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Comics

It's Alive! The Changing Face of Dick Briefer's Frankenstein

Dick Briefer's Frankenstein was a patchwork monster, both horrible and hilarious. Few comic book creations can claim as much life as this creature possessed.

Dick Briefer was himself something of a Frankenstein, a mercurial genius who took bits and pieces of formerly living things and gave them new life. His greatest creation was a revivification of something that was itself a patchwork man made of parts dug fresh from the grave. Briefer's New Adventures of Frankenstein premiered in Prize Comics #7 in December of 1940, almost a decade after Boris Karloff and director James Whale had unearthed and reformed the creature for the twentieth century and over a century after Mary Shelley witnessed the power of lightning and questioned the power of God on a dark and stormy night in "the year without a summer."

Briefer's Frankenstein's monster has parts of both Shelly and Karloff sewn into its stitched-together flesh. And though it has mostly been forgotten since it shambled off the four-color page in 1954, his monster was as truly alive as any of the better-known versions of the beast. Briefer's monster was ever changing, ever evolving, ever transforming into something new and different. Indeed, few comic book creations can claim as much life as this creature possessed, as much ability to adapt and be ever remade into something new. Briefer would take his creation apart time and time again; he would rearrange the parts to suit his purposes; he would return from the graveyard with fresh bits to add new life and new aspects to this thing that he had made.

Briefer's Frankenstein was arguably the first horror series to make an appearance in the relatively new medium of comic books and the first installment truly looked like something new. Frankenstein, as Briefer calls the monster as well as his maker, is a giant, a creature so large that we are left wondering where the mad doctor found the parts to make this hideous thing. His head is square like Karloff's and his flesh pale and white. His face and neck show the blood red scars and stitches of the recent surgery. He is a wild thing. Instead of Karloff's muted costume, Briefer's monster is dressed in bright red and blue--colors to match the costume of Prize Comics superhero cover star, the Black Owl.

Briefer's Frankenstein is, at first, a force of nature. Driven by his hatred for his creator, the monster kills and destroys, wreaks havoc on the world. He is a terrorist who hides in the shadows before leaping out to turn trains off their tracks. He rampages through the sideshows and amusement rides of Coney Island. He kills and kills again. He confronts the doctor with taunts and threats: "It would be quite pleasant for you were I to die! Well, it will not be so. You will live and suffer seeing the evil I will do. Back to your measly human brothers. I go forth to kill them all."

In my opinion, the most compelling story from Briefer's early Frankenstein tales was a retelling of the Biblical story of Job. The story stands in stark contrast to the other fare featured in the pages of Prize Comics #31, in which the latest adventure of Yank and Doodle: America's Fighting Twins is followed by a page of talking animal gags, the war-time exploits of Ted O'Neil of the Commandos, and the comic daring do of Buck Sanders and his Pals. In the opening splash of Briefer's tale, Frankenstein stands beside the red-horned figure of the Devil. The monster's brow is clothed in shadow, his body huge and amorphous. As the story unfolds, Frankenstein finds that his deadly deeds are at the service of Lucifer. "You are," Lucifer tells him, "in league with me!!" The creature then accompanies the fiend to hell where the two monsters engage in the sort of wager that plays out between Yahweh and Satan in the ancient story of Job. Here, however, the Devil plays the part of God while the monster takes on the role of Satan.

Job, the Devil claims, cannot be tempted to turn from good to evil. Frankenstein disagrees. He argues that anyone can be made to turn to the Devil, and that he himself can make it happen. To prove his point he goes back to Earth to bring evil down upon the head of the innocent man. He wrings the necks of the farmer's chickens and livestock. Then, unbelievably, the monster kills Job's grandchildren. "One more tragedy will put Job on our side," Frankenstein says from the shadows. Though Frankenstein's evil plan is thwarted by the hand of God, and Job remains firm in his faith, this story reveals a deep darkness in the monster; his evil is more primitive, more primal, than that of the Devil himself. This is, I think, the monster's darkest point.

The adventures of Frankenstein ran issue after issue in the pages of Prize Comics, the eight page stories rushing headlong into horror after horror. Though the short tales were strung together into a continuing adventure, the monster was ever changing. Briefer was like a mad scientist, never content with his work, always cutting, always stitching. His Frankenstein became a crime lord who controlled a gang of toughs. The monster's creator dropped away and was replaced by a new antagonist, Denny "Bulldog" Dunsan, a quasi-superhero in a black jump suit emblazoned with a bulldog chest insignia. Frankenstein battled the superhero stars of Prize Comics: the Black Owl, Doctor Frost, the Green Lama, and Yank and Doodle. The monster was given psycho-therapy and plastic surgery to transform him into an ideal citizen. He was brainwashed by the Nazis and battled on their side against Allied forces, then reformed again without Nazi knowledge so that he could work against them while wearing their uniform. He was then mesmerized by vampires and became good guy by day and cruel fiend by night--a sort of werewolf in Frankenstein's body. Briefer's Frankenstein was ever-changing, ever evolving. Over time the stories became lighter and lighter.

This new lighter version of Frankenstein became popular enough to warrant its own book. Frankenstein #1 premiered in 1945. The monster was given a new origin as well as a personality and face that would have been a surprise to those who were accustomed to the Frankenstein of Briefer's earlier work. Briefer's artwork is likewise transformed. Gone is the darkness, gone the moody shadows, gone art deco sensibilities. In their place, Briefer constructs a world fit for a Sunday comic strip or a Saturday morning cartoon. The scars are mostly gone from the creature's face in this incarnation, with the exception of a single line that runs down the center of his forehead. His nose, out of place above his eyes and in line with his brow, is as cute as a button.

This monster wants to stop and smell the daisies rather than pillage and destroy. He is played for laughs rather than terrors. He teams with other ghouls to operate a hotel for monsters. He fights off the romantic advances of a group of escaped convicts who have been horribly mutated by radiation. He befriends a werewolf and adopts him as his pet. He encounters mummies, travels by time machine.

Briefer, amazingly, transforms the Frankenstein monster into something entirely different. He takes the creature apart and puts him back together in a whole new way, into an arguably more successful form. These Frankenstein stories are charming and heartfelt. They may not produce a belly laugh, but they invariably produce a smile. To read these tales after reading Briefer's earlier work is to be amazed at their creator's ingenuity and mastery of his craft. It is to be clear that Briefer understood the comic book medium, and all of its possibilities, as well as anyone who was working at the time. It is also clear that he understood this monster, that he understood monsters, and their role as a source of horror, pity and, absurdly enough, laughter and joy.

Not that these comic tales of Frankenstein were without their own bits of horror. As a matter of fact, one story in particular strikes me as perhaps the most disturbing and horrifying in all of Briefer's tales. Frankenstein #14 (May 1946) features perhaps the most cartoonish artwork of the entire series. It also features the darkest story. Frankenstein solves the mystery of missing circus freaks while uncovering the secret that allows a balloon maker to make extraordinarily detailed and life-like parade balloons. As is turns out, the balloons are made from the stretched skin of the colorful circus performers. Frankenstein and his companions bumble their way through the dangers until they defeat the villain and then release the remains of their inflated friends into the sky. As the skins sail away, Frankenstein observes, "First time I ever saw people go to heaven!"

This makes me smile. It also makes me shudder. That is the wonder of Dick Briefer's Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, Frankenstein came to the end of its run in February of 1949 with issue #17, a victim of the post-war comics slump. Fortunately, it was not to last. Three years later, Briefer brought his creature back for one last incarnation, but not before taking him apart and putting him back together again.

The creature who returned in Frankenstein #18 was as different from the humorous version as that version was from Briefer's original demonic terror. But it was a version more familiar to fans of the Universal Studios take on the creature. Seizing on the growing popularity of horror comics, a genre that he himself had helped to create, Briefer returned the creature to his roots. It is a version of the monster that never approached the novelty and grace that Briefer had earlier brought to the page. This monster is misunderstood, a mostly gently creature who for the most part only reacts with violence when he is threatened or afraid. Readers are meant to feel sorry for him as much as to be afraid of him. Briefer's artwork takes on a more realistic style. The monster shares the features of the humorous version, though he is rendered less like a cartoon and more like something that might actually climb forth from the grave.

Cover art from Briefner's Frankenstein Issue 26

Unfortunately, this new Frankenstein was never funny and seldom scary. He was mostly pitiful. Though it must be said that Briefer was able to use that pity to evoke a shudder or two. Frankenstein #26 is a case in point. The story opens with the creature adrift on an ice floe, freezing and almost dead. He falls into the icy water and drifts along until he is spotted by a lone whaler aboard a nearly abandoned whaling ship. The sailor has long ago lost all sanity and believes that the drowning monster is a whale. To capture the beast, he fires harpoons into his thick hide and drags him aboard the boat. That scene, the harpoons in the monster's bloody side, made me flinch, perhaps because for just a moment I imagined that it was the friendly, goofy, button-nosed version of the creature that was so treated, that was being prepared for processing, for boiling the oil from the blubber. The creature, of course, survived that encounter, and Frankenstein soldiered on for a few more issues after that, until finally being cancelled in 1954. But this is how I will always imagine the creature's demised: impaled by the harpoons of a madman, his body rendered into slimy oil. A horrible death for this jester demon. A fitting end for Briefer's patchwork creation.

Dick Briefer's monster is making something of a comeback over the last few years. The creature has managed to claw his way out of the grave and onto the pages of some fine reprint editions. Dick Briefer's Frankenstein, the first volume of Craig Yoe's Library of Horror Comics' Masters, features a nice sampling of tales from the various eras of the monster's adventures. The more recent Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer, by Dark Horse Books, collects issues one through six of the screwball adventures of the monster in his middle period. Fortunately, practically all of the Briefer Frankenstein can be found at digitalcomicmuseum.comfor those willing to do a little digging.

I recommend Dick Briefer's Frankenstein tales for a Halloween read, though not without a caveat. Don't be fooled by his goofy grin or his out-of-place button nose. There is darkness in this piecemeal beast and for every laugh a shudder -- or two.

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