Frankenstein (or, rather, Frankenstein’s creature): that oft studied literary figure, that icon of cinematic horror and, upon closer inspection that almost universal and perpetual figure in the comic art. Appearing in various titles from a wide range of publishers; Marvel’s Frankenstein’s Monster, Darkstorm’s I, Frankenstein, Dark Horse’s Universal Monsters one shot; and of course DC Comics — the focus of this article. A search for Frankenstein on the DC wiki for example yields at least seven versions of this literary figure.
Like many of his fellow vanguards of horror, the Creature is very much maligned and misunderstood. Both by fellow characters in the fiction they share and often by the viewer or reader of his numerous portrayals. When many people think of the Creature they often think of a tall savage murderous figure, with limited articulation and intellect, devoid of emotion. This may be all well and good for quick scares and brief cameos, but this completely negates the portrayal of the Creature as intended and put forward by Mary Shelley herself. Also, in all honesty were this to form the basis of a character in their own ongoing series, such a series would not last very long.
Originally, I solely intended this piece to be an exploration of Frankenstein’s journey within his own title as part of the new 52 born of my sadness at that title’s cancellation. That being said, it would be a disservice for me not to mention Seven Soldiers of Victory, Final Crisis or indeed Flashpoint itself. Though not the entirety of his published history in modern continuity, it is a continuity first established when Grant Morrison decided to write his vision of the Creature.
These seemingly separate narrative arcs are the pieces from which, like Victor himself, we will assemble our Creature. Establishing and building upon the conventions of the Creature, his supporting cast and the world they inhabit. Our journey will differ from Victor’s in that we will not exclaim horror at this creation, rather we will like a parent whose child is in transition look back with pride and forward hopeful of Frankenstein’s role within the Justice League Dark.
Let us then begin our journey shall we? Though we don’t find out until much later, around issue three of his solo series within the Seven Soldiers of Victory event, the Creatures’ story plays out much as it did in Mary Shelley’s novel. The novel ends with the creature and his erstwhile father lost to the ice. The creature however reveals that he swam to the Americas and had many adventures, taking up his creator’s name at some point as well.
Indeed, it is at the end of the last such adventure where we are introduced to the creature as issue one opens.
Though we are given the merest smattering of characterisation, the creatures’ antagonist; Melmoth through the revelation of that name alone equals the creature in Gothic literary potence. Based no doubt on the character from Charles Maturin’s novel published in 1820, a mere two years after Shelley’s Modern Prometheus.
Even in these few panels before he and Melmoth share their seeming demise Morrison’s Frankenstein is so much more than some mere hulking brute. Here we have a creature of comparative build to say Solomon Grundy, Bane or indeed any other tank character. What makes him stand apart from these two is that he is infinitely more articulate than Grundy and though his methods are sometimes brutal and shocking, his aims are ultimately more in keeping with the ideals of good than those of Bane. As the narrative plays out we begin to see a man, perhaps even a soul of purest devotion. Indeed it is interesting that Morrison chose not to portray a patchwork man with a schizophrenic soul. Regardless, he is self made and self taught; unwavering in his focus to see justice done. In the first issue he burns an entire high school of adolescents, granted that these were already lost to Melmoth’s maggots or the Sheeda Spine Riders but it shocks the reader none the less. The evil the creature senses it seems is great enough to warrant such actions.
In a sense the reader feels and echoes the creatures’ sentiment in Mary Shelley’s novel when he cries:
“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike.”
This fastidious dedication is something the character never loses even in future incarnations and indeed is expressed through equal parts self determination and belief. Though this may seem oddly passe in these times of brooding, existential heroes this enobles and endears the creature to us. Frankenstein’s faith might seem awfully trite were it not to come from such a figure of obvious power and strength and who, it seems, cannot be killed.
Let’s also not neglect the fact that Doug Mahnke’s art goes some way to establishing the conventions and motifs of the character. Drawing him not so much as the tall but thinly built creature we are used to in say that archetypical image of Boris Karloff in James Whale’s movie, or indeed in the look of say Herman Munster. Nor is this potent and iconic imagery ignored. Mahnke draws upon such elements as the neck bolts, the patchwork stitching and the elevated heels but in a way that appears fresh and appealing even now nearly a decade later.
One could view the creature as the physical embodiment of his inner nature; a brooding mass, a seemingly unstoppable powerhouse. Panels in this issue and throughout the series are composed either of the creature in stark solitary poses or with some other character, angled to illustrate and accentuate his sheer bulk.
If Seven Soldiers as a narrative whole were to have it’s hero it would be Frankenstein, that solitary titan who traverses space and time itself to see justice be done. At first I wanted to describe the creature as the alpha male of the series, as well as its’ hero, but he is too articulate and too much the gentleman or hopeless romantic to qualify for such a limited label.
Perhaps these essentially un-macho qualities are exactly what make him a hero at least in a somewhat more classical sense?
Along with his dedication this dichotomy of romanticism and rage though firmly established and even expressed by the creature itself in Shelley’s novel is often forgotten or only alluded to in many portrayals of the creature.
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe.”
Not so in this or any subsequent incarnation of the character by DC. Indeed much is made later of these, what could be termed, laudable qualities and their contrast to the increasingly unstable world around them. This though is not done in some derisive manner even when another character mocks the Creature, indeed their indignation again serves to enoble these romantic and heroic qualities. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we come to the New 52′s Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
If DC in the days before the New 52 were considered the more ponderous yet still creatively refreshing of the big two then Frankenstein would be an example of this. Tropes that may seem gimmicky outside of a Vertigo title actually add to this fast growing archetype’s potence. By the second issue Morrison mimics and homages Edgar Rice Burroughs by taking the Creature, now reacquainted with the Archangel Michael’s sword and his Steam Gun firearm, to Mars.
This issue opening with a visceral and evocative monologue from Frankenstein as he traverses the red planets’ desolate landscape in search of Melmoth. Again Mahnke engorges the reader’s eye with stark and bold compositions of the creature but not forgetting to add a look of solemn reflection and contemplation to him. As this issues’ narrative runs its’ course we learn that Melmoth is, perhaps, like the creature benevolent in his motivations but far more malevolent in their execution. Elements from other Seven Soldiers titles also find their way into the narrative and we learn, possibly, of the creatures origin and yet another link between him and Melmoth.
Another defining quality of Frankenstein as a title seems to be at times an almost humorous sense of retribution and justice, the final fate of Melmoth and his accomplice in the final pages of this issue exemplify this.
By issue three, Morrison is experimenting with notions of plague and apocalypse whilst inserting his own brand of almost plausible pseudo-science. This issue introducing not only Frankenstein’s Bride but also S.H.A.D.E., both narrative elements who will continue to appear alongside future iterations of the creature in one form or another. S.H.A.D.E. itself and the character of Father Time with a certain surreal malevolence seem conceived as criticisms and a parodies of the almost infinite plethora of conspiratorial intelligence agencies within comics.
The final issue of this solo series before Frankenstein reappears in the actual Seven Soldiers title finally pits him against the evil our supposed villain; Melmoth was trying to destroy. The time travelling civilization crushing might of the Sheeda and their Queen herself. But not before he confronts her champion; Neb-Buh-Loh. To the reader familiar with Morrison’s work at DC and his idea of the hypersigil the history and indeed the concept of the Queen’s Huntsman is a delightful treat tapping into pre-existing canon and his own seemingly unconnected work.
Before I conclude this opening part of this study, I would like to mention if I may Final Crisis and the creatures’ appearance therein. Though Final Crisis is met with controversy, Frankenstein is a shining light in that dark trip of almost qlippothic notions. His appearances bracketing the work, appearing at the Dark Side club towards the beginning of the event and at the battle for Bludhaven towards it’s conclusion.
Indeed, a character often portrayed and conceived of as monstrous and abhorrent not only inspires a quintessentially ideal heroine but moves Wonder Woman to tell his tale as a child’s bedtime story further reiterates the true nature of the creature. Morrison not only exemplifies his own trope of simple heartwarming redemption in the face of the utterly horrific he also captures the idea that Mary Shelley conceived and conveyed when she made the creature infinitely more admirable and human than his creator.
The idea that though outwardly horrific and detestable, or indeed amassed from various parts the creature is in essence an individual and at times all too conscious soul. Perceived as evil by men labelled good or who see themselves thus but who do bad things. A soul with depths and longing like any other but who defines himself through noble action rather than fear and inaction.
Next time? Nazis, Wolf Men, Mer-Women, Bat Men and G.I. Robots…