Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
“War of the Monsters, Pt. 1: Monster Town, USA!”
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Alberto Ponticelli
Colors: Jose Villarrubia
Letters: Pat Brosseau
Cover artist: J.G. Jones
Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US
I really didn’t know what to expect from this new series. Writer Jeff Lemire was responsible for the much-praised Animal Man, which has definitely earned its reputation as the critical darling of the New 52 thus far. However, he also penned the three-part Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos mini-series, which turned out to be little more than standard genre storytelling fare — competent but ultimately forgettable. Lemire has made it clear he’s a strong writer with many projects, not just Animal Man, but this new series features the same characters as his contribution to the Flashpoint event brand. I’m pleased to say this is stronger than what he had to offer with his previous Frankenstein limited series, but it’s not nearly as compelling and experimental as Animal Man. Agent of S.H.A.D.E. isn’t a home run, but it’s a decent base hit. There are some fun ideas scattered about this story, and Alberto Ponticelli’s style was a great choice for the macabre, surreal science-fiction elements that come together to construct the weird world in which Frankenstein and his allies exist.
The Super Human Advanced Defense Executive is a powerful and apparently well-funded government agency led by a mysterious, immortal figure named Father Time that polices the world and deals with threats of an extra-human nature. In other words, it sends agents out to fight monsters and plump the depths of the unknown. S.H.A.D.E.’s top agent is Frankenstein, a powerful figure made up of the parts of dead men, and his strength, resourcefulness and skill in combat are without equal. He normally works alone, but when a small town in Washington state is overrun by unimaginable monsters, Father Time teams Frankenstein with a new squad of superhuman operatives, dubbed the Creature Commandos.
Ponticelli’s twisted, gritty style suits the characters well. Now, his designs for the hordes of monsters overrunning an American town are loose, generic but appropriately weird and horrific so as to make the point. But his work with the monsters that serve as the protagonists in this story are another thing. I love the misshapen, almost clay-like look of the title character’s face, and the almost haphazard design of the S.H.A.D.E. miniaturized headquarters city mirrors the title character in that it looks almost like a random assemblage of parts. It’s dark and dirty, reinforcing the dangerous tone it’s meant to project. Jose Villarrubia’s colors reinforce the filthy, rotten atmosphere, and the muted tones he employs later in the issue continue to cast an appropriate pall over the entire story. Of course, it’s Father Time who may be the most corrupt, callous character in the book, and in contrast, he boasts the cleanest, least threatening look of every element in the book.
Speaking of Father Time, the body in which Lemire has placed him makes for a fantastic and entertaining contrast. It’s a testament to the strength of Lemire’s dialogue that Time’s arrogance and determination come shining through despite the cute, diminutive form “he” inhabits. And I love the domino mask, a campy cherry on the top of a weird pop-culture sundae. Furthermore, the mask demonstrates Tim’s hypocrisy. He’s got an issue with super-heroes, yet he wears a mask in an effort to be counted among their number. Mind you, I’m not sure why Father Time is uncomfortable with the likes of Superman and Batman when he seems to have no issue with Frankenstein or the other monster men of S.H.A.D.E. What, only good-looking heroes aren’t to be trusted? I hope this disconnect is addressed in future issues.
The main plot isn’t all that interesting; essentially, we’re presented with the setup for and beginning of a big fight between Frank (and company) and a bunch of generic monsters. I’m hoping the town will end up having some sort of dark secret that will spice the plot up a bit, but then again, such a twist isn’t all that innovative either. What make this comic book fun to read are the ancillary story elements — they’re the more entertaining and fun bits. Father Time as little girl. A city made up of mad scientists’ creations. A slave race of disposable robot people. A place of power that’s been shrunk down to fit inside a three-inch, flying metallic orb. The Ant Farm, S.H.A.D.E.’s base of operations, offers much more interesting conflicts, and I’d be more interested in seeing the characters spending more time there. Obviously, things are going to go horribly wrong there, and those are the situations I’d rather be reading about. The Ant Farm strikes me as being something of a worthy successor to the late Jack Kirby’s Project: Cadmus when it comes to weird settings in which to set a super-hero story.
The biggest challenge this series faces is its connection to the DC Universe, and specifically, the world of the New 52. DC has made it clear Superman was the first hero to appear in this continuity, but this series posits Frankenstein has been active as a colorful adventurer and opponent to oddball evildoers for decades. Lemire has also incorporated a B-list DC icon — the Atom — into the supporting cast of this title, which further reinforces the connection to DC’s more conventional heroes. In a world that includes the Department of Extranormal Operations (see Batwoman) and Stormwatch, where does S.H.A.D.E. fit in? I think this property works better in its own little corner of the world, and I hope Lemire keeps some distance between the rest of the New 52 and Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.. 7/10
Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.