Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Volume One: War of the Monsters
It’s sort of become my Modus Operandi of late but I can’t think of a better way to begin talking about this book than by taking a look at its completely ludicrous title: Frankenstein, Agent of Shade Volume One – War of the Monsters; if brevity is the soul of wit than that right there it the title of a soulless abomination. However it must be said that it does at least do its job, you read that on the cover and you’ll know exactly what it is that you’re going to get inside; namely a big green guy fighting monsters in the name of some nefarious organization. How or why DC chose to use their access to Shelley’s supernatural touchstone to this end is beyond me; I guess they figured Frank’s brand recognition would help them sell something out of the mainstream like a monster book. For me though it was another name that caught my eye and convinced me to pick this up, that of Jeff Lemire.
Though he has taken some steps towards the spotlight of late by penning premiere titles like Animal Man, Justice League Dark and a digital Legends of the Dark Knight short Lemire is still legendary for his largely lachrymose indie titles; such strange, sad stuff as Sweet Tooth and Lost Dogs so it seemed safe to assume that he would bring something special to this spastic sounding book. In short, he does but it’s just not enough. There is one whole page, a loosely paneled flashback sequence in the second issue, that feels like it belongs to Lemire and it is by far the best thing that the book offers. Outside of that his touch is felt only in tiny things and the terrific theme work.
We all know that Frankenstein is a fairly blatant condemnation of mankind’s movement towards fostering their own divinity through science, by creating life Frankenstein assumes the place of god but lacks the omniscience needed to own the role. Lemire takes this theme and twists it to fit the trends of the current time; whereas Shelley found fiction in the shocking of frogs, forward thinking at the time, he steals his stories from the fields of eugenics, nanotechnology and robotics, stretching those sciences to similarly strange limits in the search for that same as religious goal. Life and science are the staples underpinning this book, every element stems from these two thematic cores: Father Time’s name and new bodies, his slave AI’s whose forms are regularly recycled, the tube-created monsters that form the Creature Squad and the egg shaped ship that they travel in; these are all amazingly inventive and on point ideas but they are relegated to the background of the book in favour of the ‘fun’.
While this book has one obvious progenitor its plots actually suggest a stronger sore in Mike Mignola. The action of the issues owes heavily to his Hellboy and B.P.R.D series, what with the team of mutants – a giant, gruff lead, his sleek aquatic sidekick, strong female figure and bickering buddies – firing guns at and fighting other, more obnoxious monsters, and this would be acceptable were they only of the same calibre. The liberal lifting of ideas doesn’t stop there however with issue six reading as a literal frankenstein, constructed as it is from equal parts Watchmen and Apocalypse now: A Doc Manhattan-esque atomic hero is sent to ‘Nam and fourty years later Frank must track him down in a temple where he sits corrupted, muttering about horror. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with homage and the drawing of inspiration but it is important to ensure before you do it that you can keep within the lines.
Unfortunately though, like all of the creations that we see within the book Lemire and Ponticelli’s is crazy, a construction not of cerebral logic but mad science. The art is as chaotic as the creature design, creative at times but impenetrable at others; it’s simply impossible to follow some panels thanks to their Vitruviam man-esque action posing and the pacing takes a little getting used to. Speaking off, taken in the straight dose that the trade format suggests this story is simply too much to stomach; every scene brings with it a new idea, more intense than the last and while this approach constantly intrigues it never really satisfies. It would benefit from either embracing it’s complexity or cutting back serving up one shots I think, this compromised approach is just that ( by which I mean the way some non-core concepts come together to form the plot of the next issue, while just as many others simply stem from new space).
The pair pack as many ideas into an issue as they can and launch them all at the wall even though they know that only a few will ever stick and this approach is perfectly admirable it also inevitably makes a mess. As a whole this book isn’t brilliant but individual pieces are: there is some strong banter, some barmy ideas, deft characterization and the seeds of deep themes but the stitching simply isn’t there to hold them together; it lacks that lightning strike necessary for bringing it to life. I thought that Lemire would provide that power but in all honesty he barely even brings his own voice; this is the work of an empty shell of a man whose charge was spent scripting much better comics, which honestly isn’t all that great a shame. When you’ve created such flawless forms in the past one fragrant disregard for divine law can probably be forgiven.