Written by: Steve Niles
Art by: Bernie Wrightson
Cover Colour by: Jose Villarubia
Letterer: Robbie Robbins
Cover: Bernie Wrightson
Published by: IDW Publishing
In the third chapter of Frankenstein Alive, Alive! Trio, there is a beautiful two-page spread in which “Frank” dreams he’s in a graveyard, positioned beneath a sculpture of Christ, confronted by the ghosts of those he’s killed. Victor Frankenstein himself sentences him to “something even worse than death. Oblivion! Back to the separate and disparate pieces from which you were assembled. Back to the nothingness from which you came. Full and final dissection and destruction.”
Tortured by guilt and shame, “Frank” narrates, “I deserve no better.”
At this point, obviously, it’s impossible to sentence Frankenstein’s creature to oblivion. He’s become inextricably woven into the fabric of our popular culture. 2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, which is certainly one of the most influential works of fiction in the west. Its long shadow has been cast across all popular media, with great artists returning to its themes and characters again and again.
In the comics, Frankenstein’s creature has provided fodder for innumerable stories and titles, with Dick Briefer’s run on the character appearing in various comics from 1940 to 1953, being perhaps the greatest. Marvel’s Monster of Frankenstein title, which began publication in 1973 with a four-issue adaptation of Shelley’s novel by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, is another worthy standout.
In 1983, Marvel published a volume of Mary Shelley’s original novel featuring forty-seven beautifully detailed, intricate, woodcut-like illustrations created by legendary artist Bernie Wrightson. The book wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it was a perennial seller and has rightly gained a huge following of admirers.
In 2012, IDW published the first two of four chapters of a “sequel” to Wrightson’s illustrated volume, featuring more hypnotically beautiful artwork, with a story and dialogue by Steve Niles. The third installment appeared in 2014. Sadly, Wrightson passed away last year before he was able to complete the fourth chapter, which is to be published this month with artwork completed by the great Kelley Jones. In anticipation of that fourth volume, IDW has published an omnibus of the first three issues called Frankenstein: Alive, Alive! Trio, and it is a genuine full-on masterwork.
Like Shelley’s original novel, Frankenstein Alive, Alive! Trio begins with a framing narrative: “Frank” is a carnival sideshow attraction. When he’s revealed, the crowd at first gasps in horror, but then there’s a shift in their attitude. Once they realize that he doesn’t have the flat head or the neck bolts they’ve seen in so many of the creature’s popular culture depictions, they feel cheated, and want their money back. “I am never what they expect,” “Frank” narrates. “So I have also learned it is always best to give them what they expect. Give them what they want. A monster.” In this way, “Frank” is able to live a life, accepted as one of the community of sideshow attractions (perhaps a nod to Wright’s Bruce Jones collaboration Freak Show?).
“Frank” narrates his own story, with a flashback to the end of Shelley’s novel, with the creature at the North Pole confronting the ghost of his creator. He falls asleep in the ice but at some later point he thaws, then is consumed by the muddy overflow from a volcanic eruption and is later found by an excavation team who bring him, seemingly encased in stone, to the home of Dr. Simon Ingles. Dr. Ingles gives “Frank” full access to his immense library where he reads and studies art, history, and science.
Dr. Ingles reveals to “Frank” that he’s working with something that seems to resemble embryonic stem cell research. As “Frank” narrates: “With obvious excitement he showed me his research laboratory, speaking at some length of something he called ‘primeval tissue regeneration’ his success in the extraction of ‘protean humours’ from the blood of unborn fetuses, the prime ingredient, apparently, in a compound which would arrest aging and enable the human body’s own natural processes to cure itself of all diseases.”
“Frank,” seeing parallels between the work of his new friend and that of his creator, feels “uneasy” and “uncomfortable”. Here is another attempting to use science to thwart death—not by reanimating dead tissue, but by harvesting the tissue of the yet-to-be-born. This also represents another intriguing mirroring of Shelley’s original work, with the creature as Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Ingles serving as Waldman, and Dr. Ingles’s home as Ingolstadt.
As you can see from the quotes above, Niles’s script approximates Shelley’s writing style. At times it’s over-ripe, but it deftly stays this side of turgid. But the real standout aspect of the book is Wrightson’s art which is, as always, achingly beautiful and carries a deep emotional impact that resonates well after you’ve turned the last page. His baroque style gives the book an even greater sense of manic creativity and it’s thrilling to see a great Artist let his imagination run wild in this way.
He clearly had a lot of fun with the illustrations. Take his representation of Ingles’s laboratory: There are piles of skulls and bones all around, specimen jars with preserved animals, artifacts adorning the walls, lab equipment, and, for some reason, a taxidermied alligator suspended from a rafter. You can lose all track of time going over all the details and admiring the craftsmanship and skill that went into their creation.
It takes a lot of cheek to claim, as IDW did in a 2012 press release, to be creating a sequel to one of the greatest works of literature of all time. But with nods to Shelley’s original work and other popular entertainment representations and adaptations, the skill of the writing and especially the artwork, Frankenstein Alive, Alive! Trio is a worthy addition to the Frankenstein canon. It’s unlikely to be sentenced to oblivion.