Mary Shelly’s groundbreaking novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is one of the most widely read, widely adapted texts in the English language. “Frankenstein,” as you likely already know, refers to the visionary scientist/creator/protagonist of Shelly’s story, not the sentient being he creates. In fact, neither Victor Frankenstein nor anyone else ever deigns to give the being a proper name. Rather, the creation is referred to as “it” or bluntly described with dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “demon,” fiend,” or “creature.” In defining the being this way, Frankenstein makes it abundantly clear he views his creation as less than human.
Frances “Frankie” Ai, the Victor Frankenstein analog in Talia Dutton’s debut graphic novel M is for Monster, definitely views her creation as human and gives her a name straightaway. Ironically, there lies the problem.
Ever since her sister Maura died several months ago, Frankie has been wracked with guilt and consumed by grief. She has also been on a relentless, monomaniacal quest to bring her dead sister back to life. Lightning flashes, the switch is thrown, and Frankie assumes she’s succeeded. She names her creation Maura and promptly starts treating the child as though she’s been away at summer camp rather than dead. Unfortunately, while Frankie and her nonbinary partner Gin have succeeded in reanimating Maura’s corpse, Maura herself remains a ghost, detached from her former body.
Despite the similarity of certain key plot points, however, Dutton isn’t simply retelling Shelly’s iconic story. Instead, she deftly uses Shelly’s text as a springboard to explore notions of family, identity, and expectations, poetically laying the groundwork before the action even starts.
“At first the monster felt nothing,” muses a disembodied narrative voice. “The rest of us always feel something…. It is possible that, at the moment she awoke, the monster was the only one in history to remember what it is like…to not feel anything.”
As M blinks comes to life, she emerges from the darkness with no memories of her past life, much less a clear sense of self. With the help of Maura’s ghost—who only M can see—M tries desperately to become the sister Frankie clearly wants her to be. Meanwhile, Frankie is so consumed by her own vision of success she can only keep problem solving; thinking aloud about ways she might improve the process by starting over again.
“She’s already been taken apart once,” Frankie declares with an air of cold detachment. “Once more to get it right isn’t going to hurt. Not in the long run anyways.”
Aesthetically, Dutton’s illustrations convey a level of warmth and immediacy that make the story soar. With bold black lines, simple shadows, and a constrained duotone palette of teal, black, and white, Dutton’s immersive, Steampunk style complements the script perfectly. With a dynamic combination of medium and close-up framings, her characters are expressive, vibrant, and wonderfully real. The visual flow is seamless and highly accessible, rooted in relatable scenes of every day life like making eggs, drinking tea, and sewing.
With colors by Avery Bacon and letters by Lor Prescott, the art carries most of the load, but don’t sleep on Dutton’s script. With a well balanced blend of humor, heartfelt dialogue, and pathos, Dutton establishes and sustains a bittersweet mood without ever descending into navel-gazing self pity. The characters’ emotions are raw, but not overwrought. A difficult line to walk, especially for a debut creator.
Though Dutton uses Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as a catalyst to jumpstart the action, the story that follows is wholly her own. M is for Monster is a tender, heartfelt exploration of acceptance and what it means to forge your own identity in the face of expectations to the contrary. It’s also a welcome addition to the Mariko Tamaki-curated line of LGBTQ-focused graphic novels, Surely, at Abrams Comic Arts.
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