Of the “big three” gothic horror monsters–Dracula, Frankenstein, and the werewolf–all three have been well represented in comics, in all varieties of genres, from Marvel’s neo-gothic Tomb of Dracula to Dell’s ill-fated superhero take on the three to numerous appearances in humor features like Herbie. But of all the takes on these monsters, perhaps my favorite is Dick Briefer’s take on Frankenstein. Although it might be more accurate to say his takes on Frankenstein.
Dick Briefer, am American cartoonist of the Golden Age, began his career in the late ‘30s on a number of science fiction features for various publishers, but it was in 1940’s Prize Comics #7 that he would begin the feature that would define his career. In that issue of that anthology series, Briefer began an ongoing serial feature called “The New Adventures of Frankenstein,” which he produced at first under the pseudonym Frank N. Stein, which was probably funnier in 1940. Comics historians generally agree that this was the first ongoing horror feature in comics.
The feature was not by any stretch a straight adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. Briefer’s Frankenstein was set in the modern day and featured a creature, actually named Frankenstein, who became something of a crime boss. The serial eventually became, as so many Golden Age books did, more superhero oriented, as an ongoing antagonist (to Frankenstein, meaning he was a good guy) was introduced in the form of “Bulldog” Denny Dunsan, the adopted son of Victor Frankenstein who was trained from childhood to kill the monster. The feature got even more superheroic in Prize #24, when Bulldog recruited all the other characters from the Prize anthology to team-up against Frankenstein, including not only superheroes like the Green Lama, the Black Owl, and Yank and Doodle, but humor strip characters like the General and the Corporal.
Once World War II started, the feature began to address that, as was standard among comics features at the time. Frankenstein got changed good and went to fight Nazis, who brainwashed him into being a Nazi for a while, but he eventually turned back and smashed some fascists.
This initial run of Frankenstein stories can be fun and is wildly experimental in a lot of ways, as Briefer tries a number of genres with his character to try to find something that fits. However, a lot of the stories and especially the art can be very crude during this era, particularly in its earliest days. This is probably the least fondly remembered era of Briefer’s Frankenstein, which lasted from the feature’s debut in 1940 until 1945.
It was at this point that the best known version of the feature began. Starting in 1945, Frankenstein got his own solo title from Prize Comics, but now it was a humor feature. In the first issue, Frankenstein receives an all new origin in which he is created by a mad scientist intending to make a monster with an evil ray he had created, not realizing it was actually an opposite ray, which turned his monster into a mild-mannered, friendly guy. This era introduced the most iconic visual version of Frankenstein as well, with his most notable feature being his little button nose nestled way up between his eyes (the horror versions utilize this design aspect as well, but not in such an exaggerated way).
With this as the starting point, Briefer’s new earnest and kind Frankenstein became the ideal leading man for an ongoing humor feature populated with more unusual haunts and ghouls, but in a post-war suburban setting. The juxtaposition of Briefer’s comically huge stitched together monster and the small-town normies he looms over lends a lot of immediate appeal to the drawings.
Besides the breezy humor and outlandish scenarios that Frankenstein found himself in, a large part of the appeal of the Merry Monster (as he was known on covers) was Briefer’s confidently loose and gestural ink drawing. Briefer’s line is so masterful that the (apocryphal) legend among comics artists is that Briefer went straight to ink with no underdrawing. While this isn’t true (you can see pencil lines on his original pages), it feels true. Every line is so confident and effortless.
If you’re going to check out any one era of Briefer’s Frankenstein, this is probably the one. The funny version of Frankenstein (and it is funny, especially if you enjoy the humor of other comics humorists like John Stanley or Richard E. Hughes and Ogden Whitney) is the best known version, and it ran until the end of the 1940s in both the self-titled series and as a short feature in Prize Comics.
After a three-year interlude, Briefer returned to his signature character in 1952 with a more serious take on the character. This version of Frankenstein was a more straightforward horror feature than even the initial take on the character, possibly influenced by the general popularity of horror comics at the time. This version is a much more mature, confident creator putting out some occasionally quite affecting horror stories with beautifully rendered art, showing Briefer’s versatility in his ability to swing from the simple lines of the Funny Frank to the more realistic line of the Scary Frank.
Like all horror comics, however, Frankenstein went away in the mid ‘50s as parents groups expressed concern about comics being responsible for juvenile delinquency, etc. You know this part. There were a large number of casualties of Frederic Wertham and his crusade, but Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein was a hard one to lose. Fortunately, Frankenstein enjoyed a much more robust run than many other Golden Age features did, and there’s a wealth of material–in three completely different flavors by the same dude–out there for us to enjoy.
So if you love scary comics or even just spooky-not-scary, Briefer has a Frankenstein for you.