Discomfort Food Comics: Capwolf by Scott Modrzynski

Capwolf is a concept I’ve been aware of since the final chapter of the six-issue arc debuted some thirty years ago. There he was on the cover of Captain America #407, this brown wolfman in a tattered star-spangled costume, lunging at Cable of all people, who is obviously double-fisting perfectly balanced firearms and shouting, “Back off, fur-face!” The 1992-ness of this comic is amplified with appearances by both Wolverine and a mysterious leather-and-metal clad character in the background, with the bottom of the page posing the question, “WHO WILL BE LORD OF THE WOLVES?” X-Factor’s Wolfsbane is also there, photobombing what would be the apex of 90s excess if it only included a Crystal Pepsi-chugging Ghost Rider drawn by Rob Liefeld.

I refused to fetch this desperate, ridiculous bone, but now that I’ve found it three decades later, I can state with full authority that I missed out on a lot of meat. “Man and Wolf” is the whole rack of ribs, a terrific read, and not ironically so, even though there’s a kennel of crazy packed into these half-dozen issues that would serve as an accurate time capsule of its era.

By edict, Wolverine is inserted into the story within three pages of the opening sequence, a classic on-the-run, hide-and-seek scene ripped from every werewolf chase ever committed to film or paper. His role is minimal, but he gets strong billing with appearances on four out of six covers. (Money money money.) Then of course, there’s the obligatory appearance by 1992’s favorite son, Cable, at the tail end of the arc, which also happens to be his first meeting with Steve Rogers.

Moonhunter – that’s his real surname! – sports a metallic mask with a dreadlocks weave to go with comically ambiguous armor underneath a leather jacket and pouches-galore ensemble. His co-worker, Dr. Nightshade, not to be outdone, rocks a bodysuit and gimp mask studded with spikes everywhere you’d expect, except, she was outdone, because Moonhunter’s whip is a Transformers Triple Changer* that is equal parts sky cycle and drone, with dual scythes in place of a front wheel. 

*Robot form not shown on panel.

Rounding out our cast is the poor man’s Dr. Strange, Dr. Druid, who plays an integral role, first, by showing off the restorative effects of Dimoxinil with a ponytail* that is sadly not long for the world, then moving the plot along, and finally, resurrecting himself through “sheer force of will.” (Oh, spoilers, I guess. Sorry.) It’s the kind of power move that makes you wonder if writer Mark Gruenwald had a special place in his heart for this misfit. 

*The previously middle-aged Druid was repackaged by Roy Thomas in Avengers Spotlight #37, and made a handful of subsequent appearances in Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, also by Thomas, and Gruenwald’s Quasar, all within two years prior to the good doctor’s “Man and Wolf” visit.

That said, we haven’t even touched on the reason we’re all here: Steve Rogers turns into a werewolf. If this arc was re-released today with brand new visuals, it could be an amazing horror comic. Although Rik Levins’ pencils are fine – his cover to #405 is an all-time classic – and the choice to color Cap’s fur blonde has an internal logic to it, Capwolf looks like a dopey Collie for all four issues he’s in canine form.

The paint-by-numbers coloring process doesn’t help distinguish the adventure as anything other than your standard cafeteria-issued superhero sloppy joe. A limited color palette would do wonders for this story, but the greatness lies in the writing.

Gruenwald was famous for his vast knowledge of continuity and characters. Pulling costumes from Marvel’s chest of obscurity was a favorite pastime of his.

The main antagonist of “Man and Wolf” is Dredmund the Druid, a cut so deep you’d have to visit 1981 for his most recent appearance. (And before that, it was two issues in 1966, followed by another pair in ’75. That’s it. That’s his bibliography.) In earlier installments of Captain America, it was Gruenwald who exhumed a number of dead weight super-villains, only to be buried once more when Scourge(s) murdered them. Later, would-be world dominatrix Superia gathered dozens of underused female antagonists – including cameos by X-Men dregs Arclight, Frenzy, and Whiteout – during “The Superia Stratagem,” 1991’s six-part Captain America summer event. (Like many Marvel titles, Captain America shipped twice-monthly during the summer months.)

That latter storyline also included Dr. Nightshade, a lackey of Superia’s charged with turning Cap and Paladin into women. Some would breathe a sigh of relief that it never happened, but seeing Steve Rogers as a lady, even just for a few panels, would have gone down as one of the most talked about moments in the 90s. It’s funny to think that only a year later, we got such a moment under similar circumstances, with a serum administered by Nightshade, transforming the Star-Spangled Avenger into Halloween Lassie.

Werewolf potion sounds completely out of left field, but Nightshade was originally billed as “Queen of the Werewolves” in her debut issue, Captain America and the Falcon #164, by Steve Englehart, where she administered the exact same type of juice to Sam Wilson. It’s a relatively pedestrian issue, more monster-of-the-week than anything else, but it’s clearly something Gruenwald read and latched onto, expanding it into this wild summertime run.

An appreciation for mining old content wasn’t Gruenwald’s only trick, though. The through line here is Cap’s indomitable will. The plot moves as Cap is looking for John Jameson, the former Man-Wolf and Rogers’ current pilot. He fights through Moonhunter and a literal town of wolves, all in an effort to find his buddy. 

Cap’s thoughts and speech are stunted when he’s transformed himself, his now-red internal monologue balloons designed with… so many… ellipses… and… jagged edges… to visualize his resilience. Another pack of wolves, a mind-controlled Wolverine (go figure!), and a second round with Moonhunter aren’t enough to slow our hero down.

He’s eventually captured – Queen of the Werewolves Dr. Nightshade’s soothing voice and a good scratch behind the ears is enough to calm the lupine hero – and tossed into the pit. There, he doghandles the alpha (Jameson, as Man-Wolf) and becomes leader of the pack. Maybe it’s the 2020 talking, but the ensuing speech hits hard, even if it’s told with a Scooby-Doo accent.

“Rrrneed to rrrbe freerrr. Rrrnot locked uprrr… because we rrrrefuse to obery rrrlaws set by rrrtown leaderrrrr! Rrrimprisonment unlawful… rrrcharged with rrrno crime! Rrrrwe can be frrrrree if we join togetherrrrr!”

Then, in an office-mandated, after-hours team-building exercise, the wolves form a were-pyramid for Cap to climb in order to reach the ceiling door and freedom. The combination of his dual serums – super soldier and werewolf – would almost be enough to snap the lock, but it’s his spirit that does the rest. Then he goes off to beat the hell out of Dredmund, who has become a cosmic spacewolf, every bit awesome as it is campy.

You read that correctly. Cosmic. Space. Werewolf. He calls himself Comet and moves to San Francisco, forever tying the 616 to Full House continuity.

No, no. It’d be easy for “Man and Wolf” to run away from Gruenwald, but he knew when to back off on the bonkers, as seen in the muted D-Man subplot, and when to RKO modesty from out of nowhere, whether it was coming up with titles like “Dances with Werewolves” in #405, or explaining how Dredmund’s plot rid the world of humanity for a more natural order began with “weekend seminars on getting in touch with your hairy selves.”

Gruenwald also knew when to not waste any time at all, like in #408, when status quo reset itself. The issue doubles as an Infinity War tie-in, but in a matter of three pages, Cap meets and dispatches his dark reflection. The doppelganger Cap melts away as quickly on-panel as in our minds. Turns out there’s some nonsense even Mark Gruenwald couldn’t be bothered with.

––

Scott Modrzynski is an art director and graphic designer. He used to be homeless, and sometimes, he agrees that a simpler, more natural order is a better alternative to the stresses of modern civilization.

Editor Dave Shevlin Barging In Note: We covered this amazing story on the podcast here.

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