Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola (author) & Ben Stenbeck (artist)
One of the best books in the wider Hellboy Universe, Frankenstein Underground takes the famous literary monster and places him in a battle for light against darkness. This book is one of my favorite comics I have read recently. Frankenstein’s monster seems to have a patchy memory, and other than recalling random events here and there, he only remembers one name — Frankenstein — which he thinks is his own. In the opening scene, “Frankenstein” is on the run, as he has been throughout his long life. The comic book shows Frankenstein throughout the years as he has been chased in many different areas of the world. But in this most recent chase, he enters a cave and encounters a witch of sorts who heals and comforts him. The five-issue story will come full circle, from physical healing to spiritual healing, but there are many dire events that happen first.
Frankenstein tells his history to the witch, including his encounter with Hellboy in a boxing ring (a funny story collected elsewhere). But this encounter is what connects the story with the main storyline of Hellboy, who spent some drunken years in Mexico — the “lost” years, when Hellboy was a professional wrestler. Other than this plot reference, the connections between this comic and the Hellboy canon have to do with the wider forces at work in an overwhelmingly dark and threatening universe in which the fight for good is left to the few, including Hellboy and, in this story, Frankenstein.
Another connection is that Hellboy questions his humanity as does Frankenstein, so this preoccupation of the monster’s feels familiar in a Mignola book. But overall, the universe includes ancient beings, much like those envisioned by Lovecraft. These beings, indifferent to humanity, are still a threat to it by their very nature in trying to enter more fully our world on earth from the world beyond. In this book, Frankenstein must defeat them in one battle, but not for all time. They can never be beaten completely, but the darkness can be pushed back a little in crucial moments, as happens in this book.
Before the final battle, Frankenstein falls into what he thinks is hell but is really still earth, albeit deep, deep underground, hence the name of the comic. This is after one minor skirmish in issue one with a human foe, though he is supernaturally powerful. But the skirmish ends with the witch’s death, and Frankenstein shouts out to the gods that he does not believe in them, that they can try their best to “kill him” and “send him to . . .” He does not get a chance to yell “Hell” as he tumbles far below the earth to the underground world that is the setting for the remaining four issues.
Once underground, the monster encounters dangerous creatures, also indifferent yet threatening to all life, even the half-life that Frankenstein lives. In issue two, after escaping the monsters of that world, he is captured by the inhabitants who take him as a sacrifice. The story gets even more interesting in the remaining pages when Frankenstein encounters the men who are the rulers over the underground inhabitants. These two men are originally from above ground and are connected to the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, an organization that shows up in other Hellboy stories. The history of the Brotherhood and the original journey to the underground world is told to Frankenstein.
The rest of the story involves the monster’s finding out the real history of the underground city and how it has been taken over by the darkness when it was once meant to be a place of light. Frankenstein finds meaning in life as he is led to fight on the side of the light. The most profound parts of the comic come in the final scenes underground when Frankenstein questions his purpose in life while at the same time finding it. Frankenstein at this point is told his life has meaning, and he responds in great doubt, “I am a monster drowning in a sea of monsters.”
Frankenstein’s journey is an interesting one. I read this book twice in one day. It is a fast read given the low words-to-image ratio, typical of Mignola comics. The first time I read for plot, but the second time I was able to focus even more on the details in the art, and Stenbeck’s art is sublime, from his depiction of the mundane to his picturing for us images of the gods beyond our world, gods that have some resemblance to what we now most often recognize as Lovecraftian tentacled beings. In other words, both story and art are fantastic. For fans of Frankenstein, Hellboy, and Lovecraft, Frankenstein Underground is a must read.
I’d like to read it. I wrote a short story about Frankenstein based on a dream that I had. I posted it on FanStory.com and someone suggested that I write it as a novel. I will be writing it as a novel for NaNoWriMo.