DC Comics has taken its lumps lately (deservedly so) for changing its logo and pursuing prequels to the sacred text that is Watchmen, but I thought I’d step back and talk about DC is a positive light for a change. The New 52 project – in which DC relaunched virtually the entire line with new issue No. 1s – has proven to be mostly a success, in the sense that a lot of the books are interesting again. So I’ve picked out one that I like to start the discussion: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
S.H.A.D.E. stands for the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive, and it is a government agency changed with dealing with weird stuff in the DC Universe – so far, that means fighting a lot of monsters. The organization is run by Father Time, with the help of science adviser Ray Palmer (who may or may not be the Atom in this continuity). In a brilliant bit of inventiveness, Palmer miniaturized the S.H.A.D.E. headquarters, which presumably makes it more difficult to find – and damn hard to attack!
The agents of S.H.A.D.E. are:
Frankenstein: The creature forged out of dead body parts by the good doctor long ago, the monster survived the events of Mary Shelley‘s novel and came to America, where he adopted his creator’s name. He has amazing superstrength, and since he’s already dead, he cannot be killed.
Bride: The being created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the creature’s mate in the movie Bride of Frankenstein. She now has four arms, and claims she never loved Frankenstein!
Vincent Velcoro: A vampire, Vincent uses a hybrid bat-form to fly.
Ward Griffith: A blood-thristywerewolf.
Khalis: He’s a mummy, but his abilities are unknown. He demonstrated an amazing power to destroy and entire continent full of monsters – but how he did it without harming his fellow Commandos is a mystery. He is disinclined to talk (if he even has the ability).
Dr. Nina Mazursky: Presumably the daughter of the original Prof. Mazursky who created the original Commandos. Nina is responsible for creating Velcoro, Griffith and Khalis, using military volunteers. She mutated herself into a “mermaid” form.
In the opening storyline, S.H.A.D.E. protects the Earth from an invasion by the inhabitants of a world from another dimension: monsters! And that means a war of the monsters, pitting “our” monsters against “theirs.” Luckily, our side seems to be more sentient. Also, luckily for the reader, this basic storyline gives the characters a chance to simply cut loose; it’s monster mayhem like you’ve rarely seen. Writer Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth) and artist Alberto Ponticelli go crazy with the action, pitting Frankenstein and crew against spider-like aliens in one issue, then ogres in the next, as the Creature Commandos battle their way across an entire extra-dimensional planet, killing everything in their path. (I love how Velcoro uses a big gun to kill monsters from on high rather than swooping in to get his claws dirty!) The entire series so far has been steeped in creature ichor and otherworldly gore – all in good fun, as the alien monsters are mindless hordes of cannon fodder controlled sentient giants.
Lemire’s script slips in subtle characterization amid the chaos, allowing us to gradually get to know the new characters. The banter between Griffith and Velcoro is great fun. The plot is bare-bones, but I think that served the purpose of letting the characters stand out rather than serve a complicated story. Ponticelli’s artwork is perfect for this series: He excels at creating hideous creatures, and despite his scratchy, loose style, he doesn’t shy away from drawing lots and lots (and lots more) of monsters to fill panels to overflowing. After all, in some cases he was supposed to be depicting an entire continent filled with arachnid monsters!
It’s easy to find fault with some of the goings-on: Frankenstein’s insistence on using a sword underwater is completely ridiculous, but amplifies the “anything goes” vibe of the series. OK, so Frank is really (really) strong and can overcome the water resistance to swing his blade fast enough to cut through tough monster hide. Hrrn, perhaps the sword really did belong to the Archangel Michael?
The “War of the Monsters” story was barely over before Frankenstein was thrown into conflict with the new O.M.A.C. in a two-issue crossover (war of the acronyms?) that was pretty much one long fistfight between the two high-powered characters that really showcased how tough Frankenstein is. Yes, events are unfolding at a breakneck pace, but I think that just adds to the fun.
Even though the book is basically a straight rip-off homage to Dark Horse Comics’ Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense), I can’t help but enjoy FAOS, because the title is just pure fun. It’s exactly the sort of thing I would have enjoyed as a 10-year-old. It’s grim, but also…well, fun.
Hrrn, how many times have I used the word fun in this review? That should tell you something…