October MONSTER MASH!
The Scarier Side of Superhero Comics (part one of four)
As arguably the first work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) has gone far beyond its gothic novel roots to cast a towering shadow across literature, film and the larger pop culture. So much so, it’s probably safe to assume that nearly every living soul on the planet could identify Frankenstein or, more accurately, his monstrous creation.
Although the primary sources of the creature’s popularity are the Universal horror films starring Boris Karloff, Frankenstein’s Monster also turned up in the horror films of competing movie studios, as well as countless plays, toys, radio shows, TV shows and, of course, comic books!
The Frankenstein comic book appearances usually took one of two approaches. The first was to feature the character in his own title, like Prize Comics did in 1945 and Marvel published in 1973. The second (and much more entertaining) approach was to get the Frankenstein monster to show up in other titles, often in incongruous modern settings. This approach was a bit like a comic book version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where an 19th century gothic monster interacts with wacky, mid-20th century buffoons...or in the framework of this discussion, a gothic monster interacting with modern day superheroes and comedians.
Waitasec. Comedians? Yes…before I get to the superheroes, it should be mentioned that Frankenstein’s monster (from here on out referred to as simply “Frankenstein”) met Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis on the covers of their respective DC Comics titles. Though quite popular during the 50’s and early 60’s, the sales of Bob and Jerry’s titles took a plunge in the mid-60’s…resulting in DC turning to reliably popular monsters and superheroes to liven things up.
Frankenstein (and other Universal-inspired monsters), along with Bob’s teenaged nephew “Super Hip” (don't ask), show up on the cover of Bob Hope #95 (1965) for a swingin’ time at the “Café Go-Go-Ghoul”.
Jerry Lewis #83 (1964) finds Jerry sharing a room at “Preps Ghoul” with Frankie and a few more familiar faces, altered just enough to avoid the wrath of Universal Studios, whose famous monsters were enjoying a new wave of popularity at the time. Apparently, the “monsters” were only washed-up actors hoping to revive their monster movie careers, naturally turning to a mastermind like Jerry Lewis to help them out.
Staying on the lighter side, Frankenstein plods onto the cover of Scooter #24 (1970), DC’s shameless Archie Comics rip-off. Dig that hip red jacket, snazzy slacks, and go-go checks patch!
Things get serious on the cover of Tomahawk #103 (1965) as The Frontier Frankenstein attacks Tom Hawk and his Rip-Roaring Rangers! As you can see, by this point the title had completely abandoned its original, more historically accurate roots for a more freewheeling, sci-fi oriented approach. Take note of the fur vest Frontier Frankie is wearing, an element you'll see resurface in Marvel's take on the character.
After a resurgence in popularity of superhero comics during the late 50’s and early 60’s, Frankenstein appearances weren’t too far behind.
The cover of Superman #143 (1961) finds his imperfect duplicate Bizarro jealous of Frankenstein’s “ugly looks”, and anxious to bump off the competition! Although Bizarro was regarded as comic relief by this point, his earliest stories echoed some of the pathos of Frankenstein, so their “meeting” in this story was an interesting, off-handed way of acknowledging that connection.
The paths of Frankenstein and Superman once again cross in Superman #344 (1980), as the monster and Dracula are summoned from the spirit world by psychic Cassandra Craft.
Monster meets mutant on the cover of X-Men #40 (1968), as Frankenstein battles the X-Men with not only his customary super-strength, but optic beams and magnetized feet as well! As it turned out, this version of Frankenstein was an android brought to Earth in the mid-19th century as an “ambassador” of an alien race. Yes, nothing improves inter-galaxy relations quite like an optic-beam shooting flat-headed monster with magnetized feet.
The next cover is a special one for me, since it’s from a comic book I actually bought from the squeaky 7-11 comics rack. Marvel Team-Up #36 (1975) was a “must buy” to a young fan of both Spider-Man and movie monsters, and the story didn’t disappoint. Spidey and his new pal Fur Vest Frankenstein must battle the evil Baron Ludwig Von Shtupf, aka “The Monster Maker”. But wait! It gets better! The very next issue had Spidey’s werewolf foe Man-Wolf crashing the party, which pretty much fried the “awe circuits” of my then nine year-old brain. Disclaimer: Any similarity between Fur Vest Frankenstein and 1960’s Sonny Bono is purely coincidental.
Another multi-monster kid-magnet was the cover of Giant-Size Werewolf #2 (1974), not only because of the spectacle of the Werewolf vs. Frankenstein, but also the suggestion of a “Giant-Size Werewolf”. Obviously, Wolfie was just a normal-sized werewolf, but man….a giant-size werewolf? How cool would that be?
Fur Vest Frankie pops up once again in Iron Man #101 (1977), as the Armored Avenger is shot down over Yugoslavia and lands near Castle Frankenstein. Like the not-quite-accurate Marvel Team-Up cover before it, Iron Man and Frankenstein are shown to be enemies, but within the story itself they actually join forces against the evil Dreadknight. In case you’re wondering, the creepy club-wielding midgets on the cover are “The Children”, creations of one Victoria Frankenstein (one of many descendants).
Plucked from the time stream by Kang the Conqueror, Frankenstein and other “historic” figures were mind-controlled to form the Legion of the Unliving in Avengers #132 (1975). After he shook off the mind-control and helped to bring down Kang, Frankenstein and his fur vest were sent back to their native time period.
In the pages of Invaders #31 (1978), Nazi scientist Dr. Basil Frankenstein carries on the family business by creating a new creature to head up an army of Nazi zombies. Dr. Frankenstein also had another little item on his “To Do” list: transplanting his brain into the body of Captain America! The fiend!
On the flipside, Frankenstein fights on the side of the Allies in Weird War #93 (1980). This issue marked the debut of The Creature Commandos, formerly human soldiers transformed into a frightful fighting force by a mysterious government agency dubbed Project M. “Frankenstein” was actually Pvt. Elliot “Lucky” Taylor, who was stitched back together after stepping on a land mine.
Another “Faux-Frankenstein” retroactively added to history, in this case Marvel Comics history, was simply known as “Frank”. Frank first appeared in John Byrne’s Marvel: The Lost Generation #5 (2000), a limited series that chronicled the adventures of a “lost generation” of heroes between World War II and the emergence of the Fantastic Four. The initial teaming of these heroes formed The First Line, of which Frank was a reserve member. Although most of the Lost Generation was killed in action by the end of the series, the final fate of Frank remains a mystery. Considering the mutual animosity between John Byrne and Marvel, I’m guessing Frank’s fate will remain a mystery for some time to come.
Another Kinda-Sorta Frankenstein shows up on the cover of Tomb of Dracula #49 (1976), as great fictional characters are drawn into the dream world of a comatose woman. The non-fictional Dracula, still enraged by his portrayal in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, savagely rejects the woman’s friendship, earning the wrath of Robin Hood, D’artagnan, Huckleberry Finn and, of course, Frankenstein!
Perhaps the strangest (and most convoluted) pseudo-Frankenstein of them all appears in Doctor Strange #37 (1992), featuring the return of Frankensurfer. Originally appearing in Silver Surfer #7 (1969), the Frankensurfer was a duplicate of the Silver Surfer created by Ludwig Von Frankenstein, yet another mad scientist descendant of Victor. Later on, Ludwig’s hunchback assistant Borgo melded with the body of Frankensurfer and went to live with (and later imprison) the aforementioned Victoria Frankenstein and her Children. Enter Doctor Strange, who promptly separated Borgo from the Frankensurfer body. Got all that?
A final permutation of the Frankenstein monster in comics was to move him beyond simply meeting superheroes and, instead, becoming a superhero himself, appropriately enough in the butt-kicking, name-taking niche of the superhero market.
First up is Doc Frankenstein, a weapon-toting liberal activist (yes, you read that correctly), created in 2004 by the Wachowski Brothers (of Matrix fame). However, like many comic book dabblings by Big Media Darlings, Doc appeared in a measly five issues before Los Bros Wachowski were distracted by new bright shiney things.
Thankfully, Grant Morrison’s gun-slinging take on Frankenstein (2006) had nothing to do with liberal activism and plenty to do with hunting down and destroying supernatural beasties. As it should be.
In late-breaking news, the most recent superhero Frankenstein appears to be DC’s Young Frankenstein, who's existance was revealed in Teen Titans #36 (2006).
As of this writing, his origin and early adventures are yet to be revealed.
However, the honor for the first (and spectacularly ill-advised) superhero Frankenstein goes to the short-lived Dell Comics series. The first issue (1964) featured a straight adaptation of Universal’s 1931 Frankenstein movie, so the series appeared to be off to a promising start.
That is, until issue #2 arrived (some two years later).
The cover of Dell’s Frankenstein #2 (1966) featured the New Frankenstein, “the world’s newest and strangest superhero”. Instead of a fur vest and neck bolts, New Frankie sported a free-wheelin’ tank top, blue briefs, a monogrammed belt buckle and a white brush cut…not to mention two distinct flesh colors.
Mercifully, the series lasted a mere four issues, consigning the “newest and strangest superhero” to a well-deserved scrap heap.
Despite half-baked affairs like the Dell series, the Frankenstein monster has proven to be remarkably resilient as he’s been adapted into a countless mediums and settings, including comics. Whether friend or foe, comic relief or tragic figure, Frankenstein steadily plods through the centuries, leaving a trail of deep footprints through nearly two centuries of pop culture.