Sunday, October 13, 2013

I was an EC Frankenstein

 Don’t let my posts about Jeph Loeb witches and Topps anti-heroes fool you. I haven’t forsaken my love for classic horror (in comics or in film) one bit. Longtime readers of mine know how big a fan I am of Frankenstein and his Monster, and since it’s obligatory for every comic blogger worth his salt to post something EC-related during October, I thought I’d explore the famed publisher’s takes on one of horror’s most beloved characters. Besides, since comicdom’s most famous version of the Frankenstein Monster has already been written about ad nauseam on the interwebs, why not offer up something different? These stories deserve to be re-evaluated anyway, because, and I admit I can’t say this with any certainty; they contain ideas which, as far as I can tell, debuted in these comics and nowhere else, and have ended up in several Frankenstein films.
  Although few would deny that EC brought forth a degree of artistry heretofore unseen with its horror comics, few would also deny that they weren’t particularly original. Swiping stories from famous authors and then thinly disguising them would become an EC specialty of sorts, although thankfully when one famous science fiction writer noticed what was happening the results turned out happily for all involved. Since pretty much every horror filmmaker had swiped from Universal’s Frankenstein films by the early 50’s, it made sense that one of EC’s earliest horror comics would do the same. So in 1950, in the third story of Haunt of Fear #17 (actually #3), we were treated to “Ghastly” Graham Ingel’s take on the story of the world’s most famous monster-maker, called….“Monster Maker”.
   Hey, titles are hard.

  It began with the chief surgeon in London dismissing neurosurgeon John Ravenscar:
 A veteran doctor, Ravenscar was incensed that the hospital could dismiss him after years of success over what he termed “trivial failures”:
 Those trivial failures turned out to be the deaths of three people:
 Determined to prove himself superior to his colleagues, Ravenscar and his effeminate assistant Whitsly travelled to his ancestral castle to begin work on a new experiment, and immediately began ordering equipment. Since the equipment in question was massive electrical apparatus, you can probably see where this is going.
 Ravenscar’s plan was to transfer the brain of an ape into the skull of a dog, an idea which the writer may have picked up from Universal’s 1944 film House of Frankenstein, where the protagonist, Dr. Niemann, was jailed for “trying to give a dog the mind of a human being”. So far, Ravenscar doesn’t seem so bad compared to most mad doctors, since he isn’t experimenting with humans, but this being a horror story, how long do you want to bet that lasts?

 Whitsly sighted a corpse that washed ashore, and Ravenscar immediately decided to instead transfer the ape’s brain to the corpse:
  Unfortunately, Whitsly was very clumsy, and smashed the brain:
 Ravenscar needed another brain fast, and he knew just where to get one:
 With a brain and a body, Ravenscar was all set, and before long he had his equipment running, shocking thousands of volts into the being he had created. And of course, he just had to give his own variation on Colin Clive’s famous line:
 Too bad he also forgot to wrap the Monster’s head in bandages; the awakening creature was blinded by the flashing lights from the electrodes. Ravenscar attempted to subdue the blinded creature, but found he was too strong. But surely, a blind creature with no remaining intelligence from his previous life could be no match against a crafty genius like Ravenscar?
 Perhaps, but the creature was neither as dumb as he looked, or as blind as he was pretending to be. Oops.
 Ignoring the idiotic expression on the creature’s face and it’s fairly unimaginative design, you have to admit that’s a pretty creepy ending. Scariest of all though is that, although the Monster may have righteously avenged his death by killing an evil madman, there’s nothing to guarantee he’s not going to be a threat to innocent people. Here's the splash page:
 Sweet dreams kids.
 I think most people would consider an ending like that effectively creepy, turning a standard Frankenstein rip-off into something that plays with the reader’s imagination; the best kind of horror story, an open-ended one that gets the reader thinking long into the night, listening to every sound, afraid to look out the window…

  I consider that a sign of good storytelling.

 Fredric Wertham considered it a sign that the writers were too stupid and illiterate to come up with an actual ending:
 To a new world of clods and fraudsters, Fred.
 What’s most interesting about “Monster Maker” is how the Victor Frankenstein figure, Ravenscar, is depicted as a ruthless egomaniac who kills to obtain a brain, and sees his experiments as a legitimate (if groundbreaking) transplant procedure, rather than envisioning himself as a creator of life like Victor in the book, and Henry in Universal’s films. Could this possibly have been an inspiration for Hammer film’s depiction of Frankenstein? It’s worth noting that Hammer’s first film, Curse of Frankenstein, is also the first film version where Frankenstein kills a colleague to use his brain (an idea which has cropped up, more or less, in other adaptations), and this story predates it by six years.
 EC’s next Frankenstein story “The Monster in the Ice” from Vault of Horror #11 (actually #22) from (1951/2) was also drawn by Ingels, and bucked the trend of thinly disguising its source and here openly acknowledged it. This story wasn’t a mere variation, but actually utilized the character of Frankenstein’s Monster. What’s even more impressive is that, as far as I know, this is the first direct sequel to Shelley’s novel in print form, beginning in the arctic where her novel had left off. Whether it’s any good is another matter entirely.

 At the North Pole, geologists Gerald Dawson and Herbert Campbell ran into a problem when one of their Eskimo assistants, Lomo, refused to help them go any further because he was afraid of a monster in the ice, one who reportedly would drive anyone who encountered it raving mad.
 Dawson and Campbell then decided to make the journey themselves, and found this:
 After dragging the frozen creature back to their campsite, Campbell cruelly forced Lomo to chip whatever it was in the ice out, disregarding his fears as superstitious idiocy.
 The more sympathetic Dawson however, began to wonder if perhaps there was some truth to Lomo’s story, and he thought back to the novel Frankenstein:
 The two were interrupted by a scream, and found that whatever it was in the ice was now gone, while poor Lomo had gone insane seeing the creature’s face:
 The two then confronted the creature, planning to drive it back in the ice, a plan that worked, all too well, as the creature then dragged both of them underneath with it.
 A year later, the three bodies were found by government officials, who decided to chip them out, unknowingly starting the whole process over again.
 “Monster in the Ice” is obviously of great interest to Frankenstein fans for presenting itself as an actual sequel to the novel and remembering the arctic setting. Otherwise, it’s fairly typical story of explorers who fail to heed native warnings and wind up killed by a monster. It may as well not have involved Frankenstein’s Monster (specifically the novel’s monster) at all, especially since he was portrayed solely as a mindless, inarticulate brute.

 Perhaps most disappointing of all though, is that Graham Ingels, for all of his skill at drawing hideous undead beings, failed to deliver a memorable monster. Shelley’s description of the creature in the novel would have fit Ingels’s style like a glove. This is what he offered up instead:
 Not much different from standard, Universal-inspired depictions is it? The huge eyeball and jagged teeth look more comical than frightening. It disappointed me big time when I first read this story as a teenager, as I’d been hyped for it ever since I’d read Don Glut’s Frankenstein chapter in The Comic Book-Book (Which, as a teen, was pretty much my holy book when it came to comics), and was lucky enough to find a copy at a flea market. I thought it was so silly-looking that I drew a few shitty caricatures of it, and believe it or not, one of them is still with me:
 I don’t remember why I added the fur vest, but hey, I was 15, and as you can see, in no position to question anyone else’s artistic decisions.
 Glut had described it as “One of the most hideous versions ever to appear in a comic book. The eyes bulged from their sockets, enormous tusks protruded from the mouth, scraggly hair hung from the distorted head”.  I guess when you go off a description like that and conjure it up in your head; you’re bound to be disappointed.

 Another interesting thing about “Monster in the Ice” is that 1951 had also seen the release of the film The Thing from Another World which was loosely based off of John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” (Which also got a comic book rip-off!). You may recall that the “thing” in that film was not only similarly chipped out of the ice, but bore a considerable resemblance to Universal’s Frankenstein Monster:
 So was Monster in the Ice an attempt to follow up Shelley, or an attempt to copy a then-recent movie and disguise it by throwing in Frankenstein?

 And just for a further monkey wrench, Stan Lee, Gene Colan and Syd Shores had done a story in Marvel Tales #96 (June 1950) called “Return of the Monster” which also quoted Shelley’s novel (although it didn't portray itself as a sequel) and featured a Frankenstein Monster with jagged teeth/fangs:
 He even was shown being thawed out of ice on the cover and in the splash page, if not in the story itself:
 My head hurts.
  EC’s next Frankenstein-themed story was “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” from Tales from the Crypt #34 (1953). This one was drawn by Jack Davis. Although it utilized a very Universal-style Monster, Davis overcame that by making it look really ugly, resulting in a fairly memorable cover:
 Since horror comics owed as much to radio shows like Lights Out as they did film, many of them (particularly those at Atlas) utilized second-person narration. EC only used second-person narration a few times, often for the express purpose of involving the reader. “Mirror, Mirror” was one of them.

 The story begins with YOU waking up in a mad scientist’s laboratory, strapped down; you escape and find you are near a carnival, where everyone recoils him from you! Why?
 You try and flag down a  ride, and the driver is also terrified:
 You kill him, steal his car, and make it home to your wife, but she is also terrified, and falls out the window to her death:
 Then you head back to the carnival and confront the scientist:
 You take refuge in a hall of mirrors, and are terrified by what you see! Now you know what they fear!
 As you can see, “Mirror” is a fairly unremarkable gimmick story, owing as much to H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” than anything by Mary Shelley. What’s most interesting about the story is how it features the concept of a Frankenstein Monster trying to reconnect with one of his loved ones from when he was alive, only to be rejected, an idea which would be explored in Hammer’s Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (1969).

 Whereas “Mirror” used the image of the Frankenstein Monster but clearly treated the events of the novel as fiction, EC’s next Frankenstein story would utilize a member of the Frankenstein clan and was clearly set in the same universe as the novel, making it the second EC Frankenstein story to follow Shelley instead of using copycats like Ravenscar and the unnamed scientist from “Mirror”. It was also, sadly, EC’s last Frankenstein story. Fittingly, it saw print in the final issue of Vault of Horror. Graham Ingels, who had drawn EC’s first two Frankenstein stories, returned to draw this one. It was as if things had come full circle.

  Coming full circle was the theme of “Ashes to Ashes” as seen in Vault of Horror #29 (1954). The story was told by Dr. Emil Frankenstein, the great, great, great, great, great, great grandson of Victor, and his attempts to finish what his forefathers had started. This was no cliché attempt at bringing the dead to life though, as we’ll soon see.
 Here, the successive members of the Frankenstein clan had decided to create life not using the tissues of the dead, but by creating life out of a blob of swamp matter; the same kind of primordial ooze life was said to have sprung from in the first place:
 They spent generations incubating it, until it began showing signs of life, if only in an amoeba-like sense rather than anything human:
 After several decades it started developing human characteristics:
 By the time Emil had come of age, it was obvious that the once-lifeless blob would soon be fully human within a few years:
 The day finally came:
 Emil decided the ultimate way of knowing if the experiment had been a success would be to see if the child would be capable of reproducing when it came of age, so he took it to the hospital and disguised it as someone else’s baby so it would be brought up normally:
 He began silently following the child around, watching it from afar. One day he noticed an argument between two young men who were in love with the same woman:
 Emil persuaded the two to let Louisa, the woman they were arguing over, decide for herself:
  Louisa ended up choosing Heinrich Goedl, the more upstanding of the two men, and his rival, Karl Riker, walked off angrily. The happy couple invited the elderly scientist to their wedding.
  It all seemed to be going fine, until a deranged Riker broke in and killed Louisa:
 Louisa’s was not an ordinary death however…
 Yes, it was Louisa who had been the Frankenstein’s creation, and not Goedl as the reader was being led to suspect. She had returned to being the lifeless blob of muck she had originated as.

  This was a fairly horror-light story by EC standards, and since we never specifically see it said that Goedl is the “creature”, you just know there’s going to be a twist coming. The Old Witch’s usual puns also killed a lot of the tragedy of the ending.

 Nevertheless, “Ashes to Ashes” is easily the best of EC’s Frankenstein stories. This was no simple tale of creating or unleashing a hideous, rampaging monster, but a tragedy about the creation of a seemingly perfect being that ended with her hopes and dreams, as well as those of her lover, her creator and six generations of his family gone up in smoke due to an act of jealousy. Far different from what expects from a Frankenstein story.
  “Ashes to Ashes” is also notable as the first time that the creature had been depicted as being created through alchemical means since the 1910 Edison film. Almost all other depictions of the Monster’s creation had depicted it as a patchwork made from corpses and brought to life through electricity. It is also notable as the first version (again, as far as I know of) to depict a fully human-appearing and acting Frankenstein Monster, something which wouldn’t be seen on film until Hammer’s Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958, and that wouldn’t last long in that poor fellow’s case.

 Of EC’s four Frankenstein stories, only “Monster Maker” and “Ashes to Ashes” are really good, but because of the (possibly) prescient ideas and firsts in all four of them, as well as the cornucopia of influences you can see, I would say all of them are worth tracking down by any dedicated horror fan. At the very least, they make great potential “historical events” for anyone building a Wold-Newton timeline on Frankenstein.

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