Monsters & Frankenstein

Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith & Frankenstein illustrated by Bernie Wrightson

In what I assume is a remarkable coincidence, these two books, from two former members of The Studio, have appeared at the same time. I read them together, an exercise I would not recommend to those of a nervous disposition.

Bernie Wrightson (co-creator of Swamp Thing) is the best illustrator of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece ever. This new edition is smaller in dimensions than the original publication in 1983 by Marvel Comics, but it is a lovely production. Even if you have the original edition, just buy it again. Mary Shelley’s work is well known but seldom read. The creature is only regarded as a monster because of what he does to people in the novel, but he only does it to seek justice (revenge? Is there a difference? Compare the lynch mobs on social media) for how he has been treated by humans. His creator abandons him, betrays him, reneges on a promise to him. It is Victor Frankenstein who is really the monster.

Shelley conceived of the premise when she was staying with Lord Byron, himself a Frankenstein figure. At around the same time as Shelley was developing the idea, Byron wrote a play called Cain. In it, the first murderer says he has been betrayed by his creator who has placed unfair burdens on him and then abandoned him. The Creator has shown his creations Paradise and then barred them from it. Needless to say the play was not well received by English Protestants. Byron never revisited the UK and died far away from his own original paradise.

In 1962, Jack Kirby based the face of the Hulk partly on Boris Karloff’s look in the famous 1931 film by James Whale. Stan Lee said of Karloff’s character: “No one could ever convince me that he was the bad guy … he merely groped his tortuous way through a second life trying to defend himself, trying to come to terms with those who sought to destroy him.”

It is well reported that the catalyst for BWS’ new graphic novel was an idea for a Hulk story. But a much closer parallel is with Weapon X (Marvel 1988). Both Windsor-Smith’s stories feature the following:

Non-linear storytelling; the word balloons and captions lead the eye through the pictures and not in a left-to-right, top-to bottom path; many speech balloons overlap as people speak over one another; in both books, a character loses a hand, needs a tourniquet, and is told to “keep it raised”. Both books are very (very) violent. Both involve an individual involved in a horrible experiment neither would ever have volunteered to be a part of. 

However… while there is a (very) little humour in Weapon X (see pp 40 & 60 in the 2020 edition), I found nothing to smile about in BWS’ latest work. This new story is unrelentingly bleak. The only person whom we get to know well is poor Janet whose diary is part of the story. We never get to really know the Professor in Weapon X, and in Monsters we never get into the mindset of the main psychopath. Maybe it is impossible to do so.

BWS is a master of sequential art. His black and white style here, as Wrightson’s in Frankenstein, perfectly fits the tone. Both artists spent years on their work and it shows in the detail. But … while Wrightson had a great story to tell, does Barry Windsor-Smith have a new thing to tell us about life? His story is too bleak to be escapism, so what is its point? I’m not sure. I shall revisit this impressive piece of work, but not for some time.

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