Tag Archives: Frankenstein

Halloween Horrors: Pre-Code Reprints Rule! Briefer’s Frankenstein from IDW

We’re in an age of amazing reprint volumes resurrecting all genres of comics history—but this is the last week in October, so it’s time to carve out some space for two of the latest Pre-Code horror comicbook collections!

And who better to begin with than…


Comics archivist/scholar/historian/collector/editor Craig Yoe has been behind some of the most invigorating of the new collections of ancient work, including George Herriman’s Krazy + Ignatz “Tiger Tea,” The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Komics, Felix the Cat: The Great Comic Book Tails, Dan DeCarlo’s Jetta, The Art of Ditko, and two recently reviewed here on the Schulz Library Blog,

  • Boody: The Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers
  • and The Complete Milt Gross: Comics Books and Life Story.
  • True to his love of vintage comics creators who embrace both the bizarre and the bawdy, Yoe‘s 2010 Halloween seasonal release this month offers a definitive collection of the one Pre-Code horror comic that schizophrenically shifted between the hilarious and the horrific: Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein!

    As Yoe details in this new volume’s excellent (and heavily illustrated) introduction, Briefer (1915-1980) attended classes in the late 1930s under Robert Brackman at New York City’s famed Art Students League before starting his comicbook career laboring in the Will Eisner/Jerry Iger sweatshop. Among Briefer’s earliest creations were an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (for Jumbo Comics; Yoe offers a reproduction of the first installment’s splash page), space heroes Rex Dexter (for Mystery Men Comics) and Crash Parker (Planet Comics), “The Pirate Prince” (for Silver Streak and Daredevil), Yankee Longago (Boy Comics), Biff Bannon (Speed Comics), and superheroes like Dynamo, Real American #1 (yep, that was his name!), Target and the Targeteers, and the Human Top, among others.

    Like many Golden Age creators, Briefer was incredibly prolific (at the meager page rates available, the only way to keep a roof overhead and food on the table was to grind out pages as quickly as possible) and worked under a variety of nom de plumes as well as his own name. Among the pseudonymous strips some comics scholars attribute to Briefer were the adventures of Communist hero Pinky Rankin for The Daily Worker (a stint that may or may not have been Briefer’s work, and may or may not have landed Briefer on McCarthy era blacklists).

    Briefer‘s claim to fame, however, was and remains his innovative horror comic series “The New Adventures of Frankenstein,” which debuted in Prize Comics #7 (cover dated December 1940, meaning it hit the racks in the fall of that year). Briefer did everything—script, lettering, pencils, inks—on this new feature for the Crestwood Publishing Company (aka Feature Publication and Prize Comics), which may have been the first contemporary spin on Mary Shelley‘s venerable 1818 source novel.

    The catalyst for Briefer’s resurrection of Shelley’s immortal monster was arguably the 1939 Universal Pictures re-release of the two feature films that launched their beloved 1930s horror cycle, Tod Browning‘s Dracula (1930) and James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931). Universal had abandoned the genre by the mid-1930s, due in part to the loss of the entire British (and British colonies) market, where horror films were proving less and less marketable since the British censors had instituted the dreaded ‘H’ certificate. By the end of the decade, Universal’s fortunes had dwindled, and the surprise success of a regional “midnight movie” showing of the Dracula/Frankenstein double-feature prompted Universal to roll the double-bill out nationally and to rekindle their horror line with the production of an all-new Frankenstein entry, Rowland V. Lee‘s Son of Frankenstein (1939). It was a smash hit, saving Universal’s fortunes and kicking off a whole new horror movie cycle that lasted into the mid-1940s (ending with Universal’s parody Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948).

  • National Periodicals (aka DC Comics) featured an unusual photo roman (aka photo fumetti) adaptation of Son of Frankenstein in the debut issue of Movie Comics that same year (for more, and to read the complete eight-page “Son of Frankenstein” comic story, click this link for the first of four installments at Myrant).
  • Whether Briefer was directly or indirectly inspired to launch his own Frankenstein comic series by the revival of the Universal monster movie series and/or the Movie Comics adaptation, who can say? The fact is, those were the most direct precursors to Briefer’s series, which took the public’s conflation of the creator (Frankenstein) and his monster (Frankenstein’s monster) as a given—the monster was Frankenstein in name—and ran with it. Briefer took the public’s identification of the monster with its creator one step further, signing the original installments “by Frank N. Stein.”

    “I had a hard time convincing the publisher that [Shelley’s Frankenstein] was in public domain,” Briefer told interviewer Howard Leroy Davis, but it was, and Briefer thrust the monster into a new life with Prize Comics #7’s revisionist take on the monster’s birth. Beginning as an apparent Gothic, Briefer depicted Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s construction of the monster from “the dead bodies of scores of men” in an efficient single page; by page three, the monster was on the loose, and by page five (“one fine day at the zoo…”), 1939 readers were begin to fathom that this resurrection had somehow taken place in then-modern-day America! Briefer had his monster escaping the zoo on an elephant, terrorizing the Big Apple, climbing the Statue of Liberty and sparing the life of his creator as an act of revenge:

    “I spared you to live—to live in misery also—to watch and see the suffering and grief that I, your creation, will cause the human race!”

    And so it began! Briefer’s original series was indeed a straight horror-adventure comic, the first of its kind in American comics history (seven to eight years before the first horror anthology comics surfaced with Avon’s 1947 one-shot Eerie #1 and American Comic Group’s long-lasting periodical Adventures Into the Unknown, which debuted in 1948). Craig Yoe offers the first three installments of Briefer’s initial series (pp. 21-44 of the collection)—which includes the monster’s one-on-one urban battle with a crocodile man—whetting one’s appetite for a complete reprint collection of the entire Briefer original series.

    Briefer’s revamp of the monster’s design emulated some aspects of Universal makeup genius Jack Pierce‘s original ‘look’ for actor Boris Karloff‘s movie incarnation of the monster: the squared-off skull, the ragged sutures across the forehead, the cadaverous pallor and sunken cheeks. But Briefer skirted any legal claims Universal might have made by traumatically rearranging the monster’s facial features, squashing the flattened nose directly beneath the knobby brows and between the outsized eyes, and dispensing with the electrode (“bolts”) protruding from the neck. Briefer’s monster was indeed hideous, and Briefer cranked out a tsunami of terror tales featuring the creature through to the April 1945 issue of Prize Comics #52 and the launch of Frankenstein in his own title that same year.

    Prize Comics #53’s “Frankenstein and the Beanstalk” was the last of the fantasy-horror Briefer Frankensteins; with a new original story in Frankenstein #1 (“Frankenstein’s Creation,” reprinted complete in the Yoe collection, pp. 45-59) and Prize Comics #53’s “Pour Out Your Heart,” Briefer redirected his ongoing feature, transforming it into an adsurdist kid-friendly horror-comedy comic!

    By this point, Briefer’s distinctively fluid brushwork had become absolutely breezy and more expressive than ever, and the complete change in tempo, temper, and tone suited his brushline. It was a new lease on life for Briefer and his beloved monster, whose nose slid progressively further up into his browline within the pages of Frankenstein #1 alone (as demonstrated in this collection’s generous reprint of no less than three stories from that historic first issue)!

    By 1947, Briefer was writing and drawing Frankenstein (now labeled “The Merry Monster”) for Prize Comics and for the character’s solo series (!). Editor Yoe offers two other Briefer comedic Frankenstein stories from this period, “Blooperman” (from Frankenstein #8, July-August 1947), included herein due to its pointed satire on the most popular four-color superhero of them all (and in case you’ve any doubt, Briefer’s satiric byline for the story, “by Seagull & Shoestring,” puts paid to that), and the beguiling Spirit parody “The Girl with the Bewitching Eyes” (from Frankenstein #15, September-October 1948). Well, I’d tag it as an Eisner parody, if only for its femme fatale, Zona, but the whole of Briefer’s approach to this one Frankenstein tale smacks of Eisner’s iconic 1940s body of work.

    Briefer’s Frankenstein shifted gears again with the hardcore horror comics boom of the early 1950s, and Yoe offers a quartet of Frankenstein tales from Briefer’s return to horror amid the Pre-Code horror swamp. “Tomb of the Living Dead” (Frankenstein #20, August-September 1952), “Friendly Enemies!” (from #24, April-May 1953), “The She-Monster” (#28, January 1954) and “The Tree of Death” (#31, June-July 1954) are indeed representative of the swansong years of Briefer’s series. These aren’t the stories I’d have selected from this period in Briefer’s horror series (there are better ones, to my mind), but they’re interesting enough horror tales, sparked with inventive imagery and bits of business. Sadly, they lack the energy of Briefer’s earlier stories. Even the brushwork denotes his exhaustion with the 14-year-run, though ever the pro, Briefer doesn’t short-shrift the reader: the storytelling is crisp, clear, and the narratives provide enough twists to keep even the most jaded genre reader’s interest.

    With Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, archivist/editor/packager Craig Yoe continues to provide a service to the comics community. While this tome is as stylishly produced as all Yoe’s books—if anything, the cool die cutting of Frankenstein’s eyes lends this volume an appropriately children’s storybook flavor—Yoe has finally addressed the one complaint I have with too many of such compilations: Craig cites the original publication source, date, and year of publication on the first page of every story. Kudos, Craig, and here’s hoping this practice becomes standard operating procedure for all future collections.

    Per usual, the color reproduction from the original comics retains the flavor of the Pre-Code four-color showcases, and the restoration work on the stories themselves is exquisite. While the Briefer Frankenstein comic stories have periodically been reprinted in the years since Briefer’s death—including reprints in Dr. Frankenstein’s House of 3D (1992), the Cracked monster magazines Cracked Monster Party (1988) and Monsters Attack! (1989-90), and a recent black-and-white paperback reprint volume entitled The Monster of Frankenstein (2006)—this current collection eclipses them all handily, while offering the most comprehensive overview of Briefer’s life, work, and the arc of the Frankenstein comics stories Briefer single-handedly created.

    Yoe spices the stew with a generous helping of Briefer artwork from his other Frankenstein efforts, including his ill-fated comic strip proposal(s), stages of work (roughs, pencils, inks) preserved from Briefer’s process, and an eye-popping array of cover reconstructions Briefer painted and drew for fans later in his life.

    Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein is the ideal Halloween/Christmas gift for any monster-lovin’ comics reader, and establishes a welcome new threshold for the entire Yoe/IDW line of reprint volumes. This is highly recommended reading, and as with all the Yoe collections, a grand entertainment from cover to cover.

    – Stephen R. Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

    Steve Ditko’s Konga — The Lonely One

    FantasticGiantsIt’s amazing what the ongoing romance between academia and comics continues to offer.

    Case in point, this week saw the publication of writer Christopher Hayton‘s in-depth ode to a group of comicbooks I dearly loved as a kid, but never ever thought I’ve see get their due. Hayton’s excellent “Fantastic Giants: Charlton Comics’ Monster Movie Adaptations” was four years in the writing, and was just published in the online arts journal SCAN:

  • click this link and give it a read, now or later — it’s a terrific piece.
  • The title for Christopher’s essay is lovingly lifted from one of the great Charlton specials Fantastic Giants (1968), an all-Steve-Ditko one-shot that reprinted the Joe Gill/Steve Ditko first issue adaptations of the venerable early 1960s monster movies Gorgo and Konga, along with two original Ditko stories.

    Hayton spotlights this fascinating chapter in ’60s comics history and Ditko’s career with an eye toward providing a proper context for these curious creature comics: “The history of comic books views the early 1960s largely in terms of the superhero revival, which certainly eclipsed Charlton’s monster movie adaptations, then and in the minds of historians today. But while superhero comics continue to be a mainstay of the mainstream comic book industry, an important corner of the modern market owes its origins to Charlton’s experiment with creature features. …A number of comic book industry greats worked at Charlton early in their careers, and the monster movie books showcase pencil work and inking by artists recognized today for their distinctive styles. Moreover, the extensive body of work of the books’ writer, Joe Gill, offers a rich field for analysis, as this article’s look at his monster movie adaptations will illustrate. The present article, then, seeks to draw the readers’ attention to Gill’s work as a source of natural social commentary, and also to the illustrative work of Charlton artists, particularly Steve Ditko, to be found in the monster movie books, in addition to the innovation that the books themselves accomplish in terms of genre founding.”

    KongaOne major oversight in Hayton’s otherwise comprehensive overview of movie comics that predate the Charlton monster comics of the ’60s must be noted: Dick Briefer‘s long-running Frankenstein comics (debuting in Prize Comics in the 1940s and landing it own title — two series! — through to the mid-1950s), which certainly owed a debt to the ongoing popularity of the bastardized Mary Shelley Frankenstein cinematic adaptations, spin-offs and endless procession of family members (Bride of, Son of, etc.). Briefer’s Frankenstein began as a straightforward horror series, then metamorphosed into a bizarre humor comic, returning to action-horror during the Pre-Code horror comics boom of the early ’50s.

    In this, Briefer’s series also anticipated the Charlton monster comics; though the Charlton’s never became out-and-out cartoony, Joe Gill’s scripts did shift from sf/horror to absurdist humor, including an interspecies romance for Reptisaurus (successor to Reptilicus)!

    KongaDitko2Steve Ditko gleefully embraced the humor elements Gill introduced to the pages of Konga in particular, including a running gag in one issue (featured in The Lonely One; see below) involving a photograph of an attractive couple seen reacting to the action of the story. It’s a bit like Gyro Gearloose‘s lightbulb-headed robotic assistant in the Carl Barks Donald Duck /Uncle Scrooge comics (particularly the Gyro Gearloose comics themselves) — you can follow their comedic interaction like a little ‘mini-movie’ hidden inside the panels.

    Konga was among Ditko’s most playful comics work ever, a stark contrast to the somber nature of Ditko’s most popular (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange) and most controversial (Mr. A) comics creations.

    For the first time anywhere, Hayton analyzes the sales figures for the Charlton monster comics, and tallies their relative longevity in the marketplace by comparing Charlton’s annual sales figures for their three monster comics with sales figures from other major comics publishers, including those key titles Ditko made his mark in: 

    “The numbers reported are quite impressive. For Konga, the figures quoted were 187,778 (March 1963, average copies per issue in previous year), 112,700 (March 1964, average circulation per issue in previous year), and 234,331 (April 1965, average print run in previous year). For Gorgo it was 143,818 (February 1963, issues sold to paid subscribers in previous year), 231,676 (February 1964, average print run in previous year), and 184,778 (September 1965, average per copy distribution in the previous year). While interpretation of these figures is not necessarily straightforward, some comparisons can be made with other publishers from the same time period. Average paid distribution for issues of Superman (DC) in 1962 was 740,000, and for issues of Amazing Spider-man (Marvel) in 1966 was 340,215 (Miller 2009). However, a more realistic comparison would be with titles from similar genres: Mystery in Space (DC, 1962) averaged 190,000 copies, Unknown Worlds (ACG, 1963) 143,468, Turok, Son of Stone (Gold Key, 1963) 276,550, and Strange Tales (Atlas/Marvel, 1963) 189,305 copies per issue (Miller 2009). While distribution of the Charlton monster movie books did not reach the levels of the popular superhero books, their print runs compare well with comics of similar genre from the time period.”

    KongacvrThis kind of scholarly work is welcome, particularly for such previously-ignored (and indeed reviled) eddies in comics history. Growing up in Vermont, I was geographically close to Charlton’s base of operations (Connecticut), and Charlton titles had solid distribution even in the northern Green Mountain hinterlands. Hayton provides evidence of the wider popularity of the Charlton titles, and goes the extra mile to connect the Charlton 1960s monster movie comics with the contemporary industry standards, where their successors are popular fixtures of the comics market. Primary among those successors to Konga and Gorgo are the Dark Horse Aliens, Predator, and Aliens vs Predator, which indeed played a vital role in how the parent studio 20th Century Fox rebooted the film franchises themselves.

    “The three Charlton movie monster adaptations appear to have been the first substantial examples of comic book series grounded in a sci-fi movie plot but then taken off in their own directions, in this case by prolific comic book writer Joe Gill, who admitted to having enjoyed working on Gorgo and the other movie comics… These titles set a successful precedent for later attempts by Marvel and other companies, who also created series based on sci-fi movies such as Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Godzilla, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Alien, Predator, etc.”

    Kongacvr2[Above, right: Dick Giordano cover art for the original Charlton Konga #1, interior art by Steve Ditko; left: one of Ditko’s own Charlton Konga covers, finding Konga typically taking on a communist country’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’]

    Alas, the 1960s comics Hayton writes about have long been collector’s items, and it’s almost impossible to find affordable individual issues, much less complete sets, of these vintage four-color fantasies. 

    Fortunately, we have in the Schulz Library a collection of the Gill/Ditko Konga comics stories, compliments of publisher Robin Snyder (by way of yours truly).

    Beginning in 1989, Robin Snyder and Steve Ditko launched an ambitious series of modestly-formatted black-and-white volumes composed of vintage Ditko reprint and an abundance of brand-new original material from Ditko’s drawing board. We have a number of these collections in the Schulz Library, including an invaluable binder of Robin Snyder’s The Comics newsletter that offer the entire multi-chapter book by Steve Ditko detailing his years of freelance activity at Marvel Comics

    LonelyOneThe Joe Gill/Steve Ditko Konga collection Robin Snyder published in 1989 was The Lonely One, and it’s an excellent introduction to this oddball genre.

    The Lonely One reprints four issues of the Charlton title — Konga #8 and #11-13 — and it remains the only in-print collection of any title from this body of Charlton work.

    In the context of its era, and of today, The Lonely One is unabashedly goofy reading. But given the John Stanley revival we’re enjoying, I honestly rank the Gill/Ditko Konga right up there with Stanley’s Melvin the Monster, though there’s a serious side to the Gill/Ditko work that sets it apart from Stanley’s satire.

    Like Melvin the Monster, these were most definitely children’s comics — and I was just the kind of kid they were targetting — but Ditko’s artwork never condescended or ridiculed the narratives: in fact, the speed with which much of this was obviously executed fuels its primal immediacy and crude appeal. Gill and Dikto had their fun, but they were doing a monster comic — and when Konga was supposed to look formidable, he was as outsized and magnificent as any Jack Kirby monster! Springboarding directly from three iconic 1960s big-screen creature features, these were the true successors to the beloved Atlas/Marvel monster comics Ditko and Kirby labored over in the late ’50s and early ’60s, working with Stan the Man (Lee) and fellow pros Dick Ayers, Don Heck and others.

    As already noted, Konga and The Lonely One also showcases some of Ditko’s most inventive and playful comics work to see print. There’s some truly antic work here, which always made Konga consistently the most fun ‘read’ in the entire Charlton stable. Though Gill and Ditko were always working against tight deadlines — they clearly full-tilt boogied through some of these issues, which sometimes determined how the stories and art would be executed (among my favorites: an entire issue of Konga in which the great ape spent most of the panels buried up to his neck in snow!) — Ditko always gave 100%, and some of the pen, brush and ink work in The Lonely One is still mighty sharp. It’s a treat to see it in black-and-white, evidently shot from the original art; it looks better than it did in the original Charlton comics (Charlton’s printing was infamously haphazard and often slipshod, sporting limited palettes of color).

    Slim and compact as The Lonely One package is, it’s ideal for a summer afternoon. The intro by the late Pat Boyette is a treat too — Pat worked for Charlton from the mid-60s to Charlton’s demise in the ’80s, contributing to many of the same horror/mystery titles Ditko regularly appeared in — and there’s a Ditko checklist at the back of the volume.

    Check out the other Steve Ditko/Robin Snyder volumes in the Schulz collection, while you’re at it… they’re all unique, to say the least!

    – Stephen R. Bissette, Mountains of Madness, VT

    Reptilicus1cvr[If you want to read more about this strange period in Charlton Comics history, check out the Myrant multi-chapter essay on Charlton, their paperback division Monarch Books, and the incredible story of Reptilicus — the movie, the comic, and the sex (!) spiced paperback novelization that launched lawsuits and changed Reptilicus the comic series to Reptisaurus the comics series! Warning: saucy reading!:]

  • Monster Memories: Intro;
  • Monster Memories: Part 1;
  • Part 2;
  • Part 3;
  • Part 4;
  • Part 5;
  • Part 6;
  • Part 7;
  • Part 8 — the Conclusion!