Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus: Trends in Twentieth- and Early Twenty-First Century Illustrated Editions
Early Publishing History: Three Texts
Three distinct texts of Frankenstein have survived, here distinguished by year of initial publication. The original 1818 text was published anonymously, written by Mary Shelley with the active contribution of her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Several small changes to this text were made by William Godwin, the author's father, to prepare the subsequent 1823 edition; notably, Godwin omitted the quotation from Paradise Lost from the beginning of the work (Allen, 2008). The most well-known version of the novel is the 1831 text, often erroneously claimed to be the second edition, edited by the author herself but retaining Godwin's 1823 alterations. This edition, part of the Standard Novels series, was only sporadically in print throughout the 1830s and 1840s. In 1855, the initial copyright period expired and the novel began to reach a popular audience (Allen, 2008).
However, just as today more people are familiar with film adaptations than with their novel inspiration, 19th century audiences were familiar with the basic story of Frankenstein through stage adaptations. In 1823 alone, at least five distinct stage productions of Frankenstein were mounted (Glut, 2000). The first of these, Peake's Frankenstein; or, the Danger of Presumption, seen by the author herself, originated a key aspect of the broader Frankenstein mythos as it is remembered today: Peake's monster, as played by Thomas Potter Cooke, was a silent role very different from the eloquent figure which appears in the novel (Glut, 2000). This version also originated the character of Fritz, the bumbling lab assistant popularly remembered as Igor, memorably played by Dwight Frye more than a century later.Today, many scholars prefer the 1818 text, claiming it to be closer to the author's initial conception of the story despite the fact that the 'censoring' hand of the 1831 edition was Shelley's own. The changes are often seen to reflect an abandonment of the Romantic ideals espoused in the earlier text and a growing moral conservatism on Shelley's part (Allen, 2008). For this reason, modern scholarly or deluxe editions of Frankenstein are more likely to use the 1818 text while inexpensive popular paperback editions tend towards the 1831 text. The 1818 text is therefore somewhat overrepresented in this collection.
fig. 1: 1831 frontispiece, Theodor von Holst
Illustrated Editions: 1931-1934
While the 1831 Standard Novels edition contained an illustrated cover page and frontispiece, these were the only two illustrations (Wolf, 1977). It would be another hundred years before a fully-illustrated edition of Frankenstein would be produced, riding on the coattails of James Whale’s enormously successful 1931 film adaptation. At this time, Grosset and Dunlap produced an edition containing plates from the film; three other illustrated editions were also produced in the 1930s. These include Lynd Ward's 1934 woodcuts, discussed at length below, as well as woodcuts by Nino Carbe dating to 1932 and an edition featuring the pastel work of Everett Henry also from 1934 (Wolf, 1977). The latter is particularly notable as the first illustrated edition which obscured the face of the creature throughout the work, an unusual but not entirely unique approach.
The Grosset and Dunlap edition has been dated to 1931 as it is presumed to have acted as a promotional tool the way novels labeled 'now a major motion picture!' still do today; however, there is no date printed in the book itself. This edition uses the 1831 text, including the preface by the author describing the story's conception. The book contains six black-and-white plate illustrations, photographs from the 1931 film set. These include a headshot of Karloff's iconic monster; a spread depicting Frankenstein's lab; and an image of Elizabeth's corpse (Shelley, 1931). These are captioned with lines from the film rather than from the novel, potentially leading to some confusion as many changes were made in adapting the story for a feature film. Most notably, the lead character's name was changed from Victor to Henry; the second plate depicts Henry and Elizabeth and is captioned, “Don’t ever leave me Henry, I am afraid!” (Shelley, 1931)
fig. 2: Photo plate: Still and caption from the 1931 film
Lynd Ward's evocative 1934 woodcuts have a sharp, angular, almost cubist quality and a unique approach to positive and negative space. These illustrations include several full-page woodcuts but more often smaller images that appear at the opening and closing of chapters or letters. The chapter headings tend to be rectangular and cover the full width of the page. Illustrations of this type and size are the most common in this work. Illustrations at the end of chapters tend to be smaller, slightly rounded, and depict only the figure or object of interest rather than the elaborate backgrounds seen in the larger images.
Ward's creature is an impossibly-large nude (but sexless) figure with disproportionately long limbs and large hands. The creature's face is obscured in the majority of his appearances here, perhaps to highlight his unnamed and thereby unknowable quality. His body is often bent into odd angles which give the piece its energy (Shelley and Ward, 1934, p. 114). However, this may not be entirely a depiction of his monstrousness as Ward's other human figures tend to be depicted in a similarly impressionistic style.
fig. 3: Ward's Creature: angular body, obscured face
Ward's images are some of the most effective at conveying presence of the natural world in the novel both in the Arctic and European segments of the story. Several of Ward's illustrations use the natural environment to split 'civilised' human characters from the landscape. For example, one page shows Victor and Henry looking out over the town from above; a tree in the foreground separates the men and their town from the river and the countryside (Shelley and Ward, 1934, p. 68). The interplay of sun and cloud is often used to create starker contrast and thereby highlight key figures in each illustration, as with an instance where a sunbeam is localised to Victor's boat, drawing the eye to the important part of the image (Shelley and Ward, 1934, p. 170).
fig. 4: Civilisation vs. Nature in Ward's Frankenstein
Illustrated Editions: 1977-1993
Following the 1930s boom, the next two known illustrated editions of Frankenstein did not appear until the late 1960s. Both are French-language translations, one produced in Switzerland with illustrations by Claude Selva and one in France accompanied by Christian Broutin's ink drawings; these date from 1969 and 1968 respectively. An English-language edition with watercolours by Robert Andrew Parker also appeared in 1976 (Wolf, 1977). Due to space and time constraints, I was not able to closely examine these middle-era works. Parker's 1976 edition kicked off a second wave of illustrated editions between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s; nearly half of the sample collection originates from this period.
The Annotated Frankenstein (Shelley, Wolf, and Huyette, 1977) includes two distinct types of illustrations: those that go along with the text itself and those that go along with the annotations. The latter, including maps, 19th century medical diagrams, portraits of the author and her associates, and images of real-world locations depicted in the text as they appeared in Shelley's day, were reused in 1993's The Essential Frankenstein. The majority of these are historical in nature and their purpose seems to be to add context (and verisimilitude) to the novel. Their explanatory nature and their positioning as small insets contribute to the sense that they have more in common with the textual annotations than with the more dramatic, expressive, or emotional illustrations, drawn by Marcia Huyette.
Huyette's drawings, in ink and charcoal, appear as full pages or two-page spreads, set apart from the text. They are captioned with lines from the text. In some cases, the drawing is a clear interpretation of the caption; for example, the scene where the creature burns down the cottage shows his grinning skull-like face in the foreground, hand clutching a lighted flame; the background shows three pale figures fleeing the burning building and heading for the woods (Shelley, Wolf, and Huyette, 1977, p. 200). Others are more esoteric, such as an image of Victor in clothing contemporary to the illustrator, being loomed over by a large hybrid tree-woman, captioned: “Justine died.... The blood flowed freely in my veins, but a weight of despair and remorse pressed on my heart, which nothing could remove” (Shelley, Wolf, and Huyette, 1977, p. 127.).
fig. 5: Huyette's cottage fire. Unfortunately, this is the only one of my cited images I was able to find online; if you have this edition and you can scan any of the others please send them to me!
Or better yet just give me the book because I love it.Huyette's illustrations have a surreal, unsettling quality appropriate to a horror novel; subtle skull motifs are often worked into the backgrounds. The illustrations nod to the importance of natural scenery to the novel, with particular focus on the jagged, icy arctic landscape (Shelley, Wolf, and Huyette, 1977, p. 141, 316). She depicts the creature as thin and skull-like with visible bones and musculature, large-eyed and long-haired. Perhaps the most notable illustration in this volume is a two-page spread depicting Victor and the creature with mirrored posture, bookending the corpse of Elizabeth (Shelley, Wolf, and Huyette, 1977, p. 292-3). This image plays with the idea of doubling present in the text and suggests that both figures are equally responsible for Elizabeth's death.
Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein was originally released by Marvel Comics in 1983 and reprinted by Dark Horse Comics in 2008. The 2008 edition is a large hardcover book; many of the images within were scanned from Wrightson’s original drawings. These are extremely detailed black-and-white ink drawings designed to give the impression of steel engravings or woodcuts. The book uses the 1831 text but eliminates the author’s preface. In this edition, each illustration appears on its own page with a caption from the text; the reverse of each illustrated page shows an oval-shaped detail from that page printed in grey. Several pieces are dated with the years 1976 and 1977 (see for example Shelley and Wrightson, 2008, p. 49, 121); others, presumably completed later, are undated. The finished work took Wrightson approximately seven years.
fig. 6: Wrightson's Victor in his lab. Note dated signature in top right.
The overt influence of film adaptations on Wrightson’s work is minimal; his Victor owes more to Percy Shelley than to any actor who has played the role (Shelley and Wrightson, 2008, p. 33). Wrightson’s creature is depicted exactly as described in the text, with long hair and a skull-like face but a proportionate (albeit extremely large and muscular) body (Shelley and Wrightson, 2008, p. 63). Wrightson’s illustrations are as realistic as Ward’s are impressionistic, including representations of individual raindrops and blades of grass (Shelley and Wrightson, 2008, p. 83, 143) ; both artists are excellent at utilizing the stark contrast between black and white (Shelley and Wrightson, 2008, p. 73). The exquisite detail with which Wrightson renders his backgrounds again highlight the importance of nature and natural scenery to the work.
fig. 7: Wrightson renders individual raindrops, makes anyone who has ever drawn in ink cry.
Barry Moser's Frankenstein was released by Pennyroyal Press in 1984. The first edition was an extremely limited print run of woodcuts; at the same time, a larger print run of lithograph versions was made by the University of California press. This copy is of the California edition. Uniquely (and helpfully, for the purpose of this analysis), this edition contains an index to the illustrations after the table of contents. These illustrations range in size from full-page images such as a portrait of Elizabeth (Shelley and Moser, 1984, p. 76) to tiny cul-de-lampe ornaments, triangular images of screaming faces, which recur throughout the work. Another recurring motif here, as elsewhere, is the arctic landscape; Moser includes eight small rectangular arctic landscape images in four sets, twice towards the beginning of the work and twice towards the end.
fig. 8: Iterations of Moser's screaming-face cul de lampe recur throughout the volume.
While many of Moser's illustrations are purely black and white, some also use limited colour; the frontispiece, for example, depicts a lightning storm in black and cyan ink; another page depicts the face of the creature in black and yellow ink (Shelley and Moser, 1984, p. 103). Moser's illustrations tend to be both literally and metaphorically dark, appropriate to the story depicted. Moser's creature is perhaps the most physically monstrous in the set. His face is typically seen in partial shadow; however, one illustration shows a fully-lit view of a creature with mismatched eyes, a lopsided and snaggle-toothed mouth, and a tumourous ridge in place of a nose (Shelley and Moser, 1984, p. 146).
fig. 9: Moser's Creature in yellow.
As mentioned above, 1993's The Essential Frankenstein includes much of the same annotations as the Annotated Frankenstein, also edited by Leon Wolf, including the explanatory diagrams. However, this edition also includes all-new illustrations by Christopher Bing. These are rectangular black-and-white images that appear throughout the book, typically but not always as chapter headings (Shelley, Wolf, and Bing, 1993). These appear to be line drawings drawn in a style reminiscent of woodcuts. These illustrations seem somewhat simplistic when contrasted with Moser and Wrightson's masterworks created a decade earlier; however, this may be due as much to the smaller scale of the work and the poorer quality of the paper than to the skill of the artist.
Unusually for this collection, Bing refrains from showing the creature's face and body clearly. He is shown in shadow or in the distance but is never seen head-on (Shelley, Wolf, and Bing, 1993). This allows the reader to fill in whatever horror they imagine for themselves, be that Karloff's creature, that of another actor, or an original vision, adding to the effect of the horror; as with Ward's reluctance to show the creature's face, it also gives him an unknowable quality. On the other hand, within the story, it is only after seeing the creature's face that other characters judge him as evil; refraining from giving the audience that moment of terror lets the reader continue to identify with the creature throughout the novel.
[Unfortunately, I can't find any of Bing's illustrations online. Again, if you own this edition and would be willing to scan and send me images please do!]
Frankenstein in Comics and Graphic Novels
The Frankenstein monster has appeared in myriad comic books and graphic novels from 1940 through to the present day. However, the majority of these cases are new adventures (in a variety of genres from grisly horror to slapstick) featuring Frankenstein characters, rather than adaptations of the novel. These notably include Dick Briefer's Frankenstein for Prize Comics, best remembered for the 17-issue comedic run from 1945 to 1949 (Glut, 1973); Marvel Comics' The Monster of Frankenstein, which began as an adaptation of the novel in 1973 but quickly veered into new, James Bond-inspired territory (Glut, 1973); and most recently, IDW comics' Frankenstein: Alive! Alive!, an series written by Steve Niles in 2012. This last, drawn by Bernie Wrightson, marks his return to the characters he designed decades ago and has been billed as a sequel to the illustrated novel (Niles and Wrightson, 2012).
fig. 10: Superman parody courtesy of Dick Briefer, 1945
One of few outright adaptations in comic book format, the 1945 Classic Comics adaptation is based on a truncated version of the 1831 text. The Walton expedition framing narrative is eliminated; the comic tells a simplified version of the story, necessitated by the shorter format and the younger target audience. With the exception of the 1931 edition, this is the most clearly influenced by the Universal film. The creature is depicted in the familiar square-jawed, scarred, and bolt-necked form made famous by Boris Karloff and later Glenn Strange; additionally, Victor is referred to as “doctor” (Shelley et al, 1945, p. 8), a title which he did not earn in the novel. The comic’s audience would have been more familiar with the film than with the book, therefore, depicting the creature in this way makes the character recognisable and situates the story within the young cinema afficionado's milieu.
fig. 11: Cover to Classic Comics Frankenstein, aka Classics Illustrated Frankenstein
However, the art has a static quality and the adaptation feels somewhat clumsy. I suspect that this book was more often purchased by parents wanting their children to read something approaching the literary rather than by young horror fans, particularly as its appearance in 1945 makes it contemporary with some of the greatest original horror comics of the 20th century. Indeed, the art feels more dated than Lynd Ward's woodcuts despite these being more than a decade earlier. This edition is followed by a brief biography of the author as well as a Longfellow poem and a short prose work by Georgina Campbell, adding to the impression that this was an attempt at a serious, literary comic.
A modern successor to the Classic Comics edition is the 2010 Classic Pop-Up Tales edition, a pop-up graphic novel. This work describes itself as a lavish and beautifully-illustrated collector's edition; however, in reality the illustrations themselves are nothing particularly spectacular. Where this edition shines is its incredible paper engineering; each page includes one large, elaborate centre pop-up as well as two smaller side-panels (with the exception of the first and last pages, which have only one side panel each.) Perhaps the most impressive of these centrefolds is the last, depicting the creature's funeral pyre (Shelley et al, 2010, p. 13-14).
fig. 12: A feat of paper engineering from Classic Pop Up Tales
The text is a simplified and adapted version of the 1818 text, with the Walton framing narrative intact. The delicate nature of the pop-ups, however, make this edition particularly prone to damage; this author’s personal copy has a rip in the cover and a bend in one of the central pop-ups (depicting Victor rowing a small boat towards his family home) (Shelley et al, 2010, p. 5-6). Artist Anthony Williams depicts the creature as tall and muscular with a large nose and sunken cheeks and eyes (Shelley et al, 2010, p. 7-8). He is dressed in drab, ragged clothing, very different from the nude or shrouded figures seen in most of this collection. Apart from the apparel, however, he appears similar to Ward's version of the character, albeit rendered in a very different style.
Conclusions And Recurring Trends
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, originally published in 1818, clearly still speaks to audiences nearly two centuries later. Throughout that timespan, the novel has inspired countless adaptations to stage, film, and television. The popularity of these adaptations is undeniable, however, the lavish illustrated editions described here allow the novel itself to reach modern audiences. The majority of the works discussed here use archaic methods such as woodcuts, or, using modern techniques, attempt to replicate the style and feel of nineteenth-century illustration. While many adaptations in other media hinge on bringing the Frankenstein monster and his creator into a contemporary environment, this sample shows that illustrated novels tend to emphasise the story's historic timeframe.
Certain themes in the novel lend themselves extraordinarily well to illustration, and as such, certain images and motifs recur in multiple works throughout the sample. Certain themes in the novel lend themselves extraordinarily well to illustration, and as such, certain images and motifs recur in multiple works throughout the sample. The majority of the sample texts revel in representing Shelley's outdoor scenes, both the central European countryside and the Arctic wastes. As the conflict between nature and culture is one of the central conceits of the novel, representations of the beauty and the terror of the natural environment enhance the text.
Within the sample, the novel's central figure, the unnamed creature typically known as the Frankenstein monster, appears in three distinct ways. Most commonly, he is depicted as a large roughly humanoid figure with long, unkempt hair, wild eyes, and a skull-like face. This figure is either skeletal, has visible, bulging musculature, or some combination of the two. The second-most common technique, sometimes overlapping with the first, is to refrain from depicting the monster or his face directly. Keeping him faceless reflects his namelessness within the text; obscuring the monster can also contribute to the horror or, contrarily, allow for audience identification with the monster. The third approach, much less prevalent than one would expect, is to lift the creature's design from the influential 1931 film and its sequels. While this design is instantly recognisable as Frankenstein even to small children unaware of the book or the film, the majority of the artists surveyed appeared to consciously avoid letting film adaptations colour their work.
Allen, G. (2008). Shelley's Frankenstein. London, England: Continuum.
Glut, D. F. (1973). The illustrated Frankenstein. The Frankenstein legend: A tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff (pp. 307-333). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Glut, D. F. (2000). Stage shows inspired by Frankenstein. In D. Nardo (Ed.), Readings on Frankenstein (pp. 101-114) San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.
Niles, S., & Wrightson, B. (2012). Frankenstein: Alive! alive!. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing.
Shelley, M. W. (1931). Frankenstein. New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap.
Shelley, M. W., Brewster, A., Roche, R. A., & Webb, R. H. (1945). Classic comics #22: Frankenstein. New York, NY: Gilberton Company.
Shelley, M. W., Hancock, D., Bampton, C., & Williams, A. (2010). Classic pop-up tales: Frankenstein (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Universe Publishing/Rizzoli International.
Shelley, M. W., & Moser, B. (1984). Frankenstein, or, the modern prometheus : The 1818 text in three volumes. Berkeley, CA: University of California.
Shelley, M. W., & Ward, L. (1934). Frankenstein. New York, NY: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas.
Shelley, M. W., Wolf, L., & Bing, C. (1993). Wolf L. (Ed.), The essential Frankenstein. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Shelley, M. W., Wolf, L., & Huyette, M. (1977). Wolf L. (Ed.), The annotated Frankenstein. New York: Clarkson N. Potter.
Shelley, M. W., & Wrightson, B. (2008). Frankenstein (25th anniversary ed.). Milwaukie, Oregon: Dark Horse Books.
Wolf, L. (1977). A note on the illustrated editions. In L. Wolf (Ed.), The annotated Frankenstein (pp. 347). New York: Clarkson N. Potter.