From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
A genius in his field. A historic scheme. A macabre and legendary creation. These are the pieces sewn so masterfully together to form Mary Shelley’s icon of genre fiction: Frankenstein. However, they’re also the exact ingredients that went into this month’s spotlight comic. The genius is horror comics titan Bernie Wrightson, the scheme is to follow Shelley’s incomparable story, and the creation is a horror comic so outstanding its very name must be yelled. Prepare yourself, horror buff, for Frankenstein Alive, Alive!
“[Bernie] Wrightson was to the horror comic industry what Guillermo del Toro is to the horror film industry today: a classically-inspired visual master with an unmistakable fingerprint.
Before we get into the book itself, let’s talk about its principle creator, Bernie Wrightson. Partially responsible for the creation of Swamp Thing, Wrightson was to the horror comic industry what Guillermo del Toro is to the horror film industry today: a classically-inspired visual master with an unmistakable fingerprint. Wrightson’s work touched every conceivable corner of horror in comics, from Lovecraft and Poe adaptations with Warren Publishing to the most horror-leaning Batman story to date, Batman: The Cult. Wrightson even made a name for himself in horror outside of comics, frequently collaborating with Stephen King and even doing some of the concept art for Ghostbusters. But for every touchstone of fiction Wrightson bright to life, there was one that remained his constant obsession: Mary Shelley’s monster.
In between paying gigs, Wrightson began working tirelessly on illustrating the book in a now-famous pen-and-ink style. This went on in small segments for a whopping seven years, before Marvel comics published his completed masterpiece in 1983. It’s a triumph in itself, painstakingly bringing out the imagery of the original text instead of relying on the Boris Karloff/Universal Horror imagery we associate with Frankenstein today. Lauded as one of the best versions Frankenstein ever published, this project could’ve been last word Wrightson had on the horror classic, content as he might’ve been with the artistry that went into his work and the legacy it left. But Bernie didn’t stop.
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Like Karloff & Whale’s silver screen monstrosity, Wrightson’s Frankenstein did not quit after one story. Rattling inside Wrightson’s pen was another adventure for the damned-alive thing, a comic book follow-up to his illustrated novel masterpiece. In 2012, 30 Days of Night scribe Steve Niles joined Wrightson and IDW Publishing to release this sequel, and the next chapter of Wrightson’s love affair with Mary Shelley began with Frankenstein Alive, Alive!. Now, I’m going to do my best to describe the enormity of this book, but I’m afraid my prosaic skills aren’t nearly up to snuff to do so. If you get only one thing out of this piece, it’s that this book is a master’s masterpiece, a work just as bright and electrifying as the bolt that brought life to its originator.
We begin the Frankensequel at The Creature‘s current day job, leading a freakshow act in a traveling carnival. After a few pages of learning that, actually, The Creature is leading a pretty decent life now, we turn back the clock to understand the gap between the present and the end of the original story. At the end of the story’s events, The Creature finds himself haunted by the visage of his creator, accusing him of deserving damnation and being the less-than-human thing he suspects himself to be. Desperate for relief, the creature escapes the icy waters where the original story ends and makes his way to an active volcano, where he decides to end what he believes to be a miserable existence. But death does not come so easily to The Creature, and the life he wants so badly to end has barely begun…
“[…] this book is a master’s masterpiece, a work just as bright and electrifying as the bolt that brought life to its originator.”
The horror of Frankenstein Alive, Alive! is a different beast than in its predecessor. In some ways, it’s even more terrifying. Instead of being punished for one’s mistakes as poor Victor is in the original, this book is about the horror of.. just being. The Creature never asked to be what he is; he is damned by someone else’s actions. On the basis of story alone, that’s a worthy sequel to Shelley’s masterpiece. And though I’ve spent the whole article praising Bernie Wrightson, Steve Niles should be loudly applauded here for helping him build such a weighty, existentially horrifying tale. But the strength of this book, and the reason I chose it for the Black & White Frights month here at NOFS, is Wrightson’s glorious black and white art.
Unfortunately, there’s an assumption among some comic readers that because something is black and white, it’s lesser than a color project. If that’s an opinion you hold, let Frankenstein Alive, Alive! be the book that changes your mind. Wrightson’s art creates a plane of existence that is so much more than our reality, where shadows are not perfectly arranged to dramatize the size of a room and lines not perfectly creased to show the terror on a man’s face. Don’t get me wrong, Wrightson is a master in realism, from the human body to nature to urban landscapes. It’s in how he layers those images that elevates his art to so much more. His images are hyper-detailed, cramming as much visual information onto a printed page as there is food in a royal feast. Color would only take away from Wrightson’s work here, forcing a gaudy coating on something already so expertly crafted, like pink icing on a Cuban cigar.
So you’ve got the creator, the impossible idea, and the gloriously horrific creature, but it’s at the point of creation that our metaphor begins to break down. When Victor encounters his creation in the original Frankenstein, he scorns him. He wants nothing to do with what his genius has made. That could not be any less true of Wrightson and his comic. In fact, Wrightson loved this project so much that he ensured it would continue without him. Toward the end of the book’s completion, Wrightson became ill. His hands, the ones that defined a genre for the comic book industry, were losing their mobility.
In his stead, Wrightson personally chose artist Kelley Jones to fill in the few pages he couldn’t finish of the comic. With massive shoes to fill, Jones did an incredible job. There’s a noticeable shift between his art and Wrightson’s, but it doesn’t take away from the story at all. In fact, it gives it a distinctly human thumbprint. Two people drew this, we can tell, but for one reason. They both loved this story.
“[Wrightson’s] images are hyper-detailed, cramming as much visual information onto a printed page as there is food in a royal feast. “
Bernie Wrightson died in March of 2017. IDW’s completed edition of this book is dedicated to him. Well, that’s not quite true. To be exact, the book is dedicated to his “enduring memory.” And I’m sorry reader, but it’s here that my Dr. Frankenstein metaphor just completely falls apart. Because it’s not the doctor whose enduring memory keeps the legend of Frankenstein going, it’s The Creature‘s. The Creature that showed us an alternate side to the human experience, one that could be horrific to look at, but deeply, tragically beautiful underneath. That’s what Bernie Wrightson did with Frankenstein Alive, Alive!. And maybe that shared ability is why, no matter which side of the mortal coil they’re on, they are very much with us now.
We’ve got plenty more black and white horror coming at you to ring in the New Year, so make sure to follow our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages to not miss out. As you’re doing that, drop me a line to let me know if you’ve read Frankenstein Alive, Alive! or tell me which horror comics you’d like to see in for future installations of Graphic. And for much more Frankenstein, plus the best horror content on the Internet, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.