Ask Chris #264: Frankenstein Lives!
Q: What Halloween-y monster fits into the second-most different narrative roles, behind Dracula? -- @crookedknight
A: First things first, you are right to put Dracula at the top of the list. I've been through this before, but for anyone just joining us who hasn't heard me go through it for five or six hours, Dracula is the best. He's been around long enough and often enough that everyone pretty much knows what his deal is just from hearing the name, and you can drop him into any story in virtually any role. He can be a villain, an uneasy ally, a shadowy figure manipulating things from behind the scenes, and even, occasionally, a globetrotting protagonist battling things even worse than he is. He can be bloodthirsty fiend, sophisticated devil, reluctant hero, or all of the above.
But given all that, it there's one choice for the spooky silver medal that seems so obvious that I was surprised I got this question. It has to be Frankenstein. Right?
Or maybe that's just me. When I mentioned it to a friend of mine, they told me that they'd always figured that Frankenstein --- or, to cut all you pedants off at the pass, The Monster created by Victor Frankenstein who very likely would have taken his creator's name and would therefore also be properly referred to as "Frankenstein" --- occupied a much more narrow piece of literary real estate. And from what I can tell, that's true when you look at the history.
Despite the Monster's prominence in films --- including the best of the Universal monster movies and some pretty top notch Hammer ones, too --- he tends to fall into the same kind of story. The adaptability is a relatively recent development in the character's 200-year life-span, and it's only in the past couple of decades that it's really exploded in the way that Dracula's has.
But it's not surprising that it would, if only because there's so much to work with in Mary Shelley's original novel. She included themes that are timeless and still relevant today, questions about the advancement of science and its attempts to conquer death, whether or not it was right for man to tamper in the domain of God, and how even a successful experiment could result in something that would horrify its creator. If any of those sound familiar, it's because they're the building blocks of pretty much everything that would be written after 1945 in a world that was defined by the looming threat of nuclear annihilation.
From the very start, even as Mary Shelley was inventing the science fiction genre, she was tying it to horror in very interesting ways that would make for an adaptable character. From the very subtitle of the novel, The Modern Prometheus, she's working in layers that give derivative works a whole lot to deal with. There's the literal horror stuff that puts down roots for all the obsessive scientists and shambling stitched-together corpses that follow, linked up seamlessly with the metaphorical aspects of creation and the divine.
And on top of that, the fact that early adaptations (and even current ones) reduced the Monster to a shambling brute while the original novel presented him as intelligent, even eloquent, proving from very early in his life as a pop-culture icon that there were changes that could be made and still provide an effective story --- and that there was a lot more to draw from if you were willing to start digging past the movies. There was a blueprint there for how the character could be changed and adapted, and made into something different, compelling, and still driven by those ideas of horror.
Which, eventually, is exactly what happened.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was writing about Dick Briefer's Golden Age Frankenstein comics, which took the amazingly violent, truly bonkers tactic of recasting the Monster as the scourge of the world, a bloodthirsty, unstoppable murderous villain, driven by revenge at the horror of his own existence to commit as many atrocities as he could while leaving his creator alive to suffer by seeing what he was ultimately responsible for. Needless to say, this is rad as hell, but it's also not exactly that unusual for the era. The Golden Age is full of stories that were taking pretty huge, pretty weird liberties with both adaptations and pretty simple concepts.
But what really makes those books interesting is that after the war, when Briefer returned to Frankenstein, it was in a completely different form, a cartoony comedy with light horror touches where Frankenstein was a lovable slapstick hero:
Even taking into account that they were created about five years apart, that's about as wildly divergent as you can get from stories about the same character created by the same creator. And if nothing else, that showed how adaptable he could be.
Of course, Frankenstein's evolution was crimped a little bit when the Comics Code showed up --- stitched-up corpse monsters that brought up questions about man stealing the fires of creation from the Almighty were in violation of something like 46 of the CCA's content rules --- but there were bits and pieces here and there that showed that people were at least willing to give the idea a shot.
The most infamous, of course, is probably Dell's take on Frankenstein, released alongside Dracula and Werewolf as part of their amazing, short-lived attempts to create a trio of monster-themed superheroes:
The major thing worth noting about these is that they had very little to do with the monsters that they were so loosely based on, even though the first issues of both Frankenstein and Dracula (published four years prior to the second issue and their superhero reboots) were adaptations of the Universal movies. To be fair, though, Frankenstein was closer than the others, actually starting out as a monster who was created by a scientist and brought to life by a bolt of lightning before he inherited a fortune and devoted his life to fighting crime as a superhero with the civilian identity of Frank Stone.
Yes, Frank Stone. Compared to Al U. Card and Lt. Wiley Woolf, he got off lucky in that regard, too.
Once the Code started to crack on its prohibitions against the supernatural --- which weren't really needed anyway since they'd already served the purpose of running EC out of town on a rail a few decades prior --- you start to see a little more. The success of Marvel's Tomb of Dracula led to Monster of Frankenstein in 1973, and while that series never really stuck the way Dracula did --- it only lasted 18 issues compared to Drac's 70, largely because Frankenstein never threw dudes off parapets while calling them witless clods --- it did establish him as part of the larger universe and lead to some pretty interesting stuff down the road that saw him being adapted into different roles, just as Dracula had, from Elsa Bloodstone's short-lived sidekick to the master of a Murder Circus that once tried to kill the X-Men. Because really, what the heck else is a Murder Circus led by Frankenstein supposed to do?
There are also a few other takes of note, and the one that most readily springs to mind is Doc Frankenstein, by Andy and Lana Wachowski (of Speed Racer fame) and Steve Skroce. As the title suggests, their version of Frankenstein was more of a pulp hero, but filtered through the idea that the doctor's attempts to master the secret of creation made Frankenstein the ultimate atheist in a conflict between science and religion.
Their Frankenstein is constantly being attacked by evil monks who are literally trying to stab him with giant metal crosses on account of being an abomination in the eyes of God, and the imagery commentary on religion that the Wachowskis do here --- Frankenstein is literally shocked to life while crucified on page three of the first issue, which has an official description describing him as "THE MESSIAH OF SCIENCE" --- makes the stuff they did in The Matrix look subtle and nuanced. It's way over the top, and I remember it being pretty fun.
Like Briefer's original Frankenstein, Morrison and Mahnke's was driven by vengeance, but he was able to channel that into a slightly more positive direction, although there's probably an equal number of decapitations.
The idea of Frankenstein as a world traveling adventure hero, striking down bizarre science horrors and alchemical monstrosities with the right arm of an archangel, unliving and therefore unkillable, makes him the DC Universe's answer to Hellboy. Looking at it like that, it's not really a surprise that they ended up launching Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE as one of the first wave of New 52 titles. Really though, just look at that him on his quest of vengeance against the cosmic horrors that would destroy the world. That dude is Justice League material.
I mean, let's be honest with each other: If you can have Frankenstein riding his flesh-eating Martian warhorse on your team, do you really need to keep Green Lantern around?