SPOTLIGHT ON

NIGHT FORCE #3
(OCTOBER 1982)

 

 
 

"The Summoning, Chapter III: Journeys"

(23 pages)

Cover pencils - Gene Colan
Cover inks -
Bob Smith

Story - Marv Wolfman
Art - Gene Colan
Inks - Bob Smith
Colours - Michele Wolfman
Lettering - John Costanza
Editor - Dick Giordano (Managing), Marv Wolfman

on sale 22 June 1982


STORY OVERVIEW - When Vanessa Van Helsing, great granddaughter of the famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, is kidnapped by shadowy forces from behind the Iron Curtain, Baron Winter sends Jack Gold, a down on his luck journalist, and Donovan Caine, an African American parapsychologist - who both seem to hate each other at first sight - first to London and then into the depths of Siberia to rescue her.


 
 

THE SUPERNATURAL COMIC BOOK TITLE OUT OF TIME

It was late 1980, and "Gentleman" Gene Colan was leaving Marvel for DC, feeling miserable after a protracted struggle he had endured with Jim Shooter since the latter had become editor-in-chief in 1978 (Irving, 2010). At DC, he met up again with Marv Wolfman, who himself had left Marvel (also mostly due to Shooter) a few months prior to Colan - as had other major Marvel alumni, including Roy Thomas. Shooter was not only tightening the reigns at Marvel but also pushing his own perception of what a good comic book was, and the resulting fallout was enormous (Howe, 2012).

DC was determined to make the most of Colan's shadowy and moody visuals, and immediately assigned him to Detective Comics and Batman (where Gene Colan was formally introduced to the DC readership on the splashpage of Batman #340, cover dated October 1981 but on sale as of 16 June 1981).

 
Spotlighting the exodus of A-list creative talent from Marvel to its ranks, DC was also eager to promote the reunion of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, who of course had been nothing short of a "dream team" back in the 1970s on Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.

There was, however, a slight problem with this - to all intents and purposes the horror genre had withered and died away by the time Colan and Wolfman left Marvel.

Nevertheless, Wolfman felt confident that a supernatural-themed comic book could still be successful, and DC gave it all the publicity it could while also resorting to a somewhat unusual introduction of the Night Force - as a 16 page preview in New Teen Titans #21 (a title with which Wolfman was enjoying a highly successful run at the time, thus giving the project an extra boost).

 


Preview in New Teen Titans #21 (July 1982)

 
Ultimately, DC blew its trumpet on Night Force in a way which was highly reminiscent of the Marvel hyperbole of the 1970s.
 
 

It wouldn't be the only thing that would remind those in the know of Marvel when Night Force #1 went on sale May 20th 1982, cover dated for August 1982. As a matter of fact, Marv Wolfman himself brought up more parallel lines in a first-issue-editorial.

After an overview of the history of horror comics, Wolfman dedicated no less than three entire paragraphs to highlighting the (undisputed) merits of Tomb of Dracula before pointing out that

"not only did Gene [Colan] and I come to DC, but so did Dracula's virtually full-time letterer, John Costanza (...) Also, Dracula's colorist, Michele Wolfman (yes, my wife!) has returned to the dye-pot to add the proper mood we seek."

Although Wolfman emphasized repeatedly that "Night Force is something different in comics", readers could probably be forgiven for thus expecting this creative team to somehow continue the legacy of Tomb of Dracula (Francoeur, 2013). The fact that one of the main characters introduced in this first issue was Vanessa Van Helsing, great granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing (which made her a sister of Rachel Van Helsing from Tomb of Dracula) didn't disperse any such expectations either.

 

All in all, it looked a lot like "flipping the bat" (forgive the pun) to Jim Shooter at Marvel - as indeed a lot of fans were quite expecting to see, given that the discontent and even hurt felt by Wolfman and Colan was no secret.

 
But the fact of the matter was that Wolfman meant what he said - Night Force was to be a totally different type of mystery plus horror plus supernatural title.

"Suffice it to say that THE NIGHT FORCE is something new, something very different, something risky, and something we are all very proud of. Will we succeed? I don't know. Horror comics are on the outs today, yet we feel this is more than a horror comic. We have adventure, thrills, and more importantly, stories about people." (Wolfman, 1982)

 
 
At the centre of the Night Force was Baron Winters, a mysterious sorcerer who lives in eerie Wintersgate Manor, located in the Georgetown area of Washington DC. The building functions as a gateway portal to different locations and time periods, enabling the Baron to move to any other location and/or time era - with the exception of actually just stepping out onto the lawn around Wintersgate Manor in the here and now, where he was somehow restricted to dwelling inside the manor's walls.
 
 

REVIEW & ANALYSIS

 
Night Force #3 starts out in Washington DC, from where the mysterious Baron Winter sends a journalist who has fallen on hard times (Jack Gold) and an African American parapsychologist (Donovan Caine) to London, from where their assignment - to find and free kidnapped Vanessa Van Helsing, great granddaughter of the famous vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing - takes them behind the Iron Curtain to Siberia.

Obviously still an early issue in the series, Night Force #3 highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying concept in an almost exemplary way. Everything seems to be "as well as": the plot moves fast but feels strangely disoriented, the characterization of Gold and Caine and their clear disliking of each other goes from interesting to tedious rather quickly, and the mystery behind both the Baron and Vanessa Van Helsing is both intriguing and lifeless at the same time.

In spite of the creative talent involved and Wolfman's enthusiasm, Night Force didn't work as intended. There are some die-hard fans who will disagree, but the ultimate proof of the pudding for comic books is early cancellation, and in the case of Night Force this came after 14 issues - even though Marv Wolfman saw the reason for this in a substantially wrong perception of the sales figures.

"DC wanted to have Night Force be one of the first direct-sales books, where I believed it should be newsstand only. I felt the comic shops appealed primarily to the superhero fans while Night Force would appeal more to the casual mainstream reader, who might not have bought comics otherwise. We got the comic-book shops' sales early and it was cancelled based on those, but when the newsstand sales finally dribbled in we actually sold pretty well." (Marv Wolfman, in Kingman 2008)

So did DC let the axe come down somewhat prematurely? The real question is: was DC looking to put out a series that wouldn't sell too well but be critically hailed as a groundbreaking milestone of innovation in comic books? And if so, would they be happy to put the "masters of the macabre", just recently lured away from rival Marvel, to work on such a title? It is hard to see any of that holding much appeal for DC, who clearly wanted Wolfman and Colan to come up with a series that would be as successful as the one they had put out for Marvel with Tomb of Dracula.

But that wasn't going to happen. The high tide of the horror genre in comic books had come and, most importantly and unfortunately for Night Force, gone. The decision makers at DC had probably hoped for some sort of revival, but a series that had a number of problems almost built into its DNA was not going to trigger that - something that Marv Wolfman himself was very much aware of and frank about.

 


Night Force (vol 1) #1
(July 1982)

  One central problem that plagued the series from its outset was the lack of a stable and regular cast of characters - even though the revolving door concept as explained by Wolfman made sense and sounded perfectly good and interesting.

"There are regular characters, but then again, there aren't. You see, the Baron will call together his Night Force as he needs them. Someone may be called in for one storyline but they might not be needed for the next." (Wolfman, 1982)

Unfortunately, it didn't work the way it was intended to, which was primarily due to the fact that the pivotal persona - Baron Winters - was often so vague and even elusive that he ultimately provided a very weak link to the various other characters and storylines.

"Baron Winters is obsessed with the balance of good and evil. He doesn’t really care which side comes out victorious in individual battles, as it doesn’t matter, as long as things are balanced." (Marv Wolfman, in Salvatore 2018)

"I was planning to do some kind of origin [of Baron Winters] at some point but I always felt that you'd never know if anything Winters said was true or not." (Marv Wolfman, in Kingman 2008)

 
This reason for his ambiguity, however, was never explicitly revealed nor explained at the time of the original Night Force run, and what started out as an initially intriguing plot device soon turned into a somewhat annoying suspicion that all those dangling questions would most likely never be answered.

Asked years later in an interview if Wolfman was planning on revealing the reason for Winters' inability to actually leave Wintersgate Manor, his answer still kept the question marks floating.

"I had my reasons; they were part of the bible I wrote. But no, I won’t share them until I’m given the opportunity to do another series, if that ever happens." (Marv Wolfman, in NN 2008)

Wolfman did actually get the opportunity, in 2012, when DC once again brought back Night Force (after a previous - and failed - revival in 1996/97). However, he once more chose to keep the key to that mystery to himself.

The same lack of definition also extended to the characters making up the Night Force team of the first story.

 


Page 24, Night Force #3

  This was a shame and also not really understandable, since a double page feature at the end of Night Force #3 spelled out and illustrated the enormous amount of preparation and design studies by Wolfman and Colan that had gone into the creation of characters and the setting of the title.

But somehow, most of those intricate and deep conceptual ideas simply did not translate into characterization or a plot that pulled readers in. Night Force #3 is a good example; the initial pages are intriguing and create an interest in the story to unfold, but once the actual events get into gear and the characters start to move on within the storyline, it all begins to feel strangely detached.

Given the creative team involved, it seems safe to assume that a fairly large number of readers really wanted to like this comic book, but for some reason it just wasn't easy to do so, and the lack of a central cast of interesting and engaging characters certainly didn't help.

 


Page 25, Night Force #3

 
Wolfman was acutely aware of the problem, and brought it up in the letters column of Night Force #2 when he was telling readers (again) about the potential tripwires the title faced [bold highlight added for this write-up].
 
  "Our second strike against us (as the experts tell us) is our lack of a regular cast. They say readers want characters to be in every issue. They want their heroes clear cut. Well, THE NIGHT FORCE has neither (...) That might prove to be a problem, but we think it's one of our greatest strengths (...) Our heroes are not always heroes in the strictest sense of the word, therefore two more strikes against us (or so the experts say)." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)
 
Experts aren't always right, but on this occasion, and unlike what Wolfman was suggesting/hoping, they may have not been entirely off the mark.
 
Another problem was an extremely extended first story arc. Including the preview in New Teen Titans #21, it took eight and a half issues to tell, which ven by today's standards (where writers plan their stories in five or six issue segments in order to fit the trade paperback format) is a highly strung out storyline. But in 1982, an introductory storyline spread out over 9 months of real time was, quite simply, way out there.
 


Splashpage, Night Force #3

  The problem with this approach was that it required readers to really be (and remain) invested in the characters and the tale that Wolfman and Colan were presenting to them. If they weren’t drawn in after the first few issues, they would drop off, most likely never to return.

At the same time, such a long initial story arc meant that if Night Force #3 was the first issue of the series you picked up, you might have a problem getting into things as there was no real recap of previous events worth mentioning.

Given the type of plot Wolfman was weaving (one that was aimed at a more mature readership), this was actually understandable, but the extended length of the initial arc amplified the risk of not enabling new readers to come on board late and still understand what was going on. It also meant that new readers couldn't be banked on to make up for those who had left after a few issues.

 


Page 3, Night Force #3

 
Marv Wolfman highlighted the problems associated with this concept mself in the letters column of Night Force #2 [again, bold highlights added for this write-up].
 
  "Our stories are multi-part stories. They require you to be with us every issue. And since we're not recapping everything on page two (as most comics do) we're not making it easy for new readers (although we believe new readers can pick up the storyline at any rate)." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)
 
Of course Wolfman had good creative reasons for such an approach.

"In most comics change comes slowly if at all. Not so here. One of the reasons is the approach we're taking. Each story, as we stated, takes several issues. They will progress like a novel; characters will change during the course of the storyline (...) This is radically different from the way comics are usually handled, and this is the one thing we're proudest of in our new creation." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)

 
Unfortunately for Wolfman and DC, it was another innovative gamble that simply didn't pay off.
 
Another problem was rooted in the fact that Tomb of Dracula cast too long a shadow over the series. It must have been clear to everyone right from the beginning that a horror/supernatural title by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan would instantly and continuously be compared to Tomb of Dracula. There was no way of ignoring this, and it would always be something of a tightrope walk (not the least since DC's public relations people were clearly pushing the "Wolfman-Colan-Horror" clout).

"I was looking for another book to do and felt I’d like to create my own horror title and push the boundaries a bit more than I had with Tomb of Dracula. I really wanted to try something different (...) The idea was to write for the older audience, with darker and more realistic stories than had been done at that point." (Marv Wolfman, in Kingman 2008)

The catch 22 here was, of course, that the more Tomb of Dracula got mentioned, the more difficult it became to avoid having everybody compare the two titles.

 
  "Permit me to discuss (...) at some length Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula (...) Modestly, Dracula consistently garnered rave reviews (...) and has since been often hailed as a comics classic. I say modestly because I wrote The Tomb of Dracula for the majority of its run (...) but even that was rivaled and beaten by artist Gene Colan who drew the comic from its very first issue until its last, nine years later (...) Dracula was not cancelled until after I left Marvel and others tried to discover just what it was we did to make succeed what was ostensibly only a vampire comic." (Marv Wolfman, Night Forces, Night Force #1)
 
Wolfman was right about everything he stated there (except that Tomb of Dracula was actually cancelled while he was indeed still at Marvel, providing what was most likely the ultimate fallout with editor in chief Jim Shooter and the straw that broke the camel's back, leading to his departure for DC), yet clearly misjudged the effect of these repeat references to TOD (including the previously quoted reference to its original creative team all being reunited for Night Force). Hints were seen and taken and false expectations raised as a consequence, even if none of it was ever intended that way.
 
But the single biggest mistake in this context must be Wolfman's decision to introduce a character named Vanessa Van Helsing.
 


Night Force (vol 1) #1 (July 1982)
Page 13, introduction of Vanessa Van Helsing's name

  Seen as "a nod to their previous Tomb of Dracula work" (Dallas, 2013), having a persona who was the sister of one of the main characters of Tomb of Dracula (Rachel Van Helsing) almost invalidated any claim that this was not, in no shape or form, intended to be a continuation. At the least, there was now a link.

Wolfman himself encouraged such a view. Right off the bat (again, pardon the pun), in Night Force #1, he introduces Vanessa as a patient at a mental institution in Georgetown.

A few pages later, it is not only revealed that her full name is Vanessa Van Helsing, but this is combined, in the very same panel, with Wolfman's exposition that "almost a century ago her great grandfather faced the forces of fear... and mistakenly believed he had won."

Anybody who had read the final issue of Tomb of Dracula could be forgiven for thinking that this was as direct a reference to the very last panel of that comic book that you could possibly get.

 
Things got even more complicated (some might say convoluted) when Night Force #13 revealed that the Baron was Vanessa's father. The statement as such is made in a context which makes readers assume it's another one of those occasion where the Baron is strategically not telling the truth in order to confuse people, but at least for a moment Wolfman throws out the thought to readers that Baron Winters could be - Abraham Van Helsing's grandson. An impossibility in the context of Bram Stoker's novel, this again leaves only Marvel's Tomb of Dracula (where, of course, Abraham Van Helsing does indeed have a great granddaughter) as reference point.

The crux of all of this was that Night Force had indeed nothing to do with Tomb of Dracula, so any such expectations would lead to disappointment. But then the shadow of the tales of the vampire count loomed big and long over Gene Colan too, who couldn't quite detach himself from his previous work on Tomb of Dracula either.

 

The final panel of page 18 (above) and the first two panels of page 19 (below) from Night Force #3 show Jack Gold and Donovan Caine arriving in London and hailing a cab.

A comparison with the first two panels of page 11 from Tomb of Dracula #24 (right) reveals some striking resemblances.

 
 
Gene Colan's artwork was of the usual high quality, but in comparison to Tomb of Dracula, the "DC house rules" were quite evident and prevented the finished product from having the famous somber and shadowy feel which had made Marvel's title so effective and loved by fans.

"DC was a tough outfit. They wanted an in-house look for all of the artwork, and they wanted the artists to draw somewhat the same." (Irving, 2010)

 

Original artwork by Gene Colan for page 20 of Night Force #3 (scanned from the original), and as it appeared in print;
Note that the pasted word balloon of the first panel had come loose and was subsequently lost over time

 
 

FADING INTO THE NIGHT

 
Night Force was launched with great hopes in early 1982, but ended in all-around disappointment by mid-1983. The only solace for all the creative talent involved was that it hardly came as much of a surprise.

As Marv Wolfman had pointed out so often and repeatedly, Night Force was different. The dissimilarity to most other comic book titles included how its author openly used editorial space to convey the struggles and problems he assumed Night Force may well face.


Night Force #1
(July 1982)


Night Force #3
(October 1982)

 

"In a market that seems not only to want super-heroes, but seemingly wants only super-heroes, a mystery/supernatural/horror comic such as THE NIGHT FORCE is obviously a risky gamble." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)

This even went as far as appealing to readers to really throw in their weight in order to support the title.

"Whether we survive the economic crunch and the current glut of competing comics or not we know we'll have tried our hardest to provide something good, something new, and something we obviously care about a lot. But we need you if we are to survive. You see, THE NIGHT FORCE has so much going against it that we can only hope you people will like us, follow us, and tell your friends about it." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)

Of course Stan Lee had done pretty much the same thing for the past two decades, but his appeals always sounded slick and positive (of course you would want to share the good news with your friends). But Marv Wolfman was far too level headed to resort to any such hyperbole. However, his no frills approach with readers came with the downside that his statements and messages could (and indeed did), at times, take on a rather sombre or even downright negative tone.

"That's a lot of problems, so why did DC go out on the proverbial line and publish such a risky comic? Why turn out a non-super-hero comic? Why simply not follow the lead instead of creating a new approach? Why? Because we think THE NIGHT FORCE is a good comic. It's that simple. We think comic book readers will buy something that is good even if our protagonists don't wear capes. We think solid story-telling, dynamic artwork, and the best product we can turn out will sell. At least we hope so." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #2)

 


Night Force #2
(September 1982)


Night Force #4
(November 1982)

 


Night Force #5
(December 1982)

 


Night Force #6
(January 1983)

 


Night Force #7
(February 1983)

 


Night Force #8
(March 1983)

 
 


Night Force #9
(April 1983)

  But regardless of content quality, the sales figures of Night Force did not match the hopes of Wolfman and the expectations of DC. After seven issues, the length of storylines was changed to more conventional formats.

"Our first storyline is over and our second begins. After this 2-parter, which ends in issue #10, we'll continue doing several shorter yarns - one and two parters at most - before plunging ahead with another multi-parter. Why? Well, despite the incredible mail reaction to THE NIGHT FORCE, sales are a bit sluggish, and we think several smaller stories will help allow new readers to see THE NIGHT FORCE in action before making the demands of another six to eight part novel." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #8)

Clearly the extended initial storyline had cost Night Force quite a few potential and actual readers, and now Wolfman and DC could only hope that the damage could be contained.

 


Night Force #10
(May 1983)

 
But sales continued to indicate that the risks Wolfman had taken (and pointed out repeatedly in issues #1 and #2) had now truly come to not just haunt, but in effect sink the Night Force.

"With our next issue, which concludes the current storyline, THE NIGHT FORCE comes to a sad ending. We just couldn't bring together enough readers to keep NF going." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #13)

Wolfman was at least able to sweeten the bitter news a bit by pointing out that

"NIGHT FORCE isn't dead... starting next year we will be releasing THE NIGHT FORCE as a four-part mini-series, one each year." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #13)

That mini-series would, however, never see the light of day, and so Night Force #14 (September 1983) truly ushered in the end.

"This is it, the final issue of NIGHT FORCE. We leave this title with great regret and sorrow (...) There may be other news concerning THE NIGHT FORCE coming from DC within the next months, so please keep alert. If things pan out, the best is yet to come." (Marv Wolfman, letters column, Night Force #13)

 


Night Force #11
(June 1983)

 


Night Force #12
(July 1983)

 


Night Force #13
(August1983)

 


Night Force #14
(September 1983)

 
In the end, however, nothing panned out, and Wolfman was left feeling very disappointed by the cancellation of Night Force for years - not the least because two attempts at giving Night Force a fresh start, in 1996 and 2012, fared even worse than the 1982/83 run.
 


Night Force (vol 2) #1
(December 1996)

  The failure of the 1996 and 2012 runs would also seem to indicate that it wasn't just a question of the concept having potentially been ahead of its time back in 1982. Wolfman himself repeatedly stressed the fact that

"it’s one of the most adult and complex ideas I’d come up with and I’ve enjoyed being the one writer who has guided its development. (...) If there was any one project I’ve been most protective of it’s probably Night Force." (Marv Wolfman, in West 2017)

Complexity itself doesn't, however, automatically explain the failure of Night Force (since it certainly was an important element in the success of Tomb of Dracula). The letters pages (which Wolfman insisted on calling letters columns) were always full of (often even unconditional) praise, but then that would almost make it seem as though the vast majority of individuals who didn't like Night Force stopped buying the title long before they could even be bothered to write in about their misgivings.

 


Night Force (vol 3) #1
(March 2012)

 
Ultimately, the creative team of Tomb of Dracula, all re-assembled for Night Force, found that the times had changed, and they simply couldn't repeat the magic they had previously produced.
 
 

 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

BARK Jasper (2018) "Injured Eyeballs: What the Fuck was Night Force?", This is Horror, published online 27 June 2018

DALLAS Keith (2013) American Comic Book Chronicles, The 1980's (1980-1989), TwoMorrows Publishing

FRANCOEUR Justin (2013) "Review of Night Force v1 ongoing series (1982)", DC in the 80s, published online August 2013

HOWE Sean (2012) Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Harper Collins

IRVING Christopher (2010) "Gene Colan: On Vampires, Shadows, and the Industry", www.nycgraphicnovelists.com

KINGMAN Jim (2008) "Forces of the Night, what Horrors they faced: Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's Night Force", in Back Issue! #27 (April 2008)

NN (2008) "Marv Wolfman Interview", Comic Book Revolution, published online 18 December 2008

SALVATORE Brian (2018) "Exclusive Preview + Interview: Marv Wolfman on Bringing Night Force to “Raven: Daughter of Darkness” #7", Multiversity Comics, published online 20 August 2018

WEST John (2017) "An Interview with Marv Wolfman", Comic Book Corps, published online 26 June 2017

WOLFMAN Marv (1982) "Night Forces", in Night Force #1

 
 
 

The illustrations presented here are copyright material. Their reproduction for the review and research purposes of this website is considered fair use as set out by the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107.

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