The Hellboy Universe is back and boy did we miss it! Somehow, “Frankenstein Undone” #2 ended up being the perfect way to return to Mignola’s comics after an absence. This issue would’ve always been a powerful read, but the break heightened it. As a result, here’s your spoiler warning. There was a lot we wanted to talk about in this issue, and it wasn’t worth it to duck spoilers, so if you haven’t read “Frankenstein Undone” #2 yet, maybe read that first before diving into our analysis. There’s a lot to unpack here and yet we barely scratched the surface.
Written by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie
Illustrated by Ben Stenbeck
Colored by Brennan Wagner
Lettered by Clem Robins
In the leadup to the celebrated series Frankenstein Underground, the “monster” Frankenstein continues his journey northward. Still trapped between the weight of his guilt and desire for redemption, Frankenstein may have to choose once and for all when an encounter with the crew of an icebound ship leads him into danger on the ice!
Mark Tweedale: God, it’s good to have comics back. Not that they ever really went away—I don’t know about you, but my time physical distancing involved revisiting a few favourites. Due to the substantial gap between “Frankenstein Undone” #1 and #2, the first issue ended up being part of that reread. James, I’m curious what your thoughts were on that first issue before dive into #2.
James Dowling: Yeah, I think I ended up rereading #1 two or three times just to convince myself that new comics would exist again. Still, I really enjoyed how that first issue bridged the gap between the Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel and the one we see in “Hellboy: House of the Living Dead” and “Frankenstein Underground.” The way it used quotations and allusions mixed with Ben Stenbeck’s really heavy visuals just felt fascinating.
I’d argue it also featured Stenbeck at his Mignola-iest, as he really leaned into his heavily-shadowed portraits and black space. Although my clear highlight from the issue was how it canonically established that we can call Frankenstein “Frankenstein” and not “Frankenstein’s Monster.” I can’t express how much joy that moment brought me.
Mark: Aye, that brought me a lot of joy too. Taking ownership of that name is such a beautiful idea and such an important step towards personhood. Plus, it captures the complicated feelings Frankenstein has—after everything he and Victor have been through, he still thinks of that man as his father.
And, yes, this is Stenbeck at his Mignola-iest, something this new issue really brought to my attention. The panels of black in the Arobas sequence especially.
James: I feel like, as you touched on, this issue really pushed Frankenstein in a new direction towards humanity. After his (possibly imagined) meeting with Arobas and the late-Hyperboreans we see him revert back to being the self-imposed animal we saw in issue #1. But as the issue progresses we sort of see him progress up towards being human through his costuming. Afterall, when he first encounters the crew of explorers he’s donned the wolf’s pelt and he’s wielding tools, later we see him in a button-up jacket yet still holding onto the wolf pelt; it’s an interesting progression. I feel like it shows he hasn’t fully progressed to being a man, but he’s now trying to assimilate into the life of Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton, who were two of his strongest (though arguably most misguided) role models in Shelley’s text. It also leaves a pretty big divide between the Frankenstein we see here and the once-again animalistic version in “House of the Living Dead.”
Mark: To me that felt extremely deliberate and it made for a powerful opening. It’s one of those sequences where I wasn’t sure it would read for everybody, so I’m glad to see that level of nuance came across. I sort of wonder if there will be readers that don’t get this, and I wonder what they think the point of the wolf fight scene is. In the first issue, Frankenstein thinks of himself only as a monster fit for nothing better than death. Here, he’s willing to fight for his life, and dare to take those first few steps towards seeing himself as human.Continued below
Going back a bit to the “possibly imagined” opening for a moment… I love the way we’re simply presented with Frankenstein waking up to discover Arobas’s bones and nothing is said. The comic leaves us to ponder what we’ve been shown. There’s even a moment when Frankenstein steps outside and the panel transitions from substance to nothingness as we read from left to right.
I’m left to wonder how much of Frankenstein’s time with the bears and onward even happened. Did he simply leave Captain Walton’s vessel and wander north into a fiction? Since these events are now rendered non-literal, I feel like I need to revisit them and see what else they could be expressing that I previously missed. And yet, there are those lingering bandages from Arobas, implying that there is at least something real there.
James: Yeah I found that really interesting and it makes me wonder, not only how to interpret the scene, but whether the series will even give us a direct interpretation at all. I mean the events he experienced seem to have some bearing in reality as Frankenstein was able to track down the Hyperborean city. I wonder if it has something to do with Frankenstein’s connection to Vril energy, as established in “Underground.”
Mark: That was my read on it. There’s something innate in his understanding due to his very lifeforce being tied to the Vril directly.
James: Still, this whole issue had a really compelling level of ambiguity to it that was really well aided by narrative distancing created by Stenbeck’s visuals and Mignola and Allie’s narration. The clash of very visceral combat yet understated character beats was the issue’s strong suit.
Mark: Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot to extrapolate and read into as well. This issue actually prompted me to reread the Captain Robert Walton bookends of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Walton isn’t a huge part of the plot, he’s merely a means to convey the story, to look at its aftermath, and stand in stark contrast to it. Rather curiously, Captain Godfrey’s crew stands in stark contrast to Walton’s. Walton was a gentle man and put together a crew of men like himself—one that wouldn’t hunt because he abhorred the sight of blood, and another that loved a woman so much that when she revealed that she loved another, he endeavoured to help her convince her father to allow the marriage. Meanwhile, Raf points out to Frankenstein that he’s not the only murderer aboard Godfrey’s ship.
While Walton was a humble man, aware of what he didn’t know, and perhaps somewhat cowed by what he perceived as his intellectual inferiority, Mr. Demmings is prideful and self aggrandizing. He outright describes his expedition as more ambitious than Walton’s—perhaps a deliberate contrast to Victor Frankenstein’s final advice to Walton: Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. It is advice that leads Walton to turn back, saving the lives of his crew.
I mean, just in terms of thematic cohesion, it’s pretty clear that Demming’s crew is all going to die, right?
James: Haha yeah, they’re going to make for some very thematic cannon fodder. Still, I think Raf’s calm acceptance of Frankenstein was a nice change of pace in that it illustrated to Frankenstein that he can be redeemed, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. Mr. Demmings fits in with the usual “Victorian Gentleman Plagued by Hubris” trope that pops up through Mignola’s work, although I hadn’t considered him as a figure in contrast to Walton before. That’s a really interesting interpretation.
I really love how organically these first two issues have meshed the tones of Mignola and Shelley. There were moments where I had to check if Frankenstein’s dialogue was ripped straight from the novel, it felt so authentic. We even had an allusion to Paradise Lost where Frankenstein mentions that “If Milton placed Hell in Earth’s bowels, it’s reasonable that Heaven would be here atop the world.” Not only was that a great piece of intertextuality, but it also felt especially ironic given that Frankenstein eventually finds his subterranean Hell in “Underground,” only for it to become the place where he finds belonging, peace, and redemption. It’s just so interesting watching this team tie all of its influences into perfect knots.Continued below
Mark: It’s also a deliberate nod to Shelley’s novel, which opened with a quote from Paradise Lost:
“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay,
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
“Frankenstein Undone” could’ve easily left the Walton expedition plotline alone, but instead it uses it to connect to the larger Mignola mythology. As we know, Gorinium lies hidden at the top of the world, so Walton’s search for scientific knowledge in the north fits in very neatly with that.
However, “Frankenstein Undone” makes this connection so much richer by echoing the thematic material from Shelley’s novel and using this new crew to express the other side of the coin. “Frankenstein Undone” isn’t just using Frankenstein as a springboard for a new plot, it’s interacting with its themes in meaningful ways. I have to say, the writing on this issue really impressed me, especially this level of respect and care given to Shelley’s work. I may have flown through the issue, but I ended up thinking about it for at least an hour afterwards.
James: Yeah, both Mignola and Stenbeck have had experience working in this time period before with “Witchfinder,” but there are few texts that work this closely with a text and a time period, the only other thing that comes to mind is “Hellboy: The Midnight Circus,” which ripped straight from Pinocchio. But “Frankenstein Undone” has felt really special in how it both honors and expands on Shelley’s text.
Mark: Sort of. This is the summer of 1797, almost a hundred years prior to “Witchfinder.” (Sorry, this is the pedant from Hell Notes talking…)
James: No, you’re 100% right, good point. This issue felt a lot more reminiscent of “Underground” than I expected, both in how it surrounds Frankenstein with a cast whose natural curiosity runs counter to Frankenstein’s calm, accepting nature; and in how central the role of Hyperborea is. I mean, we’re getting very close to having Frankenstein and Mr. Demmings unearth Gorinium and Sadu-Hem almost 200 years before the Cavendish Expedition. It makes me wonder if the city discovered at the issue’s end is Gorinium-proper or an offshoot of it. Both the setting and the Ogdru Hem uncovered don’t look that similar, but I wouldn’t discount it entirely.
Mark: Well, Sadu-Hem was actually in Hecate’s secret temple beneath Gorinium, so I think it’s entirely likely this is indeed Gorinium, but the Demmings expedition will not uncover the secret temple.
Honestly, other than everyone dying in the Demmings expedition, I have no idea where this is going. For a story that’s both a prequel and a sequel, that’s actually kind of amazing. In general, prequels are often handled rather poorly, but I think in Mignola’s books he manages to make them work every time. In fact, some of the best books in his entire line are prequels. Somehow they lose none of their potency, despite knowing that the lead character can’t be killed.
James: Yeah, I think his willingness to go in both familiar and unexpected directions in his stories really lends itself to prequels. All his texts are steeped in lore and history, so his narratives end up working really well as a prequels.
I also wanted to touch on how well Stenbeck carries the various moods of the text. His fights feel tactile, the emotions are palpable, even the plain white arctic environment is a visual treat. He really instills every scene with a sense of arctic hypothermia and every campfire with a warm radiance. It’s all very small stuff but it goes a long way. I guess, none of the art is mindblowing or anything, but it has more gravity and restraint than he’s ever done before and that goes a very long way here.
Mark: There’s an understated quality that I think comes from Stenbeck’s story-focused approach to storytelling. It’s not showy in a way that calls attention to itself, and when it is showy, it stems so naturally from the story that readers tend to feel it rather than consciously register it.
Maybe this is just me, but it seems Stenbeck’s art loosens up a little more with each new project, resulting in more expressive figures. I couldn’t help but see it in this issue as Frankenstein meets Mr. Demmings’ expedition. Most of these men don’t have dialogue, but Stenbeck gets the most out of them by making them visually distinct in their body language, even though they’re all buried in heavy clothes.Continued below
Mark: I hadn’t noticed that and now I can’t unsee it!
I have to call attention to Brennan Wagner’s colors in this series, because there’s a lot going on. Scene color matters. In the previous issue, when Frankenstein meets the bears, the blues are saturated with golden highlights. He makes the scene welcoming. When the bears encounter violence, the saturation drains away, making the environment take on a colder, unwelcoming quality.
We see this language continue into the second issue when Frankenstein encounters the wolf. Then look at when Frankenstein encounters the Demmings expedition and everything shifts to green. Right away we know there’s something wrong here.
Then we meet Demmings, and notice the dramatic color shift. Wagner is using the sunset to motivate this color change, but what really anchors it is Mr. Demmings’ clothes—they match the color scheme Wagner’s using. This is his scene, these colors are connected to him. But we’ve seen these colors before… in the opening of the issue, with the premonition of violence, with the in-fighting between men. Wagner is connecting these two moments to tell us about Demmings and what he represents.
James: Yeah, I feel like I really noticed his work most in the warm reds of the sunset and the campfire onboard Captain Godfrey’s ship, as well as that classic Lovecraftian lime green when they unearth the Ogdru Hem.
I like that idea of foreshadowing through color. It’s something subtle that really streamlines the piece and helps pin it to those familiar Mignolaverse tropes.
Mark: Bringing it back to something you mentioned earlier, about Raf’s calm acceptance of Frankenstein as a positive moment, Wagner’s colors echo this. That scene has shifted back to saturated blues accented with warm highlights, the same language he used when Frankenstein met the bears.
I mean, c’mon, these colors are fantastic. And that’s not even pointing out the little things, like the way everyone’s extremities are always pink, so that we never forget how cold they all are. And of course, Stenbeck always remembers to add puffs of air whenever anyone’s talking. It’s this sort of attention that makes the world so vividly believable.
James: Yeah, I think we’re looking at a creative team who are not only masters of what they’re doing individually, but also near their most cohesive. Their ability to create tone, allusion and distance through the minor touches in their work is something you hardly ever get to see. It reminds me why I love the collaborative nature of comics and I can’t wait to see where it all leads. Mignola, Allie, Stenbeck, Wagner and Robins have made a really magnetic story here.
Mark: I think it’s fair to say I loved this issue. I’m giving it a 9.5. And weirdly, I think it’s a story that benefited from the time gulf between issues #1 and #2. Somehow, living with the idea that Arobas was alive for longer, made it all the more powerful when suddenly he wasn’t. And somehow, Frankenstein’s loneliness spoke to me that much more. It’s a comic that seems extremely timely.
James: This really was a near-perfect way to end the comic drought, wasn’t it? I’m going to give it a 9. It’s insane that this issue can end with Frankenstein about to 1v1 an Ogdru Hem and yet I’m more excited to see how this book handles its literary allusion. What an amazing prequel and what a perfect continuation of Shelley’s seminal work.
Final verdict: 9.25 – “Frankenstein Undone” sits between a classic piece of the literature canon and one of Mignola’s best comics, and yet somehow it isn’t dwarfed by either.