Just before Halloween IDW and Yoe Books! dropped the first of their new series, The Chilling Archives of Horror Comics, a collection of the Frankenstein comics by the great and masterful Dick Briefer. The collection spans 1940-1954 when it was, like many other comics, abruptly axed by the death grip of the Comics Code Authority.
I’m guessing many of you have never even heard of Dick Briefer (1915-1980) before this moment, and that’s alright. I didn’t know about him either until one of my coworkers spent a good 20 minutes gushing to me about him and I was, needless to say, intrigued. But he’s an interesting comics artist who did some remarkable things with the medium both before and after the CCA.
Briefer was an ex-pre-med student who broke into comics by getting hired into Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s comics workshop. In 1936 he got his first cover work, and soon after had his first full comic published, a retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After working for several other comics series (like Daredevil, Captain Marvel, and possibly even a Communist strip in The Daily Worker) he released a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It would later become one of the defining works of his life, and one that he would return to over and over again.
In December 1940, Prize Comics #7 featured the world’s first look at Briefer’s monster. It’s a strange and violent tale of anger and vengence, as the monster wreaks havoc on Frankenstein’s world in an attempt to punish the mad scientist for creating him. For the next two issues the monster kills just about everyone he meets in increasingly bizarre ways: he beats the face in of a man who shot at him, tramples people with an elephant, throws tourists off the top of the Statue of Liberty, stages an elaborate Coney Island freak show where the props are either dead or dying people, and squishes a psychotic criminal in his massive hands. Here Frankenstein is a nebbish scientist with a painfully blonde girlfriend who deserves all the punishment he gets, especially when he decides that the best way to fight his abomination is to create a Croco-man (“A human body—but the head and paws of a giant crocodile! But inside that head is a human brain—the brain of a mad man!”).
By 1945, Briefer gave Frankenstein’s monster his very own comic, and by this time the creature had traded in his nefarious ways for flowers and a sickeningly cute lamb. He gets married and divorced, learns how to levitate, and gets made into a Viking hero like something out a newspaper cartoon strip. But by the 20th issue Briefer stopped drawing him with his adorable button nose and returned him to his original vicious state; where he stayed until censorship finally closes the series down.
Yet, the monster’s cruelty is never unfounded. He doesn’t just go tromping around killing people willy nilly. He only ever attacks when being attacked himself. He gets along great with a couple of teenage boys who try to teach him to play baseball, but then goes on a murder spree when a bunch of adults hit him over the head with a sledgehammer. It’s justified violence, so to speak, written in classic mid-century comics dialogue and lovingly produced. (Briefer once said that he “never assisted anyone, nor did I ever have assistants. I wrote, penciled, inked, lettered, erased all my stuff.”)
This is a fantastic collection for any comic enthusiast, particularly those obsessed with the Golden Age. And if you think you know comics but don’t know Briefer or his monster then you need this book more than anything. Yoe’s volume contains full-color reproductions of twelve comics plus all you’ve ever wanted to know about Briefer. The Frankenstein comics are alternately funny, weird, dark, and profoundly disturbing, like many of the best things in this world are.
Alex Brown is an archivist in training, reference librarian by profession, Rob Gordon and Randal by paycheck, novelist by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare…