Author Mary Shelley probably could not have predicted the monster at the heart of her gothic horror novel “Frankenstein” would one day fight in World War II, have an unstable relationship with a four-armed green woman, and lead a squad of monsters nearly 200 years in the future. But thanks to DC Comics, writer Jeff Lemire and artist Alberto Ponticelli, Frankenstein is back this week as the star of his own ongoing comic book series, “Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.”
Frankenstein first appeared in the DC Universe as a villain in a 1948 issue of “Detective Comics.” Incorporating both Shelley’s original concept and the famous Boris Karloff Universal Pictures movie monster, Frankenstein appeared intermittently throughout the Golden and Silver Ages to fight Superman, Batman and Robin — but after Len Wein’s 1970s “Spawn Of Frankenstein” stories the character was left relatively untouched. In 2005 writer Grant Morrison and artist Doug Mahnke brought the monster back as part of “Seven Soldiers,” effectively rebooting the character for modern audiences. The Morrison Frankenstein left a big impression on “Sweet Tooth” and “Superboy” writer Jeff Lemire who cast the undead soldier as the leader of the Creature Commandos for this summer’s Flashpoint event.
After the popularity of Lemire’s “Flashpoint: Frankenstein And The Creatures Of The Unknown,” DC decided to give the writer another shot at the seven-foot tall, neck-bolted hero as part of the New 52 relaunch. CBR News spoke with Lemire who revealed details about the book’s characters, including which Creature Commando from his Flashpoint miniseries will show up in the book and his plans for the ongoing adventure series.
CBR News: How did you get hooked up with artist Alberto Ponticelli on “Frankenstein?” Did DC put you two together?
Jeff Lemire: No, I requested him. I did the “Flashpoint: Frankenstein” miniseries and he was the guy I requested to do that with me but wasn’t available, so when the monthly came up I requested him again and thankfully his schedule was free. I loved his work on “Unknown Soldier,” it had a real dark and gritty look to it, but he wasn’t given the chance to kind of draw fantastic things in that book. There’s something about his style that I knew, if he was given the chance to draw monsters and big, huge action scenes and stuff, he would really excel. There’s something about that Frankenstein character the way Doug Mahnke drew him with Grant Morrison that I just really like, a gritty line to it and a really inky expressive look to the character. I feel like it really works. So that’s why I requested Alberto, and I knew he was a great storyteller too and could handle the emotional beats as well because of what he did on “Unknown Soldier.” I was lucky to get him and he’s having a blast, I think he was just dying to do a book like this where he could really show off and do great big action, spectacular over the top stuff with monsters! [Laughs] He’s having a ball and I think it shows in a lot of energy on the pages.
When we spoke before you mentioned that with “Animal Man” you reworked some of your story to incorporate and better showcase Travel Foreman’s art. Did you end up doing the same thing with Alberto?
Yeah, I mean they are both completely different artists, you have to approach the way you write your script accordingly and Alberto is much more straightforward in his storytelling, which I like. He just wants big fun monster things to draw! [Laughs] It was a little more straightforward with this book where I knew what he wanted to draw going in and wrote that, whereas Travel surprised me so much that I had to react. Two different artists, two different personalities.
You mentioned Doug Mahnke — is there any chance he might step in to do covers or fill-in issues?
J.G. Jones is doing some really great covers and I think he’s the regular guy now, which is great, but I’d love to get Doug back. I know he’s busy with “Green Lantern” but I met Doug a few times, and he knows I really want to work with him. One of the fun things I’m doing with the “Frankenstein” book is, in between each sort of major storyline, which will be three or four issues long, I’m going to do standalone issues where you see different adventures with Frankenstein at different points over the 20th century and see the history of the character. It would be really great to get him to do one of those standalones at some point if we can work it into the schedule.
The first issue of “Frankenstein” works almost as an origin story, explaining who he is and setting him up with the Creature Commandoes. Was this a way to give readers a chance to get to know Frankenstein if they hadn’t read “Seven Soldiers” prior to your #1?
Yeah. The whole DC relaunch, a big part of it for us as writers, [and] part of the challenge, was that these books had to be accessible to new readers because there was going to be a lot of new people coming in to comics. The whole point of doing this is to make the book fresh and new and accessible. You don’t want them bogged down by so much history that a reader picks it up and feels like they don’t understand what’s going on and they need to read a whole bunch of stuff before it. So as with “Animal Man,” you want to try to boil the essence of the character down and represent it to new readers, but you also want to make it fun and exciting — you don’t want to make it just an origin story for your very first issue. With Frankenstein and the Creature Commandoes, those characters are always linked to World War II and the past with the old comics, “Weird War Tales” and such. I really wanted to cut those ties with World War II and modernize the concept, so it was easy to represent their origins in a modern way with S.H.A.D.E. and make it completely accessible to a new reader.
Since you are cutting their ties to the past, are you planning on incorporating some of the new Creature Commandoes from “Flashpoint:Frankenstein?”
Yeah, I mean to me what made the Creature Commandos cool originally was that they were all arc typical monsters from Universal Pictures where you had a werewolf, a vampire, Frankenstein, and so I just wanted to get back to that where you had these classic Universal monsters. The one character that never really worked for me in the original Commando strip was the female character called Medusa who was sort of like a Greek monster. She just didn’t fit that archetype of a classic monster. I felt they just put her in originally to have a female character in the team. So I got rid of her and instead brought over my Flashpoint character who is a female version of the creature from the Black Lagoon and also tweaked her origin, separating it from the Flashpoint thing. Now she’s actually a scientist and a part of S.H.A.D.E.; she’s the one responsible for creating the Commandos as sort of a weapons program. I did bring her over and modernize her origin as well so she’s not linked to the old World War II stuff either.
You’ve also got the Bride in these first issues. Can you talk a little bit about her? Was she a past character you’ve always wanted to do stuff with?
Yeah, I mean I love that Grant Morrison miniseries where he reintroduces Frankenstein, this version of Frankenstein, and a big part of that series that made it fun and made it work was this weird relationship he had with the Bride of Frankenstein; how they were estranged and clearly they’ve had a long history and have a really fun banter going on between them where she’s [a] hot blooded kind of character and he’s much more the straight man and he’s kind of cold and emotionless. I thought that was a really fun dynamic I wanted to explore. As the book unfolds I kind of wanted to see their love affair over the century and see what pulled them apart and why he still loves her but she doesn’t really want to have anything to do with him. There’s a lot of really interesting stories to tell with her. She’s just visually a really cool character, and it gives me another female character in the cast, which was important to kind of balance things so there was never much question that I wanted to use her.
It’s interesting you say you needed more female characters in the cast as you’ve remade Father Time as a little girl in a domino mask.
What was the thinking behind having him become a little domino mask girl?
God, some of the stuff I barely remember, I was writing it on the fly! [Laughs] I liked the idea that Father Time has a new body all the time or every decade he kind of has to get a new body but it’s still the same personality inside. I thought his gruff personality, he’s got a dark humor to him, would be really funny coming from the mouth of this tiny little girl. There’s that and I think it might have been Bob Harras, the Editor-In-Chief, who suggested that kind of look for the character to make it more absurd. A big part of S.H.A.D.E. is to take every sort of espionage comic stereotype and twist them and make them as over the top as I can. Instead of having some kind of Nick Fury copy as the leader of S.H.A.D.E. you have this little girl and things like that where you twist the production and make it as ridiculous as you can!
S.H.A.D.E. started off, as you said, twisting the conventional idea of superhero teams and secret government agencies. Is this something you’ll continue to play with?
Well, my idea behind S.H.A.D.E. is that in this new DC Universe, Superman appeared roughly five years ago, so in the last five years the DC Universe has gotten a lot stranger and a lot weirder. As a result these government espionage organizations like Checkmate have had to get stranger and weirder to cope with it. S.H.A.D.E. takes that idea and pushes it to the limit where it’s mad science gone wrong but funded by the government trying the craziest things they can to keep up with this world that is getting crazier and crazier. As a result, some of these other organizations like Checkmate are becoming obsolete and S.H.A.D.E. is taking the lead. That’s my take on them.
While your “Animal Man” has a horror twinge to it, with your “Frankenstein” were you aiming for a tone closer to those old, weird DC adventure comics?
Yeah, to me “Frankenstein,” even thought it has monsters, it’s not a horror book at all. It’s much more like an action-adventure, science fiction book–maybe it’s even a black comedy. It’s taking all these action adventure, sci-fi tropes from comics and just making them so fun and big and absurd again you just have to laugh. It’s definitely not a horror, its much more of a science fiction comedy.
You mentioned before you felt like your Flashpoint series is a primer to this new “Frankenstein series. Is this series going to be similar to your “Flashpoint: Frankenstein?”
Not really. I mean, I feel that book was just me getting my feet wet and figuring out what I wanted to do with the characters. The monthly book is a lot bigger in scope and bigger in every way: bigger team, bigger action scenes, just pushing everything up a notch. It’s a lot darker in some ways and also a lot funnier and a lot more sci-fi edge. The Flashpoint thing was a little more grounded in monsters and these three or four characters personal journey whereas the monthly book is a lot more action, a lot more science fiction and big concepts.
You talked about S.H.A.D.E. and the Commandoes, but for the standalone issues where you explore Frankenstein’s history are you going to play with the bits from the original Mary Shelley story?
Oh yes, for sure! To me that is his origin, the novel, so kind of what I want to do is show what happened in between now and that novel so you have that century where Frankenstein somehow got from Antarctica, where he is at the end of the novel, to being this super soldier in the modern United States. That whole idea is so ridiculous you have to see how that happened over the decades, how this monster became this creature whose main goal is protecting humanity, [and] why is he so interested in taking care of mankind when they would probably be terrified of him if they knew he existed. I think there’s a really interesting story there, and one I don’t want to just give away in one flashback. I want to really show bits and pieces of it over time as the series evolves. Even though the book is a comedy and over the top, again I want to ground it in some sort of character you care about. For me, I really want to show why we should care about Frankenstein and why he cares about us and reveal that he’s become history’s hidden hero who has prevented so many disasters over the years that we never knew about and why he did that and tie that in again with his relationship with the Bride and their love affair.
Between “Animal Man” and “Frankenstein,” this is another one where you are taking over a character redefined by Grant Morrison. What Morrison comic should we look to for your next project?
[Laughs] I think I gotta avoid that for next time, for sure! It was never the plan either, it just kind of happened! It’s a long shadow to stand in, so I think next time I’ll rip something off from Alan Moore or Geoff Johns.
In your opinion, why should new readers pick up a copy of “Frankenstein?”
Because I think of all the DC books it is most absurd in a good way! [Laughs] I think it’s just got such fun big ideas and if you want a really fun, exciting book I think this is the one. It’s completely over the top in the best way and it hearkens back to a lot of the comics I loved growing up, like the Keith Giffens version of the Justice League with Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, Warren Ellis’ “Nextwave” and things like that. They had their big fun adventures but they also had a sense of humor about them which I think makes them unique. A lot of the stuff going on in the new DC universe is very serious and very straight faced so it’s fun to have a little fun with it too!
“Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.” hits stores September 14.