TV: Should Jews save the werewolf from extinction?

Although few people in the Jewish community noticed, on May 2, 2000, a watershed event occurred: The last in a long line of Jewish werewolves disappeared when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the wildly popular vampire dramedy series, said goodbye to Oz, the character played by Seth Green. Oz left the show explaining that he had to go off to learn how to “control the wolf within.”

With this, a 60-year-long thematic liaison between Jews and werewolves ended. In fact, the whole werewolf myth seems to be in jeopardy. In this age of sophisticated computer graphics, werewolves have become steroid-bulked but ultimately vapid monsters – second fiddles to vampires. (Witness 2004’s pitiable “Van Helsing,” the year’s 16th-place box office finisher.)

The decline of the modern-day werewolf should be of concern, since it is largely a metaphor for being Jewish in the 20th century. Consider the modern werewolf narrative: A hairy young outsider becomes saddled with an identity he doesn’t want or particularly like, the meaning of which is told to him by an old European lady speaking a lot of mumbo jumbo. He is in love with a blonde girl who loves him back, but their love is doomed. Eventually he gets chased and killed by a bunch of peasants with pitchforks and torches. And, oh, yes, he feasts on human blood, but it’s not his fault.

The parallels between Jewish ideas of how non-Jews perceived us and the lifecycle of the werewolf aren’t surprising, considering that Jews effectively created the modern werewolf. Given how much has changed for Jews over the past half-century, should we try to save the werewolf or let him wander off into the California sunset?
From ancient Greece on, there have been stories of people who willingly or unwillingly became wolves. Yet, most of what you know about werewolves comes from Hollywood. In 1940, a producer at Universal Pictures told Curt Siodmak to write a werewolf picture.

Siodmak was a German Jew who had fled his native country in 1933 after hearing a virulently anti-Semitic speech by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Several silent films as well as one talkie on the subject had been made between 1913 and 1940, but none had been commercially successful. “The Wolf Man” was wildly so, and quickly became the template for future werewolf tales.
Most of the werewolf traits familiar to contemporary readers come from Siodmak’s films — including, most fundamentally, the transformation of the werewolf into not just a sympathetic figure but also the very subject through whose perspective the action is seen.

In fact, Siodmak wrote an early draft of the script in which the lead actor was only seen as the Wolf Man through his own perspective, reflected in ponds of water and so forth so that it would never be clear to the audience whether his transformation was real or psychological. Siodmak made the werewolf into the classic existentialist anti-hero. In later years, Siodmak slipped up in at least one interview and said that “The Wolf Man” was set in Germany, although it is in fact set in Wales. Still, Siodmak kept his Jewish references close to the vest.

By contrast, the most explicitly Jewish treatment of the werewolf by Hollywood is John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London.” Yet it makes constant reference to Siodmak’s wolf man. In “American Werewolf,” Jewish American kids David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played respectively by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are on a European road trip. While in the moors of Wales, Jack is killed and David becomes the titular beast after surviving the attack. In an interview, Landis said that though he used a less Jewishly evocative setting of Wales for his film (at least for the early scenes), the idea for “American Werewolf” came to him while he was in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, despite the setting, Landis did not shy away from the kinds of parallels to European Jewish history that Siodmak left implicit: While David is in the hospital recovering from his wounds, he has a dream in which he is back at home with his family in America; the doorbell rings, and in come Nazi-clad wolf monsters who murder David’s family before his eyes.

What is one to make of the young Jewish man’s transformation into a beast identified with the Jew haters of Europe? Landis called the transformation into a werewolf a metaphor for teenage male sexuality. But there is also a quality of adolescent revenge fantasy found in the werewolf tale. In fact, Landis said that fantasies and nightmares of death at the hands of the Nazis were part of his own psychic landscape as a boy growing up in the 1950s. In the fantasy world of the werewolf movie, the Jew, or Jew surrogate, becomes as dangerous and powerful as his tormentors.

Landis wasn’t the first to see an allegory for adolescence in the werewolf’s transformation. In 1957, Herman Cohen cast a young Michael Landon in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.” In fact, the teenage werewolf is a subspecies until itself with 1985’s underappreciated movie “Teen Wolf” and the fabulous Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” as prominent examples.

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the apex of the trend that saw adolescence and monstrosity play off each other. Unfortunately, “Buffy,” though marvelous in many ways, shied away from questions of ethnicity. The fictional Sunnydale, Calif., was a multihued but ultimately pareve town, except for the higher-than-average number of supernatural creatures that lived there.

And Oz was the kind of Jewish werewolf that Birthright Israel might be aimed at attracting: If his character was meant to be Jewish, it was strictly an accident of birth. His Jewishness seems to have extended only as far as being sensitive, smart and short. He was good looking, a guitar player and un-Jewishly laconic. And being Jewish no longer qualified him as an outsider. Oz would never have had nightmares of anti-Semitic violence.

Therein lies his failure as a werewolf: North American Jews of the “Buffy” generation are so comfortable in their skins, they don’t need to put on fur. At least not in the presence of non-Jews.

So if the werewolf is no longer a viable metaphor for Jewish life among non-Jews, why should Jews go out of their way to preserve it? Let werewolves join self-help groups where they can learn to be normal members of society, ? la Oz?

Mark of the Werewolf

In the 1970s — dubbed "the Bronze Age" by comic book historians — I was a kid living in Canarsie, Brooklyn, N.Y., where, every week, I blew my allowance on Marvel Comics. What I didn’t know at the time was that Don Perlin, a Canarsie native, was illustrating some of those books in my very neighborhood — at one point, on my block! With next week’s San Diego ComiCon International, the nation’s biggest comic book convention (Aug. 1-4), I reached my childhood hero by phone at his Jacksonville, Fla. residence.

Born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to refugees of the Russo-Japanese war, Perlin moved to Canarsie at age 3. Aside from his years in the Army and a brief residency in Crown Heights, N.Y., Perlin lived in Canarsie until 1996.

"When I was a kid, I thought it was the greatest place," Perlin, 74, said of the then-Jewish/Italian neighborhood. "We had big empty blocks. It was a lot freer than the city."

Perlin’s grandparents and mother spoke Yiddish. His grandfather would teach Perlin the Aleph Bet and the Chumash.

But Perlin was encouraged to practice something other than Judaism: "I always wanted to draw," Perlin said. "It was the one thing I did the best. Other than that, nothing outstanding. Except I was good-looking."

Perlin got his start in the 1950s, employed by legendary cartoonist Will Eisner, and later Eisner’s ex-business partner, Jerry Iger, to do menial work. Iger fired Perlin, telling the aspiring cartoonist that he couldn’t rule a straight line. A determined Perlin put a portfolio together and marched back into Iger’s studio, landing a staff artist position.

Perlin began drawing and inking Western, horror and "big foot" (humor) comics for all of the majors. In between, he supported his wife and three kids on gigs such as designing box labels.

In 1972, Perlin returned to Marvel, at the height of company’s monster craze. In 1973, Perlin began to work on "Werewolf By Night," a monthly series in which Perlin and Doug Moench chronicled the angst-ridden exploits of Malibu resident Jack Russell, who wrestled with lycanthropy during a full moon.

Perlin took over the werewolf saga with issue 17, following popular artists such as Mike Ploog.

"The kids loved Ploog, and they weren’t too happy to see me get in there," Perlin recalled. Heated debate over Perlin’s art filled the letter columns in "Werewolf." Perlin got it from the top, too.

"You can’t have him running around like Captain America," Perlin said he was told by one Marvel executive, who proceeded to demonstrate a werewolf’s lope by running and jumping atop the office furniture.

Despite the hubbub, Perlin modified the Werewolf’s design and made the book his own with a savage, almost primitive imprimatur. "Werewolf" sold well, before culminating with issue 43 in 1977.

In the 1980s, Perlin pulled long stints on "Ghost Rider" and "Defenders," wherein writer J.M. DeMatties became obsessed with the superhero team’s soap opera relationships. Perlin became a master of showing costumed superheroes crying over love lost. Again, readers complained. The editors forced DeMatties and Perlin to re-focus their energies on superheroics. Perlin admired DeMatties’ conviction but admitted, "You’ve got to remember who you’ve got reading this stuff. They weren’t getting the sales on it. It’s what cost us the book."

Perlin was an original artist on two toy-inspired titles that, this year, have enjoyed major revivals: "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers."

"The ‘Transformers’ was probably one of my most difficult books," said Perlin, the guy whom Iger claimed couldn’t rule a straight line, and was now assigned to sketch scores of robots. To Perlin’s relief, Marvel graduated him to managing art director (1987-1990).

At Marvel, Perlin co-created two popular superheroes: Moon Knight and Gargoyle. While his Marvel days have eclipsed the rest of his career, Perlin feels that his best work came in the 1990s on Acclaim titles such as "Bloodshot" and "Timewalker."

Looking back over his career, Perlin remembers his favorite artists, including his mentor, revered artist Brune Hogarth.

"When people ask me who is my favorite cartoonist, I answer ‘God.’ Just look around at all the characters he created."

In 1996, Perlin relocated with wife, Becky, to Jacksonville, where he now serves as president of National Cartoonist Society’s (NCS) Florida chapter. Perlin, who for years drew werewolves running amok through Los Angeles, has only visited our city once — in 1997, to collect his Reuben Award from the NCS. Even then, he never left his Pasadena hotel.

Perlin’s career has had its ups and downs. Yet he still freelances. When asked about his profession’s rewards, he quoted his favorite adage: "Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life."