In today’s Leaving Proof: We look at how Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck, Graham Nolan and Chuck Dixon, and Jamie Rich and Megan Levens put their own spin on elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Almost two centuries since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus remains a compelling and important work, its influence extending beyond the confines of the Victorian Era Gothic Romance movement. Golem, homunculi, and similar artificial beings have long been a staple of folklore and myth but Frankenstein, an extended metaphor for the anxieties of the Old World trying to come to grips with the rapidly developing science and technology of the day that threatened to disrupt philosophy and society, was a work that could only have been produced at the intersection of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
The issues Shelley raised in Frankenstein—about what it means to be human, the problem of “playing God” in the laboratory and whether science is progressing too fast for ethics to keep pace—are as relevant today as they were in the 19th century, and it is reflected in current popular literature and entertainment, including comics. It may not be readily apparent at first, but robotics-themed works as stylistically varied as Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Jack Kirby’s Machine Man, Rich Buckler and Doug Moench’s Deathlok the Demolisher, Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s Alex + Ada, and so many other works that comment on science run rampant and how science continues to reshape our definition of identity and humanity, can trace, directly or indirectly, a thematic lineage that goes back to Shelley’s novel.
But while the cyborg and the android in search of identity and purpose have, in many ways, become the updated, modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster, as we’ll see in the three titles discussed below, the actual creature still remains a popular character for use in comics given the combination of its iconic stature in literature and film and its availability in the public domain.
Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck’s Frankenstein Underground (Dark Horse Comics) features the “Hellboy Universe” version of the eponymous monster in 1950s Mexico, still reeling after being liberated by Hellboy from the clutches of a traveling freak show (this prior adventure was depicted in 2011’s Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, an entertaining read on its own right, but not really a prerequisite for enjoying Frankenstein Underground). Mignola and Stenbeck’s character is a creature who has lost faith in mankind after decades of suffering at the hands of various exploiters and seeing man at his worst.
Whether or not the creature can rediscover its belief and trust in humanity is an intriguing emotional hook for the series and if there’s any creator in comics today who can be counted on to approximate the Gothic atmosphere and mood associated with Shelley’s work, it’s Mignola, who is the industry’s premier creator of modern Gothic horror comics. What this issue (and the Frankenstein monster’s previous Hellboy Universe appearances) fails to do, though, is provide a satisfying answer for the question of “Why Frankenstein’s monster?” The use of Shelley’s creation in a setting as suffused with the supernatural as the Hellboy Universe might be viewed as somewhat antithetical to the spirit of the original work. Part of what made Frankenstein such a landmark novel, after all, was that it dragged the monster out of the shadows of folklore and into the light of proto-science-fiction—Shelley demonstrated the continued relevance of the archetype even as science and logic increasingly supplanted magical and superstition-based reasoning. Divorced from that context, Frankenstein’s monster is reduced to being just another golem.
Indeed, long-time readers of Mignola’s Hellboy and related comics will no doubt note the similarities between the introductory narrative arcs of the comics’ version of Frankenstein’s monster and BPRD cast member Roger the Homunculus, and the more cynical among them might see Frankenstein Underground as simply a way for Mignola to keep scratching the golem/homunculus itch without undoing Roger’s poignant death in BPRD: The Black Flame.
A similar muddling of the original work’s motivation partially undermines Graham Nolan and Chuck Dixon’s Joe Frankenstein (IDW Publishing), which features Frankenstein’s monster reimagined as a suave, rich player in an ongoing secret war involving vampires and his former mate. If the question we must ask when reading these comics is “Why Frankenstein’s monster?” the comic’s answer thus far is a reflexive “Why not?” The premise (and actual execution) is fun and the comic thankfully doesn’t take itself seriously, but it also reads as somewhat slight, two installments into the miniseries’ four-issue run.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with disposable, high-concept fluff, of course, and to its credit, Joe Frankenstein delivers its schlocky premise with all the style and panache of the best B-movies. But as Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely so ably demonstrated in 2013’s Six-Gun Gorilla, a comics interpretation of a public domain character can be over-the-top silly and still provoke meaningful reflection. That might still be the case with Joe Frankenstein going forward, but at this point, the comic works best when viewed simply as something to stave off boredom, one issue and five minutes at a time.
While Frankenstein Underground and Joe Frankenstein take elements of Shelley’s work in more outlandish, supernatural directions (losing some of the original salience along the way), writer Jamie S. Rich and artist Megan Levens add a strong element of gender issue commentary while preserving the basic themes of the classic narrative in Madame Frankenstein, or, The Feminine Monstrosity (Image Comics).
A seven-part miniseries recently reissued in the collected trade paperback format, Madame Frankenstein sees a female version of the monster, created by a young scientist in a deranged effort to resurrect a romantic interest killed in an automobile accident, in a story that parallels much of the original in many respects. By introducing the element of tragic romance and instituting a gender reversal, the creature’s halting, sometimes violent journey towards selfhood is no longer just a metaphor for the perils of science untempered by ethics and a creative discourse on what it means to be human, it also becomes a story about women’s struggle to define themselves on their own terms and not simply as accessories to men.
Readers get to see Gail (short for Galatea, the name given by the scientist to his creation) grow from little more than an unthinking beast to an articulate, sensitive, and intelligent woman who wants a life and identity of her own, which makes her ultimate fate—it mirrors to an extent the end that befell the creature in the original novel—all the more heart-rending. The dialogue too easily telegraphs the theme and intent in places, but it is an otherwise excellent work, not the least because of Levens’ expressive figures and faces.
We’ve previously contrasted in this space how different comics creators tackle the same topics and themes. Click on the links below to read articles similar to the one you just read:
- Leaving Proof 196 | The horror, the horror: On Lewis Manalo’s MetaMorphosis and Sable and Azaceta’s Graveyard of Empires
- Leaving Proof 249 | A Night at the Opera: On Russell’s The Ring of the Nibelung and Alice’s Siegfried