Monday, May 12, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Monster of Frankenstein

(or "Changing Your Source Mid-Stream")

So let's say you're Marvel comics in the mid-1970s. (Probably a heck of a career change for you, depending on who's reading this, but just go with me for a minute here.) Recent revisions to the Comics Code have made it viable to publish horror comics again for the first time in a couple of decades, and you've got a popular Dracula comic and a popular werewolf comic. What comes next? Frankenstein's monster, of course!

Gary Friedrich started writing 'Monster of Frankenstein' by drawing from the original novel by Mary Shelley. He picked up the story pretty much where Shelley had left it off, in fact, by having the Monster discovered in the Arctic ice where it had gone off to die, perfectly frozen for a century or so of inactivity. Naturally, a series of events unfreezes the monster (after a few issues that retell the origin for people who've never read the novel), and off we go!

Friedrich's 'Frankenstein' makes a few very interesting choices in the way it sets up its storytelling engine. First, as noted, it draws its inspiration from the book, not the movie. By the 1970s, Boris Karloff's classic performance had cemented the film version of the story in the public's mind; his snarling, bestial monster with the squared-off head was far more readily identifiable as "Frankenstein" than Shelley's intellectual, Dante-quoting creature. (And, for that matter, far more identifiable as "Frankenstein" than Victor Frankenstein, creator of the nameless monster.)

Friedrich clearly uses Shelley's monster in his stories; the creature is intelligent, but bitter over the constant fear and hatred of a world that sees him as nothing more than a beast to be put down. He's no paragon of virtue, though; over the first ten issues of the series, he lashes out at humanity just as much as humanity lashes out at him. It's a degree of moral complexity from Friedrich's protagonist that leaves you unsure whether to root for the Monster, or against him.

The second unusual decision Friedrich made was to set the story in Victorian times; the monster is found frozen in the ice, yes, but not by a modern scientist. No, this Frankenstein's monster wanders the world of the 1800s, clashing with superstitious peasants, mad scientists, and the only Marvel monster who was around back then, Count Dracula.

These two bold decisions, when combined, result in a very different Frankenstein comic than you'd expect, and a comic very different from anything else on the market. Cerebral, complex, and light-years away from other adaptations (even DC's short-lived Frankenstein back-up in 'Phantom Stranger', which used the "intelligent Monster" caveat, read more like a conventional "misunderstood superhero" story than like the anti-hero of Marvel's version)...it might, in fact, have been a bit too ahead of its time to succeed in the Bronze Age marketplace.

So new writer Doug Moench took a great big wrenching step sideways when he took over the title, creating something that would (presumably) be more in line with what fans were looking for. Friedrich had already shredded the monster's vocal cords in the last few issues of his run, giving the Monster a style of speech more in line with the gutteral snarls of Karloff's monster, but Moench took this a step further; a second spell in glacial ice brought the monster to the present day, but damaged its mind to the point where it was nothing more than Karloff's beast redux.

Moench continued to write this version of the Monster, both in 'Monster of Frankenstein' and 'Monsters Unleashed', but somehow, despite seemingly being calculated to appeal to fans of the Universal classic (presumably a larger market than fans of Shelley's novel), it never really caught on. After another seven or eight issues (and one last, desperate change of direction by Bill Mantlo that was later dealt with in the pages of 'Iron Man'), 'Monster of Frankenstein' finally folded, flopping where his fellow monsters had triumphed. (Sorry, can't think of a good synonym for 'triumphed' that starts with "f". My bad.)

We'll never be sure what caused 'Monster' to fail. Perhaps Marvel should have stuck to its guns and kept going with the quirky, off-beat title that Friedrich had started (you can tell where my bias lies, huh?) Perhaps they should have made the decision right from the beginning to go with a movie-inspired creature, a proto-Hulk instead of Shelley's haunted monster with yellow eyes and dreams of revenge. Perhaps Frankenstein was just never going to catch on with comics fans the way that Dracula and the werewolf did. Whatever the reason, 'Essential Monster of Frankenstein' stands as an interesting demonstration of the way a book can reinvent itself to try to catch readers...and the way that sometimes, that reinvention just doesn't work.

3 comments:

robotdog said...

One thought comes to mind re: why Frankenstein doesn't catch on in the same way as Dracula and Werewolf.

I never, as a kid, wanted to BE Frankenstein's monster. Both Dracula and Werewolf were like getting super-powers... and both had their own sex appeal.

Frankenstein's monster? No so much.

Pitrone said...

Flourished

magidin said...

The movie Frankenstein monster is indeed someone the reader does not wnat to be. But the novel monster (the "Dante quoting" misunderstood loner), on the other hand, is someone the reader might very well find appealing or tempting (misunderstood, judged by his exterior rather than his mind or his inside, etc.) I know that I at least empathized somewhat with the monster in the novel, at least before he goes on his murdering revenge bout. It would be tricky to pull off as a comic book central character, I think...