With Apologies…To Frankenstein’s Monster

 


It is disconcerting to read a Frankenstein comic in a beautiful park on a sunny afternoon. A book like that should be read in the dark, or while it is raining. The ideal soundtrack for that story is not the sound of children screaming and laughing. Unless they are screaming because someone is throwing them into a lake, or they are laughing at a monstrosity. I shouldn't be able to see people feeding geese if I peek above my book. In spite of all this, I spent a really nice weekend at a park this past month reading a Frankenstein comic book.

 

Big FrankieThe Frankenstein Monster has always been a favorite character of mine. It goes all the way back to my youth and watching old horror movies in the middle of the day on Channel 32 in Green Bay. The Boris Karloff version was the first one to grab my imagination. It would take a few years until I read the book by Mary Shelley. The book blew me away. Gone was the the cartoonish Karloff version in my head, replaced with the infinitely more sad version from the book. A creature doomed to know it's own horrific nature, and having no recourse but revenge against it's creator.

 

Those aren't the only two versions of the character in existence. The Monster has had a long history in the world of comic books. It featured prominently in Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers. In the 1960s Dell comics put out it's own Frankenstein story. Prize comics even had Frank N. Stein fight in World War II. The version that recently grabbed my fancy is the Marvel Essential Monster of Frankenstein.

 

My local comic book shop had a blow-out sale for Marvel Essentials. While my old school super hero tastes have always leaned towards the Distinguished Competition, I have enjoyed what small amount of Marvel horror books I have read. I grabbed a big stack of essentials for the very reasonable five for the cost of three, and got to work. First up was the Frankenstein Essential.

 

The version within this Essential volume is a wonderfully weird synthesis of many different ideas. Written by Gary Friedrich and featuring art by Mike Ploog, the story starts off as a straightforward adaptation of the original story, while having a Karloff style look to the monster. They ramp up the action a bit, but it closely follows the original story for the first couple issues. Friedrich eventually gives way to Doug Moench and artists such as John Buscema and Val Mayerick get their shot to draw the creature. At that point, things get a bit….weird. Having run out of adaptation material the creators start to go off in some odd directions. The Monster is stilled obsessed with vengeance on Frankenstein. If the doctor isn't available he will just find whatever heirs are around. While searching for his prey the Monster ends up fighting demonic spiders, fighting Dracula, dealing with vampire gypsies, and finally being frozen Captain America style. Eventually the Monster is thawed out in modern times, and placed within in a freak show. After briefly having his brain switched with a mouse's brain, The Monster hooks up with a streetwise kid and a turncoat cyborg to fight some international terrorists.

 

Through all of these strange interactions and weird encounters there is one incredibly strong thread. The Monster is totally emo. He is constantly moaning about his own existence. Just about every issue features a situation where the Monster finds himself in mortal danger. He considers just letting himself die each time, but his own drive to live forces him to save his own life. It becomes almost comical at points. Here is this affront to nature, completely aware of his own predicament. He is desparate to make friends and to be understood. Yet, this creature can hardly go an issue without killing a bystander. You want to tell the Monster, “If you chill out on the murder stuff, you might make some friends a bit quicker.”

Mike Ploog Frankenstein

 

I loved the book. It had all the strange alchemy that I really love about comics. It had a willful weirdness to it, and a genuine element of surprise. I definitely wasn't expecting to find the Monster walking around modern day New York city at any point. It felt like the creators were flying by the seat of their pants. They were throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Instead of the razor sharp calculation of most mainstream comics today, there was a sense of just about anything could happen. The story itself is a Frankenstein creation. A mix of different ideas, layered up on each other, lumbering ahead in it's quest. It is the same reason I still have great affection for super hero comics.

 

Take a look at any of the capes and cowls crowd. ISiegel and Schuster mixed legendary heroes, the look of a circus performer, and social justice into the character we know as Superman. As the years go on, more and more is added to the character. The radio show introduced kryptonite , and the comics would follow suit. Superman's history would be extended to include his adventures as a boy. Otto Binder and Al Plastino would create the Legion of Superheroes, and Superman's history would be linked to them. Superman's powers would expand in the Silver Age, then shrink when Julie Schwartz took over, then grow again, then shrink when John Byrne took over. Yet we recognize this as being the same character. It is Superman. These ideas come from all these different creators, get mixed together, and get pushed out into the marketplace to stumble around. Sometimes backwards, but always moving.

 

Just like the Monster these creations sometimes follow these creators around for the rest of their lives, whether they like it or not. No one remembers that in the prequel, Dr. Frankenstein invented a steam powered horse masseuse. Everyone remembers that he created a monster. I love Ed Brubaker's Criminal, but will he be mostly remembered for his Captain America work? We love our writers and artists but the industry and readership often pushes them to the realm of mad science. We want to see them take a shot at putting together their monster. An aside: Criminal is way better then a steam powered horse masseuse.

 

The creators may sew on an arm, but it is the readers that act as the thread in that suture. When a change is made to character it is the readers' dollars that determine if the change will stick. It was fandom that demanded continuity, and it is the fandom that truly enforces continuity. Readership for a married Spider-Man drops? Time to fix up that body with some sewn on bachelorhood. Sales drop after that? Sew a marriage back on! Nothing ever really gets removed, because we remember everything that happens. Wikipedia has it all written down. There is always a lot of discussion about what counts in continuity. It all does. It influences the decisions of the creators. It influences how we think about the characters. They become these lumbering creations, with more and more ideas tacked on to them every year. Sometimes with creators pulling pieces out of the same bin.

 

We want to pretend that we can strip away parts from the characters, and get to some “pure”vision of them. The problem is that when you strip all the pieces that have been added on, there just might not be anything there. A lesson could be learned from the Monster's quest to have humanity accept him as he is. Maybe we should just appreciate the beauty of these sewn together characters…or we could chase them out of town. Whatevs.

 

 


Tom Katers needs  your eyes. I have big plans for them. Yes….the steam powered horse masseuse is feminine.

Comments

  1. Great article Tom.

    Have you read Frankenstein’s Womb by Warren Ellis? A nice, semi-historical account on why Mary Shelly is influential in our society. Probably one of the most serious peices Ellis has ever done.

  2. Great article. Frankenstein is one of my favourite books, and I’ve always meant to read one of the many comics adaptations.

  3. The best thing about these articles is that I occasionally can’t tell what is real and what is Tom.  For example, "After briefly having his brain switched with a mouse’s brain, The Monster hooks up with a streetwise kid and a turncoat cyborg to fight some international terrorists."  That is hilarious.  Did it actually happen?  I don’t really want to know, but I enjoy wondering.

  4. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Love "willful weirdness." Great phrase. 

  5. Very interesting conclusion there.  It’s like what Grant Morrison attempted in BATMAN RIP, that every issue of Batman ever had actually "happen" in some way or another to the current DCU Bruce Wayne.  It is difficult to reconcile sometimes, but the glory of these characters is often all the mutations, not just our favorite version.

  6. Tom — try to find Burlyman Comics’ elusive DOC FRANKENSTEIN series from 5-6 years ago, and you’ll see a slick, widescreen Steve Skroce-illustrated paean to atheism, as written by those accessible fan favorites, the Wachowski Brothers. It was a seriously fun book that they never finished, as "V For Vendetta" and "Speed Racer" came along and distracted all three of them.

  7. A mouse-brained Frankenstein, streetwise kid and cyborg team up sounds like some zany fun.  But I can’t imagine how they would be a worthy adversary to international terrorists equipped with laptops, plastic explosives and all.

  8. "The Monster is totally emo" I’d buy a shirt with this on it. Just saying.

    Fantastic article Tom, never thought about continuity as something the fans made. Makes a lot of sense.

  9. Podcasting AND writing skills.  You’re one modern-jazz tapdance routine away from being a triple threat! 

  10. SWEET read Tom!!  I love it when you drop some science on everyone.  I’m very glad you gave a mention of Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein monster who started out bad, became good, then became a funny animal comic, then became evil again. Great stuff if you can get your hands on it, especially the the last evil version in the 50’s.

  11. I second the recommendation for "Frankenstein’s Womb." it was very interesting. But this was a terrific article. One of the best I’ve read on this site in a long time, which is saying something considering the quality of the articles here. 

  12. Thanks Tom, I enjoyed this article.  Frankenstein’s monster works well in a variety of scenarios because, unlike Dracula or other famous monsters, FM is pretty much a blank slate.  Small copy editing note–"it’s"= it is, "its" = possessive ("its owner", not "it’s owner").