Frankenstein Underground #1
by Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart
No no, Mignola was the creator, you’re thinking of Mignola’s monster. Which, technically, would be Hellboy, but with this first issue we see Mignola take on Frankenstein. Or, more specifically, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That’s right, it’s THE Frankenstein monster let loose in the Mignolaverse. Tortured, hunted, neither alive nor dead, this “monster” is racked with guilt for what he’s done and what he’s been made to do since that horrific, miraculous occurrence in the 18th century that was his creation. With on-point cinematic visuals and infused with signature elements of horror, the Modern Prometheus is brought forth hundreds of years and challenges the Gods once more.
This first installment does spend a good amount of time prepping the narrative canvas and while a flurry of ideas are being introduced, it never feels bogged down or frenetic to the point of baffling. Instead, Mignola does what Mignola does better than anyone: he sets the mood to impart a perfect emotional resonance. A lot happens and almost all of it is knowingly sparse in details by design, so even though much is unclear (who are these people? why are they doing this?) all of it is instantly beguiling. There’s an ancient Central American spiritualism, a shamanistic witch, a dandy and evil French Marquis with a penchant for the exotic occult, and a winged demon formerly of Pandemonium and the Order of the Fly. In other words, it’s a Mignola comic and despite the lack of any concrete, spoon-fed explanations, there is little doubt that it’s all intricately tied together.
Mignola’s dialogue is unsurprisingly strong, specifically Frankenstein who very believably retains the same well-spoken, melancholy demeanor found in Shelley’s classic. While there’s a great deal of information, characters and settings being introduced in these 22 pages, Mignola has clearly asserted this series as Frankenstein’s journey even if he’s perhaps going to serve as a vehicle to others’ machinations. He playfully adds nods to other incarnations, such as Karloff’s inarticulate behemoth (upon his first appearance in the book) and there’s a moment wherein he takes the outstretched hand of a lady and questions, “friend?” Seeing bits and pieces of his history is fascinating, but they’re just flickers that spark your imagination in so much as any one of those panels is a story you want to see played out. Each one of those quick flashes also serve to shape Mignola’s vision of what has become of Frankenstein since the events of Shelley’s novel; he’s been broken and beaten. Like an old prize-fighter, some of that abuse has taken its toll and combined with his unwieldy guilt atop his massive frame, more than ever he wants peace.
Look, Ben Stenbeck and Dave Stewart are the art team on this book; do you really think it’s anything less than stylistically pitch-perfect for a Mignola penned tale? Good, because it is. Stenbeck’s delivers the same atmospheric goods we’ve come to expect form his work on Baltimore and Witchfinder, but there’s also this old-film quality that works beautifully with the subject matter here. That may be the result of that sequence of one-panel flashbacks, wherein Stenbeck essentially delivers mini-movies in panel-form that feature beastly articulated monsters and men awash in shadow. The spotted blacks are used to great effect, allowing shadow to shape and define the textures and mass of the subjects and surroundings. Frankenstein is rigid and craggy with a bandage-wrapped fist that again reinforces the boxing imagery. Massive mythic statues of ancient beings are heavy, forceful and haunting. Stenbeck leaves no doubt to his cartooning ability, injecting a range of familiar (and unfamiliar) emotions into the faces of human and ghouls alike.
Dave Stewart does what Dave Stewart does best: colors the hell out everything he touches. Always letting the art shine through, Stewart tonally matches the somber, cinematic tragedy unfolding. He never just washes out color and keeps things dark for the sake of dark, instead he utilizes a palette that allows for contrast. There are rich, bold colors employed here that are attuned to one another regardless of hue. For several pages of a dream-like hallucination, an ethereal pink washes over the page save for the pallid blue figure of a woman and her carriage. It gives way to an explosion of burning reds at the cawing of a crow and immediately transitions back to soothing cools. Stewart’s colors complement the pacing as much as the script and inked pencils, and it’s a large part of the experience. As always, he shows that there’s so much more to being eerily atmospheric than just keeping everything in the dark.
Frankenstein Underground #1 pours a heavy foundation, even if quite a bit is still enticingly unclear. Exactly who everyone is and what their motivations are yet to be seen, as is the case with many a classic beginning. What is evident is that Shelley’s Frankenstein is in good hands and Mignola, Stenbeck and Stewart have a firm grip on how to introduce him into the shared Hellboy world. This issue might feel slow to some, but it was all about setting the mood and introducing us to the battered titular creature. It already feels like a tragedy playing out via a classic film reel, but the potential to pull from the established insanity of the Mignolaverse is rife with potential.