Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Vol 1. War of the Monsters by Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli – Comic Review [Bellarius]
Bellarius takes a look at the collected issues #1-7 of Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. by Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli.
“A great collection and a terrible one both.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields
The distinct shame of Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is you can pinpoint where it failed down to the exact page. Worse still, it’s hardly the creators’ fault and more a continued trend by DC Comics which keeps causing their series to fail. Beyond that exact point it’s a decent comic within reason.
Called away from his vacation back to the Super Human Advanced Defence Executive, undead supersoldier Frankenstein is deployed to deal with an unholy crisis unfolding in a small town of America. Countless monsters are rampaging throughout the streets, murdering everything in sight, and worse still there’s no end to them. Fighting his way through alongside the Creature Commandos, they soon come to understand just how massive a threat S.H.A.D.E. faces…
To make this clear to anyone already wondering: Yes this is DC’s efforts to ape Hellboy. S.H.A.D.E. is effectively the B.P.R.D. with more mad science and less occult, and has a band of undead monsters fighting the things which go bump in the night. What makes it work is that Frankie himself is distinctively different from Hellboy, the sciency approach to stories and a different take on humour.
There’s much less an air of professionalism than the B.P.R.D. or Stormwatch and more a sense of “Hey! Let’s try this!” with Frankenstein and Ray Palmer (yes, he’s in this) playing straight men to the insanity. While overt, this allows the comic to have varied emotions and themes to balance out the horror and chaos of what they face, giving lulls in the drama and horrifying moments. It’s a move which proved to be successful with Demon Knights and Aquaman, and works equally well here. The sight of horrifying monsters and a disturbing occult summoning are balanced with moments like Father Time gleefully taking control of a war wheel with a video game controller.
Jeff Lemire’s talent is clearly on display as he balances action with humour, writing a strong opening arc which (like many) was heavy on action but light on substance. Quickly setting up basic character traits along the way and featuring scenes like Frankenstein cutting his way out through the innards of a building sized spider. That sort of thing happens a lot and there’s a definite three act arc to follow ending with a big payoff and not outstaying its welcome. Being the sort of introduction a comic like this needs and giving reasons to keep reading more. While by no means perfect, suffering from the odd headscratcher or contradiction, it’s this arc which is recommended the most and shows what the series could have been. Unfortunately, instead Dan Didio got involved.
All of a sudden, less than five issues in, the series suddenly goes into an ongoing crossover with Didio’s OMAC comic, pitting the two heroes/organizations/villains against one another before any status quo has been established. Even readers following both comics would know little about who these people are or why they should care about them, and the crossover itself isn’t a proper crossover. Lasting one issue which consists of an extensive brawl and a non-ending with no communication between characters, it turned into a malignant presence latching onto future storylines.
While the humour is still there and writing still entertaining, time which should have been used to develop characters and move in its own direction instead feels bolted down. Confined as if the comic was suddenly re-routed to deal with the OMAC crossover and its aftermath long after its figures had departed. Stormwatch might have been action packed but at least it spent the time giving you a decent idea of who was who and a rough personality to follow with each character. Here? Beyond Nina Mazursky’s past and the odd moment from Frankenstein himself, there just isn’t any effort made to help make them feel like characters.
This might seem like an odd focus for these reviews, but all the flaws are visibly put down to the OMAC crossover, with everything before being classed as “exciting if not substantial escapist fun.” Volume one’s issues would need to be divided in half to properly cover the strengths and weaknesses of the comic’s opening and latter stories. You might want to take a look at this trade paperback if you like the comic’s concept, but beyond issues 1-4 there’s a definite drop in coherence and quality.