Screamland #1, March 2008, Image Comics
writer: Harold Sipe
artist: Hector Casanova
Blogger’s note: Entry for Tuesday, March 25, 2008.
I was just talking to a friend of mine about visiting Universal Studios later this spring before I read Screamland #1 which happens to star some of those classic Universal monsters -- you know, Frankenstein, the wolf man, the mummy. Sure, I’m as excited as the next geek for the new Simpsons ride opening at Universal this year, but the likes of those old creature features are what put that park, heck, that whole name brand, on the map. Rides and attractions will come and go, but nothing can touch the foundation of those monsters’ timelessness. They evoke a primal fear and fascination that’s as universal as the name of their native theme park.
Specifically, Frankenstein himself has risen to significant notoriety in comics lately. He’s one of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers at DC Comics, and he’s a tragic, super-smart secret agent in the hands of the Warchowski Brothers over at their Burlyman Entertainment. I have an issue of the simply titled Frank in the wings for review later this year, probably around Halloween time, with no doubt that other comic book appearances will pop up between now and December. Like Bigfoot, Frankenstein’s monster is one of those characters in the public domain to which I don’t mind dedicating a few days’ worth of analysis. Obviously, something about him has gripped writers to utilize and decompress him over and over again.
I see Frankenstein (who, as we all know, is actually Frankenstein’s monster, but suffering from paternal identity issues is really the least of his problems, so pardon the misnomer) as the epitome of two of mankind’s inherent insecurities, hence his timeless appeal: he represents our fear of death, and our fear of rejection. Ironically, this gruesomely stitched outcast should be mankind’s hero -- living proof that death might not be the end of us, if we’re willing to swap body parts and subject our mish-mashed corpses to a few bolts of lightning. Yet that frightening vision of our potentially undead future is abhorrent enough to reject even the hope of everlasting life; in other words, we’d rather live finitely in a body that assures social acceptance than embrace a longer existence as an ugly monster. If only we realized that everyone would look as repulsive if society as a whole embraced Dr. Frankenstein’s option . . . or, at least, if you don’t light as many torches, that our ugliness would be harder to see.
So, what does Screamland do for Frankenstein that hasn’t been done before? In this incarnation, Frank and his fellow monsters are has-been actors, perhaps presuming that their heyday was in the ‘50s when Universal’s creature features were more groundbreaking than the blood-‘n-gore fests that pass as horror films today. Indeed, against today’s computerized special effects, what hope does a natural, not to mention elderly monster have for getting work? Fortunately, Frank has a good agent, and while he considers rejecting the offer of starring as the hunted monster yet again, he accepts the all-or-none project for the sake of his peers’ careers. The underlying tone that these monsters are in dire need of a new image is a reflection of this issue itself, and its quirky interpretation of Frankenstein monster as a has-been from a washed up Hollywood of yesterday.
Of course, a more realistic project for such a pseudo-celebrity would be their own VH1 reality show -- something along the lines of Monster of Love, or The Real World: Transylvania, but I digress . . .
I enjoyed this issue’s opening sequences, establishing Frankenstein as an embittered old actor, but I found a few of its devices too gimmicky to be considered as legitimate pivots of character development, specifically, when Frankenstein and the Wolf Man are working on a porno flick, and when the director dresses Frankie up in a dress after the women hastily quit. The gag plays about two pages too long. Further, the climatic scene in Frankenstein’s agent’s office consumes the latter half of this issue and essentially suffers from talking heads syndrome. Dracula (dubbed “the Count” here) makes a sudden, dramatic appearance, but overall I actually got bored with the monotony of the office setting. Matt Fraction praised Screamland as “brilliantly hilarious and hilariously brutal,” according to the quote on this issue’s cover. I’ll agree with that last part, but not in the way he intended, I’m sure.
Artistically, Hector Casanova (cool name) makes strides that dance just this side of Ben Templesmith. His watercolor Los Angeles reminded me of Phil Noto’s apocalyptic interpretation in Black Bull’s The New West, and I liked the parallel between these blended, washed out colors and the drunken, washed-uppedness of this issue’s lead character. The next issue blurb implies that the following installment of this story will focus more on the Mummy, and if that’s the case, I wonder if the art style will adapt accordingly. If the story retains the slow pace of its characters’ careers, the art may be my only incentive to continue with Screamland. Otherwise, like the Mummy, I’ll call it a wrap.
Still, you can’t go wrong with Frankenstein’s monster, if you remember those classic themes I discussed earlier. Writer Harold Sipe maintains a stroke of conceptual genius by reinterpreting the universal fear of death as a former celebrity’s desperate attempts to keep his career alive. Also, what more terrible form of rejection is there than actually once tasting fame and then forever being denied it afterward? At least when the villagers chased Frankenstein’s monster out of town with pitchforks, they didn’t invite him to dinner first. Perhaps the lesson here is that Frankenstein and his peers aren’t the real monsters, after all. Yes, the Universal Studios back lot is undoubtedly full of slimy, scary agents, too.