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Graphic Novel Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Adapted by Lloyd S. Wagner and Naresh Kumar

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Campfire Graphic Novels’ Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a part of their Classic Tales series which aims to “adapt timeless literature from some of the greatest writers” to implement at least one part of their declared mission “to entertain and educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books to recount stories of human values.” While some may argue that Mary Shelley may not qualify as one of the world’s greatest writers, there can be little disagreement about the timelessness of her most famous novel. Her story of one man’s obsessive quest to create something beneficial to mankind and how it gets completely out of hand has become a staple of modern mythology. This is indeed the “modern Prometheus.”

The Frankenstein monster is a quite familiar icon today. It graces cereal boxes and does a song and dance routine in a motion picture. Under an assumed name, it has its own family of friendly fiends in televised reruns. It has appeared on the big screen in incarnations too numerous to count. Its voice is recognizable singing the campy “Monster Mash.” Yet for the most part, this iconic image has little to do with the fiction created by Mary Shelley. The image most of us have comes from the first of the Frankenstein motion pictures, the one created by James Whale back in 1931, and unfortunately that image has little to do with the monster in Mary Shelley’s book. In fact the movie itself has little to do with Shelley’s book. As with many cinematic adaptations, Whale’s movie tends to see the details of the novel as annoyances to be ignored.

On the other hand perhaps the greatest virtue of this Campfire edition is the faithfulness of Lloyd S. Wagner’s adaptation. There is little question that this is indeed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It keeps her basic story within a story structure. Robert Walton is on his boat in the Arctic ready to hear Victor Frankenstein’s story and he is there to see how it ends. The murder of William Frankenstein and the failure to save the wrongly accused Justine Moritz is retained, as is the creation and destruction of a mate for the monster on the Orkney Islands. Victor’s arrest and release for the murder of Henry Clerval is included. In fact, much of the narrative text seems to be taken right out of the novel. It reads as if she could have written it. This is Shelley’s story, and it is told clearly with all the important elements intact.

Naresh Kumar’s illustrations have a rough edge of passion that complements the story’s elemental struggles. They are as dark as the world they depict. Every once in awhile there is a bright spot of candle light, but rarely any bright sunlight. Faces are highlighted with dashes of black that at times seem symbols of the weight of the world. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between characters, they all seem right in the context of the world of the novel. The monster especially comes a lot closer to the description that Mary Shelley gives of him, a description that is fairly well echoed in the adaptation, than does the creature played by Boris Karloff. In general, the illustrations do justice to the general tone of the novel.

Included in the book is a short introduction to Mary Shelley that talks about her father’s influence as well as her relationship with her husband. Since the book is intended for young audiences, it doesn’t go into her father’s ideas about marriage or the fact that when she and Shelley ran off, he was already married to someone else. It also doesn’t mention the famous story about the how the novel was begun as a kind of competition between Mary, Percy, Byron and Polidori when they were confined indoors by bad weather, a story young readers might well find interesting. There is a section called “Crypt Capers” at the end of the book. This provides information on a variety of subjects related to the subject matter of the novel. In the form of a series of questions and answers, it deals with things like body-snatching, the resurrectionists, and mortsafes.

The idea of introducing young readers to great literature through graphic adaptations is not new. I can remember many, many years ago, the collection of “Classic Comics” stacked up in a bookcase not far from my bed. It was in those comics that I first encountered James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe. It was in those comics that I learned the joys to be found in the wonderful stories that I wasn’t quite ready to read on my own yet. If this adaptation of Frankenstein is representative of what they can do, Campfire Graphic Novels can certainly provide the same kind of impetus for today’s youth.

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