Essential Monster of Frankenstein

By | Wednesday, October 08, 2008 2 comments
I'm not a huge fan of the Essential and Showcase lines, personally, because I think that the stories reprinted in them, by and large, work much better in color. I originally picked up the first two Essential Tomb of Dracula books because they were drawn by Gene Colan who tends to look better, in my opinion, in a more "raw" format -- the closer to showing just his pencils, the better. It occurred to me then that I might like the other monster tales from the 1970s in the black and white format, as it kind of reminds me of the old Universal monster flicks I grew up on.

The Essential Monster of Frankenstein reprints Marvel's early stories featuring the titular creature and, over the course of the book, takes him from his disappearance at the end of Mary Shelley's original story up to the present day. Shelley's 1818 original, for those who haven't read it, is considerably different than what was later depicted in the movies. The monster was, in the first place, brought to life through chemical means, rather than electrical, and possessed a high degree of self-awareness, which he was also able to articulate verbally. The end of the story actually ends with the death of Victor Frankenstein himself and the creature running off into the night.

Gary Friedrich picks up the tale in 1898, where the monster is found frozen in a block of ice in the Arctic, near where he was last seen in Shelley's story. In fact, the person who discovers him is the great-grandson of the last person to see the creature back in 1818. Friedrich then rather faithfully recounts the original story in a series of flashbacks, before setting off in his own direction. The stories pick up on some of the same themes and motifs of Shelley's original, as the monster repeatedly tries reaching out for kindness only to be shunned because of his appearance. The audience is able to read his thoughts and speech, bringing a distinct pathos to the tales and Mike Ploog's artwork was very well suited to them. (Despite John Buscema's masterful take on Conan, his couple of stories here seem surprisingly lackluster, though his design sensibilities might have been geared towards color and the black and white presentation here removes that crucial element.)

Doug Moench then took over the title and brought the monster into the 20th century using the same frozen-in-a-block-of-ice routine Friedrich had already borrowed from Captain America. He's also had the monster's vocal chords conveniently slashed in a fight with Dracula, so his speech is now limited to growls and grunts. And, although readers are no longer privy to his thoughts, the monster still evidently has some intellect as evidenced by his using a copy of Mary Shelley's book to identify himself. Moench's stories fell a bit flat for me; they seemed like slightly modified scripts leftover from issues of Hulk. The fish-out-of-water routine was too over-the-top, as the creature was now isolated by his appearance as well as trying to live in a thoroughly modern world. His physiology changed, too, such that the single, near fatal bullet shot that originally led him to get frozen in the first place was no longer of any consequence as he is now able to withstand a barrage of contemporary guns fired at him from point blank range. While I don't especially care about the discontinuity that causes, the stories now seem less like Frankenstein and more like the Hulk.

I was actually, though, most disappointed in the presentation of the book itself. Shortly after the monster is brought into the 1970s, he's put on display in a circus. His release/escape is covered about 3/4 of page and he's now inexplicably nearly mindless. An editor's footnote refers to an extended version of the story in Monsters Unleashed just as that issue ends. But, instead of then reprinting those issues next, the book runs through another five issues of Frankenstein Monster and Giant-Size Werewolf #2 before finally getting to those Monsters Unleashed reprints.

Now I've given up trying to play continuity cop, and I'm smart enough to read stories out of order and still understand what's going on. I could even appreciate that, in an effort to save money internally, Marvel might want to reprint the various issues in order by title. But why break up a story that's clearly marked as being extended in another set of issues with the self-contained Giant-Size Werewolf and the remainder of the regular title? Especially in light of the fact that, from a story perspective, the monster as readers see him in Frankenstein Monster #18 is substantially different than the one we see in the next reprint: Monsters Unleashed #2. It strikes me as very lazy and very sloppy work on Marvel's part, even for the lower quality that's implicit in the Essentials line.

That being said, the Friedrich stories alone are worth the $16.99 cover price, and both the Mike Ploog and Val Mayerick artwork is wonderful to study. Mayerick's wash work in the Monsters Unleashed reprints is especially evocative. This book reprints just about all of the monster's 1970s appearances in Marvel's books, so if you've any interest in seeing how Marvel treated Shelley's best-known creation, it's worth picking up this Halloween.
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2 comments:

Read this a few years ago, cover-to-cover in a couple of sittings. It is the bomb-diggity.

It's totally in places like a low-rent version of the Hulk. But wasn't Hulk originally based on Frankenstein anyway?

How is it that my lexicon doesn't permit the more frequent use of "bomb-diggity"? That's probably one of the reasons I can't write dialogue worth a crap. :)

Yes, the Hulk's visual came from Frankenstein, but the story concept was more of an atomic age Jekyll and Hyde. Thematically, the original Frankenstein monster bears more similarities to the Thing.