Hundreds of comic books writers and artists of the Golden Age toiled in obscurity (sometimes well-deserved), as it was not the common practice of the time to credit what today we call “the creative team”. But we’re occasionally fortunate enough to know exactly who produced a particular story or series even if he or she worked under a nom de plume. One of the best-remembered comic book talents of the 1940’s was the great Dick Briefer (who we’ve met before in this blog) who was himself responsible for the creation (or, perhaps, “adaptation” would be more appropriate) of a character based on a literary classic, and in the process was responsible for one of the most fondly remembered comic book characters of the period. But before we take a closer look at that character’s debut in a 1940 issue of Prize Comics, a little bit of backstory would seem to be in order.

When Percy Shelley, his main squeeze Mary, Lord Byron, and a guy named John Polidori found themselves “rained in” by extensive inclement weather during a tour of continental Europe, they decided to pass the time by staging a friendly contest to see which of them could write the most frightening story. Shelley and Byron soon abandoned the idea and went back to writing poetry about daffodils and meadowlarks and Grecian pottery. But the other two followed through with the challenge. Polidori wrote the first modern vampire story which, really, was a bit tepid and is scarcely remembered (but from which Bram Stoker cribbed more than a bit when he wrote Dracula three-quarters of a century later). But young Mary hit one clean out of the park with a book that has remains a multicultural meme worldwide two centuries after she first scratched it out using her inkwell and dip pen. Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) was different from any novel which preceded it, stirred up more than a bit of controversy when it was first published, and continues to inspire adaptations, homages, and imitations today.

That latter fact is kind of surprising when one considers that Frankenstein is actually a pretty mediocre book. Much of it reads like a bland European travelogue and the “horrifying” parts aren’t really all that frightening. The protagonist is a wuss (Victor faints when he meets his creation unexpectedly and spends literally months in bed recuperating) and portions of the plot are so silly and contrived that they’re difficult to read without laughing (or groaning) aloud. But the real genius of the book consists of something which goes beyond mere plot and characterization; Frankenstein is one of those rare books which keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. And what you take away with you after you’ve read it depends in large measure on what you brought along when you began reading the novel’s first page.

An arrogant and self-absorbed young university student named Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life. After stitching together a patchwork man fashioned from parts of corpses, Victor reanimates his creation using a combination of science and sorcery (the exact technique was undefined by Ms. Shelley; the “electricity” thing was a later invention of the cinema). Horrified by the grotesque parody of life he’s created, Victor rejects the creature. But the reanimated man clings to the notion that his creator owes him something and, after Victor rebuffs him, he proceeds to turn his maker’s life into a living hell.

Even now (and despite the book’s largely wretched “Romantic Era” style) the novel’s core concept is amazing and the allegorical possibilities are practically endless. The idea of a person creating life was considered positively blasphemous at the time Frankenstein was first published (and you’ll still find the occasional oddball goober televangelist railing against the book on late-night public access TV today), but that “blasphemous” concept is exactly what spawns the book’s vast allegorical potential. Should it be considered “blasphemous” for a human to create life (the fact that nearly any two random drunk people of opposite gender can easily do that very thing on a given Saturday night notwithstanding)? How much does a parent emotionally owe his or her child? If a child doesn’t turn out quite the way a parent would wish, is that parent still obligated to love his offspring? Is the parent obligated to ensure a child’s happiness? What if that child is willful? Disobedient? Stubborn? A lawbreaker? Violent? Conversely, does a child get a “free pass” for antisocial behavior simply because “Mommy and Daddy don’t love me?” At what point does one’s own destiny become one’s own responsibility?

And, in the larger picture, does a divine creator owe his creations anything beyond the fact of their very existence? Is it a requirement for a god to make his creations secure, happy, and comfortable? Or is the very act of creation enough? And, very importantly from a religious/spiritual angle, does a man created or reanimated by another man have a soul — or is he little more than a beast? (This latter question was explored at length in a later work: H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896.)

These are the kinds of things you’ll think about after reading Frankenstein. Unless, of course, you’re twelve years old and you approach it as just a monster/horror book, which seems to be exactly the manner in most filmmakers have presented the material over the years.

The Universal Studios series of Frankenstein films was the first real “movie franchise” as we know them today. Released in 1931, starring Colin Clive as the doomed scientist and Boris Karloff as his creation, and directed with great skill and panache by James Whale, Frankenstein spawned five official sequels and has, for all intents and purposes, completely redefined the way people think about Mary Shelley’s original concept. Whereas in Shelley’s novel Victor creates an intelligent, articulate being by using a combination of magic and science, the creature in the film version is animated by electricity and is essentially an overgrown child who possesses a rudimentary vocabulary. (It’s a testament to Boris Karloff’s great talent as an actor that his creature elicits such sympathy and pity from the audience largely through Karloff’s facial expression and mannerisms, much as the great Lon Chaney, Sr. was able to do in Universal’s earlier silent horror films.) While the original film appeals in large measure to the “inner eight year old” in us and mostly lacks the thought-provoking nature of the novel, the 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstein is just so over the top and wrong on so many levels that one can’t help but love it and think about it long after viewing it (I still discover unexpected nuances in it today despite having already seen it at least a half-dozen times).

It was doubtless the enormous popularity of the first three films (including 1939’s entry in the series, Son of Frankenstein) which prompted the great Dick Briefer to adapt the character for comic books in 1940. First appearing in late 1940 in issue #7 of Prize Publication’s Prize Comics, the Golden Age comic version of Frankenstein became a well-remembered, even loved, piece of the early history of comics. Briefer’s Frankenstein (the name by this time already being popularly and incorrectly applied in reference more to the creation instead of the creator) was arguably influenced by the Universal film versions and, in turn, seems to have influenced later Silver Age material, as we’ll discuss a bit further down the page.

Let’s you and I together take a closer look at the first appearance of Briefer’s Frankenstein. Right-click on a page to open it in a new tab and get a more readable view. (The page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum, but appear to have been scanned from a reprint edition instead of an original copy):

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

Briefer starts us off with a bang, drawing a terrific splash page (and crediting himself as “Frank N. Stein). The creature’s visual appearance draws from both the movie version (the oddly block-shaped head) and the description from Shelley’s novel (in which the creature has a pallid complexion and translucent skin which barely covers his musculature, a description which heavily influenced the later Hammer films starring Christopher Lee as the creature).

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

On the first page of the narrative we find two pieces of evidence to suggest that Briefer was very much influenced by the Universal films: Victor closely resembles Basil Rathbone (the star of 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, the most recent film at the time of this comic’s publication) and he uses electricity to animate the creature.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

Unlike his namesake from the novel, Victor doesn’t faint dead away at the sight of his creation. Instead, the monster socks his creator and makes his escape.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

Briefer has just a handful of pages with which to work, so in a marvelous bit of compressed storytelling he reduces a large chunk of the novel (and a memorable scene from Bride of Frankenstein), in which the creature is befriended by an elderly blind man but is violently driven off by the unexpected arrival of an interloper, into a mere two or three panels.

This page also provides a very mixed message about the creature’s core nature. Despite the fact that he kayoed his creator on the previous page, Briefer refers to him as a “harmless creature”. In the page’s last panel, the creature goes on a rampage, “swearing to destroy all mankind in revenge upon his maker”. This is actually a completely different “take” on the monster than was seen in either the original novel or the movies. In the novel the creature does commit murder for the sake of revenge, but his victims are primarily the family and friends of his creator (in retribution for Victor’s destruction of the creature’s intended mate). In the movies the creature originally kills accidentally and innocently, ignorant of mankind’s fragile nature (the infamous “flower” scene), and his later rampages are largely a reaction to being attacked by villagers.

So, at the risk of overthinking a short comic book story, why is the creature seeking revenge against his creator? Does the creature loathe himself and his appearance so much that he seeks to make his creator pay a debt of guilt for bringing him unbidden into the world? At the very least it’s just a story hook to create dramatic tension by establishing an adversarial relationship between Victor and his “artificial man”.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

I don’t often mention comic book art (because I’m a writer, not an artist), but the technique of variable scale is worth mentioning as we look at that last page. It’s a trick which is used to great effect in the original 1933 version of King Kong: a creature is presented in varying scales to fit the requirements of the story. In the third panel, the monster towers above the park landscape (such as the bench) far below and is huge enough to hold two kids in the palm of one hand. Yet in the last panel the creature is again small enough to ride on an elephant’s back. While some readers in the age of “photorealistic” comic art might view this as kind of a “cheat”, it was an established technique of the Golden Age and, in many cases, unconsciously slipped right past even an attentive reader.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

And the scale has changed again: the creature positively towers over the normal humans around him.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

The monster looks huge as it scales the Statue of Liberty (another King Kong riff – the creature climbs a famous landmark) but then appears to shrink again to just slighter larger than human size to pull a pair of tourists from Lady Liberty’s crown and hurl them to their deaths.

Then, in an incredible display of badassery, Victor hurls himself upon the monster, intending to sacrifice himself to ensure the creature’s destruction.

Prize Comics #7, December 1940

In a surprising turn, the creature saves the life of his creator. But this is no act of compassion: the monster saves Victor in order to continue tormenting him. Without a creator upon which to avenge himself, the creature believes his life has no meaning. (And it’s interesting to note here that the monster has suddenly become articulate, another Shelley influence).

When the story ends, the scene has been set for a series of wild adventures. Prize Publications’ “Frankenstein” feature ran for nearly a decade, appearing regularly (including as the headline feature of its own book) through 1949. It’s still fondly remembered today at a time when many other Golden Age characters and features are forgotten, and Briefer’s take on the Shelley classic was also influential in its own right: the later Silver Age “Hulk” series by Marvel Comics reads eerily like the Golden Age Frankenstein, right down to the “revenge” angle (the Hulk blames Bruce Banner for his own existence and, in a bizarre twist on the “self-loathing” trope, actively seeks to make his creator’s/alter ego’s life an endless misery and torment).

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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