Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Artist: Bernie Wrightson
If you have never read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, you probably should, and I have yet to find an edition I enjoy more than Marvel's Illustrated Novel Edition. To be upfront, I should mention that what I am reviewing is, in fact, the Mary Shelley novel, with Bernie Wrightson illustrations. So this is not really a comic book, but since Bernie Wrightson is known to so many comic fans, since it is published by the Marvel Group, and since I thought it was great, I begged Craig Lemon to let me write this review.
I admit I feel somewhat ridiculous and certainly pretentious reviewing a book that has become such a benchmark of our literary history, especially if you enjoy science fiction. However, I do this only to alert any of you that have not tried this edition to strongly consider doing so. To reveal the extent of my personal enthusiasm for this book, I had a poster copy of the cover illustration on my wall for years. With my respectful intents revealed, let's get on with the gushing, um, er, I mean, the review.
The story of Frankenstein, as you may know, but then again, may not, is about a scientist, Dr Frankenstein, obsessed with tearing back the veil of nature's secrets, specifically the secret of life itself. In his efforts to unlock the mysteries of life, he struggles to animate a lifeless creature of "gigantic stature". He succeeds. Struck by the realization of the tragic monstrousity that he has created, Frankenstein flees his laboratory. His creation, the "monster", abandoned by his creator, makes his way into the world. All of his efforts to find acceptance are spurned because of his horrific appearance. Despite noble efforts and a stunning intellect, the monster is rejected by everyone he encounters. Eventually, Dr. Frankenstein is confronted by his creation. What follows is tragedy.
Frankenstein is one of the finest literary example of the dangers of obsession. Frankenstein traditionally refers to the pursuit of science without any thought to morals or consequences and how such an arrogant path can lead to destruction. Modern day examples of this would, of course, include the atomic bomb and its more destructive descendants. More recently, the worldwide media and governments have been forced to address questions of human cloning via embryonic stem cells. Placed in this modern context, Frankenstein loses none of its horror.
For my money, however, Frankenstein also works as a more personal, cautionary tale. Anyone that can find themselves obsessed or compelled by their work or art might see some of themselves in Dr Frankenstein. The doctor discusses his obsession as such:
"...my eyes were insensible to the charms of nature... I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination. I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed."
After realizing the tragic mistakes he later makes, he recants much of his earlier behavior by saying:
"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility... If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind."
There are three primary reasons as to why I enjoy this book and this edition. The first is the theme of a good man walking a precarious path in his efforts to extend his world and quench his intellectual thirst at the expense of all else. The second is the language or, I should say, the prose. Lastly, the superb illustrations elevate the novel.
One theme that I find fascinating is: how can a good man do bad things? In the case of Dr Frankenstein, he has a loving supportive family, a fiancee that adores him, he is well educated and sets out to explore the world with a fervor that the reader might not only relate to, but admire. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm leads to a single mindedness which in turn leads him to become nervous, frantic, and eventually tormented. The setting of the German countryside with a monster lurking about, heightens the tension, but much of the tragic turn of events derive from the doctor's inability to avert his own course. This tale is not horrific because of a body that you might find in the closet, but rather, because we each might find ourselves with similar obsessions directing our lives. In other words, the doctor is mad, but not at the beginning of the book, and the reader walks with Frankenstein as his path leads him and his loved ones to their tragic fates. As a result, Frankenstein serves as a cautionary tale filled with pathos and at the same time, excitement.
The language is beautiful. It makes me somewhat sick to hear that this book was written in one weekend on a bet as to who could write the best ghost story. Can you believe the nerve of this lady? Couldn't she at least be kind enough to make it LOOK difficult to write this? But alas, I digress. The language is best appreciated by reading the book out loud. Each word resonates as though it was carefully chosen to capture as much meaning as possible, and if you read too quickly, a reader might gloss over moments too casually.
Using the above quote for an example, "I could not tear my thoughts from my employment, loathsome in itself, which had taken an irresistible hold of my imagination" demonstrates exactly the state Frankenstein's mind in only one sentence. Frankenstein admits to not being completely in control of himself largely because he finds his "employment ... irresistible". We infer his state of mind, his reasons and his "loathsome" environment from this one sentence. The reader is free to imagine an overworked, compelled, obsessed, brilliant scientist surrounded by horrific sights of body parts and machinery as he toils frantically to reanimate a patchwork creature as the reader sees fit. But, the tone is definitively and undeniably set. Many of the specific details of what vial went where and where the eyeballs may have been kept are left out, but I believe that this leaves the right amount of room for the reader's imagination while at the same time, driving the story in a clear and compelling direction. If the reader's imagination needs more enticement, as admittedly mine once did, the Bernie Wrightson art completes the package flawlessly.
Bernie Wrightson, as most of you probably already know, has done a tremendous amount of good horror comic art. His work on Frankenstein stands out as some of the best of his career. What strikes me about the artwork is the line detail: despite the fact that each image is filled with a tremendous number of lines, each one clearly serves a definite purpose, and the viewer cannot imagine the image without each of them. More importantly, there is a drama and passion to each image that not only stands up to Mary Shelley's great tale, but in fact, enhances it. The front cover perhaps serves the best example. The creature, alone and distraught, has begged his creator to grant him another creature such as himself who could serve as his companion. Frankenstein initially agrees, but as the thought of unleashing another similar horror overcomes the doctor, he destroys his uncompleted creature. The cover shows the rage, the passion and the anguish of both characters while simultaneously providing a view into the mad doctor's laboratory; the world as he has come to see it.
Some, myself included, have mentioned that the novel is, at times, slow. If that has been your opinion previously, try reading it with Wrightson's vision infused alongside Shelley's. Even the simplest scenes start to shine with more life.
Be warned that the beginning of the novel is the slowest section and the reader should push him or herself through the first 2 or 3 chapters. The book opens with a ship's captain that has just encountered Dr. Frankenstein. The author spends some time introducing the captain, then exploring Frankenstein's story and then, eventually the monster's story. The captain is the least interesting of the three, but he largely a device used to pull a discerning reader into so incredulous a tale.
I warned you all, I was going to gush, and boy, did I gush. I have read this book at least once every 2 years for the last 10 years, and I have always enjoyed it. Consider this book. It is not only a fine precursor of the almost one hundred fifty years of science fiction that followed, it is not only a timely tale of amoral science gone unchecked, not just a cautionary tale of a tortured soul, strongly augmented by beautiful art, it is ultimately a very enjoyable and often gripping read. If you have a slow comic week, and as always if you have the money and in this case, the time to invest in reading it, you can't really go wrong with this one. Let me know what you think.
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