Radicals and monsters

I’m reading Aftershock Comics’ Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter. Series artist Hayden Sherman’s covers and interiors have caught my eye on the occasion of more than one comics-shop stop-in. I picked up issue #2 (by then a couple of months old) during a recent browse; the rest, so far, I’m reading online. Issue #5 is out this month.

This won’t be a review, exactly. I’d just like to record a few observations and reflections. They’ll be reflections, I should say right away, of someone without much of an existing interest in horror as genre. If anything, my natural taste runs somewhere else entirely. I’ve never read Stephen King or Anne Rice, never seen any of the Halloweens or Elm Streets. I’ve never read Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus, for that matter. I’m not proud of that; I should have gotten around to reading it by now. (Poe, at least, I’ve read a bit. Hey, I was an English major.) If this post has a point, in the end, maybe it’s just that it’s about time I read Frankenstein.

One reason you don’t read it, of course, if you don’t, is that you and everybody else in some sense all already know Frankenstein, in outline and/or in particular partial, altered, elaborated and remixed variations — know it, in fact, very often knowing little or nothing of Mary Shelley herself. There’s no extravagance in saying that what she gave the world in Frankenstein is something far greater than a novel. The creation has had, to use an apt enough cliche, a life of its own. It’s far outpaced the reputation of its creator. In our time there’s been a good deal of effort, scholarly and popular, to give her her own time in the spotlight, but it’s hard to imagine a day when saying “Mary Shelley” brings a figure and story to most people’s minds as readily as “Frankenstein” does.

In the Aftershock series, Mary Shelley, fictional character, is front and center, as the title leads readers to expect. But the curtain lifts, page one of issue #1, on the historical Shelley’s creation, her work of fiction, or rather on its most iconic variation, the 1931 film. It becomes clear pretty quickly, moreover, that this series’ story will itself be a new variant, a new retelling. The work is one in which Mary Shelley comes into the foreground for us, but only as incorporated — deeply — in one more in the long train of remixes of hers.

There’s plenty of verve in this Frankenstein — no lack of momentum or of style — and the sailing, on the whole, isn’t smooth. The rough ride owes to a few hard-to-avoid difficulties, I think. The principal difficulty, overarching, is just in that this is an awful lot of story to pack into a limited collection of twenty-page installments. Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs’ narrative scheme, taking Shelley’s original as model, nests one storytelling voice and frame within another. This opens avenues for readers’ deepening imaginative entanglement, but it makes compounding exposition a hazard, too, and heightens that feeling that we’ve got more to get through than the space allotted is adequate for. At the same time, even with pretty dense expositional build-up, there’s a high degree of tacit dependence on the reader’s already knowing the story’s characters — the historical figures as well as the fictional — and being already versed in the received, Frankenstein-in-outline plot. The effect, for me, is something like being herded from highlight to highlight by a tour guide who’s more intent on keeping things moving along than on visitors’ experience of discovery.

What serves to blend Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter’s dual elements — the historical world of Shelley’s life and the fictional one of her creation — is teen-ensemble-style drama-and-danger à la Buffy. The allusion of the title isn’t unique and isn’t subtle; subtlety would be misplaced. Importing those teen-ensemble conventions is the angle (or gimmick, no real slight in pop-media context) on offer, one perfectly natural to comics. The payoff in fun we’re looking for as comics readers, wherever we may join the story’s progress, relies entirely on these fairly recently established narrative conventions. And in confident hands, they aren’t conventions disruptive to the dual-core Shelley-Frankenstein material; they lend necessary structural clarity to the whole multifaceted thing, rather. I’d like to suggest here — sort of parenthetically, because I’m not prepared to take time to develop the thought — that the support this bid for structural clarity receives in the books subsists, ultimately, less in Glass and Cuartero-Briggs’ words than in Sherman’s artwork. Color design, especially, works powerfully in these books to make the whole cohere, stretching the story taut but also keeping it intact — a balancing act that deserves study. If the teen/YA-ensemble form depends on a designedly fragile marriage of fog and irresolution and high-key, talkative energy, in these books it’s color design that really gels and sells it.

There’s a crucial moment in Glass and Cuartero-Briggs’ story in which the history and the fiction are made to collide in a way that’s both sharply provocative and unclear as to direction. (For the reader thinking of giving the series a go: a spoiler or two is going to be difficult for me to avoid at this point.) In the real Mary Shelley’s life and in the Aftershock story alike, her teenage choice to make a life with radical poet Percy Shelley had been complicated for two years, at the time of the Geneva stay of the story’s setting, by his existing marriage to the mother of his young children. Harriet, the inconvenient wife, in history was unhappy and a suicide, but she enjoyed financial security, left Percy and Mary alone, and ended her life in England, possibly in response to trouble with an extramarital lover of her own. In Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter, Harriet Shelley turns up on the threshold of her husband’s party’s lodging in Geneva, unexpected and — in spite of apparent desperation — unsympathetic, in order to become almost immediately the creature’s first victim.

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The remarkable thing about this fictionalization of Harriet Shelley’s death isn’t that it entails a little mixing-up of the timeline or a little embellishment on two-centuries-past interpersonal frictions. Harriet’s bit leaps out because we understand by this point that the reanimated man of this Frankenstein is Mary’s creation as well as the doctor’s. The creature kills Harriet thinking himself to be protecting the story’s woman Dr. Frankenstein, acting from a devotion that Mary, charged with formation of his mind and conscience, has been for weeks entirely given over to training him in. Earlier, Mary is present and takes a key part, at the doctor’s urging, in the moment of giving him life, and it’s Mary, directly after, who persuades an exasperated doctor not to pronounce him a failed experiment and make another. (It’s occurred to me that the doctor and Mary of Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter might in some way be best read as a “whole” Mary Shelley only together — one figure split into two characters, joined through conflicting but complementary roles in giving the creature life.) This is a Frankenstein retelling, then, in which a Mary Godwin drawn (in fact: called) to participate in bringing about the creature’s life becomes also, by way of it, indirectly but surely the cause of her lover’s interfering wife’s death. Only with Harriet’s death is Mary the Mary of the books’ title at all, remember; it’s killing the other woman, here, that lets her take Percy Shelley’s name. Readers arriving at this turn in the story will know, at the same time, that Glass and Cuartero-Briggs’ telling presents itself as an emphatically feminist variation on the Frankenstein theme. Protagonists decry repressive social conditions and declare their ideological commitments in the course of ordinary conversation, sometimes in (for me) jarring anachronisms. What kind of purchase, though, does the self-complicating mashup of Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter leave in our imaginations for feminism either as she knew it in her lifetime or we know it in ours? Can we make sense of a feminism delivered on the lines of a story like this one? Are we being asked to try to make sense of it? To one degree or another, are we just being teased, titillated by fantasy radicals in outrageous situations? Can we have any real objection to being so teased, if so — this being a comic book, after all?

There are issues of Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter yet to release, of course; it’s a good deal too soon to think of sorting out everything the writers may have conceived for it. Interviews given since the series hit shelves don’t impart any impression other than that it’s the idea of a very straightforward sort of appreciation of Shelley as radical icon that’s driven the writing. While I don’t think it’s safe to take authors’ interview statements at face value, it pays, generally, to avoid unnecessary mystification of creators’ ideas and process. And you do obviously have to be cautious about getting deep between the lines in readings of comic books.

Mary Shelley — the historical person — is someone to know, to get to know, as far as we can. Her feminism (better: proto-feminism?) is something worth getting to know. I’m thinking about that — thinking about it as a result of reading these comic books, partly. I’m also thinking here about what comic books can do, and about the trouble attempts at what they can do can get you into. It’s a medium thick with ephemeral devices — tropes, tics and favorite tricks — and averse, somehow intrinsically, to rules and boundaries. Therein much of its charm, but also its limitation (or apparent limitation) — its firm gravitation toward the mass-audience, its overabundance. If I want to get to know Mary Shelley, should I linger with a work like Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter? Will I close in on her, or am I more likely to lose sight of her? Well, I am lingering with it, for the moment anyway, and enjoying.

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