The Best of DC’s New 52: #5, Frankenstein, Agent Of S.H.A.D.E

5. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. – Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli

I’m not a comics fan.

Never have been. Most likely never will be, but that doesn’t stop my peer group from continually trying to push them on me. Because, you see, I am a socially-maladjusted nerd, so it should be something I’m rather keen on. But I’m just not interested, so here’s my Final Statement after spending twenty years surrounded by people who are:

  • I don’t care about Watchmen, and no matter how many times I “borrow” your copy (i.e., accept it as it is shoved into my hands to get you to quit bugging me about it), I am never going to read it.
  • I don’t care about Frank Miller, or the other one.*
  • I don’t care about cross-overs or multiple universes. Or the “death” of any superhero, which always seems to be a minor media event even though everyone knows damn well he won’t be gone for long.

I do care about Idle Time ranking projects, though, so here I am. Always willing to lean into the pitch and take one for the team, even if it means reading over fifty fucking funnybooks in way too short a time. Sometimes through gritted teeth, more often simply nodding off, but occasionally experiencing a flash of genuine tolerance, I paged my way through each issue of DC Comics’ “New 52.” (About 36 of which seemed to be Green Lantern-related. Those DC chumps really bet the farm on that turd of a movie last summer, didn’t they?)

If one of the stated goals behind going back to Issue #1 for fifty-two titles was to get new readers on board — maybe readers new to the whole milieu — with a minimum of confusion, then that part was a pretty egregious failure. “The New 52” was a (green?) arrow aimed straight at the heart of the fanboys. The newbies, who hoped for a clear introduction and a fresh start on the continuity, were left scratching their heads as infinite plot threads left over from the “old” run were blithely carried on, and inside references decipherable only to long-time readers were littered throughout the stories. DC, you had your chance to hook a new reader — one with a little disposable income and a collector’s mentality — and you blew it. Big time. You guys didn’t want to break free of your insular circle-jerk long enough to put the training wheels back on for a couple of issues. Looks like you’re content to peddle the exact same horseshit to the exact same audience until they die or you go out of business.

So, from a non-fanboy’s perspective, what about Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E appealed enough to get me to volunteer to write about it? 1) A deep affection for the Frankenstein’s Monster character from the old Universal horror movies, and 2) secret agent stuff.

As far as “reviewing a comic” goes, I can’t speak to “So-and-so’s use of color,” or “Blah-blah’s way with a linear narrative” because they all look and read pretty much the same to my eye. (Except for OMAC #1, which looked like a Pez dispenser somehow ate a bunch of Saturday morning cartoons, proceeded to blow the Trix Rabbit, and then vomited the results onto the page. I’m told this is the “Jack Kirby” style.) For example, when MDG flew into a spittle-emitting rage over how awful Hawk and Dove was, he was judging it on criteria completely invisible to me. It seemed no more or less stupid than all the others.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E does indeed wallow in sheer ridiculousness, but since I have a couple of cultural buy-in points (numbered above), I was able to roll with it a little better. Frankenstein (for brevity, the correct ” ‘s Monster” portion of his name has been dropped), stitched together from human cadavers and re-animated by a Swiss medical student with a God complex, is no longer the revenge-minded, mute monstrosity who once shambled through foggy 19th century European moors, but has become a highly-respected veteran “super-agent” of the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive. I’m sure whatever happened in the interim has been explained in some lost back issue, but I’m not privy to it. Frankenstein has also learned to talk, but he can still be described as grimly laconic — as a good secret agent should be. S.H.A.D.E. operates from a mico-engineered, three-inch space station called The Ant Farm “2000 miles over Manhattan Island.” Once the reader is shrunk and teleported on board along with Super-Agent Frankenstein, the adventure begins…

The story itself doesn’t break a sweat being original — The Earth is under attack from vicious alien monsters and only S.H.A.D.E. can stop them — but it’s well-executed and newcomer-friendly. I never got lost in over-ambitious panel layouts, and Issue #1 actually works as an introduction. Frankenstein is partnered up with his “field team,” to which he initially objects. (“I work alone,” he rasps in a dialogue balloon tinted a sickly, undead green.) However, who could resist a team consisting of a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, and a gill-woman? That’s right, it’s a regular goddamn Monster Mash (“Spooky-scary!”). Or, as they actually refer to themselves, a collection of “Creature Commandos.”

It all leads to a major throw-down between Our Heroes and the Evil Alien Horde, who have taken over and presumably devoured a small Washington town. As always seems to be the case, the heroes cut through the multitude of poorly-skilled bad guys with little to no effort whatsoever, finding time to converse with each other as they do it. Yes, I know they’re “super” heroes, but at least fake a little suspense as to the outcome of the fight. They swing their broadswords and chains and fire their over-sized handguns, all the while spouting geysers of expository dialogue. Anyway, the (bad) monsters are (temporarily) defeated, and the Creature Commandos make the patented Startling Discovery that sets up Issue #2.

To sum up — it’s clear, snappy, and quick-moving, with cool monsters drawn quasi-realstically (whatever you would expect a mummy commando to look like, Ponitcelli nails it)  and lots of space-age gadgetry. I didn’t hate it, and my fellow Idle Timers thought enough of it to boost it to #5 in our ranking. Oh, and MDG told me to tell you that it has “an Italian Bonelli art style reminiscent of Dylan Dog,” so if that’s your thing, knock yourself out.

Sporting a similar Italianite style is our number 11. All-Star Western, which hearkens back to the extreme stylization and sometimes grotesque exaggeration of cinema’s “spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s and early ’70s. The comic is worth a flip-through, and if your only exposure to the genre on film is Jonah Hex, 1) seriously consider killing yourself, and 2) treat yourself to some old Sergio Leone flicks. Duck, You Sucker is streaming on Netflix.

(* Alan Moore. I had to wiki it.)

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