By David Brothers
The first issue of Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein featured humans being forced to turn against their nature by bugs riding their nervous systems, a horror story rooted in classic Americana. The second issue featured children forced into servitude on a dead world, a bit of sci-fi horror cut through with post-apocalyptic anxiety. The third issue of Frankenstein though? This one feels like a riff on 1950s Hollywood horror, what with the beloved animals turned into violent monsters thanks to what is essentially toxic pollution. Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, John Kalisz, and Phil Balsman present “The Water,” a tale of what happens when military research into a fundamental element goes horribly wrong, and a juxtaposition of what Frankenstein is against what he could have been.
There’s a certain theme that I enjoy quite a bit that has run through these stories so far. Morrison & Mahnke use Frankenstein to explore identity in a curious way, approaching the subject by way of implicit comparison instead of explicit exposition. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that self-determination and self-control have been the running themes across these first three issues. In the first, teenagers embrace their worst selves due to a supernatural infection. In the second, Frankenstein discovers that he is not his own man after all, and is forced to wrest control from another of his creators once again. (He murders him, of course. When all you’ve got is a hammer, there are pretty much only two ways to solve a problem: the head or the claw.) And in this third issue, tainted water is turning man and beast alike against their nature. Soldiers turn to cowards, the meek turn violent, and cows, mice, rabbits, and more turn to ravenous, homicidal beasts. Frankenstein has escaped the mental and physical shackles that imprisoned him in the past, or is at least in the process of doing so, and it’s telling that his mission has so far been a study in the destruction of outside control, whether that involves rescuing others from outer space or burning an infected high school to the ground.
The Bride (née of Frankenstein) is introduced in this third chapter, and she gives us a look at what Frankenstein could’ve been. It’s made explicit in this issue that Mary Shelley’s book is mostly canon, with the added twist that the Bride and Frankenstein lost touch after his Arctic adventure. Where Frankenstein wandered America righting wrongs after splitting with her, the Bride found herself alone, taken advantage of by others, and eventually recruited by SHADE, the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive.
She reminds me of King Mob, the Action Movie Violence Guy from The Invisibles, also written by Morrison, more than anyone or anything else. She’s definitely unliving, just like Frankenstein, and she talks about finding her true self once she separated from her intended partner. But her attitude is casual and louche; she’s as quick with a one-liner as she is with a trigger. Look — at one point, Frankenstein shoots a giant monster made of glass, it explodes, she catches a giant shard, and cuts someone’s head off. She’s bringing a real Millarworld Energy to the proceedings, which is quite a contrast with Frankenstein’s Righteous Barbarian Energy.
You can see the difference in how Frankenstein interacts with her. In order: he’s taken by surprise when she appears, he reacts in confusion when they have a moment to breathe after a battle and she knocks him unconscious, he tries to commiserate with her about the demeanor of modern men and is rebuffed, he asks her if she thinks of him and she casually changes the subject, he brings up their shared past and she informs him that he was never her type, he ponders her callousness after a slaughter, he asks her what a newly-arrived monster is, and finally, he monologues a bit about how water could have such an effect on man and beast with no response from her.
Frankenstein and the Bride don’t really have conversations. The only real back and forth they have is about their shared past. The rest is either Frankenstein listening, thinking, being rebuffed, or shot. The suggestion is that this is what Frankenstein could’ve been—so inured to death and violence that it comes easily, rather than as a burden to shoulder for the sake of others. It gives Frankenstein a sad, hang-dog feeling. He’s trying to relate, to learn, and to grow, but he can’t help but look old and busted next to the post-Matrix vibe of his ex. She’s beyond him, at least in some ways.
The part of the issue that really emphasizes the difference between Frankenstein and the Bride, that really makes it clear just what the difference is between his barbarian-with-a-heart-of-gold brawls and her one-gun-in-each-hand style is when Frankenstein goes to Father Time and asks, “Is this how we do our work in this day and age? What about the people here?” Father Time replies with a (nonsense, but very Grant Morrison circa early ’00s) story about water and feelings and says the effects are irreversible. He’s flippant about it, and accepts the loss of life as the cost of doing business.
Frankenstein thought he’d found kindred spirits, warriors and heroes to stand in the gap between good and evil for the betterment of all. Instead, he found the military-industrial complex at work. This isn’t SHADE vs Evil, not in the way Frankenstein expected. This is SHADE mopping up a mess and covering up a massacre that a United States black site created.
After the Bride knocks him out, Father Time shackles Frankenstein in preparation for a job offer. It’s clear that he doesn’t see Frankenstein the way that the reader does. He says as much, when he explains that Frankenstein is “just one more famous monster out of time, waiting for the axe to fall in a world where there’s nowhere left to run.” To Father Time, Frankenstein is a monster who burned a high school down, a monster he has leverage over.
Father Time’s mistake is believing that Frankenstein is on the run and maybe even ashamed of his identity. But Frankenstein don’t run. He may be a monster, but Frankenstein don’t run.
When you look at the juxtapositions in this issue, the super-spy “James Bond meets Superman” stuff represented by the Bride and Father Time is clearly a sub-par approach to morality when compared to Frankenstein’s barbaric heroism. Frankenstein doesn’t quip after killing, like the Bride does when she says “Slaughterhouse rocks” after killing a bunch of corrupted animals. Frankenstein doesn’t use people to further his own interests, like Father Time admits to doing at the end of the issue. Frankenstein simply is what he is. Frankenstein is Frankenstein. He’s pure. He smashes evil, wherever it rears its head.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition in 2019, in a world where Marvel’s superhero movies are created specifically to please the governments of the United States and China, where DC’s movies flirt with fascist imagery but soon dissolve into mush rather than say anything interesting. Speaking as an ’80s baby, as someone who grew up in the crack era, as someone who’s read a little bit about a little bit: it seems like the history of espionage and covert action is one in which the little person doesn’t matter half as much as the state. The bombs get bigger, the assassinations more daring, and lost in the middle are people like you and me, who must live with the United States bombing funerals and engineering regime change in democratically-elected countries or China torturing and imprisoning much of their Muslim populace.
SHADE reflects those same values, a willingness to do and accept anything on behalf of the state’s interests. SHADE isn’t in Salvation Valley to save the day, restore peace, or rescue anyone. They’re there to shut down an embarrassing incident and, more importantly, to recover the technology used in that incident to repurpose it to their own ends. It’s the Americans and Russians smuggling Nazi scientists out of Germany, not fighting on behalf of the people. The people are only there as an excuse, as a vague idea of something to protect.
Father Time — he’s Nick Fury, only black, but a different black Nick Fury than Samuel L Jackson Nick Fury — is cool, collected, and could not give less of a crap about you and me. He’s here to serve the State. He’s a super-spy, which makes him super-police, and “to protect and serve” has never been about the average citizen. It’s about systems and processes, organizations and groups. The individual falls through the cracks. The Bride makes it plain when she says that SHADE isn’t about to waste a three billion dollar super-pilot shortly before she cuts his head off. It’s not about saving him—it’s about using him. He’s as much a victim as anyone else, but that doesn’t matter. Only his usefulness to the cause matters.
On the other hand, Frankenstein has really only been motivated by two things in the series thus far: his revenge on Melmoth and protecting humanity from evil. He burns a high school down because there was no other way to cleanse it of its infection. He travels to Mars to rescue kidnapped children and put another nail in Melmoth’s coffin. He’s drawn into the fight against the water in Salvation Valley because he was determined to investigate the inhuman cries and people under attack by changed creatures.
Frankenstein makes his own way and lives by a specific moral code. SHADE lives by a different code, one in which what you get out of a situation is more important than the good you bring to that situation. Father Time laughs when he says that SHADE took advantage of Frankenstein. He offers him a ride away from Salvation Valley shortly before it’s bombed off the map, saying, “Something tells me you’ll fit right in.” Frankenstein looks out at the town, where a baby is carrying a razor blade and squirrels are devouring human eyeballs, and says, “I’ll walk.”
Frankenstein is a monster, but he rejects men-who-are-monsters, those who care nothing for humanity. He doesn’t fight evil for personal gain. He does it because it’s right. Fundamentally, Frankenstein is a protector, one with no allegiances but the forces of good and no enemies but the forces of evil. Frankenstein acts because it is just and necessary. Father Time, the Bride, and SHADE act because it benefits them.
And Frankenstein walks away from them after being exposed to their philosophy.
What do you figure that means?
Next chapter: it apparently doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein #3
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!