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Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein (Review/Retrospective)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. We’ve got a special treat for you this week, which is “Seven Soldiers Week”, so check back each day for a review of one of the Seven Soldier miniseries that Morrison put together.

Sometimes we all get too caught up in Morrison’s wonderful symbolism, mysticism and deeper meaning. Sometimes comic books don’t need to be anything more than a ridiculous premise executed in wonderful style. The covers to this miniseries tell you all you need to know, as does the opening splash page, featuring the monster striding into action as an off-screen character declares, “Die, Frankenstein, die!” You know you’re in for a wonderful high-concept action adventure which isn’t going try to be anything more than effortlessly cool. It’s moments like this which remind you, quite simply, that Grant Morrison loves comics, just as much as you and I do.

Words cannot describe how awesome this is...

From the very start, it’s clear that Frankenstein exists purely to offer us hard-boiled pulp fiction moment after hardboiled moment. The series follows the fabled monster from small-town America to the surface of Mars to the fog-filled environments one might associate with H.P. Lovecraft to the distant future. It just roars along as the eponymous creature rides from one scenario to another like a souped-up spaghetti Western hero, dispensing justice and freeing terrified and enslaved children while pursuing his own vendetta.

How can you not adore Morrison’s ridiculously over-the-top narration as Frankenstein makes his way across the red planet? “The bitch-horse snorts jets of bright turquoise natural gas. Shadows stir among the contorted rocks of the Tharsis Bulge on the blasted hemisphere of Mars. Her Harem follows, eager for the frenzy to come, when the moons of madness reach their climactic. And Grand Guignol is let loose upon the rust-red silent stands. They whicker and bay for the coming time when only flesh will quell the fever. When only mass murder will cool the blood.” It’s so trashy and pulpy that it’s just impossible to resist.

Frankenstein kills a universe... yep, a universe...

More than that, there’s Morrison’s joyfully flamboyant introductions to the chapters, filled with pomp and self-awareness, as if ripped from some forgotten forties monster movie poster. “Bill and Ben were her best friends. Until the water gave them a taste for human flesh!” I can see the tagline now, complete with gratuitous exclamation marks. “Swirling fog. Bizarre inhuman cries. A mystery for Frankenstein!” It sounds even better if you imagine somebody delivering it over a cheesy black-and-white trailer, complete with dodgy special effects. “Once they were gentle victims of mankind’s hunger for flesh! Now they, too, are bloodthirsty predators!” Oh no!

The fourth chapter even opens the types of questions that more modern horrors and thrillers use to tease their audience. “Can you imagine a fantastic civilisation that preys on its predecessors? A nightmare world of scavengers ruled by a parasitic queen? A twilight empire that refuses to yield? Can you imagine…” If so, the narration seems to suggest, then perhaps Frankenstein is the book for you! Morrison has always loved that sort of almost campy over-the-top style, the kind of thing which isn’t too dissimilar to Stan Lee’s rather loud narration, or any writer’s narrative voice during the Silver Age. Here, Morrison amps it up to eleven and adds a cute little self-awareness which grabs us. It’s trashy pop culture, but isn’t that where superhero comics have their roots? What’s the shame in that, if you can do it really well consistently?

Burning down the house...

Morrison is, of course, influenced by all sorts of “pulp” fiction, from a rather obvious homage to Stephen king’s Carrie in the first chapter and one to Edgar Wright Borroughs’ John Carter of Mars in the second. I especially like the fact that Morrison has the villain of the piece declare, at the climax of the second chapter, “I’m your father, Frankenstein” (although he does qualify it with “if you think about it”) in homage to perhaps the greatest piece of trashy pop culture produced in the last fifty years, Star Wars.

Indeed, using Frankenstein betrays Morrison’s attempts to place superhero comics within a wider pop culture context. While Shining Knight suggested these stories were rooted within classic Arthurian legend and primal mythology, here Morrison draws a strong connection between those trashy forties and fifties horror films and the pulp thrills that superhero comics offer (the sort of connection that Stan Lee was making to “atomic age” horror films in writing Spider-Man).

Top of the pile?

The script rockets along so fast that there’s barely room for character or connecting plot. Frankenstein is just launched from one initiative into the next, rather quickly dispatching his immortal adversary in the second of the four chapters (“When you emerge from the guts of these monsters… you will still be conscious! You will still be alive… in the form of dung!”). As the plot breezes along, there’s relatively little room to explore the monster’s character or his motivation – they end up seeming relatively straightforward – but that’s an understandable approach for Morrison to take. After all, what’s the point of using an iconic creation like Frankenstein’s monster if you have to completely reinvent him.

By the way, for any purists out there who are offended by the fact I’m referring to the creature as “Frankenstein”, worry not. Morrison knows that the correct title is “Frankenstein’s monster” (as Victor never named the creature), but he also knows that this is perhaps too literary a reference for a miniseries like this. Instead, he explains that the monster adopted his creator’s name. “I was his great work. I will bear his signature into the future where it may perhaps be honoured.” As such, Frankenstein makes an especially poetic choice of protagonist, given the Sheeda’s observation, “We are all the children of our fathers, are we not?” The miniseries would reveal that the Sheeda are the future of humanity, an abomination of our own creation, making them a perfect foil for the monster.

I could read this until the cows come home...

There’s also a surprising amount of plot work going on here, playing out in the background. Although you are quite liable to miss it with all the ridiculous awesomeness unfolding, Morrison is not only explaining who the Sheeda are, and tying this back to his JLA Classified arc, but he’s also setting up a couple of elements that would play into Final Crisis with such subtlety (in contrast to the bombastic action), that it’s easy just to skip over. Here, Morrison establishes “S.H.A.D.E”“Super Human Advanced Defense Executive.” The liaison declares, “We’re on planetary crisis alert.” It’s interesting that he pitches the mission as, “Superman meets James Bond. Big time for a little while.” After all, wasn’t the whole purpose of this event to make a variety of smaller and unknown characters “big time for a little while”? “That beckoning sound is the big time!”

In a way, Frankenstein has enjoyed the most success of the Seven Soldiers ensemble. Zatanna went on to have an on-going written by Paul Dini, which has little to do with her appearance here, and none of the others really took off. Frankenstein couldn’t maintain a monthly series, but the creature has had a string of miniseries (including one tied into Flashpoint), so he’s about as successful as it comes. In fact, the series was recently relaunched as part of the DCnU line, and it’s one that I’m very sad isn’t collected in hardcover. I’ll probably reflect on the success or otherwise of this experiment elsewhere, but it’s worth noting that this character came the closest to success of the six “unknowns.”

Let me be Frank...

Speaking of things to note, I also love Doug Mahnke’s artwork here. It’s not as clear as his work on Final Crisis or even Green Lantern, and it actually calls to mind the more stylised artwork of Grant Morrison’s long-time collaborator Frank Quitely, complete with squiggly lines. It’s nice and it suits the character down to the ground.

Along the way, some of Morrison’s trademark “wacky concepts” also creep in, much as they did with Zatanna. In particular, I love the way that Uglyhead, the villain of the first piece, can read everyone else’s thoughts by reading “those little white comic books clouds” right above their heads. It’s a nice little touch. Also, watch out for sentient and weaponised water. Only in a Grant Morrison comic! Sorry, could resist the urge to include some exclamation marks there.

A monstrously good time...

I love Frankenstein. Sure, it’s not the deepest or most thought-provoking thing Morrison’s ever written, even among these seven miniseries. Still, sometimes you don’t need a comic to expand your mental horizons. Sometimes you just need to see Frankenstein’s monster riding across the sands of Mars, and hell riding with him.

“All in a day’s work for Frankenstein!”

Check out our complete collection of reviews of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series:

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