April 7, 2010

Frontier Frankenstein

By 1962, Monster Mania was in full swing and the Frankenstein Monster had assumed its pop culture persona as a rampaging menace with signature look boxtop head and bright green complexion, scars and neck bolts optional. Amongst the myriad applications for the simplified, instantly recognizable character, DC Comics regularly drafted “Frankenstein” as an all-purpose threat, foil or comic sidekick in comics opposite everyone from Superman to Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. One of The Monster’s most unusual appearances came as “Frontier Frankenstein” in the April 1962 issue of the long-running Tomahawk comic.

The dashing, blond hero, Tomahawk, is a Revolutionary War character whose nickname suggests a skill with hatchets. He is aided by a group of hilariously clich├ęd assistants, the Rip-Roaring Rangers, given names like Scarecrow, Wildcat, Brass Buttons, Cannonball, Kaintuck, Big Anvil (the requisite dumb ox), and Frenchie, who sports a beret, pencil mustache, and ‘e talks laik zees. The bad guys are Brits in scarlet uniforms who say “Blimey” a lot.

Inserting a Frankenstein Monster into a War of Independence storyline may seem bizarre but, by the Sixties, Tomahawk was an oddball title playing fast and loose with supernatural and semi-science-fiction themes. Issues regularly featured dragons and dinosaurs, Kong-sized gorillas, Indian Ghosts and assorted “Freaks”.

When Mary Shelley wrote the original Frankenstein story…” the splash page blurb reads, “34 years AFTER the Revolutionary War, she released from a Pandora’s box a shuddering, grotesque creep that has haunted horror tales ever since! But where did she get her idea?

The story hits the ground running as our snoozing heroes are blasted awake by an attacking green giant. Fierce action ensues. Bullets bounce off the “gruesome brute” but grenades send him fleeing into the woods.

Switching to the British camp, we learn that Tomahawk’s pal, Big Anvil, has been captured and turned over to a mad scientist, apparently visiting from Germany. “Now you vill see my greatest triumph!” he gloats, “I, von Skeller, vill be among der most famous names in science!

Subjected to the doctor’s special African herb treatment, Big Anvil has grown into a 20-foot high green monster with a flat head, a living weapon “that will knock the Rebels right out of the war”. A caveat: The Monster can only operate at night, the transformation wearing off in daylight.

In Round Two, Tom and the Rangers are awoken again, this time by loud clanging. The Monster is back, swinging a huge fire bell on a rope, laying waste to a nearby town. Our heroes manage to seize The Monster and tie him up to some trees, but Universal Film villagers appear, their torches sending the giant into a tree-uprooting frenzy. Again, the creature crashes into the forest just as dawn breaks. Moments later, Anvil straggles into town, unaware of his Jekyll/Hyde condition.

Expecting a British attack by nightfall, Tomahawk sets a trap, with the muscle-bound Anvil instructed to lay in ambush on a hill. As the sun sets, enemies marching in on cue, Anvil goes into giant monster mode — “What’n tarnation is happenin’ t’me?” — and turns on his friends. Tomahawk somehow figures out what’s going on and isolates The Monster within a ring of fire. The Redcoats, deprived of their giant monster weapon, are routed by dawn. Big Anvil shrinks to normal size and Tomahawk orders him kept “in the light, until the stuff wears off”.

A final blurb reads, “Is it possible that years later Mary Shelley adapted this grotesque giant, this horrible hulk as the basis for her Frankenstein character? Nobody will ever know – for sure!

The script by France Herron (aka Ed Herron) packs a lot of delirious action in its snappy 16 pages, beautifully rendered by series regular Bob Brown in sharp, businesslike layouts and clean lines. The giant, given real scale, towers above his scrambling victims. Note that this Frankenstein wears an open fur vest, a Cowboy variation on the usual sheepskin pullover. The open fur vest would later become de rigueur wear for Marvel Comics’ version of the Frankenstein Monster.

Interestingly, the “horrible hulk” of the tale looks, shape-changes and behaves a lot like Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk, another Frankenstein-inspired character that was launched concurrently, in May ’62. In fact, the original Hulk started out grey-skinned, soon to turn emerald green, though any resemblance with DC’s Frontier Frankenstein is considered coincidental.

In another curious connection, within months, a September 1962 episode of the short-lived Western comedy TV series, The Rounders, was called Frontier Frankenstein. The episode had its cantankerous lead, Chill Wills, operating some sort of remote control device to train horses.

Frontier Frankenstein’s career was strictly limited to a single issue — Tomahawk number 103 — but the fun concept and the striking cover has made it one of Frankenstein’s oddest and most memorable guest appearances.

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All posts about Frankenstein Comics


Crash said...

Great entry. DC Comics had another Frankenstein's monster creation in that of Private Taylor of the Creature Commandos in the early 80s, I think they debuted in DCs Weird War Tales in 1980. The Commandos were created under the umbrella of Project M, an experimental top secret government organization in the WW2 days. The team also featured a werewolf, vampire and a Medusa-like female character.

Patty said...

I love all these old comics!

rob! said...

I have a hunch that, as a comic, Tomahawk might not be that historically accurate.

Pierre Fournier said...

Crash: Yep, lots of Weird War / Creature Commandos stuff to wade through. I'll post something soon as I sort it out.

Rob: Good hunch. I find that whenever a dinosaur or a big green Frankenstein shows up, you're probably looking at some sort of tomfoolery.