Review: Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE Vol. 1: War of the Monsters trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Jeff Lemire's Animal Man: The Hunt has so far been the breakout star of DC Comics's New 52 initiative, the best of the new series and the one that makes what disappointments there may be in the New 52 worth it. Prior to the New 52, however, Lemire's Superboy: Smallville Attacks was a slow tale of talking heads (albeit Eisner-nominated) and his Flashpoint tie-in "Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos" lacked the monstrous mayhem of Grant Morrison's earlier Seven Soldiers Frankenstein series.

Fortunately, the premiere of Lemire's DC New 52 Frankenstein series, Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE: War of the Monsters, is up there in quality with his Animal Man. Lemire more-than accomplishes the big monster horror of Morrison's book, with an extra helping of mad science thrown in. Frankenstein is really out there, achieving exactly the tone that the DC New 52 needs; to some extent, Lemire's Frankenstein is what Paul Cornell's Stormwatch should have been.

[Review contains spoilers]

At every turn in War of the Monsters, Jeff Lemire deconstructs what it means to be a "monster." Though there's plenty of creatures that go bump in the night, there aren't really any "monsters" here, at least in the sense of characters with a strong intention to do evil. Frankenstein himself is a noble beast, readily dealing death but always trying first to find peaceable solutions, as when he encounters OMAC or when he's sent to assassinate his old friend Colonel Quantum. And in both cases, Frankenstein's foes are hardly villains -- OMAC, the reader intuits, is a victim of circumstances, and Quantum is a pathetic figure who regrets the murders he's committed.

Even the book's more traditional monsters are depicted with some kind of catch to their monstrosity. The "original" Creature Commandos who escape from the SHADE's organization's prison are quite bloodthirsty, but they've also been imprisoned without due process. At the beginning of the book, it seems a "monster planet" is attacking Earth, but it turns out the planet is a sentient being that's been pressed into service by the parasitic monsters who live on it; even these grim creatures are mitigated, however, when one of them mistakes SHADE agent Nina "The Mermaid" Mazursky for its mate and Nina looks on it with pity.

Just as Peter Milligan takes the often-violent title characters in Red Lanterns and plays them as philosophers, Lemire is equally working both for and against type (only Lemire's doing it better). Here there be monsters, for sure, but the monsters in Frankenstein are traditional in appearance only, not in character.

Among those traditional monsters are genetically-engineered versions of a werewolf, a vampire, and a mummy, along with Frankstein, his bride, and the "mermaid" (more akin to the creature from the Black Lagoon). Lemire names them and gives them relatively the same personalities as the Creature Commando's in his Flashpoint story, whether this will ever be relevant or not. The Commandos come off as more likeable, however, benefiting from the increased page count to show their different facets.

Mazursky is timid yet brave, and an interesting romantic foil for Frankenstein aside from his estranged wife. Griffiths, the werewolf, is less vapid than in Flashpoint (he's so loyal to Frankenstein that I wonder what Griffiths will do if Frankenstein betrays his trust) and Velcoro, while still sarcastic, comes off as far less mean than he did before. Velcoro and Griffiths's moments of teamwork are quite endearing, actually -- they're in the running to be the new "Blue and Gold" ("Tooth and Fang," maybe?) of the DC New 52.

Once the opening "Monster Planet" story finishes and the OMAC crossover is out of the way, Lemire pauses for a one-off story in issue #6, and it's clearly the star of this book. Lemire sends Frankenstein to track down former comrade Colonel Quantum in Vietnam, revealing indeed that Frankenstein fought in Vietnam; Lemire opens up now a variety of options for flashback stories featuring Frankenstein in various eras. Quantum is essentially Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan and indeed the whole sequence strongly evokes Watchmen's Vietnam sequence.

What stands out here the most, however, is simply how Lemire gives the story a moment to breathe, that he demonstrates that Frankenstein is a guy who has friends, and that he gives "normal" moments to Ray "not yet the Atom" Palmer and the SHADE staff, and that he teams the Bride and Mazursky, who missed each other in the previous arc. In short, inasmuch as Lemire world-builds, Frankenstein is also a story with a richly imagined supporting cast who work in both big adventures and small, and that's a good sign for the future.

All of this is set against a wildly well-imagined SHADE backdrop, from headquarters shrunken down to microscopic size to physics-challenging vehicles, and killer tanks and robots much too large for their own good. Lemire somehow ducks the confusion that was inherit in Paul Cornell's Stormwatch debut and yet at the same time Lemire's story emerges as more complex and more imaginative. As a matter of course, Lemire's Palmer rattles off that the "demon portal" that's emerged in the middle of a lake is actually a "small wormhole that leads to something I've dubbed 'dead space,'" and then Palmer's anti-portal weapon, of course, shoots lasers in the shape of a pentagram. Weird and funny and clever, DC would do well to have Frankenstein be the standard for how far the New 52 writers reach.

The book includes two pages of J. G. Jones's cover sketches, but nothing from Alberto Ponticelli, unfortunately, whose sketchy line-work is just right for Frankenstein: War of the Monsters's weird horror, not coincidentally akin to Travel Forman's art in Lemire's Animal Man.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook section]

Win one, lose one this week, then, with Frankenstein emerging victorious while Red Lanterns ... not so much. Next week, guest reviewers Doug Glassman and Zach King will be your hosts, and then I'll be back the week after with the last Legion of Super-Heroes trade of the old DCU and the first of the New 52. See you then!
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6 comments:

  1. I really liked 7 Soldiers and the recent apparition of DC's Frankenstein monster on Superman/Batman.
    Can't wait to read Lemire's take on these monsters, sounds like a really fun read!

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  2. I am definitely going to check this one out. Lemire just keeps getting better and better. If you get a chance check out his new graphic novel The Underwater Welder. Here's a quote from Scott Snyder about it: "With The Underwater Welder, Jeff Lemire has created a moving, brilliant, and fiercely original work about loss, longing, and love. Full of piercing moments that will stay with you for long after you've finished reading, The Underwater Welder is a testament to the basic truth that down in the depths or up on land, there's nothing more haunting and wondrous than the human heart. A masterpiece of visual storytelling." -- Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing, American Vampire).

    On another note, is it worth it for me to pick up 7 Soldiers? I have not read it/bought it yet due to mixed reviews. The C.E. reviews were a bit mixed, C.E. said that the plots became repetitive. I'm a Morrison fan for the most part, although some of his work is too high concept for me. Final Crisis is long over, does it stand on its own as a good story still?

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  3. Good suggestion on Underwater Welder; I'll keep that in mind.

    I don't think I could tell anyone *not* to read Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory. It does not succeed on every single page, though that's not surprising for a story of this scope; however, it is interesting and enjoyable and moreover ambitious -- I'm a big fan of "ambitious," successful or not, and if nothing else I would recommend it to someone just on the virtue of seeing what Morrison tried to do.

    The Final Crisis aspect of Seven Soldiers is quite minor -- reading it on its own, you're better off putting Final Crisis out of your head and just taking the New God appearances in Seven Soldiers as they come. There's a way to rectify Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers, but that's more for if you're reading Final Crisis with Seven Soldiers than Seven Soldiers alone.

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  4. If you liked Seven Soldiers, the current Matt Kindt run of Frank is way closer to it in tone. Nothing wrong with Lemire's issues here, but it's just a way different feel.

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  5. Glad to hear -- I remembered afterward that Lemire was leaving the title, and I wondered how the new writer would do.

    At one point Lemire has Frankenstein talk about vacationing on Mars -- was that a Seven Soldiers shout-out?

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  6. As someone who just read The Underwater Welder: Go buy it. NOW.

    It's almost half-off on Amazon right now. Well worth it. It's something of a cross between the Twilight Zone/Shawshank Redemption/and It's a Wonderful Life. Really moving.

    And yes, I really enjoyed Lemires Frankenstein, even with his Flashpoint story as well. Lemire can do no wrong right now.

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