My relationship with Frankenstein is grounded in two films and my mother’s love of science fiction/horror as a merged genre—the classic 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as The Monster and the now iconic Young Frankenstein from 1974 (a tour-de-force from Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, and others).
Now common in pop culture, I associated “Frankenstein” with The Monster because most of the nuance in the source, Mary Shelley’s novel, was erased by adapting a novel into film.
Some of that erasing includes Mary Shelley being fully recognized for a foundational work in the history of science fiction and horror, but the popular jumbling and blurring of Shelley’s creation also erases the more subtle messages and themes of her original work.
Yet it is hard to ignore that the Frankenstein myth/narrative is incredibly enduring in American pop culture.
It is 2023, The National is set to release an album titled First Two Pages of Frankenstein, using the actual first two pages of the novel (cleverly edited) and a brief video of Matt Berninger turning to the viewer with the novel in his hand at the piano to promote the work:
Just a few weeks before the release of The National’s album Lana Del Rey’s Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd includes these lines:
I know they think that it took somebody else
To make me beautiful, beautiful
As they intended me to be
But they’re wrong
I know they think that it took thousands of people
To put me together again like an experiment
Some big men behind the scenes
Sewing Frankenstein black dreams into my songs
But they’re wrong
“Grandfather please stand on the shoulders of my father while he’s deep-sea fishing”
From Shelley to Del Rey, the intersection of the Frankenstein narrative with the lives and portrayal of women is a fascinating journey, but again, something is powerfully compelling about this story of human arrogance and the essential horror in our imagining a science-fueled future (or present).
These reminders of Frankenstein in 2023 also overlap with the paperback release of Wolverine: Weapon X Deluxe Edition.
Also due mainly to films, Wolverine (as portrayed by Hugh Jackman) has achieved an iconic place in US pop culture, one that parallels in many ways elements found in Shelley’s source material.
And not as well recognized outside of the comic book world, is Barry Windsor Smith’s brilliant portrayal of Wolverine’s origin story in Weapon X.
My association with Smith is his breakout work on Conan the Barbarian for Marvel in the early 1970s (see here).
By the 1990s, Smith stood out among the rise of the all-star artists working in comic books, like Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane; Smith helped define and represents the recognizable 90s comic book style as well:
The hyper-realism and detailed work of many artists in the 1990s are both era-defining and problematic (see about Rob Liefeld, for example), but Smith remains a highly regarded comic book artist, in part due to his 13-issue run for Marvel Comics Presents featuring Wolverine.
Smith’s arc is a reimagining of the Frankenstein myth, blending the misuse of science with more fantastical elements found in superhero comics. The mutant element of Wolverine/Weapon X helps provide a fresh way to interrogate human dignity and agency since Wolverine (Logan) is The Monster (human-made) and a mutant in this retelling.
Smith’s Wolverine origin story dramatizes, I think, why science fiction and horror fit perfectly together since the essence of unbridled science threatens both individual agency and cultural stability—paralleled well, I think, by another science-gone-wrong creation from Marvel in the mid-1970s, Deathlok [Astonishing Tales featuring Deathlok 25-28, 30-36, Marvel Spotlight 33 (1974-1977)].
Humans have a very complicated relationship with the human intellect, of which science is a key part. The recent Covid epidemic exposed that once again, people struggle with understanding exactly what “science” means—and doesn’t mean.
Contemporary life for many people in 2023 depends heavily on technology, and the allure of science fiction remains strong even as we seem to resist the messages those stories offer.
Whether it is Frankenstein’s Monster or Wolverine, the possibilities of science gone wrong moves us, speaks to our humanity, and offers us a better way.
It is always worth noting Shelley’s subtitle, another thing erased by pop culture—The Modern Prometheus.
Science, it seems, is a key urge of humans to be god or supplant god. And as our recycling of the Frankenstein narrative shows again and again, a quest to be god or deceive god is pure folly, our own arrogance turned against what makes us human.
Wolverine as The Monster should speak to us through the coupling of his immortality (an off-and-on quality in Marvel’s portrayals) with his constant state of suffering—just like Shelley’s original Monster whose sentience should move our hearts and souls as much as our minds.
I am drawn to the chorus in first single released by The National for their new album:
I was so distracted thenTropic Morning News
I didn’t have it straight in my head
I didn’t have my face on yet or the role or the feel
Of where I was going with it all
I was suffering more than I let on
The tropic morning news was on
There’s nothing stopping me now
From saying all the painful parts out loud
Distracted and suffering like each iteration of The Monster, who, ultimately, is each of us.