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A review a day: Frankenstein’s Womb

It’s Warren Ellis doing his Warren Ellis thing! Did you think I wasn’t going to review the crap out of this?

Ellis seems to crank out one of these “graphic novellas” from Avatar once a year, which is nice. Two years ago it was Crécy, last year it was Aetheric Mechanics, and now we get Frankenstein’s Womb, drawn by Marek Oleksicki (who got the shaft on the cover, didn’t he?). It costs a mere $6.99!

In terms of quality, this falls somewhere between Crécy and Aetheric Mechanics, as it’s better than the former but not as good as the latter. It’s Ellis channeling Alan Moore in parts of From Hell or, if you prefer, a monstrous version of Mindwalk, as he writes a treatise on immortality, godhood, and the creation of the future. These themes, especially the last one, are pet topics of the Great Grumpy Bastard, but he rarely cuts loose so philosophically to expound on these themes so baldly. In Frankenstein’s Womb, he gives us Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin talking to the famous monster of her story (or does she?) about these topics, and that’s it. Don’t expect a plot! Don’t expect action! Don’t even expect scares, even though this is ostensibly a ghost story. It’s … philosophy!

That doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. I just don’t want you thinking this is some kind of horror comic. The premise is thus: in 1816, Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin, her soon-to-be husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her pregnant stepsister Claire Claremont went to visit George Gordon, Lord Byron in Switzerland. Anyone who endured Ken Russell’s Gothic knows this story. Ellis focuses on their journey through Germany, where they stop at a creepy castle, appropriately named “Frankenstein.” Mary is drawn to the castle, and she leaves Shelley and Claremont in the carriage and has a look around. She meets a strange, sewn-together man who takes her on a tour. He shows her Johann Dippel, who lived in the castle over a century earlier and attempted to find the philosopher’s stone and from there create life. He eventually succeeded, creating the guide that is now leading Mary through the castle.

The monster and Mary discuss Dippel’s experiments and springboard to a journey through time and space in which the monster links alchemy to science and shows Mary how the “miracles” of her age become the regular medical practices of our day. In this way, he claims Mary, who will write the monster into existence, as the mother of the modern age. It’s a nice Möbius strip of a comic, looping around the ideas of immortality, creation, love, hatred, and the legacy of what we leave behind. Mary achieves immortality, as do Shelley and Byron. But at what price? Ellis doesn’t make this too obvious, but it’s there.

Frankenstein’s Womb is an interesting rumination on these themes, mainly because it feels tragic but it’s not necessarily. Mary learns about her future, to her regret, but she also learns about her past and where she came from and the depth of feeling around her. She finds it difficult to hate when she is so overwhelmed by love. Ellis has written about this before, but he’s good at it, and in just a few pages, he gives Mary a very nice relationship with the monster. There’s certainly a vague sense of sadness, but it’s the sadness of creation, of giving something up because it’s time to let it go.

Ellis continues to find great artists to work with, as Oleksicki brings this gothic world to gorgeous life. His monster is strangely reminiscent of an Image superhero from the 1990s, but he also gives him a stoic vibe that allows him to speak with authority to Mary. Frankenstein’s castle is a gothic pile, but Oleksicki makes it oddly comforting, like the womb of the title. When the book shifts to our present, Oleksicki does a good job contrasting it to Mary and the monster, who feel out of place in it. And then we get a scene on a beach, and there’s a tremendous sense of power in it. There’s a sense of dread hanging over the book, due mostly to Oleksicki’s art, and it contrasts nicely with Ellis’s script, which seems like it will be about dread but isn’t. Oleksicki follows this trend, too, as his art gradually becomes more hopeful. It’s quite beautiful.

Frankenstein’s Womb is more meditative than we usually see from Ellis, but that’s fine. Although there’s a lot in here that we’ve seen before from him, when he really gets going with this philosophical bent, he can really put a story together. This book sings with promises of glory, and Ellis writes beautiful dialogue that almost makes you believe that this event actually happened. Ellis might be a Grumpy Bastard, but his best work pulses with hope that humans can make this world wonderful. There’s a great deal of sadness in Frankenstein’s Womb, but there’s also a lot of joy. I want to warn you again that there’s not really a plot in this book, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. Don’t you want to read some different stuff every so often?

Tomorrow at noon: A serial killer! How fun!

5 Comments

This was a spectacular read. It reminded me a bit of the second (I think) arc of The Invisibles, but written much better and much more tightly. (Likely only reminded me because of the characters and themes).

And the art was just spectacular.

I agree with this review completely. It’s both like and unlike Ellis — reminded me a lot of From Hell, particularly the chapter where Gull travels around London. It almost reads like Ellis had a bunch of notes that he’d compiled over the years and decided to throw together with one unifying ‘story,’ and it works.

I really enjoyed this book as well. Great review.

Yeah, I really dug this. Ellis loves pulling together weird connections that may or may not exist– evidenced by his Do Anything column– and this is that, in graphic novella form. A great little work.

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while… I love Ellis’s work at Avatar. Various genres and styles, but all brilliant!

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