Frankenstein #1 (January, 1973)

In October, 1972, the debut of Marvel Comics’ new title Frankenstein — or, if you prefer, The Monster of Frankenstein, as it says on the cover — is unlikely to have come as a surprise to anyone.  Given the recent relaxing of the Comics Code Authority’s rules regarding the depiction of horror, as well as the subsequent launch by Marvel of two series featuring (or at least inspired by) the other members of Universal Pictures’ classic trinity of monsters — i.e., Dracula and the Wolfman — the four-color advent of a Marvel version of Victor Frankenstein’s famous creation must have seemed all but inevitable to most observers. 

In point of fact, however, Frankenstein’s Monster represents a rather unusual case, as far as the history of horror comic-book stars goes — because while the Comics Code of 1954 had specifically prohibited “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism”, it was basically silent on artificially-animated humanoids (though some might argue the Monster should fall into the “walking dead” category, given the source materials his creator is generally understood to have used in making him).  And so, even after the Code had driven most horror comics and their attendant vampires, werewolves, zombies, et al, off the stands, DC Comics was comfortable with  offering their young readers a scenario in which “Bizarro Meets Frankenstein!” (Superman #143 [Feb., 1961]), just as Marvel was in having the student body of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters meet the big guy some seven years later (X-Men #40 [Jan., 1968]).

Alas, your humble blogger didn’t buy either of those comics back in the day; on the other hand, I did acquire Tomahawk #103 (Mar.-Apr., 1966), as well as Silver Surfer #7 (Aug., 1969), both of which shared something in common with the two aforementioned funnybooks: namely, that despite what a prospective buyer might have surmised from the imagery and title blurbs displayed on these comics’ covers, the real “Frankenstein” — i.e., the real Monster — wasn’t the actual bad guy in any of them (though in all fairness, we must admit that the Superman cover did at least give the game away via the characters’ dialogue).  Rather, the closest we got to Mary Shelley’s immortal literary creation in those books were, respectively: a film actor in makeup (Superman #143); a robot of alien origin (X-Men #40); a mutated American frontiersman in the Revolutionary War era (Tomahawk #103  — though props are surely due to DC for having the nerve to suggest that maybe this “Frontier Frankenstein” inspired Shelley’s 1818 novel, rather than the other way around); and, finally, an evil duplicate of the Silver Surfer, created by a modern descendant of Victor Frankenstein (Silver Surfer #7 — though, again, in the interest of complete accuracy, we must note that the original Frankenstein Monster was shown briefly in flashback in this one).

The impression I get from these comics, and others from the same era that I haven’t mentioned, is that although American comic book publishers working under the Comics Code knew that they could feature Frankenstein’s Monster in their wares, they weren’t entirely sure they should.  Anything which smacked too much of the allegedly unsavory elements banned by the Code in 1954 was likely to get a publisher in trouble with the CCA… or so at least those in charge seem to have believed.  Thus, while they might occasionally capitalize on the Monster’s considerable pop-cultural cachet with the odd one-off story (and even then hedge their bets by featuring an impersonator rather than the genuine article), they weren’t about to let him headline his own book.  And so, following the final issue of Prize Comics’ Frankenstein, cover-dated Oct.-Nov., 1954 (a comic which represented the end of an epic run on the character by writer-artist Dick Briefer that extended back to 1940’s Prize Comics #7), the stands wouldn’t see another comic book with “Frankenstein” in the title (or as the main attraction) until 1972… at least, not one that also carried the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval.

Of course, not every American comics publisher did submit their material to the CCA.  Gilberton (the “Classics Illustrated” folks) never did, for one; and so they probably never thought twice about reprinting their adaptation of Shelley’s novel, which had first appeared in 1945, and which was reissued at least three times during the 1954-1971 period.  Neither did Dell Comics (that company’s leadership had chosen to wager that their long relationships with the Walt Disney Co. and similarly family-friendly licensors gave them sufficient cover from the forces of censorship, and they appear to have been correct) which not only released a very loose adaptation of the 1931 Universal film version of the story, but followed that up three years later with three more issues of Frankenstein that re-imagined the character as… a costumed superhero.  (This was the “Batmania” era, you understand.)  Regarding that venture, however, we will say no more; nor will we discuss the single issue of Frankenstein, Jr., based on the Hanna-Barbera animated TV cartoon about a superheroic robot, that was published in 1967 by Dell’s sort-of spinoff company, Gold Key — except to note that, hey, it exists.

In any event, this was the state of Frankenstein in American comics when the Comics Code was revised in 1971 to, among other things, allow for the depiction of “vampires, werewolves, and ghouls”, as long as such creatures were “handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works…”  With Frankenstein being specifically labeled as A-OK right there in the updated Code, there was clearly no longer any reason for Code-compliant publishers such as Marvel to tread carefully in regards to presenting the Monster in his full Gothic-horror glory within the pages of their four-color comics; it was only a matter of when they would do so.

And in late October of 1972, they finally did… just in time for Halloween.


According to comments made by Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief, Roy Thomas, in Alter Ego #169 (May, 2021), he’d originally planned to write Marvel’s new Frankenstein series himself, beginning with a faithful adaptation of Shelley’s novel and then taking the Monster into new adventures.  While his editorial duties would ultimately prevent Thomas from doing any actual scripting, his concept would nevertheless provide the blueprint to be followed by the writer to whom he eventually gave the assignment, Gary Friedrich.

Joining Friedrich on the new title was artist Mike Ploog, who seemed ideally suited for the job.  Ploog was already drawing one monster series for Marvel, Werewolf by Night, as well as the “Ghost Rider” strip in Marvel Spotlight — the latter being a feature that straddled the horror and superhero genres (and that was written by Gary Friedrich, besides).  Ploog had also worked with this material before, having illustrated a sequel of sorts to Shelley’s tale, “The Brain of Frankenstein”, which had appeared in the 40th issue of Warren Publishing’s black-and-white comics magazine Eerie earlier in the year; that piece had clearly demonstrated that he could handle the period settings, costumes, etc., that would be required for this project, as adeptly as he could the more overtly horrific elements.

The original Frankenstein Monster only shows up for a couple of flashback panels in the Eerie story, but his visual depiction there is quite similar to how the artist would delineate him for Marvel’s version.  It’s a design that obviously evokes the familiar look of the Monster from the Universal movies, as originally portrayed by Boris Karloff, though without reproducing it so closely as to get Marvel in legal trouble for copyright or trademark infringement.*

We get our first look at that design via Frankenstein #1’s cover (which also shamelessly quotes the most famous line of dialogue from Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein film, “It’s alive!“).  We’ll see a lot more of it within the story, naturally… though for at least the first few pages, our view of the Monster will be purposefully, and suspensefully, obscured…

January, 1898“?  But wasn’t the novel Frankenstein published eighty years prior to that, in 1818?  Indeed it was; but Friedrich and Ploog are presenting their multi-issue adaptation of the novel within an original framing sequence.  In a clever touch, this new sequence echoes the framing device Mary Shelley herself used in her epistolary novel, bookending the main action of her story with a sequence narrated by Arctic explorer Captain Robert Walton… who, as a caption above indicates, was the great-grandfather of our new frame’s central figure, Captain Robert Walton IV.  (If you’re wondering why the span of years between the two Walton sequences is given as a hundred years, rather than eighty, the reason is that Shelley’s 1818 novel is actually set in the eighteenth century, with Walton I’s letters to his sister being given the indeterminate date of “17– –“.)**

Walton IV (whom we’ll just refer to as “Walton” henceforth) directs his uneasy crewmen to chip away the block of ice holding the inert frozen body of the Monster, so that it can be loaded onto his ship.  But the work remains incomplete by nightfall, and he’s forced to call a halt.  Walton’s most trusted man, the guide Canute, volunteers to stand watch while his captain and the other men sleep…

The prospect of sudden, violent death quells the mutiny, at least for now; and with the coming of dawn, the crew finishes its work, first hauling the block of ice containing Frankenstein’s Monster back to the ship, then hoisting it aboard, even as a storm bears down upon them all…

All of Shelley’s novel is narrated in the first person, much of it by the titular character, Victor Frankenstein himself; Friedrich’s script, however, eschews this device (at least as far as Victor is concerned), and while the adaptation closely follows the novel’s plotline, I think it’s fair to say that something is lost by not allowing Frankenstein to tell his story in his own words.

Notably, Shelley’s original text is pretty vague about where Victor gets the raw materials for his work; while she has him refer to collecting “bones from charnel-houses” and gathering other bits from “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house” (the latter term suggesting that he’s using at least some animal parts), there’s nothing in the novel to suggest that Vic pilfers graves and gallows for fresh human cadavers, as he does here (and probably in most other adaptations, too, regardless of medium).

Shelley is also non-specific about the process Frankenstein utilizes to “bestow animation upon lifeless matter”, as well as the tools.  Her account of the act itself amounts to one sentence: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”  But while leaving the details of the experiment (does the process involve electricity?  a chemical solution?  both?) up to the audience’s imagination may work just fine in prose fiction, in a visual medium like comics or film, the storyteller has to show you something.  And so choices have to be made, as Friedrich and Ploog have made them here:

As terrified as he is, Victor is so physically exhausted that when he throws himself on his bed, he actually goes to sleep… at least for a few hours.  Then, as if in response to an unseen, unheard presence in the room with him, he starts awake…

In Shelley’s text, Victor flees the house immediately after waking up and seeing the Monster; obviously, Friedrich and Ploog have extended the original scene, adding some action to the proceedings.  This material also deftly serves a storytelling purpose, by clearly establishing the Monster’s superhuman strength at an early point in the narrative.

But Victor Frankenstein’s physical recovery has a downside, because his friend Henry Clerval no longer has an excuse to keep from him some terrible news:  Victor’s younger brother William has been murdered, and his father’s ward, a young woman named Justine Moritz, has been charged with the crime.

Setting aside for the moment his own terrible problem, Victor hurries home to Geneva… though as he travels, he begins to fear that the Monster, whom no one appears to have seen in all the time his creator has been ill, may in fact be responsible for this ghastly crime against the Frankenstein family…

Fearing, perhaps with justification, that telling the authorities the truth will only lead to himself being thought insane, and won’t save Justine in any case, Victor ultimately says nothing — and watches Justine Mortiz hang for a crime she didn’t commit.  Afterwards, wracked with despair and remorse, he again leaves his family, and journeys into the mountains in search of solitude…

At this point in my young life, I don’t think I’d ever encountered a Frankenstein Monster who could speak (outside of Shelley’s novel, of course) — at least, not beyond the few words uttered by Boris Karloff in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein (Bela Lugosi in 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein doesn’t count) — and I was quite impressed by this mark of fidelity to the source material on Marvel’s part.

Captain Walton orders the crew to cut the sails loose; that won’t give them much of a chance, but he figures it’s better than no chance at all.  But then…

And so ends the first chapter of Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which would take two more issues to complete.  I’m not going to tell you that it’s the best comics adaptation of the novel that’s ever been done, mostly because I haven’t read every other one that’s been done.  But I do believe it’s a very good adaptation, even if I’m aware today of ways that it could have been even better; ways that didn’t occur to my fifteen-year-old self back in October,1972.

Rather, I suspect that at that time, I figured that Marvel had raised the bar so high for comic book versions of the Monster of Frankenstein that it would be years, if not decades, before anyone else would come close to topping it.  How was I to know that DC Comics was about to give Marvel a run for its money — and not in years, but in just two weeks?

If you’d like to know more about that, then I hope to see you back here for my next post — which, as it happens, will go up in just one week, not two.  (You’re welcome.)

 

 

*According to an article by Michael Browning published in Back Issue #36 (Sep., 2009), Ploog based his visualization of the Marvel version of Frankenstein’s Monster on an original concept sketch done by John Romita.

The sketch shown at left is attributed to Romita by both Heritage Auctions and Comic Art Fans; on the other hand, it’s credited to Ploog in Marvel’s The Monster of Frankenstein trade collection (2015), in Roger Ash and Eric Nolen-Weathington’s Modern Masters Volume 19: Mike Ploog (TwoMorrows, 2008), and in Alter Ego #41 (Oct., 2004).  Your humble blogger is inclined to go with Ploog, but what do I know?  Either way, it’s a cool drawing I thought was worth sharing here.

(For the record, the handwritten note at lower right reads: “Mike — This is version Stan wants to use… Please call me to discuss. — Roy”.)

 

 

 

 

**Interestingly, Plogg’s costume designs for the scenes in the story derived directly from the novel evoke a period at least a couple of decades later than even the very late 1700s; they’re more Victorian than Regency, if you’ll pardon the Anglocentric terminology.  (Not that I noticed this as a fifteen-year-old reader in 1972, you understand.)

17 comments

  1. frasersherman · October 29

    I’ve heard very little fondness for Marvel’s Frankenstein among its readers but that really is a good start.
    I remember DC’s “Spawn of Frankenstein” — which I’m guessing is what you’re referring to — with fondness.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. frednotfaith2 · October 29

    Over, all, in my estimation, Friedrich & Ploog provided an excellent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, which I’d think qualifies as the first classic sci-fi tinged horror novel, even if it would be well over a century before the term sci-fi was even coined or popularized. Interesting that while physical violence by the monster is implied rather than shown, the only deadly violence depicted in the mag is human against human rather than by the monster. Including the terrible injustice done to Justine, which was all too common in even the recent past but more so in previous centuries.
    Thinking on the use of the Frankenstein Monster in culture (and on the name, as the monster is essentially the “child” of Victor, why shouldn’t the monster be known as “Frankenstein” as well? Maybe call him Adam Frankenstein or whatever name he wants to be known as, but hopefully not some unpronounceable symbol or a 14 syllable long oddity he insists you memorize and recite as his fingers are clutched around your neck — “now repeat after me, it’s ‘Ghugaphratzylhyblekhroatxaqueascoghdfitzen’ and you’d better pronounce it right the first time!” More seriously, I can’t recall when I first saw Universal’s Frankenstein — I know it likely was in 1972 when my family lived in Salt Lake City, all of us staying up late on a Saturday night with the hide-a-bed in the couch folded out with a big bowl of popcorn. I started the tradition after having stayed up late while my parents were out and saw Godzilla for the first time earlier that year and between then and ’73, I’m sure we’d seen most if not all of the classic Universal horror films as well as many of the Japanese monster films, among other horror staples of the previous 40+ years of cinema. I hadn’t seen Frankenstein in comics previously, aside from ads for Aurora models, but I’d seen plenty of variations of the monster on tv, particularly The Munsters, the Frankenstein Jr. and the Groovy Goolies cartoons (I loved the latter), even Frankenberry cereal ads. Variations of the Frankenstein monster, nearly all modeled to some degree on the Boris Karloff version, permeated U.S. pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s. There was even the number one hit instrumental by the Edgar Winter Group named Frankenstein (apparently so-named due to the group having “stitched” together various musical fragments to make up the song).
    Still, while the idea of the Frankenstein Monster has proved enduringly popular, I can see the difficulties in creating a sufficient story-generating engine around him that can last for years or decades, at least while staying relatively close to Mary Shelley’s version. But the basic idea of a scientist inadvertently creating a powerful monster he is unable to control has been very popular among fantasy spinners and their fans.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alan Stewart · October 29

      Just FYI, fred, I came *that close* to invoking my own love of the Groovie Goolies at the top of the post!

      Liked by 2 people

    • frasersherman · 24 Days Ago

      I believe when the Creature turns up in Young All-Stars it has adopted Frankenstein as its surname.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris A. · October 29

    Loved the first two Karloff films where he played the monster, and liked the 1973 UK film “Frankenstein: the True Story,” but in comics my favourite riff on this was Berni Wrightson’s “The Muck Monster,” drawn for Eerie #68, published by Warren in 1975. Kaluta’s Spawn of Frankenstein backup feature in Phantom Stranger actually predates the noseless monster that Wrightson drew in the aforementioned story and in his later Frankenstein novel illustrations. Berni did do a beautiful Karloff-inspired double page spread for The Monster Times #1 in 1971, and we see another nod to Karloff on the cover of Chamber of Darkness #8, published by Marvel in 1970:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chris A. · October 29

      And here’s that Monster Times poster:

      Liked by 3 people

    • frednotfaith2 · October 29

      Hmm, interesting that aside from the head, Romita’s version of Frankenstein very closely resembles Wrightson’s “beast” on this cover, just adding a long-sleeved shirt under the fur vest. Since Wrightson was freelancing for both Marvel & DC early on, I wonder if Marvel had offered him the Frankenstein series before DC offered him the Swamp Thing series if he would have gone for that. To my understanding, he was reluctant to take on a regular monthly series, fearing it would be difficult for him to meet deadlines regularly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chris A. · October 30

        Between other professional assignments in from 1970 until early 1972 Wrightson was working on a comics anthology of entirely his own work, BadTime Stories. It was financed and published by Eric Kimball in early 1972. While the quality of art was extremely high. I don’t think there was sufficient advertising or promotion to make it a success. It was even mentioned in the lettercol of Swamp Thing #1. So it is likely that, even if Wrightson had been offered The Monster of Frankenstein series, he would have turned it down outright, being so busy with the anthology. At that same time he had been approached to draw Swamp Thing as a regular series, and likewise said no for at least a year until BadTime Stories saw print.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. DontheArtistformerlyknownasfrodo628 · October 29

    Ah, another monster book I never got the chance to read at the time of it’s publication. I’m sorry to say that my interest in horror didn’t really come along until the late 70’s/early 80’s when I discovered Stephen King. This would have also been around the time I saw the classic movie for the first time, as well as the film version of Dracula. Friedrich’s script adaptation isn’t bad here; a tad wordy perhaps, but given that he’s riffing on a novel, that can be forgiven. Ploog’s artwork, however, is really nice here and superior to the work he did on the Werewolf By Night comic we looked at last week. Of course, it would have been nice if we could have gotten Bernie Wrightson to draw the book, given the affinity he shows for the material in later years, but hey, we can’t have everything and Ploog is an excellent substitute .

    For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, I do vaguely remember a Frankenstein comic that must have been the Dell comic you mentioned, Alan, b/c as best as I recall, it featured a super-hero version of the character that would have had Mary Shelley spinning in her grave. Of course at this point we’re only two years away from perhaps the greatest adaptation of Shelley’s work, that being the wonderful film, “Young Frankenstein,” written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, but that’s a subject deserving of a conversation all it’s own.

    Have I said Happy Halloween? Well, it bears repeating. Happy Halloween, my friends!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Chris A. · October 29

      I have to laugh, because that serious, moody tale by Wrightson in Eerie #68, “The Muck Monster,” was followed by a full colour advertisement for “Young Frankenstein.” Ill-placed in the mag, but hilarious!

      Liked by 3 people

    • Alan Stewart · October 29

      Happy Halloween back atcha, Don!

      Like

  5. Mitchell · October 29

    “It’s–alive! Heaven help me — it’s ALIVE!” Well.. yeah. That… was the whole point of your lab setup, right? So why are you acting like this is such a shock? It’s like me putting the popcorn in the microwave and screaming, “It’s–expanding! Heaven help me — THE BAG IS EXPANDING!” Ah, Marvel cover art, you continue to have the cure for the daily blues.

    Great write-up!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. jmhanzo · October 31

    “And so, even after the Code had driven most horror comics and their attendant vampires, werewolves, zombies, et al, off the stands, DC Comics was comfortable with offering their young readers a scenario in which “Bizarro Meets Frankenstein!”, just as Marvel was in having the student body of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters meet the big guy some seven years later.”

    And heck — what about the Incredible Hulk, who Kirby described as “handsome Frankenstein”? (Though I don’t know why, the Hulk ain’t all that handsome.)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Spirit of 64 · 29 Days Ago

    I thought Kirby also did a version of Frankenstein in his Jimmy Olsen issues. You may even have covered these previously in your blog. Otherwise all I can say is that this was such a great period in comics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan Stewart · 29 Days Ago

      There was indeed a Frankenstein lookalike in JO #143, the second of the two “Transilvane” issues — both of which are among the few Kirby Olsens I *didn’t* write a whole blog post about! 🙂

      Like

  8. Pingback: Phantom Stranger #23 (Jan.-Feb., 1973) | Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books

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