A look at Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson’s magnum macabre opus
FRANKENSTEIN ALIVE, ALIVE! continues the tale of Mary Shelley’s titular creature, beginning in it’s “I am never what they expect..so I have also learned it is always best to give them what they expect. Give them what they want. A monster.
At the beginning of the graphic novel the creature is now living a content life as a part of the ‘freak’ portion of a travelling circus and carnival as… ‘The Frankenstein Monster’! Having found a family of sorts who accept people as they are, without preconditions and without questions he can afford to remember back to a time when things weren’t so idyllic. From that prologue, the creature’s thoughts travel back to it’s attempt to the end of Shelley’s novel. Up in the arctic it tries to end it’s existence as it is haunted by it’s maker, Dr Frankenstein. Relying on the frigid waters to do the deed, but to no success. It seems the creature is, like original sin, immortal. When it is found and brought to a benevolent doctor’s isolated clinic it finds a peace, living in relative solitude but acceptance… at least for a while.
Niles uses first person narrative to put us in the creatures head. To ponder with it the nature of humanity:”I thought of the volumes I read, so many tales of human torment and death, but also of selflessness and bravery. Was this was riot in my mind a reflection of the monster I was, or of the human I was becoming?”Heady stuff indeed but Niles’ prose is up to it, writing some of the best passages of his career. He strikes a pretty perfect balance of melancholy in the creature’s thoughts throughout. Unfortunately it seems unfinished and it probably was due to the sad death of Bernie Wrightson before the completion of the series.
The story never returns to the creature’s life at the carny when it was obvious the prologue was supposed to be book ended with a return which is unfortunate which, as a reader, you want that coda to the story. As for the artwork: If you followed, as I did, Wrightson’s career you’ll have seen that for a period of time, (after CREEPSHOW, if memory serves) his work became less concerned with tight line work and shadow play and more to a ‘painterly’ style. Here he returns to that incredible line mastery he was unsurpassed at. The design of the creature remains the same as his seminal work on his illustrated Frankenstein book and much of the design has the same style of novel illustration that he created for it. It was as if returning to his greatest obsession reignited his energy, resulting in work that stands shoulder to shoulder with his greatest work. The fact that he managed to create them when ill is astounding.The fact that he was unable to complete this last project is bittersweet. It is Wrightson’s unfinished symphony but he had the time to choose who would complete what he had started.He hand picked Kelley Jones, himself a great comic book artist, to complete the book and it’s fascinating to compare the finished pages of Kelley’s to the penciled roughs in the gallery at the end of the book. Much of the page layout and panels are very closely followed by Kelley but the execution is much looser. The line work minimal. At first I thought this to be just reflective of one artists’ abilities being so vastly different from the other but I am familiar with Jones’ work and I know he can be much tighter and line-focused than what appears in FRANKENSTEIN ALIVE, ALIVE!
Upon reflection though, I now almost see it as a deliberate attempt by Jones to evoke Wrightson instead of emulating or competing with him. The pages almost shadows of the master, taking the sketches and just working them so they were publishable as finished pages instead of making them his. It’s such a shame that this final project will always remain incomplete but the book itself is gorgeous. The art is among the best in Wrightson’s brilliant career and Niles’ prose rings true to it’s source’s Victorian voice. A beautiful, worthy, unfinished end to a great artist’s career.