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Cross Plains Comics' Wolfshead:
A Review

by Edward Waterman
(Copyright 2000 Edward Waterman - All rights reserved)



This CPC book takes Howard's two werewolf stories, "In the Forest of Villefere" and "Wolfshead," and combines them into one tale previously adapted by Roy Thomas and penciled by Tony DeZuniga. CPC also includes a second, original story set in modern times written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Steve Lightle. This new story acts to "frame" the adaptation of Howard's original werewolf stories and comes both before and after Howard's portion.

The original Robert E. Howard tale titled, "In the Forest of Villefere" was first published in the August 1925 issue of Weird Tales magazine, and subsequently published in The Dark Man and Others (Arkham, Lancer), Pigeons From Hell (Ace), and Eons of the Night (Baen). "Wolfshead," was first published in the April 1926 issue of Weird Tales magazine and is a sequel to "In the forest of Villefere." It was subsequently published in Skull-Face and Others (Arkham; Panther), Wolfshead (Berkley, Lancer), and Eons of the Night (Baen).


THE REVIEW:

Wolfshead is yet another mediocre offering from Cross Plains Comics. The main story, "Wolfshead," was adapted by Roy Thomas and Tony De Zuniga over 10 years ago, and although it has some good moments, by and large it is rather dull. De Zuniga's pencils are quite wonderful, and the choice to color the artwork completely in sepia gave the story a sense that it was written on ancient parchment and an impression of a distant age. Although it is possible that using full color might have added some badly needed excitement and drama to the story, without re-working the story itself it is doubtful that there would have been much improvement... and since the story was drawn and fixed in place over 10 years ago by an artist who is not currently working with CPC, it is unlikely that the comic book story could have been altered or improved even if Mr. Thomas wanted to do so.

As if mediocrity in the main story was not enough, CPC includes a truly terrible pastiche or framing sequence which depicts a tired, limping story-line and uninspired settings. Poorly written by Roy Thomas but fairly well drawn by Steve Lightle, the framing sequence is loaded with cliché ridden dialogue, worn-out melodrama, trite story elements, and poor transitions that limp between scenes as if the story was mortally wounded and losing blood. If only the story had received medical treatment before being published, it could have been saved. Instead, Mr. Thomas and CPC's editor has allowed absolutely glaring inconsistencies and absurd events, dialogue, settings, and character interactions (including motivations) to remain in the story.

One of the glaring absurdities in the stories revolves around our hero's motivation to play Russian roulette in an attempt to commit suicide, and why he would do so in public? The story opens with de Montour walking into a public bar, putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. De Montour is not depicted as trying to make any political statement, he was not railing against the world, rebelling against society, or making some kind of social statement... so why would he walk into a bar instead of staying at home? There's just no sense to it. Doing something like that in private is one thing, but doing it in public, and then having NO-ONE in the bar care, or even react, is a bit... well... unrealistic and insipidly melodramatic. A psychologist watching the scene might conclude that de Montour's public display was a cry for help, that the character actually wants someone to stop him from killing himself. And yet, what the story describes about his resignation to fate... letting fate decide his future... is not only contradictory with the theory that de Montour is crying out for help, but it is characteristically UN-Howardian! Howard's characters were all about taking control of their own lives, not resigning to some inevitable, superior power or fate. De Montour's fatalistic decision process and insipid daily life is depicted in the comic book as something like this: "Shall I drink a Bud, or should I kill myself? Whirr. Clik. Okay, Bud. -- Shall I buy a subway transfer or shall I kill myself?" Whirr, clik. Okay, subway. -- Shall I sharpen up my bloody nails, or should I..." and so on. Stupid beyond all dreams of calculation.

Of course, even if de Montour has only been doing this since the invention of revolvers, instead of doing it for the entire five hundred years of his life, it still represents a remarkably consistent run of luck. Or, perhaps it suggests that de Montour did not notice at that time, or notice at any time since, how revolvers are actually loaded? Maybe he is still pushing gun powder and pellets down the barrel?

Another gross absurdity has to do with why de Montour, a werewolf, would carry a book detailing his personal history as a werewolf everywhere he goes, let alone show it to everyone who asked to read it! It strikes me as being similar to a convicted murderer and child molester carrying around his FBI wanted poster because it saves him the time of telling people he's a mass murderer and child molester! Huh?? Obviously, the history book was created as a literary device to enable a smooth transition from the framing sequence to the main story, but is this the best Mr. Thomas could do? Not only is this a bad idea, but the transition itself was poorly written as well. Consider the following passage:

On the last page of part one of the framing sequence, a girl notices the title of the history book and says...

    "What'd you do, scratch it into the cover with your own bloody fingernails? Well, let's see what it's got to say..."

Not only is this transition trite and over used, but the dialogue and phrasing lacks continuity. There is no motivation expressed or link between the girl's observation of the "bloody" title and her decision to read the book. In fact, the girl asks de Montour a pointblank question, an interesting question, and nothing happens. The issue of the bloody title is raised, the reader's curiosity is piqued, and then promptly ignored. Not only are the reader's expectations jarred and left unfulfilled, but the next sentence is schizophrenic. It's as if the girl's desire to read the book comes from nowhere -- "Well, let's see what it's got to say..." -- or rather, she had no reason to say what she did other than the writer's need for a gimmick to segue into the next story. And to make matters worse, the mystery about the bloody, scratched title is never addressed in the story.

As if inconsistency wasn't enough, the wording of the transition line is horrendously absurd, especially coming from a woman who is trying to be seductive. Why would ANYONE think that the person they're talking to has scratched a title onto a book with their "own bloody fingernails"? Were De Montour's fingers bloody for some reason? Nooooooo. And would dried blood even be discernible on a dark brown cover? Also, the choice of words is just terrible. If Mr. Thomas left out the word, "bloody," the sentence might have been a little less awkward, but instead he went for melodrama. He really should have rephrased the entire ending. Maybe like so...

    "Look at this wicked cover! It looks like someone scratched the title on it with their fingernails. Weird. Is there anything inside...?"

This is at least a smooth transition. It offers curiosity about the book's oddity as the character's motivation, doesn't conflict with the reader's expectations, and is fresh and believable. Ordinarily, if this had occurred in a novel I probably would have overlooked the mistake... but in comic books there is so little text that every word is extremely important. Add to this the fact that the last line was the TRANSITIONAL line from Thomas' story to Howard's and... well... it's an important sentence. The last line is the last impression one has of a story. Yes, it is just one sentence, and yes, when compared to the whole book it's not really a monumental thing... but it does matter. It's part of the difference between a bad or fair comic book story and a GREAT comic book story. Every word matters, just as every image matters... and because comic books are a condensed form or story telling, it matters that much more.

The rest of the story demonstrates similarly poor writing. With trite dialogue and story elements, the framing sequence gives the reader nothing new and just more of the same low grade and shallow entertainment we have seen a thousand times over. The last couple of lines of narration, for example, are so noticeably contrived and corny that I didn't know if I should laugh or cry...

    "Fate... or dumb luck. Either way, it's going to be a long night. When you're Wolfshead... the nights are always long."

Sigh. This story could have been so much better if only someone had spent a little time revising and polishing the tale.



ARTICLE:

Roy Thomas' article, "The Story Behind Cross Plains' Wolfshead," was well written and interesting up to a point, but apparently not well thought out or researched. A glaring blunder in Thomas' article was the inclusion of a comment from L. Sprague de Camp criticizing the "unrealism" of shipping guests from Europe to Dom Vincente's West African home and the great expense it would cost. This criticism is in fact inaccurate, not to mention irrelevant. There is nothing unrealistic about the event.

Robert E. Howard's story, "Wolfshead," is set on the coast of West Africa in the castle of a rich Portuguese merchant, Dom Vincente da Lusto. Considering Howard's penchant for violent and dramatic history, the location of the story is most likely the section of west African coastline known historically as the Gold Coast which stretches from modern day Guinea to Cameroon. From the middle of the 15th century through all of the 16th century, colonization and trade in this area was largely controlled by the Portuguese.

The ships the Portuguese used to sail the West African coastline during this time were caravels and carracks. Carracks were often referred to as galleons, especially the great carracks of the later 16th century, and they came in many sizes. On average, a typical ship of the day sailed about 90 miles per day with variations due to weather and wind conditions. Taking into consideration typical sea routes of the day, the total number of miles between England and the Gold Coast ranged from between 3,500 to 5,250 depending upon the location of the final destination. Using this, and other information from ships logs and records of the era, the amount of time it would take for a sea vessel to reach the West coast of Africa from England would be between 30 and 60 days! Not at all the unreasonable figure implied by de Camp and Thomas! If someone offered you a 6 week sea voyage where you would visit many exotic ports 'O call and experience firsthand the mysterious African coast, would you accept? Of course you would!

To be fair, however, the sea voyage from the Gold Coast of Africa back to Lisbon, Portugal was more difficult due to the ocean and wind currents. The return voyage sometimes took as long as 4 months to reach Lisbon, but more often than not the voyage home took 2-3 months. This fact, however, does not lessen the appeal to embark on such a journey to mysterious Africa. If the exotic locale did not appeal, merely the opportunity to consort with a nobleman of high status in the Portuguese aristocracy was enough for a person of the time to drop everything and sail halfway across the world. Influence, wealth and power were not mere trifles to be ignored during this era, but were treasures to be sought and coveted. Further, the guests could expect a celebration that would last for weeks and perhaps rival if not surpass the debauchery and merriment of the European courts.

The expense of such a sea voyage would, of course, be rather high but certainly not beyond the reach of a wealthy merchant or persons born of high status. Further, carracks were manned with between 30 and 100 crewmen, and known to carry over 200 hundred additional passengers in relative comfort. For slave traders, forcing over 400 slaves into the ship was not uncommon. The story states that Dom Vincente personally owned 3 smaller ships and one great galleon which plied their trade between Spain, Portugal, France, and England. For Dom Vincente to transport merely 10-20 passengers on one or a few of his ships as they traveled from trading port to trading port would cost him an insignificant sum. Even if the passengers paid their way themselves, which is highly unlikely since they were invited to the annual celebration by Dom Vincente, the cost would not be prohibitive for such a great adventure to Africa. After all, it's not like the guests were just stopping over for a bit of tea after lunch! This was a once in a lifetime event occurring only once per year, hosted and paid for by a very wealthy Portuguese nobleman.

However, after checking de Camp's original criticism of "Wolfshead" in his flawed Robert E. Howard biography, Dark Valley Destiny, I find that Roy Thomas has made a grievous error. The actual criticism is not that the sea voyage would have taken too long or be too expensive, or even that traveling to the African coast is unrealistic, but rather is that Howard never explained, specifically, "how the wealthy trader fetched his highborn guests from Europe." This criticism, however, is equally false. Howard did tell the reader how Dom Vincente fetched his guests. Here is the passage in question from "Wolfshead":

"I found that I was not the only friend invited to the castle. It seems that once a year or some such matter, Dom Vincente brought a host of jolly companions to his lonely estate and made merry for some weeks, to make up for the work and solitude of the rest of the year." (From "Wolfshead," Skull-Face Omnibus, pg. 4)

As I have noted above, Howard did lay out all of the required pieces for the reader to answer the question quite easily. We know the guests came by ship, we know Dom Vincente is a wealthy ship owner and trader, we know his ships routinely traveled between the West African coast and many European ports, and we know that Dom Vincente invited and brought each of his guests to his remote castle. If there is anything inconsistent in this, I fail to see it. There is no error of omission on Howard's part and the set-up is logical and sensible. This criticism by De Camp and Thomas is therefore not only in error, but utterly absurd.

The moral of this revelation is, of course; never take ANYTHING de Camp has said on faith and without questioning it first. There is a reason Howard scholars have labeled his REH biography, Dark Valley Destiny, the worst thing ever written about Howard; and that reason is because the book is littered with misleading and false information that more often than not is merely de Camp's own, highly biased and uncritical opinion.

Even if de Camp's comment was true, which it is not, I'm more concerned with why Thomas felt it necessary to take a pot-shot at Howard's writing using de Camp's words as a shield? How would restating a comment accusing Howard of making a literary mistake improve Howard's image or the reputation of his work? CPC has stated that it is their goal to build-up Howard's image, and yet negative comments such as the above do just the opposite, and actually damage the reputation of Howard's work. Discovering and exposing flaws and errors in a piece of literature is an important function of literary criticism, but criticizing the very thing one is trying to promote is not only counterproductive but insanely stupid. There is a time and a place for everything, and the place for negative criticism of Howard's work is in a scholarly literary journal or a competitor's magazine, not in a publication which professes to exalt Howard's literature and artistry.

Speaking of treating the literature and its author respectfully, one of the things which has been nagging at me is Cross Plains Comics' seeming preoccupation with suicide in their books. First Myth Maker with "The Tempter" and now Wolfshead with Russian roulette. Using Howard's suicide as a shock device, as an easy plot element, or as something that one feels free to do because it is something Howard can be blamed for is shameless and just plain wrong. Utilizing suicide as something that is a genuine part of the borrowed character's make-up or important to the story is appropriate, but this is not what CPC has done. Suicide is not essential to any of the stories or characters in either comic book and is used merely as a gimmick to create a mood. Worse, suicidal resignation is contrary to Howard's conception of his characters. Most of Howard's characters are vibrant with life, fiercely struggling to live and to embrace life's brief pleasures... even in the face of, or especially in the face of overwhelming odds and ultimate futility. Further, it is a well known fact that Howard's suicide has been used to discredit the author and to denigrate his work. Why CPC would use such a sensitive and potentially damaging motif in their books is beyond me. It's almost as if CPC hasn't given any thought to uplifting Howard's literary reputation or how a poor literary reputation might damage their ability to sell Howard related books.

In conclusion, Wolfshead is certainly not the "definitive REH adaptation" that Cross Plains Comics claimed it's striving to produce. Although marginally better than CPC's Myth Maker from a dramatic point of view, it is never-the-less poorly written, disappointingly mediocre, and riddled with disgraceful mistakes.







 
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