Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8
US: Jun 2012
One, maybe two castles are readily available when I think of castles in comicbooks. The first belongs to the legendary Wally Wood, Woody to the few friends and those he would reconstruct as his friends. The idea that Woody was a lonely, driven man, frustrated to the point of self-exclusion from the very companies that would provide a canvas for his genius is not far from the truth. Read comics scholar Paul Gravett and you’ll soon discover the most crippling of images from Woody’s later life—this was when Woody had his own studio, with one or two newbie artists under him, there was a plaque emplaced that read, “There’s only one Wally Wood, and that’s me.”
The story of Woody is the story of an unlikely marriage, between this deep chasm of frustration where personal ambition seems to just bow under thermodynamic law and eventually just run out of steam, and a kind of unbridled genius. Woody’s greatest contribution wasn’t recoloring the Daredevil costume as bright red (from what we now look on as that garish yellow-and-red schema). It was his “22 Panels that Always Work”, one of the rare glimpses into the working-out of comics as generative rather than nostalgic. Woody could see that generative nature deep in the functioning DNA of comics as a medium. This would be a nearly impossible task for almost any other artist.
It’s this interactionist dilemma that fuels not only Woody’s personal life (a life which ends in the worst possible way, in suicide in 1983), but his professional work as well. We can see it play out in the mainstream comics he draws. But it’s so much more poignant in his creator-owned work like Max Canon or, particularly in this case, the Wizard King Trilogy.
It’s the second book where the castle lurks, Odkin, Son of Odkin. The sociopathic protagonist Odkin has made his way across a fantasy landscape to some distant somewhere. A quiet place, and a community flourishing in the shadow of a broken tower. It’s clear that a powerful wizard once occupied the tower. But why had he abandoned it? And more to the point, what magicks now broken or disused or simply abandoned, are prompting a slew of monster attacks on the tiny peaceful village?
And they’re not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, I-read-about-them-in-Borges-or-maybe-saw-a-pic-in-the-D&D-Monsters-Manual. They’re more transmogrified insects, giant bugs, ants and beetles. It’s only when Odkin braves their gauntlet and breaks into the tower that he uncovers the secret. In perfect replica, there is a scale model of the entire valley. And Meemir, a hunchback elf once from the village, has been placing various insects on the replica. He did this at first, to play at the idea of tormenting the village the way he himself had been tormented by them. But Meemir quickly discovered the secret of the replica. That anything placed on the replica would manifest in the exact location in the valley, and would be scaled up to “proper” size.
The second castle isn’t really a comicbook at all, except that it is. Around the year 2000, legendary Underground Comix giant, R. Crumb, did the artwork for Introducing Kafka, a sort of fast-an-easy primer for Modernist writer, Franz Kafka. Kafka had himself almost written a novel called The Castle. “Almost written”, in the sense that Kafka himself never published during his lifetime. His literary work is primarily a co-invention (posthumously) of his editor, Max Brod, and his translators, the Scots Edwin and Willa Muir. By the time of his death, Brod had assembled a number of revised drafts of “Das Schloß” into a single, readable manuscript. Kafka’s inherent genius, nevertheless shines through. K., the cartographer from who-knows-where, never gets access to the mysterious Castle. Even on his deathbed he receives word that leaves him hopeful, without the question of his access ever really being resolved.
Crumb’s luxuriant style illustrates perfectly the seedy encounter between the Herr K. and the barmaid. The inner seediness that reading comics had come to signify in much of the ‘50s and ‘60s is perfectly captured in Crumb’s art style as much as it is in the content of Kafka’s story where an ill-conceived sexual encounter becomes metaphor for never being able to gain access to the Castle itself.
Somewhere between these two, powerful, vivid, readily-accessible images of castles, Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8 creeps into my heart. What you’d expect is Van Helsing a readymade retooling of the classic Universal Pictures Horrors, like Count Dracula, Doctor Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man, just with a slight squeeze of postmodern sensibility. Instead what you get with Jeff Lemire’s beautiful story is some 20 pages of pure Einstein, by way of Woody and Crumb.
Frankenstein’s on the hunt for an escapee from the S.H.A.D.E. holding cells. There’s a mountain of the unspoken between Frank and his Bride, who is the only other S.H.A.D.E. agent deployed on this particular mission. The reason is simple—Frank and Bride are hunting down their own son. The growing animosity between Frank and Bride can be traced back as much to the particular incident that played out when Frank and Bride first saw their own son, as it can to Bride’s increasing mistrust of S.H.A.D.E. chief, Father Time’s manipulation of his agents. By the end of the issue, Bride is herself forced down a path that she blames Frank for needing to take, all those many years ago.
But this isn’t the horror story you’d expect. This isn’t the exciting, thrill-ride that was Van Helsing. Instead much of the weighty, existentialist angst that fuels before Woody’s Castle and Crumb’s Castle is available. And more poignantly, Jeff’s story is enshrouded by the art of suggestion. You don’t get to read the secret history of these stones—the devastated village or the obscene Castle Frankenstein’s itself. But that unspoken history is there in every panel. A secret and unmitigated horror that you yourself animate by your own imagination.
This is the secret drama of Einstein. That while Galileo and every subsequent physicist dreamed of understanding observable phenomena and pinning them down with a unique, accessible mathematics, Einstein would have none of it. Einstein was convinced that what was called for in physics was imagination, thought experiment. And he went on to describe a magnificent world, unseen, but vital, by the act of unshackling himself from the observable.
In Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8 Jeff Lemire turns that drama inwards. Imagination unleashed is not the liberation it would prove to be for Einstein. Monsters lurk behind the veil. And ultimately the art of this issue is to bring you to a point where, as much for safety’s sake as any, you choose to disavow that unbridled hope that Einstein himself represents. “Spawn of Frankenstein” is a sordid, filthy drama. And the world is richer for it.