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‘Frankenstein Underground’ and the Deaths That Tax Us

Frankenstein Underground is the magnificent postmodern crown jewel in the Hellboy-verse that creator Mike Mignola thinks of as a love-letter to Edgar Rice Burroughs. We think otherwise.

Lester Bangs and Bill Gates and Erik Davis and Alice Cooper and the US Tax base, all sewed together like a Hungry Frankenstein

Actus Primus: “Yours is the Cloth, Mine is the Hand that Sews Time”

In Frankenstein Underground #1, released earlier this month, comics (re-)creator Mike Mignola flattens out history. It’s the kind of postmodern game we’ve seen him play, many, many times before in the pages of Hellboy proper, and elsewhere and elsewhen in the Mignolaverse. But with Frankenstein Underground, Mignola reaches a pinnacle.

Take for example the opening image from “The Wolves of St. August”. We start with a single photograph, black and white but bright with promise, showing Hellboy standing with Father Mike (was it Father Mike?). The photograph (it’s not a photograph but you’re damned if you didn’t immediately suspend disbelief and assume it was a photo) is labeled “Father Mikeand Hellboy, Saybrook, NY, 1962” (or was it Saybrook, Connecticut?).

Despite my shocking inability to recall the exact detail, the moment remains a magnificent one. (Sidenote: The story appears in The Chained Coffin and Others, and since we’re living in an age of Google and, y’know, nothing needs to be known any longer, because it can all be searched. You can find the original yourself and, as an aside within an aside, I’m sure you’ve already discovered that the true joy of reading comics lies maybe as much or maybe even a little more in the discovery of what to read than in the act of reading itself. That would also mean discovering it’s actually Connecticut, not New York and Father Kelly and not Father Mike. And that seeing those two, Father Kelly and Hellboy, standing side-by-side, one’s arm on the other’s shoulder on that beach in a Time of Hope and Promise will allow you the best kind of opportunity in all of comics—a chance to not only see for yourself, or even to know for yourself, but a chance to involve yourself in the image and involve the image in yourself and in your going forward into the world. This is comics as an act of consuming culture, comics as something that can feed and sustain you. We will get into this later to a point where I will further clarify what I’m tilting at, here, but I don’t want to lose sight of Mignola and time travel, for the moment primarily because I want to get to Erik Davis and TechGnosis).

The real meat of the story (depends who you ask, of course, so let me qualify by saying, “for me the meat of the story”) plays out in the first couple of pages when Hellboy and Dr. Kate first make it to the village of St. August (or Griart as it’s been renamed in the intervening centuries). “You make it sound so routine,” Dr. Kate says to Big Red as they wander the empty streets of the abandoned town, “I’ve researched cases like this, but I guess you’ve seen them.” You can almost imagine Hellboy nodding before he answers. (That’s not entirely right, you animate Hellboy as nodding). “India. ’57. New Guinea, ’59. India again. ’82,” Hellboy responds.

That’s the joy of Hellboy, one of the many, that wherever you are in Hellboy storytime, and the stories are never linear, and they’re not “dramatic” in the sense that they function like a bildungsroman, where despite the time dilation, bildungsroman always seem to be building to some ultracrescendo (if you’re in the market for that kind of storytelling, you can do a lot worse than Fred Rin’s Megatokyo or Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic, epic in the original sense, Wolf and Child).

Hellboy is an ongoing story about time and history and how both can be folded and recut in the service of drama. You’re never really standing in a single moment with Hellboy. Always, history bears down, and you feel it like a weight on your chest. Mignola’s technique in this regard peaks (again, I mitigate with “I’d argue”) with the short story “Dr. Carp’s Experiment”, when the still-active curse of a long-dead Dr. Carp (discovered bricked into his ruined laboratory in that Edgar Allan Poe kind of way) activates to draw Hellboy back into the past and become a kind of living battery to summon a demon.

In Frankenstein Underground Mignola pushes even farther. It’s no longer a question of just the weight of history pushing down, it’s the entirely new concept of Frankenstein being available to all of history.

“As far back as I can remember I was a thing,” Frankenstein tells the Woman Who Listens to the Sky, “Hunted… hated… caged…”. The monster’s words play out against the backdrop of depictions of the exact torments he suffered, and the corresponding caption-boxes read, “Switzerland, 1812”, then “Macedonia, 1826”, then “France, 1863” and finally “Austria, 1911”. And we’re lured into thinking that we’re riding along with Mignola on the same creative vector from “The Wolves of St. August”. But all of that is misdirection.

When the book’s villain, Marquis de Fabre, attacks, he does so from the 15th century, using a magic mirror to guide him. He dispatches an agent, the demon princess, Iblifika, to simultaneously attack Frankenstein not only in Mexico in 1956, sleeping in the lap of the Woman Who Listens to the Sky, but also in Frankenstein’s dream which takes the monster back to the Macedonia of 1826. Trippy right? But this is the beauty of what Mignola gives us in this opening issue of Frankenstein Underground—a single moment in time that is simultaneously accessed by three moments across the centuries, and one moment, not even a part of Frankenstein’s own history. It’s a vision of time cut and re-rendered, sewn together like a Frankenstein corpse.

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Actus Secundus: Living Texts Made From Dead Languages

We’re all in a Battle Against Tomorrow, author of TechGnosis, Erik Davis, argues, we’re all looking for a way to resolve the basic irresolvable nature of the world around us. In a recently published “Afterword 2.0” to his 1998 classic (which tries to resolve the technological with the occult), Davis writes,

All these day-lit values undergird the global secularism that forms the unspoken framework for public and professional discourse, for the “worldview” of our faltering West. At the same time, however, media and technology unleash a phantasmagoric nightscape of identity crises, alternate realities, memetic infection, dread, lust, and the specter of invisible (if not diabolical) agents of surveillance and control. That these two worlds of day and night are actually one matrix remains our central mystery: a rational world of paradoxically deep weirdness where, as in some dying earth genre scenario, technology and mystery lie side-by-side, not so much as explanations of the world but as experiences of the world.

Take the incipient Internet of things — the invasion of cheap sensors, chips, and wirelessly chattering mobile media into the objects in our everyday world. The nineties vision of “cyberspace” that partly inspired TechGnosis suggested that a surreal digital otherworld lay on the far side of the looking glass screen from the meatspace we physically inhabit.

It’s a lesser peak in the hauntingly moving piece (not the pinnacle, though), but it’s not where Davis begins. No, Dear Reader, Davis begins with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the freneticism of the last decade to slowly approach Millennium, but pick up speed dramatically as it does. Earlier, nearer the beginning of “Afterword 2.0,” Davis writes,

Recalling that vibe right now reminds me of the peculiar spell that fell across me and my crew during the brief reign of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which began broadcasting on ABC in the spring of 1990. Today, in our era of torrents, YouTube, and Tivo, it is difficult to recall the hold that network television once had on the cultural conversation, let alone the concrete sense of historical time. Lynch’s darkside soap opera temporarily undermined that simulacra of psychological and social stability. Plunging down Lynch’s ominous apple-pie rabbit hole every week, we caught astral glimmers of the surreal disruptions on the horizon ahead. I was already working as a culture critic for the Village Voice, covering music, technology, and TV, and later that year I wrote an article in which I claimed that, in addition to dissolving the concentrated power of mass media outlets like ABC, the onrushing proliferation of digital content channels and interactive media was going to savage “consensus reality” as well. It wasn’t just the technology that was going to change; the mass mind itself was, in an au courant bit of jargon from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, going molecular.

And following that,

Molecular meant a thousand subcultures. Pockets of alternative practices across the spectrum crackled with millennialist intensity in the early nineties, as if achieving a kind of escape velocity. Underground currents of electronic music, psychedelia, rap, ufology, cyberculture, paganism, industrial postpunk, performance art, conspiracy theory, fringe science, mock religion, and other more or less conscious reality hacks invaded the spaces of novelty and possibility that emerged in the cracks of the changing media. Hip-hop transformed the cut-up into a general metaphor for the mixing and splicing of cultural “memes” — a concept first floated by Richard Dawkins in 1989.

They’re not explanations, they’re experiences, Davis’ future words echo down the line. You can almost feel time speeding up in Davis’s writing. An undercurrent of urgency that seems simultaneously far more pressing and far less coercive than Bill Gibson’s visions of a cyberpunk tomorrow.

Davis is arguably the only critic before or since Millennium to confront the non-homogenized cultural genera of the ’90s with the idea that rather than being a fracturing of a prelapsarian unity, they’re simply individuated response theories to a reality that was always to complex to be able to conceive of as a simple, singular unity.

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Three years earlier, in The Road Ahead, his vision-statement document of World Yet to Come, beyond Millennium, Bill Gates falls into exactly that trap that Davis so deftly manages to avoid. He writes,

Big changes used to take generations of centuries. This one won’t happen overnight, but it will move much faster. The first manifestations of the information highway will be apparent in the United States by the millennium. Within a decade there will be widespread effects…

You’ll know the information highway has become a part of your life when you begin to resent it if information is not available via the network. One day you’ll be hunting for the repair manual for your bicycle and you’ll be annoyed that the manual is a paper document that you could misplace. You’ll wish it were an interactive electronic document with animated illustrations and a video tutorial, always available on the network.

In the light of Gates’ magnificent philanthropy, it’s easy to look back on this writing now and have a little chuckle. Oh look, he thought we’d still have bicycles, you might say, or, of course we have bicycles, but can you imagine he thought there wouldn’t be specific bike shops with techs on standby to help repair our bikes for us. But that’s really just a question of optics (or haptics, if you’ve been reading the newest Gibson), of the superficial that looks the part but doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Make Yourself Into an Institution

Really the unforgivable thing for a man of Gates’s obvious intelligence and compassion is his undiluted expectation of unity that he confronts the future. He’s not in a Battle Against Tomorrow, he operates from the unspoken assumption that the future will always resemble the present, which is to say, it would resemble its own past. The unforgivable elements lie in Gates assuming that there must always be highways, or that highways will always have meaning to a general public, and not to a specific class of economic agent involved in supply-chain logistics.

But highways are a 20th century solution evolved from the 18th century solution of trails. And between drones, drivable cars, and crumbling infrastructure and Washington gridlock, it’s really hard to see how highways could continue to be feasible. Or, to press the point, what’s unforgivable is the assumption that a bike manual would be a single, unitary document that would contain a video tutorial and animated illustrations. The way it shakes out, some 20 years after, is that we have all that but Wikipedia and YouTube are vastly different technologies.

The person who does seem to get it right, amid all this ’90s chaos, is a voice coming from three years before even The Road Ahead—Alice Cooper with one of the singles off of his Hey Stoopid album, ironically titled “Feed My Frankenstein”. (OK, not ironically, I chose it purposively).

It’s hard not to read “Feed My Frankenstein” as a lovingly crafted description idolizing the act of fellatio. But if you accept this reading, or even if you only intuit this reading, then Cooper in relation to his phallus becomes deeply problematic, more so than the surface of the song allows for at cursory glance. Because in various parts of the song, Cooper hints at his phallus being the “Frankenstein”, the dead thing that must be “fed”.

For Cooper it’s not a case of various cultural “channels” that you can tune into, as with Davis, or with unitary wholes being eternal and “…fixed as the Northern Star”, as with Gates, but more a case of the vibrant and the living and the animated parts of yourself, your better nature, being in service to the dead and monstrous things that drive you on. It’s noir, in other words. Not as a genre of literature or of pop culture, but noir as a philosophical practice, a way of mapping the world and thereby being able to place some reasonable and realistic demands on it.

Unsurprisingly, Mignola seems to concur in Frankenstein Underground. Fabre, who is beautiful and wise and the who has achieved the pinnacle of Alchemical knowledge, enough so to peer through time and be able to know which seeds would grow and which would not, is the “master” of monsters and demons but also in many ways bound to them and bound by them. “Tools are often the most subtle of traps,” Neil Gaiman writes in “Exiles,” issue #74 of Sandman. That’s the perfect way to describe Fabre’s relationship with his minions.

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Actus Tertius: Come to This

I read Hellboy in Mexico, or A Drunken Blur, and I honestly just wanted to cry. Like reading Adrienne Rich’s “Toward the Solstice”. It’s not the story of Frankenstein’s induction into the Mignolaverse, but it’s the one just before that, the one that sets up Hellboy in Mexico in 1956 where he will finally have a luchador ring-battle with Frankenstein himself. That will happen one book later, in Hellboy: House of the Living Dead and the end of that book is exactly where the opening of Frankenstein Underground picks up, with Frankenstein in Mexico in 1956, fleeing from the consequences of his and Hellboy’s actions in House of the Living Dead.

House of the Living Dead’s poignant, no doubt, but it’s not the one. Time and again, it’s A Drunken Blur that makes me want to cry. “…And it was bad,” Hellboy says to Abe Sapien in Mexico in 1982. Abe Sapien’s just found a picture in a beautiful frame, of Hellboy and three luchador brothers, left by an effigy of the Virgin Mary in an abandoned gas station. Seemingly both the framed photo and the effigy of the Holy Mother have just been abandoned, but in truth it’s an act of honor, for what Hellboy and the brothers achieved back in 1956.

Hellboy continues his tale of Mexico in 1956 for Abe Sapien while the two wait to be exfilled. The brothers were actual wrestlers at one point, sort of like traveling mariachis, they’d move from town to town and entertain the locals to earn enough money to spend in the towns they entertained. But a vision from the Virgin Mary told them to get ready because trouble’s coming, and to learn to fight monsters. They did. And it was only a matter of time before Hellboy teams up with them. They do good work. They spend their days carousing, drinking, then, at night they kill evil things, Hellboy and the three brothers. Hellboy doesn’t even learn their names (they’re none of them particularly chatty), except for the kid brother, Esteban. And that’s where the tragedy emerges.

“But you can’t go on like that forever…” Hellboy warns Abe Sapien back in 1982, already aware of the tragedy to come. “Drinking like that, sooner or later you’re gonna get sloppy.” And Esteban does. The Devil grabs him one night, turns him into a vampire. Forces him to wrestle monsters. Hellboy’s invited, and ends up needing to kill Camaztoz, the monster Esteban’s become, in order to free Esteban’s soul. He does, and he feels like, well, hell, for the longest time.

“I trusted you,” is the heart of the tragedy. Esteban speaks these words even through the monster that is Camaztoz. “I trusted you. You see what they did to me? Because you weren’t there”.

But the story’s more than that. Esteban trusted in other things as well; his own strength, his brothers, trusted in the fact that things would always be the way they are now, that highways would always make sense and that bicycle manuals would always be single, unitary documents. All of those things always come to nothing. The real tragedy of Hellboy in Mexico, and its successor tale, House of the Living Dead is the tragedy of building institutions to a point where you can rely on them, and then putting your faith in those institutions and having them go through a cycle of proving themselves time and again, only to one day, unexpectedly, have those very institutions fail. Like our highways that are crumbling and our political gridlock that cannot find the money to fund its repair, or our frankensteined tax code that makes Harmonized Sales Tax (itself a frankensteined version of Value Added Tax levied at both the Federal and State level, something they have currently in Canada) seem like a good idea.

House of the Living Dead is strangely more hopeful than Hellboy in Mexico, it offers a more salient calculus of redemption—that the action to resolve the damage done can be taken at any time. But the real cutting-to-the-heart of it can be found in Lester Bangs, in Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock ‘n’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘n’ Roll, in “Screwing the System with Dick Clark”. Bangs writes up Dick Clark responding to the final questions of their interview,

“A lot of the whole world that kids don’t understand is politics and money. When you learn politics, money, the advertising world, where the skeletons are buried, you have then matured enough to stay alive. It’s part of the game. And a lot of kids don’t learn until they’re out wandering around saying, ‘Hey, I wonder why the place I was working at went out of business.’ They told too many people to shove it. That’s what happened to the “Smothers Brothers. What a wonderful tool they had, except they painted one of the three major networks into a corner and said, ‘There’s no way for you to get out and we’ll win.’ They’re winning minor dollars, but it won’t amount to much by the time they pay the lawyers. So one must learn to screw the system from within.”

Okay Dick, but just for the record, what did you do when you were a kid? “I was a student of the black arts. I was a hypnotist at thirteen. I lived all the way through that, my whole life I had bookshelves full of this stuff. And then when it got to be very big in the late sixties I said I better get out of this, I can’t stand listening to all of this again. I was a big hit at all the parties, reading palms, putting people out.… ”

So now how do you see yourself, the “adult Dick Clark? As a moral leader for youth?

“I’m just the storekeeper. The shelves are empty, I put the stock on. Make no comment pro or con. Irving Berlin said, ‘Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it.’ That doesn’t mean it’s good or it’s bad—that’s the equivalent of arguing the merits of hot dogs versus hamburgers. What the hell difference does it make?”

You read this after Bangs opens with what an institution Clark and his show American Bandstand has become, even 20 years after its inception in the ’50s. “Dick Clark has been dishing up a leggily acceptable euphemism of the teenage experience on ABC-TV’s ‘American Bandstand’ for twenty years now, and recently celebrated that achievement by airing a twentieth anniversary show featuring everything from dredged regulars out of the show’s acne heydays,” Bangs writes in the beginning. And later, “So in spite of hipcult accusations of galloping obsolescence, Dick Clark is currently riding higher than ever, and obviously deserves to be heard in these sargasso times of youthful post-unrest nebbishhood which some have even sworn are like the fifties all over again. They’re not, of course, but Dick Clark may well have come full circle.”

The idea is, make yourself into an institution, but you’ll probably still find yourself battling to stay alive. Same lesson Mignola alludes to in a throughline between Hellboy in Mexico and House of the Living Dead and Frankenstein Underground, especially when the Woman Who Listens to the Sky talks about the people who used to inhabit this ancient temple that Frankenstein now finds himself in, and how they would talk to the gods who eventually, by issue’s end, drag Frankenstein under. The idea is simple. Institutions fail, those 99-cent things you rely on, you won’t be able to rely on them forever. So when the time comes, be ready for it. Either have an exit strategy or an evolution strategy.

Splash image and all interior artwork from Frankenstein Underground #1 by Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck, Dark Horse (2015)

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