Strange but true: The new DC Comics cinematic universe will begin with Frankenstein. According to James Gunn himself, the first installment of the new interconnected franchise of films, television, animation, and video games based on DC Comics characters will be Creature Commandos. And smack in the middle of our first look at the animated series is a familiar figure that looks a lot like Frankenstein’s monster.
And that’s because he just is Frankenstein’s monster. The DC comics universe version of the monster isn’t licensed from the rights holders of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. But he also isn’t a ripoff or an inside joke. He’s an undead being who was created 200 years ago by Doctor Victor Frankenstein, who sewed together several corpses and brought the results to life. The monster — who goes by the name “Frankenstein,” don’t get at me in the comments — was later lost in the arctic of the DC Comics universe for a long time, and when he thawed out, he became a secret agent.
You see, Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus is in the public domain.
Frankenstein-the-monster as a character recurs surprisingly often in DC Comics, both as a one-off and more recently with his own intermittently ongoing continuity. He’s got an extra heart, for example, in case one of them gets torn out. His sword used to belong to an angel.
He owes his modern editorial (un)life to writer Grant Morrison, artist Doug Mahnke, and their mid-’00s web of Seven Soldiers books, in which Frank battled supernatural horrors as only an undead creature with no conscience can. 2011’s New 52 Reboot saw Frank re-imagined as a fully fledged agent of SHADE, the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive. Via the convergent evolution of cool and obvious ideas, he’s developed something of a Hellboy-like niche.
It’s that niche that makes it possible for DC to publish him, much less for Warner Bros. to put him in an animated series. Because while Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus — in which Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is articulate, even erudite, and winds up frozen in the arctic — is in the public domain, Universal Pictures’ 1931 classic Frankenstein — in which the monster is a monosyllabic hulk who burns alive in a windmill — is not.
And so Frankenstein joins the list of public-domain literary figures who are oddly significant to our modern superhero universes. Over in Marvel Comics, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are both kind of vital to X-Men continuity. Which raises a question that can only be answered by courage and daring.
I ask the world: What brave writer and which brave artist will make Jay Gatsby an indelible part of a superhero universe? Personally, I think he’d make a great Batman villain.