Seven Soldiers was one of those series that hit at what was probably the height of my Grant Morrison fandom. I’d come back to comics a few years earlier, having discovered “100% Authentic Manga” at a bookstore and fallen back into the habit. I found a comic shop in the south that wasn’t particularly welcoming to me as a black dude, but I wanted comics and I had cash, so I put up with the thoughtless microaggressions. Seven Soldiers came out at the start of my comics criticism career — 4thletter! began in 2005, I joined ComicsAlliance in 2009 — and I was, in hindsight, massively depressed at the time! But comics were cool, comics helped me level out when I needed it, and Seven Soldiers was an event that was highly anticipated for me. A big draw was when I heard that Morrison was going to collaborate with Doug Mahnke, a guy who drew most of the best JLA story (The Obsidian Age, with Joe Kelly) and had a style that I love to this day.
Mahnke & Morrison co-authored Frankenstein, a thorough reboot of the classic monster and occasional comics character. Despite my Mahnke love, Frankenstein wasn’t a series I thought I’d fall in love with at first. I figured I’d like it, but the thought of Pasqual Ferry & Morrison doing Mister Miracle — with a black lead, and a story theoretically rooted in black culture — was what really got me excited. Ferry was red-hot after the end of Adam Strange with Andy Diggle, so I was on pins and needles waiting for his next project. But lo and behold, Mahnke & Morrison’s Paradise Lost-styled hero was the one for me. There was something about the vibe, about Frankenstein’s death-dealing swagger, that captured my imagination and has remained stuck in my head all these years later.
The first issue of Frankenstein is called “Uglyhead,” and features John Kalisz on colors and Phil Balsman on letters. It opens with a villain yelling “Die, Frankenstein, die!” “You cannot kill,” responds Frankenstein, “what does not live.” He fires a single round that decapitates the villain, which sets off a chain of events that result in a train wreck that buries Frankenstein for 135 years. Frankenstein comes back in 2005 because his job still isn’t finished… and it’s a job that he’s singularly equipped to complete.
Uglyhead is a bullied nerd boy who finds himself able to see the thoughts — literally, he even likens them to thought balloons — of the people around him. He knows exactly how they feel about him thanks to an infection from an otherworldly existence, and that ability allows him to prey upon his bullies. His power is kin to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation, the way it preys upon the darkest aspects of our nature to force a fall from grace. His power suggests that the dark little voice inside us is telling the truth.
Uglyhead forced his bullies to submit and is about to spread his poison and expose their shame when Frankenstein rises from his grave. When Uglyhead gazes at his thoughts, he simply sees a screaming skull, the symbol of his own death. Frankenstein disagrees with Uglyhead’s premise. The voice is a maggot, something to be removed and crushed, and he sets up a sequence of events that results in Uglyhead and the little otherworldly warrior riding Uglyhead’s spine being beheaded in one stroke. After, he sets out on his mission of revenge.
Frankenstein is a striking series to me because it’s a Captain America-style “man out of time” story at its heart. It’s just that Frankenstein’s time is much, much older than the one Steve Rogers hails from. Frankenstein is from a time of problems that could be solved by bone and muscle and will. Evil humans from the future coming to colonize the past? Frankenstein will “make hammers fall upon them like a rain.” It’s that easy.
Opening the series with Frankenstein in a modern day story, one that was riffing on what turned out to be a nascent era of school shootings, emphasizes that gap. A young girl he rescues is surprised that he burned down her entire school to root out the infection that Uglyhead caused, but it makes perfect sense. What do you do with a plague? You contain it. By any means.
Mahnke depicts Frankenstein in a mix of the traditional, expected take on Frankenstein’s Monster and modern fashion. He’s got the bolts, stitches, and patchwork anatomy, paired with something that looks like a marching band outfit to me (but which is probably derived from the military uniforms that lent inspiration to marching bands) and a long, sleeveless duster. With big, chunky, spurred boots and wrist-length gloves, he’s got a decidedly post-Matrix look that works well with the elements that suggest his origin in our relatively recent past.
The violence is similarly modern-with-a-twist, with swords that cleave through enemies with one stroke and single-shot guns that fire bullets that rend flesh as quickly and easily as any automatic weapon. Mahnke excels at gruesomeness, and Frankenstein delivers in spades. The monsters are blobs of flesh and warts, and Frankenstein’s muscles are intricately defined in a way that’d require extreme dehydration in real life. Set next to Mahnke’s relatively down-to-Earth depictions of humans, Frankenstein stands out, but doesn’t feel out of place. Like the villains in this issue, he feels like an invader from another time, an engine of violence and destruction aimed at everything that’s unholy.
This is one of those books that feels like it’s owned by the artist. Morrison provides some great lines and scenarios, but Mahnke’s depictions of sneering faces, horrible screams, and shame-filled weeping are incredible. The book feels like a horror comic invading a teen drama, which is perfect. Frankenstein should feel out of place. He should look strange standing next to what we think of as normal. Frankenstein is Frankenstein, and Frankenstein is not from here. He’s not us. He may be on our side… but he’s not us.
Frankenstein is thrillingly direct, a beacon of absolute morality in a field littered with characters who would claim the same, but lack his purity. The Punisher is powered by anger, Wolverine by rage. Frankenstein is an agent of wrath, existing only to purify the world of evil. He is not emotionless, but he is, by his very nature, objectively correct. Frankenstein kills evil. That’s it. And there is something extremely… pleasant about that in 2019.
The first chapter of Frankenstein is dated in 2019 in a way I never saw coming. School shootings, bullying, and abuse are brutally common, as are people lashing out due to their own internalized toxicity or bigotry. I found myself wondering if Uglyhead would be depicted differently if they told this story again. Would they be more sympathetic to him being bullied or lean into the proto-incel aspects of his character and make him even worse?
He makes me wonder about Quentin Quire, a mutant rebel from Frank Quitely & Morrison’s New X-Men. He’s another mutation of Charles Xavier’s dream, after Magento, after X-Force. He’s a teenage firebrand who launches a riot to be heard, but he’s loathed by his female classmates and, in the end, revealed to have been under the influence of an outside intelligence as well. Quire was portrayed as an immature revolutionary just a few short years before Uglyhead was depicted as a corrupt conqueror. Quire is remembered quite positively, in no small part due to later writers (and Morrison too, in a way) rehabilitating him. How would you rehab Uglyhead? Would you rehab Uglyhead?
I can’t call it. Uglyhead strikes me as a character (or character type) that has been used in resonant ways, but his depiction here makes it clear that he is undeniably, unforgivably corrupted. There is no making good in this series. There is no forgiveness. There is just this agent of wrath, an invader from a crueler and more direct time. Frankenstein lives for the death of evil, and Uglyhead dies as well as anything else.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein #1
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Colourist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Phil Balsman
David Brothers is fate’s cold breath upon your shoulder. You can find a listing of all his work past and present over on his site here, and follow him on Twitter here!