THE JOURNAL

A BIRTHRIGHT TO KILL
On censored comics and the werewolves of Canaan
By Eli Valley 


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Like the Bible, comics are twisted dreamscapes.  For a time, these dreamscapes were pure, kinetic visual passion, unbound by rules of propriety. Then, in 1954, after ceaseless harassment by government and church leaders outraged over comics' often horrific, violent and even politically subversive content, the industry began regulating (read: censoring) itself via the Comics Code Authority.  Almost overnight, an era vanished.



For years, I associated the pre-code landscape with the pinnacle work of EC Comics -- Crime Suspense Stories, Tales From the Crypt, Weird Science, MAD and so many others.  They attracted the best artists in the industry (and, one could argue, the universe), and their stories were considered the most refined.  But another current of pre-code titles has recently gained attention in volumes like Four Color FearThe Horror! The Horror!, or the entire mouth-watering run of PS Artbooks.



These titles weren't as famous as EC Comics; sometimes they were shoddily drawn, often the stories went nowhere.  But what they lacked in presentation they more than made up for by BEING COMPLETELY INSANE.

Whereas EC stories stuck to rigid narrative norms (uniform lengths, twist endings, moral comeuppance), the also-rans were a murkier lot.  Plots ended abruptly with scant rationale; art was often lush but frequently was hasty, primitive and primal; characters were sketchy in every sense of the term.  And yet, these same traits lent the comics an air of scrappy, often expressionistic wonder.  Read together, they become intoxicating visual bedlam; hallucinations indulging barely-sublimated terrors, mysterious compulsions and paralyzing urges; irrational tales that barrel headstrong into the realm of wondrous art.
 
Again, like Bible stories.
 
What if we were to mix the two dreamscapes, allowing one genre to act as midrash on the other?

And so we come to two brothers and a Birthright.  On the one hand, Jacob and Esau -- one a city dweller, the other an inveterate hunter -- warring over a Birthright.  On the other hand, two other brothers in a little-known story called "THE WEREWOLF MUST KILL!" from "Black Cat Mystery" Number 30, August, 1951.  (As is often the case with these lesser-known titles, the author is not recorded; pencils and inks were by Lee Elias.)

The story could easily be retitled "A Birthright to Kill."
 
It starts off with shocking violence -- mostly wordless, involving a defenseless elderly woman.

You see a werewolf attacking a horse, and you assume, okay, he's hungry for horse meat.  That happens in the wild.  But then it just gets uglier.  He attacks the woman, kills her without explanation, and then, satiated, howls at the moon.

Turn the page and we meet the werewolf's human form -- but not only is he still thinking like a wolf, he's even chastising himself about how he should've attacked the woman first!

Robert Lupine is the wolf, in every respect: an animal with no capacity for self-correction or contrition.  In the story of Jacob and Esau, Esau is consistently described as an animal:

Note Robert's fine clothes, just like the "goodly raiment" described elsewhere in the Bible.  Robert Lupine is Esau.  Where's Jacob though?  Read on:

Ches, the effete and "mild" brother living in the city just as Jacob "stayed in camp," is depicted as the opposite of animalistic: sophisticated, refined, striving for domesticity and preparing to introduce his brother to his fiance.  What could possibly go wrong?  Note how Ches describes Esau, I mean Robert, as having "changed after a hunting trip."

Then in the following panel, when Ches speaks of the legend of the wolf, we get hints of the idea of a Birthright -- and how the Birthright will change a person, and maybe turn them into a hunter themselves.

Beneath it all, as in the Biblical narrative, is intimations of a stolen Birthright, and the question of how this might cause one soul to transmigrate into another.

Side point: look how nice Ches looks when they come out to the country -- very fine raiments indeed, especially for living by yourself in the country.

The next day they go outside, and and as soon as Esau sees a deer, he loses it completely, not even waiting until he gets off the horse to turn into a wolf and hurry back to devour some venison.

We recall that venison is the specialty cherished by Isaac, Jacob and Esau's father.  It's the connection to the Birthright and one reason Esau holds such a special place in his heart.

In the midst of the venison carnage, Jacob/Ches shoots Esau/Robert, injuring his brother's hand -- an important touch, as we'll soon see.

But the plot continues with Robert eating the woman that his brother had hoped he would take a liking to and marry.  He's clearly not a very sociable man.

Then, “Later that night,” this happens:

Ches is bitten on the same hand...

That he'd injured on his brother earlier.

It is as if the hands signify the transmigration of a Birthright.  This should hardly be surprising, as the same thing happens in the Jacob/Esau story:

Jacob becomes an animal, like his brother, only after his mother dresses his hands in hairy animal hides.

In fact, in the entire story, the only other circle-shaped panel ....


... occurs earlier, when Ches talks about how the Birthright is passed on through being bitten.  Aside from the text and the circle frame, note the dominance of hands in this panel:

In any event, Ches throws his brother off the roof, and he’s impaled on the stone fence.

 

In a normal horror story, this would be the ending:

Ches realizes the werewolf was his brother all along.  He decides his brother has found peace at last.  And they have “relief that the horror has come to an end at last.”

But this is not a normal horror story.  This is a dreamscape comic, the kind that existed prior to the institution of the Comics Code Authority.  These stories were simply madness, unbound by rules or conventions, a place where good does not necessarily triumph.

And so we see Ches, or Jacob, changing before our eyes...

... because he has inherited the Birthright...

... and has become an animal like his brother once was.

The narrative ends with a corny appeal to the reader, but note the reference to “BLOOD,” reminiscent, in the Jacob/Esau story, of a hunter’s bloodlust as well as the blood of Birthright.

The introduction to the story also references blood -- “His bloodthirst appeased only by his cannibalistic attacks!”

Throughout the story, you're reminded of this in images of the blood-red tongue hanging out at all times.

The colorist even tried to do it here, as he’s climbing in the window.

And then sure enough, when the brother turns...

... he has inherited the tongue, dripping blood red.

Also, if you go back to an earlier panel, you see blood, but also how Ches's face is changing, becoming hairy, and his hand is changing too ...

Reminiscent, again, of altered hands.

It’s as if Jacob is already becoming his brother Esau.  And that comes back to the idea of a Birth-Right or Birth-Curse.

It’s implied, or you can surmise the way we often surmise with Biblical stories, that the werewolf brother is living in his father’s home, because clearly doesn’t have a job, he just turns into a werewolf and hunts and kills...

So when his brother kills him, the assumption is he will inherit the mansion -- and therefore the Birthright, just as Jacob inherited his brother's Birthright.

But Ches has inherited not only property, but propensity.  He has inherited animalism.  After all, in the Bible, Jacob’s trickery shows him to be an even bigger hunter than Esau.

It also touches on another aspect of transmigration: Isaac was so traumatized at nearly being slaughtered like a sheep that he spent his life in an animal state.  Isaac is an animal, and to get his blessing, you must become an animal yourself.  Maybe the process of turning into an animal IS the Birthright.

Just like in the Bible, this story conflates the idea of a Birthright with a Birth-Curse.

Jacob was terrified of receiving a curse instead of a blessing.

And in the end, you’re left wondering whether Jacob inherited a blessing, a curse, or both.

But in this story from "Black Cat Mystery," it is clear that the birthright is the curse.

Postscript: It should be clear from this the passion I feel for the twin obsessions of Jewish texts and comics narrative, which make up the inspirational stew of my work.  My recent comic, a revisiting of the Golem story for Halloween called "The Diary of Dr. Loewenstein," was likewise inspired by notions of Birthrights, Birthcurses, and dual identities.

The comic plays with Zionist notions of rebirth, and specifically with Jewish self-conceptions of power and self-determination in the state of Israel.

But as the story unfolds, it becomes evident that as much as early Zionist ideology bifurcated Jewish identity into Hunter and Hunted, and insisted that modern Israel gave Jews a Birthright of self-confidence to supplant the perceived weakness of Diaspora...

... both traits are equally present in modern Israel.  In fact, self-perceptions of powerlessness inform self-conceptions of power.  As David Ben Gurion implies early on in the comic, they are each an eternal Birthright and a Birthcurse.

And with the words of an imagined Ben Gurion, we draw this midrash to a close.