNiro hasn’t been so good in years, Al Pacino tones down his “hoo-ha” overplaying to good effect, and it’s a real treat to see Joe Pesci on screen again after far too long. 

The true test for a movie’s greatness to me is how often I find myself turning it over and over in my head after seeing it, thinking about what it showed me. By that standard, The Irishman is one of the best films of the year. 

I think you can have superhero movies and you can have what Scorsese calls “cinema,” and they’re all different yet related animals. But when it comes down to it, one is a roller-coaster ride and one is a lingering meal of fine dining. Scorsese’s entire argument was that films that aren’t big-budget franchises are in danger of disappearing from the table entirely, and that would be a shame.

The Irishman is Scorsese’s feast after a lifetime of serving up thoughtful dishes, and sprawling and deliberate as it is, it is a masterpiece. 

Tales of an obsessed comics geek, Part I

The author with a prized copy of Marvel Team-Up Annual #5, circa 1982.

I’ll do some crazy stuff to get my comics. 

It’s easier now, that I live in a big city with a few very good comic shops, and of course the internet, but back in the ‘80s a young Nik spent a lot of time on the comics hustle. 

I got sucked into the addiction that would claim most of my life by spinner racks at Lucky’s in 1982, where our family would sometimes stop in after church. Marvel’s Star Wars, Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man, Gerry Conway’s Batman, Claremont’s X-Men, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four… these were the hooks. These spinner racks were like Christmas trees to me. 

Right around that time circa 1983, an actual comic book STORE opened for the first time in my small California mountain town, right on Main Street. It was called McNeil’s, and run by a laconic man who seemed ancient to this 12-year-old. There were long boxes full of OLD comics, which I could never afford, and stopping by there on the way home from school once a week became a must. You’d inhale that peculiar smell of old comics, an entire room filled with them, and I was done for. 

But then McNeil died (he actually WAS ancient), and the store soon closed. Back to hustling for comics off the spinner racks at the supermarkets across town, or occasional trips to the amazing Comics & Comix down in Sacramento, which was like a Catholic visiting the Pope for me. Unfortunately, a pre-teen kid couldn’t get down there very often. 

I’d go hunting for anything, once even walking a ridiculous distance in summer heat to find the only comic even slightly interesting was an issue of G.I. Joe Vs Transformers. I didn’t even really LIKE G.I. Joe. 

Then another comics store opened in town, in a weird suburban spot just down the road from my house. It was called Kayo’s, run by a peculiar little elf-like man out of what seemed to be a converted front living room, with the rest of the house crammed away behind another door. 

It was a tiny but decent comic shop at an amazing time for comics circa 1986. DC was suddenly exploding with the creativity of Alan Moore, Crisis and Dark Knight. We were just getting into the great indy comics era then, with publishers like Eclipse, First and Renegade putting out strange, cool books that weren’t at all like the Marvel and DC stuff. Mr Monster, The Flaming Carrot, DNAgents, Cerebus. I picked up the third issue of some oddball black and white comic about ninja turtles on Kayo’s recommendation. I do wish I’d kept that. 

Kayo’s was a good fix, so of course it closed down. But then they opened again. And closed again. They did this several times over the course of a couple of years, moving around town to various locations – an old beauty parlor, a tiny space hidden upstairs in an office building downtown. 

Kayo was one of those hustling optimists you often see in life, sweating and trying to hold something together. He loved comics, but couldn’t give the business a go. The makeshift appearance of his shops said something – they seemed slapped together overnight, ready to move at a moment’s notice. One of the stores closed so suddenly that the next time I popped by it was empty, abandoned save for a big box of old Comics Buyer’s Guides left out on the porch. I took them all, of course. 

But he was my comics fix for a few desperate years there. Kayo hit his low when he was briefly selling comics out of a motel room. I still remember knocking on a hotel room door and getting an issue of West Coast Avengers from him. There was something vaguely seamy, absurd about the transaction, me a teenage kid going to cheap hotels to buy my comics. 

Kayo vanished eventually, but not without a whiff of scandal. There was a crime in the family, maybe even a murder – not him, but as I vaguely recall it was a son or a son-in-law – something that briefly made the local news, and then shortly after Kayo and his comics disappeared forever. I often wonder about the mysterious Kayo. 

But he left with me getting a final prize – in the final throes of his business, everything had to go, and so I ended up buying a comics spinner rack from him for $20, and hauling the stupid, awkward thing at least a mile or two back to my parents’ house. I kept it for years, moving from California to Mississippi with it, on into college, into tiny apartments. Eventually in my more vagabond years it ended up in a barn at my parents’ house, covered in spiderwebs, before it vanished entirely from my history. 

The comic shops I grew up with were always temporary, and the hustling, impermanent state of Kayo’s summed something up about them. But eventually that would change. Comics would get big time.

Next time: Flashy new shops, Batman goes Hollywood, and a move to Memphis

The Mandalorian: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years

If I absolutely had a pick a favourite scene from all the Star Wars movies, it’s a mere 47 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back. We’re introduced to a disreputable mob of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to hunt down Han Solo. 

There’s Boba Fett, of course, cult icon for the ages, and another five briefly glimpsed characters – spindly robot IG-88, reptilian Bossk, battered Dengar, Cronenbergian nightmares 4-LOM and Zuckuss. These characters are seen, don’t speak, and with the exception of Boba Fett, they’re never heard from again in the movies. (Although some harried crew member apparently threw the IG-88 model in the cluttered background of a Cloud City scene for extra set dressing, spawning endless fan theories.)

Those 47 seconds launched the imagination of a million dweeby kids and an entire subsidiary industry of books, comics and cartoons looking at just who or what those dirty bounty hunters were. That’s the best of Star Wars, to me – the lived-in sense, the countless possible back stories of background aliens and extras running around with ice cream containers.

I got kind of obsessed with those bounty hunters, even the goofy-but-fun novels exploring them. I can launch a detailed explanation of how 4-LOM and Zuckuss’ names apparently got messed up by Kenner when they made the action figures, so even though they’ve corrected the error, I still always think of Zuckuss as 4-LOM and vice-versa. 

I liked the seamy, lived-in side of Star Wars. The opening hour or so of Star Wars: A New Hope, before it left Tatooine, is rich with worldbuilding for me. The strangeness of moisture farming. The inscrutable Jawas and their building/vehicle stacked with stolen droids. I liked the grimy Sandpeople, and the eternal mystery of what’s under all that wrapping. I liked the menagerie of aliens in Mos Eisley, and coming up with complicated back stories for each of them. My friends and I would imagine action figures for all of them. Most of them have actually been made in the ensuing 40 years of Star Wars fandom. 

Yet at the same time, I don’t want everything explained in Star Wars. I didn’t want to know about the midichlorians, I’m still pretty sure I didn’t need to see Darth Vader as an 8-year-old boy, and I didn’t care that much about how Han Solo met Chewbacca, even. Everyone wanted just a little more Boba Fett, but nobody really wanted baby Boba Fett holding his father’s decapitated head, did they? I hate to admit it, but I even find the Jedi Knights kinda boring. To me, Star Wars eternally has to keep that balance between fan service and overdoing it, and lately, it usually does the latter. 

But then along comes The Mandalorian, and in my complicated relationship with Star Wars I’m hooked again by mysterious characters, aliens in the desert and those bloody Jawas. Two episodes in, it’s a pleasure, Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in outer space and a streamlined, pulpy blast. To be honest, this playground is the one I wish they’d explored in all these years of Star Wars-sploitation, the grungy underbelly of Jabba’s palace and the Mos Eisley cantina. 

And there’s one scene that literally had me bursting with pent-up fan glee, as an IG droid (IG-11, not IG-88) goes into action against a bunch of mercenaries. FINALLY! I thought. After all these years, Star Wars is actually showing me one of those mysterious bounty hunters from Empire doing something, leaping into action. 

IG-88 in the original film was entirely static, giving fanboys leave to imagine anything. But to see IG-11 spinning, talking, firing blasters, moving with a weirdly Frankensteinian zombie-like walk that is exactly how I imagined such an awkward droid might move…. well, some of us have weird dreams in life and are easily pleased. I dreamed of seeing IG-88 hunting down quarry, or of Bossk wrestling a wookie or 4-LOM/Zuckuss doing evil stuff. Instead I got midichlorians, too many Death Stars and someone who’s not Harrison Ford pretending to be Han Solo. 

After 38 years, Star Wars finally gave one thing I really wanted from all its sequels, prequels and sidequels. And what a bounty it was. 

I can’t stand it, I know you planned it: My top 25 albums of 1994

Everyone’s favourite year in music is probably the music of their youth, but come on, people – objectively speaking 1994 was one hell of a year for popular music. 

It was 25 years ago now, and I can slap together a list from memory easily of 25 fantastic albums from ’94 that I still listen to regularly. 

1994 was a crazy, buzzing year in my memory – graduated university, grabbed my first job at an actual newspaper, fell in and out of love a bit, and spent a hurly-burly summer working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, surrounded by and swimming in the music of the times. Some of the music I discovered that summer – Guided By Voices, Freedy Johnston – still grab me today. Others were just in the air, like Nirvana or Green Day. 

Yes, this list is a bit white, alternative and male, but to be fair that’s what I was listening to in 1994. It’s the songs that stick with me a quarter of a century on, a soundtrack to a year I’ll never forget. My top 25 albums of 1994, in alphabetical order: 

1. Tori Amos, Under The Pink: One woman wearing her heart on her sleeve, confessing everything, afraid of nothing. 

2. Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction: Punk unafraid to preach, and soaring with erudite anger at the state of the world. 

3. Barenaked Ladies, Maybe You Should Drive: Their open-hearted power pop swung between sentimental and wordy, and here they hit the perfect balance. 

4. Beastie Boys, Ill Communication: It still seems wrong that the Beastie Boys are over now, but we’ll always have “Sabotage.” 

5. Beck, Mellow Gold: “Loser” was everywhere, but this is overall a fundamentally weird, ramshackle record, ambling along to its own strange beat. 

6. Blur, Parklife: Is “sassy” the right word here? Britpop’s finest hour IMHO, swinging and smart and cynical. 

7. Johnny Cash, American Recordings: A giant takes the stage for a valedictory round that very nearly surpassed all he’d done before. 

8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Let Love In:  A noir tale of a tall handsome man, in a dusty black coat with a red right hand.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Brutal Youth: A burst of venom and flame from someone who’s not quite an angry young man any more, an overlooked and underappreciated gem. 

10. Green Day, Dookie: Pop-punk propelled along at 1000 miles an hour, ephemeral and yet unforgettable. 

11. The Grifters, Crappin’ You Negative: Rusty grunge from deep in the heart of Memphis, a hidden gem I wore out on road trips through Mississippi in the summer of ’94. 

12. Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand: Glittering shards of surreal power pop, hit records from another dimension – it hooked me on GbV for life.

13. Hole, Live Through This: Subtract all the Courtney Love baggage you might have – this album is still one fierce wound of a record.

14. Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World: Heartbreakingly gorgeous, wistful songwriting by a guy who should’ve been huge. 

15. Nine Inch Nails, The Downwards Spiral: The sound of not knowing, and screaming in the dark. 

16. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged In New York: A curtain call, a last bow, what might have been, what never was.

17. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: Unfolding like songwriting origami, nuggets of obscure beauty – go back to those gold soundz, and keep my advent to yourself. 

18. Pulp Fiction Soundtrack: Music curation is an art form, and Tarantino’s never done it better than this perfect mix tape. 

19. Tom Petty, Wildflowers: You belong among the wildflowers; the late Petty’s greatest album, contemplative and gorgeous and at peace. 

20. REM, Monster: Fuzzed-out and distorted, REM at their peak of fame, and their still strangely askew, enigmatic run of hits. 

21. Soundgarden, Superunknown: IMHO, Pearl Jam’s stuff hasn’t really endured that well; Soundgarden’s angst-filled grunge has. 

22. Velocity Girl, ¡Simpatico!: Effortlessly charming, sunny grunge-pop, well worth seeking out. 

23. Velvet Crush, Teenage Symphonies To God: Power pop with a ‘90s sheen, sweet harmonies and teenage kicks. 

24. Weezer, The Blue Album: One of the great power-pop debuts of all time; I hear it makes you feel just like Buddy Holly. 

25. Neil Young, Sleeps With Angels: Of the approximately 457 albums Neil Young has released, this one has the beauty of a dusty abandoned saloon falling apart somewhere way out in the wild west. 

Bubbling just under: Sugar, File: Under Easy Listening; Outkast, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik; Sebadoh, Bakesale; Veruca Salt, American Thighs; Portishead, Dummy; Meat Puppets, Too High To Die; Youssou N’Dour, The Guide (Wommat); Frank Black, Teenager of the Year; Alice In Chains, Jar of Flies. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time once again for a brief round-up of writing I’ve done elsewhere on the internet recently, not that I don’t love the blogging for free but someone’s got to keep the cats in cat food…

Bird of the Year is one of New Zealand’s biggest social media events, with everyone weighing in on their fave avian, whether it’s the humble kiwi, the plucky penguin or the rocking ruru. I wrote a story over at Radio New Zealand about the contest and specifically about how we can help birds year-round by doing things like volunteering for Bird Rescue:

Bird of the Year competition: Keeping the good vibe flying high

Meanwhile, back in my home state of California, everything’s on fire, which sucks, and thousands of people have been forced to have their power shut off, which sucks even more. I wrote a little about that from my perspective way the hell down here in Aotearoa for The New Zealand Herald (story paywalled):

California’s fires and why New Zealand should worry too

Lastly, we just went through a Rugby World Cup, and while NZ lost and we are a traumatised nation, it was a big event for streaming services which hosted the tournament for the first time. Here’s a story over at Stuff about it:

Spark’s first big test: How did it fare?

Movies I Have Never Seen #4: Shock Treatment

What is it: Like most people who’ve found themselves somewhat against the grain in life, I dig The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic, still playing in midnight shows around the world 44 years after its 1975 release. Seeing it in a vintage theatre in high school was one of my great cultural awakenings, and fittingly, I saw it again in a theatre just this past Halloween in a terrific benefit showing here in Auckland, complete with New Zealander creator, writer and co-star Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien in attendance. I don’t do the costumes – nobody wants to see me in fishnets – but there’s something truly wonderful about a Rocky Horror screening, with everyone flying their own personal freak flag and screaming crazy stuff at the screen for a bizarre little film that somehow sticks with you.

And then there’s Shock Treatment. Shock Treatment is the little-known 1981 quasi-sequel to Rocky Horror, again written by O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman. It’s loosely the tale of Brad and Janet (recast, woefully) taking part in a surreal TV game show experience and being “reinvented” into superstars. But in execution, it’s kind of a mess.

Why I never saw it: Even today, Shock Treatment is pretty obscure. My main vague memory of it was the cool, eye-catching poster design (above). You can find it with a bit of searching on YouTube, though. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Disappointingly, yes. Shock Treatment is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say. You can’t really create a cult hit when you’re trying so hard to. Shock Treatment is a muddle of early ‘80s glam-pop, a satire of reality TV, and a tale of empowerment. Unfortunately, it’s a little too similar to Rocky Horror in that it’s again a tale of Brad and Janet finding their bliss. Unlike Rocky Horror’s smooth, straightforward plot, a mish-mash of horror movie cliches, Shock Treatment is maddeningly hard to follow.

A charismatic foil like Tim Curry is badly missed here, although O’Brien’s creepy Dr. Cosmo is one of the better things about the movie, but he’s not in it enough. Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn, Charles ‘No Neck’ Gray and Little Nell also show up in small roles. Recasting Brad and Janet was a bad idea (bizarrely, the events of Rocky Horror are never mentioned, leading you to wonder if it’s a reboot or a prequel or what). Jessica Harper is a very stiff Janet who only comes to life in the movie’s final act, while Cliff De Young’s Brad Majors is awful – his entire performance is lacking the wit and insight Barry Bostwick’s Brad brought to a single line in Rocky Horror: “It’s beyond me / Help me mommy.” 

All in all, Shock Treatment feels too much like hard work. Many of the songs are pretty enjoyable, but like most of the movie, they’re overproduced and chaotic. Rocky Horror is a strange beast of a film too, but it’s consistent and genuinely warm at times. Shock Treatment never invites you in, and you never feel like you want to shout back at the screen. 

How’s it different than I thought: While it’s wacky and strange, Shock Treatment is never as transgressive as Rocky Horror. It mocks lots of things, like Reagan’s America and TV game shows, but it never really bares its fangs. 

Worth seeing? If you’re a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, it’s worth checking out. Once. But nobody’s going to be throwing rice at the screen for this one.