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Sunday 15 July 2012

Creative doctrine for Frankenstein's Legions

I alluded last time to the fact that, in developing any creative project that entails a group of people, you have to do an awful lot of work that won't appear on the screen or the page. Today I'm posting the "design doctrine", an evolving document that shows everybody what makes the show, game or (in this case) comic they are working on unique.

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Frankenstein's Legions: creative doctrine

First and foremost: they're not zombies.

Zombies you can get elsewhere. Everywhere. There's no shortage. What Martin McKenna and I thought when we looked at the original Frankenstein: "This is science fiction."

So it's not about undead, it's about conquering death. The "lazarans" or "revenants" brought back by the Frankenstein tech, they are living men. That's the tragedy. Because other people don't treat them like living men. They treat them as soulless monsters, despised and feared. We know that humans don't need much of an excuse to put a label on others, to dehumanize and enslave them.

That's part of it. The other part is how you would feel, yourself, brought back from the dead. Physically there may not be any reason to feel differently about yourself. But say it happened next year. You die in an accident, you're on a slab for a couple of weeks, and then some new technology brings you back. Your family would already have begun the grieving process. Think they'd welcome you back? Think you'd feel the same as you did before?

How about those guys who have a hand transplant, or a face transplant. They're still the same person. But they need counselling not to want to cut a piece of themselves off. And this is the 21st century. Think what it'd be like in the mid-1800s, if you've been ripped apart on the battlefield, stitched back together from the body parts of your buddies, and jolted back to life. That tattoo on your new arm, that's the name of your best mate’s wife - the arm was all that was left of him. As for the souls of the dead, who knows where they are. People tell you you're a monster now, a second class citizen whose only home and family now are his battalion.

Some thoughts arising from this:

The emotional charge in the story is about the anguish and despair of living. Frankenstein's Legions is about the unbearable position of the monsters - about the terrible and very personal things that have been done to them, the awful things they themselves have done, and about the power and violence that only fantasy lets you resort to, as a vent for your frustration. These monsters are heroes of pain.

So the stories need to get inside their heads, sympathising with their stories, understanding their disgust - at humanity and at themselves - and then letting all hell break loose in righteous, visceral wrath. It's a story for the outsider in all of us. If you look at the green "vat monster" painting: I asked Martin for the image of two scientists, staring in horror at what they've achieved. And then you notice the reflected eyes in the glass and you realize that you are the head waiting to be attached to that torso in the background.

There are two levels of horror in Frankenstein's Legions. The first is the body-horror of the pieced-together abominations that we’re looking at. The second is the individual's moral horror at what they have done and what they are forced to do. Imagine a tortured soul who has had an awful life, finding himself woken in a monstrous body, dragging himself around because he must, loathing himself and everything around him... The life the monsters are forced to live is just unbearable.

For me, a big inspiration is the early Hulk stories. I'm talking about right back at the beginning, the Kirby issues, where it was all about this tortured nightmare self. A lot of that probably came from stories like the Karloff Frankenstein movies. We don't have to be sappy about making the monsters likeable. They can rip off innocent heads like daisies. That only makes them more interesting. They are entitled to treat "the living" (us) with savagery, when you look at how they have been treated.

So don't let's have the noble savage who just wants to be left alone to love. Let's have the men who, loathed as monsters, will take every chance to act as monsters. The dirtiest dozen you can imagine, the Inglourious Basterds turned up to eleven. And make the reader side with them so that we, too, despise "the limps" who expect us "stiffs" to fight their wars for them.

About the imagery: Gothic has been way overdone. Castles, dungeons, darkened labs... we can't make a brand from clichés. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the end of the Age of Reason. The Georgians built geometrically regular houses, very modern in their tastes. Napoleon held conferences on river boats. Ballrooms would be well-lit, brightly painted. This was not the Dark Ages. I say that because when a lazaran platoon marches onto the lawn of a chateau, the intrusion of the horrific into everyday, orderly life will be all the more shocking.

We should decide: is this to be set in 1830s Europe? It could as easily be set in 1860s America, Victor Frankenstein's notebooks having been brought over by Clerval's family fleeing the wars in Europe. And just when one institution of slavery is being abolished, suddenly a new and more widely acceptable version is found...

All the above is my vision for what makes Frankenstein's Legions stand apart from other interpretations of the genre. I'd like it to shake up the Frankenstein story the way District 9 shook up SF movies. Not to be Van Helsing or The Wolfman, another tired retread of that whole played-out Gothic horror vibe, but to bring something fresh, visceral and at the same time thought-provoking.


  1. All this reminds me that, in the forest near my home, there's place called "l'Etang des Morts", i.e. "the Dead's pool" because the bodies of soldiers died after Napoleon's campaign in Russia had been dropped there. If you're looking for a location for a (non-)live-action roleplaying game, you know where to go... ;-)

    1. I knew about the mass graves of the Grande Armée in Lithuania, Olivier, but it seems the height of bad luck to make it all the way back from Moscow to France and then to expire on one's own doorstep, so to speak. L'Étang des Morts is very evocative - indeed, it could be the title of a gamebook!

    2. He he ! When I was a child, one of my friends - with whom I often played gamebooks - boasted he had found there a skull...
      To come back on the main topic, the idea came to my mind that the European Powers, to thwart the undead Napoleon, could seek the help of Haiti, the true land of zombies. Napoleon, following the bad advice of his wife Joséphine, daughter of a plantation-holder, had restablished slavery on this French island. Of course, the Blacks revolted and declared independence. Though their leader Toussaint Louverture was arrested and died in jail in France, and despite the sending of a huge armada, the Blacks could vainquish the French troops. Thus, Haitians would still bear a strong grudge against Napoleon and would look forward to send some voodoo priests as elite troopers....

    3. I like that idea *a lot*, especially as it would allow for an interesting "authentic" take on zombies to contrast with the comic book brain-eater type. (I'm thinking in particular of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie, a classic of horror cinema.)