By David Brothers
The fourth chapter of Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein is called “Frankenstein in Fairyland,” and is a Grant Morrison/Doug Mahnke/Nathan Eyring/Phil Balsman joint. In it, Frankenstein, now an official Agent of SHADE, fights a young and humanoid universe, sees some flying horses, and eventually makes his way to the flagship of the invading bad guys, blowing a bunch of stuff up in the process. On the last page, Frankenstein grabs the wheel of the ship and declares that he’s taking her into custody for judgment.
This issue is by far the worst of the four, and I don’t mean that in a “They’re all so good but this one is just slightly less-good!” way, like how even the worst issue of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is still a solid A-. I mean it in a “Oh, this is quite a departure from almost everything that made this series good, huh?” way, like what happens to cape comics when it’s time to tie into the big summer crossover and the creators have to set aside their story in favor of the company’s story.
The first three chapters painted a very particular picture of Frankenstein. He fought evils that were bad enough to objectively (more or less; we readers certainly didn’t blink as he carved a swath of violence across the United States and Mars) deserve whatever he did to them, be it shooting, stabbing, or feeding them to fire-snorting Martian horses. Each story took place in one small location (a high school, a small town, a dead temple on Mars) and progressed linearly, with everything you need to know being delivered somewhere between page one and page twenty-two. In the first three chapters, Frankenstein appeared when people were in trouble and he defended them from that specific trouble at the high school, on Mars, in Salvation Valley.
One thing that struck me on my trip back through Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein is how so much of the series is about freedom, identity, power, and control. Are you free to be yourself? How do you choose to use the power you’ve been blessed with? Are you your own person, or do you exist for the benefit of another? Are you free? Do you feel free?
The fourth chapter of Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein jettisons that whole side of things almost entirely. There are no humans for Frankenstein to rescue, only the faceless masses of planet Earth, the most generic and frankly not relatable group of people ever seen. (Really—there’s a reason why all the best superhero moments feature a small number of people rather than “saving the world.” Flash saving his wife from certain doom beats Flash evacuating an entire city in the blink of an eye pretty much every time.)
There are no questions of identity and power on display, beyond the fact that the adolescent universe has been altered against its will by superheroes. There are no revelations or surprises on Frankenstein’s journey through these pages, only a variety of bodies to be killed and long monologues. This is striking, because the second chapter established that Frankenstein has a deep connection to the bad guys, but outside of some stray, threatening dialogue, it doesn’t matter. None of it matters.
Here, let me give you an example. Frankenstein exists in a superhero universe, so his approach to morality can be seen in who he protects and what he does, right? I think that’s a fair assumption to make. Wolverine protects children and murders those he feels deserve it. Spider-Man doesn’t kill, but puts his body on the line to protect anyone he can see. When it comes to the people affected by evil or the beings twisted out of their own control, he recognizes their innate humanity – or maybe personhood, but ride with me here — before moving on. Frankenstein empathizes with the weak (the children on Mars, the monster in Salvation Valley, the young girl in the first chapter) and beheads evil. In chapter four…there’s no empathy to be found.
Frankenstein has 32 word balloons (grunts and groans aside) in this chapter. Glorianna has 43. She speaks on six pages in this issue. Frankenstein speaks on twelve pages. I think the intent was for him to come across as taciturn, which is true, but the lack of depth or texture in his dialogue makes him come off as a bystander in his own book. He doesn’t empathize with anyone, and instead has a collection of obtuse one-liners (yuck), declarative statements (boring), and one good bit where he reveals he’s been working with a plan the whole time that doesn’t quite land as hard as I wish it did.
In other words, this is the exposition chapter. This issue feels almost like what we’d get if Frankenstein were a part of the normal DC Universe, subject to all its whims and house styles. It’s a Continuing Adventure in a Shared Universe, instead of something standalone and concise (and good).
Books like this are either a nightmare or a gift for critics. It really makes you think about if you’d leapt to a conclusion, misunderstood the work, or maybe even something else entirely. Did I get it wrong? Was Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein not about what I thought it was about this whole time? Or (and this is the answer I tend to come down on every time) did I just find the first three issues riveting, interesting, and fascinating, and the fourth landed with all the impact of a wet thud, which is totally okay because nobody likes everything, even things in their wheelhouse?
What’s really interesting to me is how this reads like a bad issue of Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein, but is actually pretty okay when taken on its own, without the context that should surround it. Neh-buh-loh is a creative villain, one who first appeared in a favorite comic of mine. Doug Mahnke and the rest of the art team show up, depicting everything from universes to flying ships to far-future human creatures to flying horses with aplomb. Grant Morrison’s scripting is…look, you know if you like his stuff or not.
This is Big Ideas Morrison, the one that spills great concepts onto the page for other writers to pick up (which usually doesn’t happen) and to spark thoughts in your brain (this part does happen though). This is New X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow Morrison, where the brakes are off and all that matters is wowing the crowd. Throw those ideas at the wall. It doesn’t matter if they stick, so long as they’re cool.
So what’s the deal? Why is this issue so much worse?
I think it’s because this issue services the needs of Seven Soldiers as a whole, rather than Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein. In order for the Soldiers to act as intended — they don’t meet, but the day is saved due to their aggregate efforts—their stories must eventually come together. We’ve seen glimpses of this with how Melmoth moves in and out of Frankenstein’s life, or the fact that Frankenstein has Grundy man aspects. But those are minor, textural notes, things that complicate Frankenstein and build his story.
In “Frankenstein in Fairyland,” the opposite is true. Frankenstein becomes texture for the bigger story, which in turns shifts the focus of his solo stories (from intimate to cosmic, from barbarian justice to judicial proceedings, from identity to simply having a status quo) in order to better serve the bigger story. Neh-buh-loh is nothing to Frankenstein, save for another target. But the difference is that Neh-buh-loh’s existence doesn’t bring with it a revelation about Frankenstein’s person or history. Contemplating Neh-buh-loh didn’t make me think about Frankenstein at all, really, outside of extremely vague and stretched ideas like them both being created for a purpose and them having escaped that purpose (which was already better executed in the third chapter anyway).
We don’t learn about Frankenstein in this issue. We learn about the Sheeda and Glorianna and everything else as Frankenstein meets the various challenges put in his path. And like… Seven Soldiers is cool. It’s an ambitious project led by a creator who was at the top of his game, with a bunch of fantastic artists, and some truly innovative and interesting ideas in what was at the time a dusty and tired superhero universe.
But is it cooler than Frankenstein, an engine of destruction and lens for us to discuss the nature of power, of good, of evil, of life? Is it more interesting than watching a monster who is also a man stand in the breach between good and evil on our behalf, while simultaneously illustrating not just the ways we have failed each other and ourselves, but the way forward?
Who is this man? Who is this monster? What is Frankenstein, but a desecration turned blessing? Frankenstein sits between two worlds, with his roots and original nature nestled deep in the profane, but his mind and being locked onto preserving the sacred. There is a very clear dichotomy between good and evil in his stories, but more importantly, there is a very clear line drawn between those who seek to help and those who seek to harm.
And so little of that is on display in this chapter that I can’t help but feel disappointed. But at the same time, I’m grateful we got three fire issues out of this run. There’s something really vital and riveting about Mahnke and Morrison’s shared and separate takes on this classic monster. Humanity exploring its issues through the lens of monsters is nothing new — did you know that vampires are like, a sex metaphor?? — but here, the creative team found a take that seems perfectly suited for 2019 and all the various conversations we’re having regarding identity and self-determination.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein #4
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Colourist: Nathan Eyring
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!