Frankenstein's Monster has been a staple of pop culture for more than a century and Mary Shelley's gothic horror story continues to inspire and spark inspiration, even if in name only. Writer Jamie S. Rich (It Girl and the Atomics) and up and comer artist Megan Levens explore love and dark science with Image's upcoming Madame Frankenstein. This is not the duo's first collaboration, but easily becoming one of the biggest and already receiving some acclaim and positive reviews.
While Madame Frankenstein incorporates the namesake of the creature, Rich and Levens go into a different direction: gothic romance. Newsarama spoke to Rich and Levens about the project and the overall themes of science vs. magic, men who have control issues, and what comes next after this monster project is wrapped.
Newsarama: Jamie, aside from the Frankenstein name and the fact that you have a mad scientist bringing back somebody from the dead, are there any other connections to the Mary Shelley novel?
Jamie S. Rich: Not directly. Mainly, we wanted to continue on with the themes of Shelley's original book, at least in terms of the consequences of trying to create and control a living being. Though we don't really spend much time pointing it out, our characters exist in a world where the Shelley novel exists, and they would be aware of it. We also nailed down the specific year for the tale based on when the movie version of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff came out. So Vincent, our scientist, sees that there is at least some mythological background for the work he has been doing, experimenting with restoring life to dead flesh.
There is an internal debate in the narrative about science vs. magic, which I think is an interesting element about this kind of story in general. The notion of bringing the dead back to life crosses a line into fantasy, it can never be truly science-based. Running parallel to all of that is the fact that the woman who becomes the monster was, as a child, "the girl who saw fairies," based on the real-life incident of two girls in England allegedly being photographed with fairies in their backyard. Only two people in our book ever maybe see these creatures, and given the circumstances when they do, there is some reason to doubt their visions.
Nrama: How would you describe the relationship between scientist Vincent and his creation?
Rich: When she was alive, Vincent was in love with her, but she consistently chose his rival over him. The other man, Henry, was part of a rich family that Vincent's parents worked for. They've clashed all their lives, Henry has always seen Vincent as a kind of class invader. The fact that Henry is part of the accident that kills the woman just adds further tension.
Vincent sees bringing her back to life as a second chance. She will be the woman he always imagined her to be. In life, she was an ideal he placed on a pedestal, but who eventually fell from that lofty perch. Animating her corpse allows him to put her back up there, and in his mind, mold her into what he wants her to be, the perfect lady. Of course, what he doesn't bargain for is that the more he teaches her and the more sentient she becomes, the less "perfect" she will be.
Megan Levens: It's an issue of control as well. In bringing her back to life, Vincent believes he has a chance to create a woman who is completely within his control, reprogrammed and taught to think and behave how he thinks she should. At first, Vincent and the laboratory are her entire reality, and out of fear and a lack of other influences, the monster always looks to him for her next step. As an artist I was very conscious and deliberate about showing, through the characters' expressions and body language when they interact, that their relationship is based on her fear and his desire for control.
Nrama: Megan, though you've worked on some comic projects before, this is kind of your first big comics outing. You come from an advertising and storyboarding background, so what was it about Madame Frankenstein that made you want to devote more time to comicdom?
Levens: Actually, comics have always been my first love, and while this is my first published work to hit the shelves, it's not my first major comics project, or even my first comic working with Jamie. I always wanted to draw comics, and felt more comfortable in this medium than any other, but practicality and a need to pay rent led me to work in advertising storyboards for several years while comics were always on the sideline. I definitely grew and improved as an illustrator in that time, and learned to work faster and more efficiently, but the dullness of the subject matter also made me fall back in love with comics. More than ever I wanted to tell the kind of stories that there was no room for when trying to sell yogurt or car insurance. Luckily, at that time I reconnected with Jamie, and we started collaborating, first on a short story for a romance anthology, and then on a full-length graphic novel, Ares & Aphrodite, which is coming out from Oni Press in the next year or two. So I was well into making a big push into comics by the time we were batting around the concept for Madame Frankenstein.
Rich: I think it's important to note, too, that this began as Megan's idea. We were working on Ares & Aphrodite, which was a concept I brought to her, and when I finished the script, I asked her what she wanted to do next. Sometimes artists tell me genres they want to do, like Joëlle Jones suggesting we do a crime book leading to You Have Killed Me, and sometimes they show me an idea they never quite cracked, like George Kambadais on The Double Life of Miranda Turner, that we're doing over at Monkeybrain. Megan told me the core concept of Madame Frankenstein and told me what she saw as the ending, but she never found a way to get there that she was happy with.
Not being a grade-A moron, I immediately said yes, and I started sending her ideas. By that point, we had already developed a good back-and-forth, so we rolled from one project to the next, from straight-up old-Hollywood romance and into some pretty dark territory without a single hitch.
Nrama: Vincent has a name he gives his creation. Can you tell us a little bit about that, Jamie?
Rich: He calls her Gail, after Galatea, which is a nod to the myth of Pygmalion. That story, and it's more modern iterations--both the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion and the musical "My Fair Lady"--have as much to do with Madame Frankenstein as Mary Shelley and the Universal Monster series. The idea of controlling a woman and teaching her to be more of a "lady" to suit his own selfish desires was very much at the core of what Megan brought to me when she pitched Madame Frankenstein. Henry Higgins, the one who takes on Eliza Doolittle as his pet project, is a really fascinating character to me. He's essentially a blowhard and a bit of a deviant, and not at all sympathetic if he's not played by a really good actor like Rex Harrison or Leslie Howard. I liked the challenge of creating that kind of character. Vincent is unequivocally the villain, but my job was to try to make him at least somewhat understandable. At times, the reader should hopefully feel sorry for him. At the same time, Gail does go through a transformation. The woman she was back when she was alive is not necessarily the same person who ends up rising from the laboratory slab, or even who she is at the end of the series.
Nrama: Who are some of your inspirations, Megan? Your style has an almost mid-60's Disney vibe to it.
Levens: That's definitely the first time I've heard that comparison! The earliest comics I remember really connecting with, as far as the art, were Jeff Smith's Bone, Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2, and Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise. So, black-and-white books with very expressive characters. I was obsessed with Bruce Timm's character designs for "Batman: The Animated Series", so I think my characters echo some of that influence (especially the ladies). In college I discovered Craig Thompson's Blankets, which was the book that definitely changed my idea about what comics could be and the kind of stories that could be told in them, so his work had a huge impact on my storytelling. And I always loved Adam Hughes for drawing beautiful, strong women.
Nrama: The book is in black and white instead of color, was there an artistic purpose for that? Maybe to give it a horror movie feel?
Levens: I always saw the book in black and white, or at most, gray tones. I just always felt that was the best way to get the feel of the story across...part of it had to do with echoing the old Universal horror films, and it was also a matter of getting to play with more dramatic, stylized inking. When you're not going to color later, your finished inks have to really pop, and it was a fun opportunity for me to push myself and play more with textures, spot blacks, and the overall black and white design of a page.
Nrama: If Vincent is the villain of the story, who is the hero here? Gail? Henry?
Rich: It's kind of difficult to put any of them in the role. Henry's investigation into what Vincent is doing may have some noble intentions buried in their, but he is still being a bully, still looking to make Vincent miserable for his own selfish ends.
Though we certainly are hoping readers will root for Gail to get her freedom, the story is more of a tragedy, I guess, because there are no heroes in a traditional sense. Rather, it's a tale of several people whose lives are hopelessly entangled, and the bad things this relationship causes.
Nrama: Who came up with the concept of the time period setting here? Any reason why you chose this era?
Levens: I pitched the idea to Jamie as being set in the 1930s. Really the initial reason I went with that setting was because I'd been sketching images of the monster in clothes from that period, and it just looked cool. But as we dove into it, the period helped develop a lot of the story points, like the class differences between Henry and Vincent, Vincent's morphine addiction, and even simple things like how the everyday women's fashion of the period serves to disguise Gail out in public.
Rich: It allows for a certain remove, too. The fact that science is less advanced back then helps with some of the suspension of disbelief. A mad scientist's lab in 2014 would be a completely different thing, and the way we're all connected now, the presence of global technology, it would pose all sorts of different challenges when it comes to hiding a creature, of being secluded. There is a scene in issue 4 when Gail goes out in public for the first time and it goes all kinds of wrong, and were that to happen now, everyone would snap pictures on their phone, she'd be on YouTube, all of that. In the 1930s, particularly with Prohibition still in effect, the underground is still really underground.
Nrama: Going back to the science vs. magic here, as you stated, Courtney's back story vaguely parallels that of the Cottingley Faeries controversy, Vincent is science-based here so are there magical elements to counteract him?
Rich: No, we don't have any magicians or spells being cast or anything like that. It's more carrying on from themes Mary Shelley grappled with, the idea that a man playing god crosses this line into areas he is not meant to enter. Vincent's hubris is placing himself in this tradition, imagining that he can extend a mythology and be mythological himself. In as much as Shelley used Prometheus, as I mentioned, for us it's Pygmalion. Vincent's belief in fairies and the like could just be indicative of the same madness that compels him to reanimate a dead woman he is obsessed with. In a funny way, throughout the book, the fairies almost serve as his Jimminy Cricket. Their appearances coincide with acts of folly or times of weakness.
The fairies are also a small nod to the more bizarre aspects of the film "The Bride of Frankenstein," specifically the little people in the birdcage. Which, now that I think of it, remind me of the tiny Japanese women in Mothra. What's up with that?
Nrama: Yeah, "Bride of Frankenstein" was full of weird things like that, but in the end, most were part of the major analogy of religion and the did God create man or vice versa debate. Will any religious aspects come into play with Madame Frankenstein, or is that more of the "magical" aspect?
Rich: Religion doesn't end up factoring in very much. I saw the tale as getting, honestly, more and more human the deeper we got into it. I suppose the more we succumb to our base impulses and emotions, the further we get away from the divine. Nothing really turns out as any of the characters intended. It gets pretty dark and gruesome...as horror should.
Nrama: With Madame Frankenstein still being working on, do you guys have anything else lined up after this?
Rich: Megan probably needs a break from me. She's got three issues left, I'm all done with my side of things. I suppose if no one has come and thrown gobs of money at her to draw something big and popular in the meantime, I'll focus on writing something else while she's coloring our Oni Press graphic novel, Ares & Aphrodite. I have an idea for a Madame Frankenstein sequel, but I don't think she's taking me seriously...since I'm not sure I'm taking me seriously.
Levens: Are you kidding? When Madame Frankenstein is over, I'll be asking Jamie, "What's next?" He's the easiest writer to work with, and his strength is in the characters, not just in one particular genre. And I'm sure our next project will be something completely different, but once I'm finished drawing the last issue, I know I'll miss the characters too much and want to go back to them.
Rich: They're making the drinks strong in Los Angeles tonight....
Nrama: Is there anything else you'd like to tell fans about Madame Frankenstein and what they can expect from this mini-series?
Levens: That this book has been the most fun I've ever had drawing a comic, and I hope it brings just half as much joy to someone reading it as I had working on it.
Rich: And while we rely on certain genre expectations when entering into anything with the surname "Frankenstein," prepare yourself for us to go to some strange, dark places. My goal was to break readers' hearts by the end of the book. Shore up your emotional reserves!