Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., one of the two New 52 series written by the increasingly well regarded Jeff Lemire, is a bit of a paradox in terms of its general concept. Though the book’s premise — one in which a top secret group of old-school movie monsters defends the world from supernatural menaces — is drastically dissimilar from any of the publisher’s other offerings, it is still likely to register as slightly derivative for seasoned comics readers. More than one critic has likened the series to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, which centers on, well, pretty much the exact same thing.
But what elevates Frankenstein from the dregs of plagiarism to the heights of creativity is Lemire’s knack for the characterization of his unique title character. Building upon the divergent bundle of personality traits established by Grant Morrison in 2005’s Seven Soldiers, Lemire’s Frank is a no-nonsense special ops veteran with a rigid moral center, an elegantly spoken creature with a familiar face from which we’ve been conditioned to expect no more than grunts and groans. He’s an old soul clearly hardened by age yet not overcome with cynicism, exuding greater parts principle than bitter resentment.
In the series’ second issue, Frank’s personality continues to power most of the entertainment value found here, as well as serving as the lens through which much of the story is interpreted. Leaning heavily on our prior knowledge of Frank’s famous history as the product of science gone mad, Lemire casts the world of S.H.A.D.E. as one in which humanity constantly chases after its own desires unto evil ends. That unspoken notion looms largely over nearly everything that happens in the book, from the twisted ritual of child sacrifice found in the issue’s small town setting to the frequent unethical genetic experimentation practiced by Frankenstein’s own allies. In each case, Lemire refrains from beating us over the head by making this theme overtly, though it is clearly prevalent throughout.
As with Lemire’s story, Ponticelli and Villarrubia’s artwork hardly resembles any of the rest of DC’s current output. Eschewing the slick, Jim Lee-patterned style that seems to have singlehandedly dominated the New 52, their stuff is marked with heavy blacks and flat colors that evoke Lemire’s own art in the pages of the Vertigo series Sweet Tooth. It’s a grim look that serves to mask the immense amount of fun that reading Frankenstein really is, creating a nice ironic contrast for those moments in which Lemire opts to go lighthearted.
Just like Lemire’s Animal Man, Frankenstein has become exactly the type of comic that many hoped for upon first learning of DC’s big plans to manufacture for itself a stimulating shot in the arm. This book is a reliable source of smart and innovative storytelling, expanding the possibilities of the DC Universe beyond what they were before the relaunch was conceived.
Raised on a steady diet of Super Powers action figures and Adam West Batman reruns, Chris Kiser now writes for Comics Bulletin. He once reviewed every tie-in to a major DC Comics summer event and survived to tell the tale. Ask him about it on Twitter, where he can be found as @Chris_Kiser!