When Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was published in 1818, it bore the subtitle of “The Modern Prometheus.” In the nearly two centuries since its publication and since it became a cornerstone of both horror and science fiction, it’s often been forgotten that “Frankenstein” was seen as a amazingly modern work upon its release. Written by a fearless and uncompromising woman, it commented on the fears and ambitions that lay underneath the period following the advancements of the Age of Enlightenment. And Victor LaValle’s Destroyer #1, being a contemporary continuation of the “Frankenstein” story, takes that subtitle seriously as a starting point, creating a bold look at contemporary culture through the eyes of yet another gifted scientist who challenges the laws of nature to create life. Destroyer #1 is a debut with a lot of promise and an interesting concept at its heart, even as structurally it takes a bit to get going.
The issue opens in the modern day, and reveals that the creature created by Victor Frankenstein in 1792 remains alive in Antartica, living a life of solitude. He is forced to rejoin the world once more when he wreaks vengeance upon a whaling ship for its boldly work. His encounter with the modern world allows him to learn of another scientist following in his creator’s footsteps. From there we encounter Dr. Josephine Baker, a troubled consumed by grief who is most definitely building upon Frankenstein’s work, but for an altogether more personal and heartbreaking purpose. Frankenstein’s Creature and Baker look to be on a collision course, even as sinister forces align themselves against the troubled scientist.
Victor LaValle is an author who has been writing amazing stuff for years. His most recent novel, “The Ballad of Black Tom,” is a brilliant re-telling of HP Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook,” and was nominated for a slew of awards including a Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Award. So, there was little doubt in my mind that this foray into comics wouldn’t be interesting. And LaValle doesn’t disappoint with the aims of this first issue, which shows his deftness at creating compelling characters and remaining classic concepts through a modern lens. His depiction of the Creature, for instance, succeeds in rendering this iconic character as both hugely fearsome and yet readily identifiable. The Creature of Shelley’s novel was similarly scary and yet still relatable, so LaValle doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but rather focuses on bringing the character we all know to life in an organic and well-developed way. No easy feat, given the fact that Creature is non-verbal in the issue.
On the other hand, Dr. Baker is nothing if not verbal. She is also instantly relatable and engaging, and LaValle economically and effectively communicates both her brilliance and her demons through behaviour and dialogue rather than tiresome exposition. Baker comes across as sympathetic even as her work clearly represents some pretty troubling ethical questions, just like her inspiration, Victor Frankenstein, who was at once protagonist and antagonist of Shelley’s novel. The issue just has time to establish Baker’s personality and motivation, and Destroyer #1 hints at much more backstory to be revealed. But what it does show us is more than enough to make Baker a character we’d like to follow.
Additionally, there are some shadowy cabalistic stuff threaded throughout the issue suggesting a sinister organization pursuing Baker and interested in the Creature for their own purposes. There’s obviously a lot more to be revelled about this organization, but even though the issue sets it up well, I’m pretty tired of this trope at this point, and to my mind shadowy conspiracies need to be rendered in some kind of compellingly different way for me, because I get bored of Men in Black shenanigans pretty quickly. I’ve got faith that LaValle’s too good to simply make them your standard government/illuminati spooks, but they were kid of the least interesting part of the issue.
Also, while I thought Destroyer #1 set up a lot very well, its pace felt a bit lop-sided. The first section with the Creature went on a bit long, given what actually gets revealed, and I found that Baker’s section could have had a bit more energy to it. The issue felt very much like the opening chapter of a novel, which can afford to take its time a bit. It might all come back to the conspiratorial element that I wasn’t that engaged in; it’s the element designed to give the Baker section its sees of jeopardy and I just wasn’t as enthralled with it due to its familiarity. Other readers my not have a problem with this, though.
Dietrich Smith is the illustrator here, with colors by Joana Lafuente, and they take an interesting approach. Much of the section with the Creature, the most overtly horrific element, is depicted in a very realists, non-stylized, clear way. The temptation would be to put all the atmosphere into that section, but the art team instead makes the Baker section the most stylized part of Destroyer #1, particularly in a dream sequence where the issue’s largely conventional layout structure fractures and begins to pile its panels on top of each other in an off-kilter progression. Letterer Jim Campbell also tries some innovations with his contributions, giving whispers and asides a different feel than the rest of the dialogue.
All in all, Destroyer #1 is a thought-provoking and smart debut that still brings the scares and big ideas, therefore living up to the legacy of “Frankenstein.” Fans of smart horror and bold ideas should hop on board to this tale of a truly Modern Prometheus from the beginning. 8.5/10
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer #1 will be released tomorrow, May 24, 2017.