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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

X-amining Captain America #402-408

"The Prowling" / "City of Wolves" / "Children of the Night" / "Dances with Werewolves" / "Leader of the Pack" / "Lord of the Wolves! / "Dark Dawn
"Early July - October 1992

In a Nutshell

Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Penciler: Rik Levins
Inkers: Danny Bulanadi, Don Hudson; Ray Kryssing (issue #404),
Steve Alexandrov (issue #405)
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Colorist: Gina Going, George Roussos (issue #408)
Editor: Ralph Macchio
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Investigating the disappearance of his friend & pilot John Jameson, Captain America learns the moonstone which controls John's werewolf transformations has gone missing. Investigating reports of werewolf attacks in New England, Cap and fellow Avenger Dr. Druid are attacked by a werewolf, who is in turn captured by Moonhunter. Cap tries to stop Moonhunter, but he gets away, delivering the captive werewolf to Nightshade and their mysterious boss, who reveals he has the moonstone, whose power is drawing all the werewolves to them. Later, Wolverine, also investigating the werewolf reports, is attacked and captured by Moonhunter. As another group of wolves attack Druid & Cap, Wolverine is hypnotized and sent after Captain America.

During the course of their fight, Moonhunter is able to knock out Cap and deliver him to Nightshade, who administers a serum which transforms him into a werewolf. As Dr. Druid confronts Nightshade's boss, revealed to be his old foe Dredmund Druid, Cap-Wolf is put into a holding facility with several other werewolves. After defeating the alpha wolf, he encounters a captive Wolfsbane, drawn by the moonstone, who teaches him how to speak as a wolf. Elsewhere, Shatterstar & Cable discover that Feral is missing as well, and Cable sets out after her. Meanwhile, Cap-Wolf leads the other wolves in an escape. He attacks Nightshade, but she tells him Dr. Druid is in trouble, and Cap-Wolf leads his pack to where Dredmund is using the moonstone to transform into the cosmic Starwolf. Just then, Cable arrives, and joins the fight against Starwolf as the alpha wolf defeated by Cap-Wolf injects Nightshade with her own serum, forcing her to devise an antidote. Meanwhile, Moonhunter and Wolverine join the fight, but Dr. Druid manages to break's Dredmund's control over them, and they turn against Starwolf as well. After Cap-Wolf manages to remove the moonstone from Starwolf, he returns to normal, and is defeated.

Nightshade uses the antidote to restore the alpha wolf to human form, and he turns out to be John Jameson. But before Cap receives the serum, he's attacked by demonic doppleganger. During the ensuing fight, Nightshade administers the serum, and when Dr. Druid confirms the doppelganger isn't human, Cap overpowers and kills it. As the various wolves depart, Jameson steps down as Cap's pilot, and Cap offers the job to Moonhunter. Together, they return to Avengers Mansion, Captain America's mission having been accomplished.

Firsts and Other Notables
One of the most notorious & reviled Captain America stories of all time, colloquially referred to as "Cap-Wolf", this is the story in which Captain America, well, becomes a werewolf briefly, and fights a bunch of other werewolves and werewolf-adjacent characters from across the Marvel Universe.

As part of that attempt to feature all (or at least most) of Marvel's various werewolf (and werewolf-adjacent) characters, a handful of various guests stars from the X-books appear in this story: Wolverine pops up in the very first chapter, while Wolfsbane appears in issue #406 (revealed as one of the werewolves being held captive; she teaches CapWolf how to talk) as does Cable (going after Feral, who is drawn by the moonstone, goes missing). Feral, in turn, doesn't appear in issue #407, but she's quickly knocked out by Cable before doing anything. 

Jeph Loeb will later explore the idea that all of these various animalistic characters, also including Sabretooth, are related, in a terrible Wolverine story that ends with Wolverine cutting off Sabretooth's head and (briefly) killing him.

For the most part, all of these guest appearances are utterly superfluous, especially Cable's, and its hard not to view them as little more than an attempt to get extra eyeballs to check out this series.

Additionally, Jack Russell, Marvel's original supernatural werewolf character and star of Werewolf by Night, appears, and is revealed a the unwilling source of the drug being used to transform people into werewolves.

As does John Jameson, Marvel's original werewolf (he becomes a werewolf due to the moonstone, allowing Marvel to sidestep Comics Code restrictions against werewolves at the time), who is also the son of J. Jonah Jameson, and, recently, Captain America's pilot, whose abduction by Nightshade led to Cap's involvement in this story.

In the unavailability of Dr. Strange, Captain America teams up with Marvel's standard Dr. Strange stand-in, Dr. Druid, for help mystical help, though Druid has a history (albeit a rocky one) with the Avengers, so his involvement here feels less like "Dr. Strange was busy" (though Cap does seek out Strange first). Druid also appears following his recent makeover which made him younger and replaced his bald dome with a ponytail, adding to the 90s-ness of it all.

The central villain of this story is also named Dr. Druid, one who first appeared back in a Nick Fury Silver Age Strange Tales story, as well as a few previous Captain America issues. He's pretty universally referred to as "Dredmund" (his first name) in this story, so as not to confuse him with the heroic Dr. Druid (whom Gruenwald clearly used so he could do a Druid vs. Druid fight).

Using his hypnotic abilities, Dredmund has ensnared Nightshade, another recurring Captain America villain who last appeared in issues #387-392 prior to this story. She is responsible for devising the werewolf-creation serum (and in fact was involved in a similar werewolf plot in her first appearance).

The villains' muscle is Moonhunter, appearing in issue #402 for the first time. Also working against his will, he takes over as Cap's pilot in issue #408 after John Jameson declines to resume that position; he appears regularly in the series through issues #418.

Issue #408 is technically not part of the "Cap-Wolf" story, though issue #407 ends with Captain America still in wolf form. It is an "Infinity War" tie-in, though, and features Cap-Wolf battling a demonic doppelganger (which was the schtick of most of the "Infinity War" tie-ins, having the title character(s) battle doppelgangers created by Magus).

This story coincided with Captain America's summer bi-weekly run, meaning a new chapter came out every two weeks.

Each issue also features a back-up story involving Diamondback (Cap's sorta girlfriend and another missing person) being brainwashed by the villainous Crossbones.

The Chronology Corner
Wolverine appears here between issues #11 and #12 of X-Men and #65 and #66 of his solo series (and, technically, after Wolverine #58-59, which takes place after #65), prior to his appearances in "Infinity War".

Wolfsbane appears between issues #81 and #82 of X-Factor.

Cable & Feral appear between issues #5 and #6 of X-Force.

A Work in Progress
This story occurs in the midst of a long stretch of crossovers for the series, with "Operation: Galactic Storm" having concluded in issue #401 (and #408 leading into "Infinity War"). As a result, Cap has spent a lot of time thinking about finding his missing friends, from D-Man (who was retrieved during "Galactic Storm" to John Jameson (found here) and Diamondback (star of the backup stories in these issues), all of whom have been missing a long time because Cap has been busy elsewhere.

In recruiting Dr. Druid, Druid references wanting to patch things up with the Avengers, a reference to the time he brainwashed the entire team into serving the space pirate Nebula and more or less destroyed the Avengers, just prior to "Inferno" (when Cap, as "The Captain", created an ad hoc team to battle the High Evolutionary and rescue Franklin Richards from N'astirh).

In issue #403, Cap is reluctant to reach out to the Avengers for help, calling this a private mission, answering the "why doesn't he just call for help when he realizes he's in over his head?" question.

Wolverine & Cable throw Cap-Wolf into the air; it's not called out as such, but it reminded me of a modified Fastball Special.

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Somewhat tellingly, Wolverine appears in this story before Captain America, the title character, does.

Moonhunter is pretty 90s-riffic, with his vaguely-dreadlocked hair, leather jacket, and thigh-bandolier of knives.

Ditto Dr. Druid's new younger appearance, complete with ponytail.

The Best There is at What He Does
Wolverine's healing factor is able to fight off Nightshade's werewolf drugs, but he's able to be hypnotized by Dredmund.

Captain America refers to his berserker rage as unstoppable.

Austin's Analysis
In all honesty, from the perspective of the X-Men narrative, this is hardly required reading. It is a Captain America story first and foremost, with the various X-characters that wander through it largely superfluous: Wolverine is essentially a minor boss before Cap reaches the real bad guy, Wolfsbane adds nothing beyond helping Cap Wolf learn to talk, Cable is a tacked-on late-inning addition to the story, and Feral appears just long enough to get shot in the back by Cable on one page (which might be my favorite part of the whole thing). But I wanted to review this regardless because this is one of those infamous stories that gets bandied about on the internet a lot, a totem of 90s excess and ridiculousness, often cited (alongside the later "Armored Captain America" story) as one of the two lowest points of Mark Gruenwald's otherwise respected run on the character, yet I'd never actually read it, end to end, before.

Now that I have, I can say it's somewhat disappointing, in that it's neither good, nor bad enough to be good. By which I mean it's neither a complete disaster, nor as awash in laughable 90s excess as I was expecting. Mark Gruenwald was an accomplished, professional writer, and even a bad story is going to have some basic structural elements to it that keep it from being truly terrible, elements which, say, a Rob Liefeld story might be missing. And sure, the various X-characters running in and out of this story are clearly an attempt to goose sales by featuring appearances from Marvel's most profitable franchise, and they are largely bland in terms of characterization, but they hardly dominate the narrative at any point. This is Cap's story, and he remains central to it throughout.

If anything, the biggest problem this story has, aside from some abrupt transitions on occasion (in which scenes shift between pages without the usual "meanwhile" or "elsewhere' captions), is pacing: at six parts (plus the quasi-epilogue in #408), and with a backup story in each issue taking pages away from the main story, this comes dangerously close to reading like a Marvel Comics Present story, with each shorter chapter settling into the "cliffhanger resolution-new cliffhanger" rhythm of that series' multi-part stories. It's also far too long, padding out the attention-grabbing but not-at-all complicated central gimmick with a lot of filler (and needless guest stars).

But Gruenwald still finds room to advance some of the series' ongoing subplots, and while they're hardly germane to anyone reading this because of the X-guest stars (*cough*), they do at least occasionally break up the rhythm of the A-plot (and are more interesting to me as an Avengers fan; I've always had a soft spot for D-Man, who might be the goofiest Avenger of all time). And, at times, the story flirts with offering metatextual commentary on some of the 90s excesses it's routinely pegged for representing, hanging a lampshade on the extreme crossover fatigue the series is suffering from at this point and the spate of dangling subplots that are left for Cap (and Gruenwald) to deal with.

None of that ever really reaches beyond the level of subtext, though; at the end of the day, this is primarily a story in which Captain America fights a bunch of werewolves, then Wolverine, because he's popular and vaguely wolf-ish, then is turned into a werewolf himself. High art, this is not. But it's also just competent enough, and played straight enough, to not be an utter mess to the point of entertainment. It's not a good story, but it's also not as bad, or as 90s, as its reputation suggests.

And, ultimately, it does feature Captain America during into a (rather adorable) werewolf, and if we can't enjoy that on some level, what's even the point of comics?

Next Issue
Next week, Retro X-aminations begin with Tales of Suspense #49 (Iron Man story)!


  1. I've never quite understood why this story is so hated. I've ultimately come to the conclusion that its legend was exaggerated by people who had heard about it from others, but who never actually read it themselves. Like you say, it's not good but it's not exactly bad either. It's basically Gruenwald treading water for the obligatory bi-weekly summer schedule. So Cap turns into a werewolf -- so what? Spider-Man once turned into a lizard. Thor turned into a frog. Etc., etc. There's nothing about this story that makes it inherently more offensive than those others.

    (Speaking of Cap turning into things, in the previous summer's biweekly saga, "The Superia Strategem", the title villainess tried -- but failed -- to turn him into a woman!)

    I love Gruenwald's Cap; it's one of my all-time favorite Marvel runs. And while this is certainly not one of its high points, it's not awful. Its worst offense is just being kind of a bland story. I actually like the backup serial with Diamondback and Crossbones a lot more than the main chapters in these issues.

  2. I failed to notice it was Gruenwald. I was on my way to come note how I appreciate that Dr. Druid get addressed as "Anthony Droom" like in his first appearance that predates FF #1 by some months, but it's hardly a surprise now.

    By the same token it's neither a surprise to me anymore that it's the New England town of Starkesboro that gets taken by the wolfmen, not unlike how in MARVEL PREMIERE #4-6 Dr. Strange finds himself shackled into a sacrificial altar in a church in the snakemen-infested New England town of Starksboro like it was a dolmen or something. Stand-in, eh?

    What comes to the actual story here, I find myself enjoying very much *beat* of the Diamondback side plot.

  3. Wait. Cable shoots at Feral merely because she left the base? Couldn't he have asked her where she was going? ("Going to CVS to buy some food and medicine") Are the X-Force his hostages? I know this was just bad writing and an excuse to have Cable in it, but it's still ridiculous.

    1. I wonder if it was Gruenwald making a comment on the ridiculous "tough guy" characterization of Cable at the time. "This guy is such a bad hero he shoots his own teammates" or something similar.

    2. This would be my guess. I've also long thought armored Cap near the end of his run was Gruenwald lampooning the nineties/Image style as well. But he plays it all so earnestly that you'd never know for sure!


  4. I have, or maybe had, a Capwolf necktie sporting the cover art to #405. Really.

    Captain America #187 and #189, Dredmund’s first pairing with Nightshade, were among my earliest comics. They were penciled by Frank Robbins, whose stuff — inked on those issues by Frank Chiaramonte and on the contemporary Invaders by Frank Springer, oddly enough — always kinda weirded me out a bit. Dredmund (last name Cromwell, apparently) was just called The Druid then, or Demon-Druid on one of the covers at least; Nightshade was known therein as Deadly Nightshade and provided up to 90% of your US RDA of blaxploitation.

  5. Replies
    1. .............well, the only similarity between a wolverine and a wolf is in the first 3 letters lol

  6. Even Cap's terrifying werewolf dark side looks like a fluffy golden retriever. There is nothing about this I do not love.

    As a kid, I...kinda thought the younger Dr. Druid was hot. I'm gonna go hide under my mountain of Jim Lee collectible trading cards now. >.>

    Truth be told, I find this whole story endearingly goofy, with just the right touch of pulpy "horror comic" vibes to keep it engaging. It's stupid and silly and everything people like to joke about when they talk about 90s comics, but truthfully, I'll take one of these in place of a hundred Civil Wars or Second Comings.


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