Like a lot of horror fans, I’ve long held a fondness for stories that find a way to utilize a variety of iconic monsters, and that give them a semi-believable mythology. There aren’t many though. And for every Nightmare Before Christmas there’s more than a few Van Helsings. That’s part of what I find so compelling about Mark Wheatley’s comic book Frankenstein Mobster (the complete series of which is collected this month in a stunningly beautiful new trade paperback from IDW). Wheatley creates a reason for mummies, medusas and the book’s titular monster to co-exist. Moreover, he does so in such a clever way you wonder why no one did it before.
Monstros City is a town filled with two types of outsiders – gangsters and supernatural creatures. The latter is a stand-in for any group who, in real life, fled the old world for the promise of the new; before discovering that in order to make their fortune they must fight a constant war against intolerance and injustice. In the case of this book’s monsters, they have it as worse as one can imagine, since their very appearance is synonymous with fear. Enter Terri Todd: the daughter of one of the few good cops to prowl the mean streets of Monstros. She’s looking not only to follow in her dad’s footsteps, but to fill his shoes on the police force as well. She even finds herself paired with the partner her father left behind. His name is Janus, and he himself is a monster, one cursed with a variation of lycanthropy under which he must periodically metamorphose into a lion.
It’s not long before Terri and Janus discover that the mob threatening all residents of their city – human and monster alike – has ties that reach considerably higher than the underworld. To complicate matters, there’s a new monster in town. One whose allegiance is uncertain, as he’s created from three dead mobsters and one slain police officer...
Writer-artist Mark Wheatley has explored the horror genre before – in comics like Blood of the Innocent (his saga of Dracula and Jack the Ripper) and Breathtaker (his award-winning Vertigo mini-series about a modern-day succubus). But Frankenstein Mobster is, on several levels, even more satisfying than those works. For one thing, Wheatley is working alone here (both Blood and Breathtaker saw him paired with frequent collaborator Marc Hempel). He writes, draws, letters, designs the book, and provides some jaw-droppingly gorgeous colors. It’s astounding that, in an age when obnoxious, overblown coloring has become the norm on so many comics, Wheatley finds a way to create, in his computer, a palette both strong and subtle, as modern as the latest superhero saga and as classic as your favorite childhood storybook.
Wheatley also flew solo on Radical Dreamer, one of his most personal projects. And one gets the sense he considers Frankenstein Mobster equally personal. There’s a feeling of love that permeates every page of this book – a love of monsters, of old Warner Brothers crime movies, of storytelling in general and of the potential of comics in particular. One can see plenty of inspiration from the work of Will Eisner (and rightly so, since Eisner’s one of the three most significant creators in American comics history), but Wheatley’s smart enough to follow his own muse, no matter which crazy backstreet it leads him down. With Frankenstein Mobster, he unveils such inspired creations as a cab-driving, smart-ass mummy named Ozmed, an erudite sea monster named Fang Goom, and a colossal, climactic menace, the details of which I won’t spoil for you, save to say it suggests a collaborative fever dream of Guillermo Del Toro and Gustave Dore.
But again, Wheatley’s visions are his own. And his style – bold, rambunctious cartooning that propels his story at an appropriately breakneck pace – is unique. In fact it’s unmistakable for any other contemporary comic artist.
For this collected edition, Wheatley provides an in-depth essay on how he constructed his "made man," and went about telling his introductory story. He also offers a generous helping of eye-popping pin-ups by some of the greatest horror artists in history; among them Alex Nino, Angelo Torres and Bernie Wrightson. The pin-ups, like the rest of the book, are printed on some wonderfully heavy matte paper, which, along with its content, should help make this brick of a book (as rugged in its way as 'Frankie' himself) a frontrunner for this year’s Eisner Awards for 'Best Graphic Album – Reprint' and 'Best Publication Design.'
I await volume 2 of the Mobster’s story. And I hope the inevitable Hollywood interest doesn’t slow down its arrival. For it’s easy to see this tale on the big screen, the iconic monster running not from the flames of villagers’ torches, but by the fire of narrative energy that Wheatley so skillfully employs here.