Friday, 21 February 2014

Essential Monster of Frankenstein volume 1

Essential Monster of Frankenstein volume 1 contains Monster of Frankenstein #1-5 then under the title Frankenstein Monster #6-18, plus Giant-Size Werewolf #2 and material from the magazines Monsters Unleashed #2 & #4-10 and Legion of Monsters #1. It also includes the Monster's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The writing on all the series is mainly split between Gary Friedrich and Doug Moench, with Bill Mantlo contributing the final issue of Frankenstein Monster. The art is by a mixture of mainly Mike Ploog, John Buscema and Val Mayerik, with individual issues by Bob Brown and Don Perlin.

The series opens with a three part adaptation of the original novel combined with a framing sequence set in 1898 as Robert Walton, the great-grandson of the captain of the same name from the novel, leads an expedition to the Arctic locate the Monster's body. However it soon becomes clear the Monster is far from dead. As with the Tomb of Dracula, Monster of Frankenstein takes the famous novel as its starting point, treats it as an account of real events (although unlike Dracula the book itself is never actually mentioned in the comics) and introduces the descendants of some of the characters in it. Indeed the idea goes back even earlier to the original Silver Surfer series where the Surfer clashed with the descendant of Frankenstein himself. The Monster himself is notably different from the classic Universal Pictures Boris Karloff appearance, being closer to the deformed creature of Mary Shelley's text. However as the series and character develop there's an increasing drift towards the Hollywood image of a monster called "Frankenstein" lumbering through fellow monsters and other wild situations. Issue #6 sees the series' title change to Frankenstein Monster, a word order that can satisfy the popular use of "Frankenstein" for the Monster rather than the creator but without upsetting those who are aware of the distinction. And although it varies a bit with the different artists, there are times when the depiction of the Monster gets much closer to the traditional Hollywood portrayal.

But despite these drifts the series broadly remains faithful to Shelley's vision, with the original novel adapted quite well and even adhering to the narrative structure of telling it in flashback, with the narrators here consisting of the younger Captain Walton and the Monster himself. We get an additional tale of the creature's final exploits around the start of the nineteenth century and overall we get a rather sympathetic portrayal of the poor creature brought to life in a world that hates and fears him, rejected from birth by his "father" and cursed to wander the world, not even dying but entering suspended animation twice, once after the events of Shelley's novel and another time in issue #12 when the creature is moved from 1898 to the present day. The series doesn't pull its punches about the grittiness of the situation, with the Monster killing a number of people and animals in the course of his wanderings, and almost everybody he befriends soon comes to grief.

A recurring theme is the Monster's relations with the Frankenstein family. Having failed to kill Victor Frankenstein with his own hands, he seeks vengeance upon the heirs. In 1898 he eventually meets Vincent Frankenstein, a great-great nephew of his creator, but is denied his chance when a maid kills her master for neglecting his wife. Unknown to the Monster, Vincent is not the last of the Frankensteins as his wife has died giving birth to a boy. In the present day we meet Veronica Frankenstein, a descendant, who helps the Monster by repairing his larynx, thus restoring his power of speech. It seems as though nearly two centuries of hate and bitterness have come to an end with this reconciliation. However the very last page of the comic series (though not the volume) sees the introduction of Baroness Victoria von Frankenstein, who states she is the great-granddaughter of his creator. How she can be a direct descendant when the Monster killed Victor's only wife on their wedding night isn't explained here (and let's not get into the quagmire of counting generations). The Official Handbook entry for the Monster states she is heiress to the family title but not a direct descendant so it remains to be seen what her connection is or why Vincent and Veronica were seemingly unaware of her line, believing themselves to be the last of the Frankensteins.

This isn't the only sign where the series's continuity lapses a bit. This is particularly noticeable around issue #12 when the Monster is taken to Vincent Frankenstein's London townhouse in 1898 but leaves what looks like an eastern European castle but appears to be located in northern Europe (although a later issue establishes the Monster had re-entered the ocean in Switzerland - a landlocked country). The Monster falls into suspended animation for many decades, during which what appears to be the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, or an even earlier conflict, is fought. When the Monster is revived in the present day, the details of his resurrection are glossed over in the pages of his own series, with readers directed to issues of the magazine Monsters Unleashed, and the placement order of in the volume keeps those tales back until the end. Meanwhile the 1898 encounter with Dracula in issues #7-9 is at variance with the vampire's early continuity, and may have contributed to considerable confusion in his series about just how long he had been inactive for. And up until this encounter the Monster is able to speak but then his larynx is torn. Yet ten issues later Veronica Frankenstein performs an operation to allow him to speak and he's treated as though this is the first time he's been able to do this.

The X-Men had briefly encountered an alien android who was presented as having been the basis for the Monster. The Official Handbook entry mentions the android only for long enough to establish it as a separate character without going into detail now that the novel had been accepted as a real account. Otherwise the volume contains no mention of any other appearances of either Frankensteins or beings like the Monster. But this doesn't mean the series exists in isolation from the rest of Marvel's output. But despite spending some time in New York City there are no appearances by the most familiar superheroes. Instead the Monster crosses over with other characters from the horror output. The trinity of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Werewolf have become commonplace not just in Marvel but across the horror genre in general and so it's entirely appropriate that the Monster encounters Dracula here, even if it is at the expense of understanding the vampire's continuity, and goes on to meet with the Werewolf. The fight with Dracula is by far the more significant as a gypsy girl who has befriended the Monster is transformed into a vampire and tears his larynx, ending his ability to speak and so altering the dynamic of subsequent encounters. The story is slightly reminiscent of an earlier issue in which a young woman befriends the Monster only to turn out to be a werewolf, a fact he doesn't realise until after he has slain the beast.

The Monster wanders afar with a sense of nobility, often willing to help others in danger in the hope that he can find fiends and a sense of identity, but invariably with tragic consequences. Some of the people he saves reject him in terror. Others turn out to be, or are turned into, dangerous beings that have to be stopped. Others still become friends but are soon killed. The Monster is a truly tragic figure, lacking a clear identity and made up of various bits and pieces. Unfortunately the series becomes the same.

The early issues show a coherency as the Monster is revived and sets out to find the last remaining Frankenstein, with the late nineteenth century setting helping to contribute to a neo-Gothic feeling. However there are some strange individual moments, such the giant spider that feeds on souls and resides in the German Castle Frankenstein. Vincent Frankenstein is a creation much closer to the Hollywood legend version of his great-great uncle rather than the literary portrayal, complete with a laboratory in a castle (also named "Castle Frankenstein" though it's in the United Kingdom) and a deformed hunchback servant who doesn't always agree with what his master is up to. Once in the present day the situations become more random as the Monster encounters and fights, variously, a Satanic cult, a bizarre creature formed by an accident in genetic engineering, the shady International Crime Organization Nexus (ICON) and the Beserker android.

A major flaw in the presentation of the series, reproduced in this volume, is the holding back of the details of the Monster's revival in the present day for the series Monsters Unleashed. As a result this volume leaps forward and backwards within the Monster's chronology, and the revival tale doesn't feel strong enough to justify using it in a separate and non-Code series. We get a rambling tale (which, on its original publication, skipped an issue and so took many months to tell) in which a neuroscientist has invented a means of transplanting brains between bodies in order to survive but gets transferred into the Monster's body when his student assistant foolishly assumes this is the solution to dying of cancer. An accident results in the scientist's brain being eventually transferred into the body of a mouse, with the mouse's brain temporarily controlling the Monster and accidentally crushing the scientist. Throw in the scientist killing the assistant, a bit of zombie magic thrown in to allow the assistant to fight the scientist even after death and a trapeze artist whose brain and body also get transferred around, and the whole thing just becomes one chaotic mess. There's a few elements that would have been barred from appearing in a Code approved comic such as the assistant coming back as a zombie and possibly the basics of transferring brains, but the story is so weak the use of such elements just doesn't justify taking a key part of the Monster's story away from his own series. The rest of the Monsters Unleashed stories are better with one tale of a man who believes himself to be ugly after he was rejected by a woman and so donned an ugly mask and recruited other "freak" outcasts for his revenge. However the revelation of his real face causes the outcasts to turn on him. The Monster saves the woman and hopes she might become his friend as he carries her unconscious form home, protecting her on multiple occasions, but when she regains consciousness she rejects him and flees.

The final two stories in the volume offer a glimmer of hope of a better approach. The last in Monsters Unleashed sees the Monster sneak aboard a train where he is befriended by a female hobo. They discover the train is a decoy for a Presidential trip and get caught up in assassination attempts. Tragically the girl is killed when the train is blown up, leaving the Monster once more all alone. The story from the sole issue of Legion of Monsters sees the Monster stumble into a costume party where he is accepted by all and falls for a beautiful woman, but he is tricked into following one man whilst another kills the girl and frames the Monster. He deals with the killer but once more he is left alone and friendless with others assuming the worst of him.

The Monster is an unfortunate creature who was created with great hopes but was assembled from bits and pieces drawn from a wide variety of sources and wandering about in search of an end to its agony and in search of a purpose in life. Unfortunately some of that description also applies to the series in general. It starts off amazingly well but gradually loses its way. Perhaps the turning point is the encounter with Dracula which shows the problems of the Monster interacting with the wider Marvel universe in 1898, but most of the stories set in the present day feel somewhat aimless. The Monster lacks a name but has a strong identity and a nobility that deserved stronger material than this.

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