Frankenstein is a badass monster who kills other monsters with a big-ass sword and a minigun (a type of big-ass gun). WARNING: Minigun does not appear in this issue.
This is what the DC relaunch should have been all about. Not superstar ’90s artists, not titles that are more or less status quo, not characters going from normal to looking like they’ve had a run-in with a tapeworm. With Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli manage to introduce a series that is different from what you’d normally expect from DC but instantly accessible, utilizing existing characters as ingredients and crafting the kind of story that comic fans of any stripe can enjoy.
While part of what makes this book so engaging and accessible is its immediately recognizable character types, the real thrill of the series comes from Lemire and Ponticelli’s sheer creative excitability. Merging the high-concept tech shenanigans of Casanova with the tone and team structure of BPRD, Frankenstein may be full of a whole lot of referential concepts, but the way they’re put together and executed is refreshingly different. Frankenstein’s monster himself helps with that, as he lacks the childlike naivety of a character like Hellboy or the suave, cocksure nature of your normal black ops team leader.
Instead, Frank is a brisk, cold figure who loves his solitude but nonetheless finds himself pulled in by his mentor, Father Time, to help save those thankless humans. As a “Super Agent” for S.H.A.D.E., Frank is tasked with resolving the worst situations and as this first issue opens up, Lemire is confident enough to drop us into that world and Frank’s place in it without needless exposition or clumsy attempts at explaining everything. We learn the important details — where Frank has been lately (Mars, apparently), what kind of mess S.H.A.D.E. is in (monsters devouring small town) and the stakes (the missus is missing — and then Lemire gets to the fun part of rolling out the team Frank will be leading.
Lemire and Ponticelli rightly assume that the world they’ve created is so fun and interesting that we as readers will get sucked into it and allow ourselves to become acclimated as we go. There are things for old fans to pick up on that new fans might not but, as is the case with Ray Palmer’s place on the team as a science guru, that prior knowledge isn’t necessary to the experience. Even better, the world of S.H.A.D.E. is one you easily get sucked into, what with its hyper-miniaturized HQ and Father Time being in the body of a sassy schoolgirl and Mrs. Frankenstein having extra limbs and all.
Ponticelli really pulls out all the stops to make Lemire’s concepts work here too, imbuing the issue with an incredible amount of detail in every panel and giving the characters a beautiful ugliness made all the more sharp thanks to Jose Villarrubia’s coloring. Dr. Nina Mazursky and Vincent Velcoro are perhaps the most noteworthy of the Creature Commandos Frank is paired with, as a Creature from the Black Lagoon homage and a vampire halfbreed, respectively. Ponticelli keeps things simple but his aesthetic choices, like Mazursky’s fetching green water suit and Velcoro’s gargoyle-like wings and sharp talons, enable the archetypes to come into their own in a highly efficient way.
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. may not aspire to be high art but its unmatched inventiveness and playful tone makes it the first perfect New 52 title in terms of accomplishing what this relaunch was all about in the first place. Easy to recommend without any hesitation, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is the kind of first issue that makes this job so fun.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash’s Panel Panopticon.
There’s a lot to like about this first issue of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.. For a start, it manages to tap into the same outrageous, over-the-top pulpy atmosphere that characterised Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein miniseries, pitting the titular character — in his new SHADE role (as seen in Morrison’s Final Crisis) — against a horde of outlandish monsters in a straightforward yet also fairly bonkers sci-fi-fantasy-horror-action-adventure.
Although the book pays homage to Frankenstein’s previous appearances, writer Jeff Lemire seems keen to add his own stamp to proceedings too, creating a detailed world for SHADE to inhabit and teaming Frank up with a group of “creature commandos” to help him carry out his work.
It might seem a little too close to Hellboy‘s setup to feel particularly original, but there’s something curiously fitting about Lemire’s choice to insert analogues for other classic horror-movie monsters (the Wolfman, Dracula, the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon) into Frankenstein’s story. Whilst they don’t really get much of a chance to establish themselves as characters beyond their archetypes in this first issue, the writer manages to do a reasonable job of depicting them in broad strokes.
Lemire makes good use of humour, too, particularly when it comes to Frankenstein’s relationship with Father Time, who has (for unclear reasons) taken on the appearance of a young schoolgirl. The writer doesn’t go overboard in milking the comedy that stems from the contrast between Father’s characterisation and her appearance, preferring instead to let the absurdity of the situation speak for itself.
Alberto Ponticelli provides vibrant, indie-style art for the issue. It might appear somewhat scratchy and unpolished at first glance, but it has pretty obviously been intentionally stylised to give the book a rough edge that suits Frankenstein and his monster-slaying adventures well. Ponticelli also copes well with Lemire’s throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-see-what-sticks approach to storytelling, coming up with some visually interesting and distinct designs for a host of weird and wonderful characters. However, certain problems do arise from occasional disconnects between the art and the story’s text.
Sometimes, this comes down to straightforward mismatches between the book’s captions and the accompanying images. For example, a caption indicating that the three-in
ch sphere that forms SHADE’s headquarters is currently “2,000 miles above Manhattan Island” (which, incidentally, would put it way outside of Earth’s atmosphere) is flatly contradicted by the preceding image, which shows the globe hovering a little over the rooftops of the highest skyscrapers. I can’t imagine how this discrepancy occurred (perhaps Lemire meant meters, and not miles?), but it pulls you out of the book and interrupts the story’s flow when you have to try and reconcile such opposing information.
However, I suspect that other such problems may be outside of both Lemire and Ponticelli’s control. A (presumably editorially-mandated) appearance from the mysterious purple-clad woman who has been stalking DC’s heroes in all of the company’s new #1 issues comes at the most inopportune moment imaginable here, given that it occurs in the very panel that Frankenstein orders his team to be on the lookout for possible survivors in a monster-infested zone. When everyone on Frank’s team apparently ignores the Purple Lady, it underlines the incongruity of her appearance and distracts from the main story for the sake of an as-yet meaningless “Easter Egg”.
These kinds of nitpicks aside, the book is pretty good fun, even if it’s a disposable and forgettable kind of fun. There’s not a huge sense of attachment to these characters yet, and there’s a sense that they’re little more than vehicles for Lemire to write and Ponticelli to drawm some crazy, over-the-top comicbook fight scenes between monsters of all shapes and sizes. There’s also not much of a sense that the book is trying anything new — but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in spirit and dynamism, and there are enough successful and well-executed ideas to outweigh those that are more ill-considered.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could — occasionally — be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it’s something he really likes. Maybe one day he’ll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.