Frankenstein: Comics Greatest Monster
With I, Frankenstein about to hit theaters, we look at the famous monster's comic book adventures!
Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous creation has a long history in literature and film, crafting an enduring legacy that has informed popular culture since the world’s most famous monster rose electrified off the slab in 1818. Mary Shelley’s classic creature has a long history in comic books as well. Some of the greatest creators comics have had to offer in each era of sequential storytelling have gotten their crack at some iteration of the Frankenstein’s Monster. From classic gothic atmospheric horror, to humor, to adventure, there have been many attempts to find comic book success through the exploitation of the not-so-good Doctor’s creation. Here are some of the more memorable comic series that have featured the most fearsome icon in horror fiction.
In 1940, writer-artist and Will Eisner protégé, Dick Briefer presented a modern day take of Mary Shelley’s legend in the pages of Prize Comics #7. This comic may have seemed like just another of a long line of anthology features to appear in the early Golden Age, but Prize Comics #7 would forever be known as the first ongoing horror feature in comics. Looking back, it is clear that EC Comics’ classic horror titles, Swamp Thing, Vertigo, and even The Walking Dead are all rooted historically in the legacy of Dick Briefer and Prize Comics #7. Briefer took full advantage of Shelley’s Frankenstein public domain status by creating a feature that resembled the creature featured in Universal Picture’s 1931 version of Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, but not enough to infringe on any copyrights. According to writer Craig Yoe’s intro to IDW’s great Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein Archives, Briefer actually had to convince his publisher that Frankenstein was indeed part of the public domain and no lawyers would get involved upon the publication of Briefer’s strip. Horror fans should be glad that Briefer was convincing, as he crafted an atmospheric thriller that set the standard for early horror comics.
Briefer’s Frankenstein strip was set in the New York of the late 1930s and left just enough familiar elements that fans who wanted more after consuming the Universal cycle of Frankenstein films would find it in these pages. In the strip, the creature was simply referred to as Frankenstein rather than Frankenstein’s Monster, perhaps marking the first time the erroneous title was bestowed upon the iconic creature. It is difficult to discover where the titular paradigm shift occurred in popular culture, but it may have been due to Briefer’s comic. Briefer’s early strips are fevered madness with such insane moments as a mutated alligator with human limbs fighting Frankenstein on the roof of a skyscraper, and the Monster stuffing a bunch of little kids into a lion’s cage (the kids survived when the lion attacked Frankenstein instead).
Briefer’s Frankenstein was immense and would often shift sizes. Sometimes, he was twice the size of a grown man, at other times; an adult was drawn sitting on the Monster’s shoulder. The character burst with a primitive energy and a raw power that evolved beyond the artist’s sometimes quaintly clumsy style. As fans eagerly awaited Universal to churn out another Frankenstein feature, Prize Comics kept the legend in the spotlight, offering up a unique take on the Monster. Briefer’s historical legacy did not stop with the production of the very first ongoing horror comic,as Prize Comics was the first book to feature an intercompany crossover. Decades before Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, the pantheon of Prize Comics’ heroes (and now public domain staples) the Green Lama, Black Owl, Dr. Frost, and the patriotic duo, Yank and Doodle teamed up to take on Frankenstein. The Justice Society banded together a few months earlier over at DC Comics, but Prize Comics was the first book to feature guest heroes popping up and uniting in another feature to take down a menace, marking one of the first instances of the idea of a shared comic book universe.
Soon, Briefer’s Frankenstein would follow many other comic characters by joining the fight with the Axis menace, leading the Monster to take on a more heroic role in the still mist-shrouded pages of Prize Comics. The battle with the Nazis did not end Briefer’s run, as an even more beloved era was soon to begin. After the War, Frankenstein became, of all things, a very popular humor feature. The strip suddenly shifted to a light and airy tone about Frankenstein’s adventures with humorous versions of Dracula and the Wolfman in post-War, small town America. In the final issue of Prize Comics and into the pages of a Frankenstein solo book, the newly dubbed Merry Monster delighted readers ready for a contrast from the dark days of World War II. Briefer’s original Frankenstein was a disturbing sight to behold, a deformed mass of strength whose skin barley stretched over his misshapen skull. Briefer’s comical Frankenstein was a cuddly oaf that no doubt informed such humorous approaches to horror icons such as the Munsters, the Addams Family, and the Groovy Ghoulies. Briefer’s funny Frank left as much of a legacy as his horror Frank, and this period of fearsome funnies was the peak of the artist’s comic career. After the EC Comics horror boom, Briefer was forced to return his Frankenstein to its horror roots, but it was clear that the artist’s heart wasn’t in it. With the advent of the Comics Code, this version of Frankenstein was finally laid to rest.
Classic Comics #26 (1945)
For a more traditional approach to the Frankenstein legend, the Golden Age featured Classic Comics #26, a straight approach to Mary Shelley’s novel. The issue remains one of the most popular and sought out issues of Classic Comics. Adapted by Ruth A. Roche with artwork by Robert Hayward Webb and Ann Brewster, Classic Comics #26 was a gothic triumph and remains the most faithful sequential retelling of Shelly’s classic.
Created by writer Don Segall and artist Tony Tallarico, Dell’s Frankenstein is one of the strangest adaptations of the classic monster in comic history. It started innocently enough in 1964, with Frankenstein #1, yet another adaptation of Shelley’s novel. Three years later, inspired by Marvel’s successful super-hero renaissance, Dell decided they were going to compete with the House of Ideas by by forcing the Universal Horror legends into the roles of super-heroes. They tried with Werewolf, they tried with Dracula, and they tried with Frankenstein. What followed was the comic book version of a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 film. In Dell’s (ahem) classic, the Monster wakes up in the present day to find his gothic castle surrounded by a modern city. Naturally, Frankenstein becomes a crime fighter. Dell’s Frankenstein has a green head but a flesh colored body so he fashions himself a mask to hide his distinctive coloration and ventures out of his castle. Adopting the name Frank Stone, the Monster befriends an elderly billionaire who leaves Frank his fortune upon death.
[related article: It’s Alive! 13 Forgotten Frankenstein Films]
Basically, Frank wakes up, makes a mask, saves an old dude, and then becomes Bruce Wayne. Frank’s only ally is his faithful butler William, while busybody Miss Ann Thorpe devotes herself to proving Frank’s identity. So complete with his own Alfred and Lois Lane rip-offs, Dell’s Frankenstein becomes one of the greatest crime fighters of all time. Well, not exactly, the whole mess is cancelled after three issues. Dell’s heart was in the right place, but the Marvel formula was elusive, and their Frankenstein became a footnote in horror history. Oh, yeah…Franks’ arch nemesis was a midget mad scientist named Mr. Freek who rode around on the back of a huge gorilla named Bruno, so Dell’s forgotten Frank had that little bit of awesome going for it.
The History of Frankenstein at Marvel Comics
With the loosening of the Comic Code in the early 70s, Marvel Comics was eager to add their own pantheon of monsters to their already growing stable of superheroes. Looking to exploit the marketability of the Universal characters, Marvel turned their attentions to the most recognizable of horror icons, including Frankenstein. The first Marvel character that utilized the Frankenstein name appeared in X-Men #40 by writer Roy Thomas and penciler Don Heck. This version of the classic creature was sent to Earth by aliens in the nineteenth century to scout for an invasion. The X-Men defeated the creature and while this particular battle won’t go down in history as one of the merry mutant’s greatest struggles, it did inform Marvel that their universe was ripe for such classic monster action.
The “real” Frankenstein would pop up via flashback in Silver Surfer #7 by Stan Lee and John Buscema, before Marvel launched The Monster of Frankenstein (later retitled The Frankenstein Monster) in 1973. The newly minted horror title began with a four issue adaptation of Shelly’s novel written by Garry Friedrich and drawn by Mike Ploog. It is Ploog’s art that made Marvel’s early Frankenstein comics examples of Bronze Age perfection. Every line denotes a call back to the character’s gothic roots and the book remains an illustration of the pinnacle of the often overlooked Ploog’s career. After the adaptation, Frankenstein raged and terrified the 1890s before pulling a Captain America and falling into suspended animation and awakening in modern times. Frankenstein’s solo title lasted a memorable eighteen issues and remains one of Marvel’s horror success stories. Frankenstein would again appear in issues of Marvel Team-Up (teaming with Spider-Man), Iron Man, and The Avengers. A clone of Frankenstein’s Monster would be featured as a Nazi tool in a memorable issue of The Invaders while another clone, this one altruistic and intelligent, was created by SHIELD to become part of their Howling Commandoes unit of monster agents. Marvel’s Frankenstein remains a fascinating example of Bronze Age experimentation with some of the era’s greatest art thanks to monster master, Mike Ploog.
The History of Frankenstein at DC Comics
While Marvel’s Frankenstein’s glory days were years ago, DC’s Frankenstein is currently a fascinating and vital part of the New 52. Before the modern day Frankenstein, DC had used the creature sparingly over the decades. The classic monster was used for humorous effect in Superman #143 in the tale “Bizarro Meets Frankenstein.” This natural pairing remains a fun Silver Age classic that was a product of the times. DC’s next attempt at Frankenstein, while remaining a bit obscure, was truer to Frankenstein’s roots. In 1973, in a back-up feature in DC’s Phantom Stranger, Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein and artist Jim Aparo created The Spawn of Frankenstein, a visual departure from the classic hulking creature. This Frankenstein was an emaciated being with a gaunt face and long stringy hair. This was the most deathly-looking Frankenstein featured in a visual media, rivaling even the legendary Christopher Lee’s Hammer monster for sheer cadaver-like appearance. The Spawn of Frankenstein appeared as a back-up for eight issues of Phantom Stranger, never achieving the same brief but memorable success as Marvel’s Monster. But the feature remains a testament to Wein and Aparo’s ability to bend genres and craft a disturbingly lurid horror tale with limited space. The character would pop up one more time in Young All-Stars by Roy Thomas, a writer who had used the Frankenstein concept to battle three of his super-hero teams in three separate decades, the X-Men in the 60s, the Invaders in the 70s, and the Young All-Stars in the 80s.
Another version of the monster would pop up in the Batman Elseworlds story, Castle of the Bat (1995) by Jack C. Harris and Bo Hampton, where Bruce Wayne took the role of Dr. Frankenstein while Alfred became a hunchbacked lab assistant named Alfredo. In this strange take on the Batman legend, the creature is responsible for the deaths of Wayne’s parents. Superman had his turn as Shelley’s creation in 1999’s The Superman Monster by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Anthony Williams, with Superman cast as the Monster, Lex Luthor as the mad scientist, Lois Lane as The Bride, and the Kents as the kindly couple that raises the Monster (how Bruce Wayne doesn’t pop up as Dracula is anyone’s guess).
No Frankenstein would appear in the DC Universe proper after Young All-Stars until Grant Morrison resurrected the concept in his mega series event, Seven Soldiers in 2005. Morrison introduced a new type of Frankenstein to modern comic book audiences, a globe hopping, Milton quoting badass that was plopped square into the middle of the contemporary DC Universe. This Frankenstein was the classic Monster with a generous helping of Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury thrown in for good measure. Morrison even threw in a character called The Bride loosely based on Elsa Lanchester’s performance in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein, albeit with an extra set of arms and a penchant for assault weapons. The character was chosen to play a major role in the Flashpoint event and Morrison’s Frankenstein was such a strong character, that the creature survived the DC reboot and was granted his own title in the initial wave of the New 52.
This Frankenstein was given a huge role in the current DC Universe history as, with the absence of the Justice Society and other Nazi smashing mystery men, DC revealed that it was Frankenstein that actually killed Hitler. Frankenstein carried his own greatly missed title, Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE, for 16 issues and is currently a member in good standing in the always entertaining Justice League Dark. One imagines that DC’s Frankenstein would be a perfect character for Guillermo Del Toro to utilize in the oft rumored Justice League Dark film project, after all, there is certainly a great deal about this version of Frankenstein that was informed by Hellboy, another creature feature Del Toro is famous for.
In addition to DC’s Frankenstein, there was a Teen Titan named Young Frankenstein who served during the “Lost Year” period of the team during DC’s “lost year” title, 52. The young version of the Monster was killed by Black Adam during the World War III event, but was resurrected in the modern day. It is unclear whether the character exists in the post-reboot DC Universe.
The Matrix Connection
In 2004, Geof Darrow, Steve Skroce, and the Wachowski Brothers, creators and directors of the Matrix trilogy, created Doc Frankenstein. Similar in scope and tone to DC’s Frankenstein, Doc Frankenstein presented the adventures of the legendary monster’s ironic adventures as a liberal adventurer throughout history. The book details the creature’s adventurers as a gun slinger and on the frontlines of World War II as well as an advocate for choice and the teaching of evolution. This unique take on the legend is a fascinating read with some truly kickass art by Skroce, an artist who doesn’t do nearly enough comic work these days. Only six issues have been published since Doc Frankenstein’s debut, but they are worth tracking down for the sheer outrageousness of the concept.
Where Frankenstein may rise again in the world of comics is anyone’s guess, but the legacy of the character is almost as old as the super-hero genre. Like film and television, Frankenstein’s comic book legacy has always been and remains very much ALIVE!
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