REVIEW – Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1

Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man #1 was one of the biggest surprises of the New 52 last week.  Despite seeming to drift along relatively under the radar, especially compared to some of the heavy hitters released on the same day, Animal Man emerged as one of the biggest critical hits of the bunch, quickly followed by reports of the comic selling out and heading to a second printing.  Even I, a big fan of Lemire’s work, was surprised at just how great the comic was.  All of a sudden, Lemire’s other New 52 comic, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., up until another comic that seemed to be floating by under the radar, has become subject to a lot more attention, and greater expectations.  Can Lemire surprise us two weeks running?

Once more, the writing is top notch.  Grant Morrison’s revival of the character in Seven Soldiers of Victory set a high standard for inspired lunacy that Jeff Lemire capably lives up to.  There is barely a page that doesn’t introduce some ingenious new idea or some gloriously ridiculous new high concept.  Much of these come from S.H.A.D.E., which is presented as S.H.I.E.L.D. taken to an absurdist extreme.  Instead of a helicarrier, we get a 3 inch snow globe that zips around the skies, which agents can only gain access to via a combination of teleportation and Ray “The Atom” Palmer’s shrink-ray technology.  And the gruff, grizzled Nick Fury type character Father Time comes in the guise of a Japanese schoolgirl.

This is a comic where variations on all the classic Universal monsters team up to fight other monsters, and it’s about as fun as that elevator pitch sounds.  The introduction of the ensemble isn’t quite as seamless as what we got in Demon Knights (perhaps part of the problem is this is a cast Lemire already introduced to us a couple of months ago in the Flashpoint universe in the Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown miniseries) but we do get the broad strokes of their powers and personalities.

But Lemire’s ace in the hole remains the central figure of Frankenstein himself.  While he is the perennial straightman that plays off showier characters with funnier lines, his deadpan approach offers plenty of its own laughs.  As he gets ready to go to work slaying monsters, grumbling about his vacation on Mars being cut short, you get the sense that this is someone who approaches his dangerous missions with the mindset of it being like any other day job.  And while he gets to kick ass with his giant sword (sadly, no moment quite as awesome as his slaying of Hitler from Creatures of the Unknown), his poetry-spouting, chivalrous ways suggest that deep down he’s a gentle soul.

Sadly, I wasn’t in love with the art.  Here, we find a dynamic that is the opposite of Batwoman, where I thought the art was amazing, but the story didn’t quite live up to it.  I said last week that Travel Foreman’s art on Animal Man wasn’t to everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it, and I respected the attempt to strive for a style that looked distinct from standard superhero fare.  I have a similar respect for the work of Alberto Ponticelli – it’s much more striking than the competent but more conventional work of Ibraim Roberson in Creatures of the Unknown – but his sketchy, messy style took some getting used to.  I think a big problem is that Doug Mahnke’s art in the original Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein miniseries was so definitive a take on the character that any different approach is just hard to warm to.

However, by the time the first issue was nearing its end, I did find myself getting used to the art, and seeming some charm in it.  I think if I’d read an indy comic with this art I’d have been impressed, and the problem lies more with me getting my head around a style like this showing up in a DC book.  I think it actually looks somewhat like what the comic would have looked like if Lemire himself had drawn it.  Ponticelli’s style does bear certain parallels, from the figures with lumpy body shapes and expressive faces to locations that range from the obsessively detailed to the dramatically sparse and symbolic.

If anything, it might be the color that lets the visuals down rather than Ponticelli’s linework.  I’m a big fan of Jose Villarrubia’s coloring on Sweet Tooth, but here I was less impressed.  For a book that’s so big and lively, the color is strangely subdued.  And with the locations and some of the monsters, Villarrubia seems to rely too heavily on wash techniques that mute out any sense of texture, and leaving the creatures looking like those old monotone Monsters in my Pocket toys.

So, as an overall package, I wouldn’t say the first issue of Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. quite matches the debut chapter of Animal Man.  But this is still a quality comic, and another strong addition to the DC Dark stable.  I love comics that are jampacked full of the kind of ideas you can really only get away with in comics, and this is one of those.

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