Updating Frankenstein For The Age of Black Lives Matter
A sinewy, grayish, vaguely human thing sits on the ice cap somewhere in the Arctic, before plunging into the water below. That's when a very unfortunate whaling vessel arrives and harpoons a whale, setting the thing on a rampage. It won't take long for readers put the pieces together: The creature is the Monster — as in Frankenstein's monster — and his encounter with the whaling ship sets him on a mission to destroy, pitting him against the humanity that rejected him centuries ago.
That's the premise of Destroyer, a new six-issue, limited-series comic by the author Victor LaValle, which hit comic book stands earlier this month. (He also has a new novel out this month , called The Changeling.)
LaValle has long married matters of race to the fantastical. The same is true here in Destroyer: The last living member of the Frankenstein line in the modern day happens to be a woman named Josephine Baker, a brilliant African-American scientist overwrought with grief after her 12-year-old son is killed by a police officer. But Baker, like her notorious forebear, has the means to bring the dead back to life, and she unknowingly puts her family's legacies — her resurrected son and her ancestor's rage-filled abomination — on a collision course.
I talked with Victor LaValle to talk about why he thought the Frankenstein myth lends itself to an exploration of the fallout of modern police violence. Here's our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
So much really effective horror literalizes the specific cultural anxieties of the moment, and this comic is very much about the desire for a parent whose child has been killed by the police to overcome death. Why'd you choose Frankenstein as the way into that idea?
It's one of the first science fiction novels, a great horror novel. But what really stayed with me is the origin of it in Mary Shelley's emotional life. She's the daughter of a woman who died giving birth to her, and she held on to this grief all her life: that she didn't know herself. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a pretty famous woman herself. A suffragette, a vegan —
Frankenstein's monster is actually a vegan in her novel! It's a very minor thing, but he talks very proudly about how he lives entirely off berries and grass — which is impressive because he's eight feet tall, so he's got to eat a lot of berries! But Shelley lost her mother at birth ... and then she runs off with Percy Shelley. Their first kid together was born premature, and a couple months into the baby's life, Mary Shelley walks into the nursery room and finds the baby dead in its crib. She writes in her journal: "Found baby dead. Very bad day." That's all she wrote in her journal that day.
Not long after that, Lord Byron and Percy and she all go off on their famous trip where they all say, "Let's come up with ghost stories. Let's come up with something really spooky." It's in that context that she comes up with this story about a man who tries to bring the dead back to life.
I wanted to explore that kind of grief, that desire — forget Victor Frankenstein's desire but what I read as Mary Shelley's desire — to bring back who you love and to wish for that power not simply out of hubris, but to see the one you love back again.
There's no way I couldn't think of in 2014, 2015, 2016, all these black parents, and particularly black mothers — black mothers on the news that I see wrecked by the murders of their children. And it occurred to me that this is on some level the same urge. If I were to say to any one of them, "Would you be willing to do anything to bring back your child?"
I felt pretty sure the answer would be " Yes, I'd do anything."And so I thought of Frankenstein's monster, and this is how I would make it relevant to today and not this old rehash but a continuation of these really essential ideas and a way to talk about issues that are up to the moment, unfortunately.
In the first issue, you synopsize the circumstances under which the young boy, whose name we don't learn, is shot by the police, although we don't initially see his killing.
His name is Akai.
GD: Like Akai Gurley? [Gurley was an unarmed Brooklyn man who was shot by a police officer while walking down a pitch-black stairwell in a public housing complex in 2014. The officer in that shooting was fired by the police department and later convicted of manslaughter.]
I didn't want to call him "Tamir" like Tamir Rice because it seemed too ghoulish. And because Tamir Rice's name is a name that many people knew, it would be hard to see this character as a character, and there were ways that readers might demand a more literal version of him. But Akai Gurley didn't become a national story, even though his story was just as horrible. And I thought, here's a tiny way I can keep his name alive.
It's clear that Akai and the Monster are going to cross paths, and Josephine Baker is going to have to deal with her family's legacy. So she's the great-great-great — a descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein?
The only Frankenstein who lives in Mary Shelley's novel is Edward Frankenstein, one of Victor's younger brothers. When Victor Frankenstein destroys the mate he was making for the Monster, the Monster says "I will be with you on your wedding night." And then the Monster shows up and kills Victor's seven-year-old brother then he kills the woman Victor was going to marry then he kills Victor's father. He basically kills everyone.
My thinking, was: Edward is the only one who survives and because of what happened in Europe, he comes to America. Eventually, as these things happen, the last living descendant of the Frankenstein line is Josephine Baker.
A black woman.
A black woman. In the later issues, there's the suggestion of, "Well, why couldn't she be a Frankenstein?" Why would you assume she wasn't? Especially if you know how the world works — particularly how America works.
Were people skeptical about the plausibility of that?
No, but I was anticipating skepticism. Like sometimes, being used to degrees of ignorance or prejudice, I start coming up with explanations or retorts to things that don't even come up. I just said, she's the last Frankenstein, and my editors were like, "OK, sounds good."
You say in the afterword that you never read the novel until you started working on this project. And full disclosure, I've never read it either, but it's one of those touchstones that's so iconic that most people probably think they know the rough outline.
Yeah, as I wrote in the afterword, the novel is so much weirder than its offspring. I departed from the Boris Karloff Frankenstein depiction ...
With the bolts in the neck.
Right, and the flat head and also 'the innocent monster.' That's a real change from the book. The sweet Monster who just wants to be loved, that's in the book. But when Victor Frankenstein rejects him, he basically is like, "OK, well I'm going to become a serial killer!" And that part magically stays out of the later Frankenstein stuff. Because I think it makes the Monster — in a good way — complicated, but for popular entertainment, makes him less simple and sympathetic.
Your characterization of the Monster in Destroyer is that he's a rampaging, unstoppable force.
At the end of the novel, the Monster sees Victor Frankenstein die, and basically runs away to the Arctic. So my thing is he's got several hundred years apart from humanity. I don't see what humanity has done over those 200 years that would make anyone have a softer view of humanity.
There are lots of people who would argue on the other end, that there's a lot of good. But this version of the Monster, will be like, "All your good intentions, they don't mean anything. All I look at is the ways in which you have wrecked this world. I'm at war with you." Toward the end of Mary Shelley's novel, the Monster says that he is at war with humanity. And I liked the idea of this Monster who is just a being of rage. It's going to be a very grim depiction of the Monster.
But that's going to be juxtaposed by this other character who is brought back from the dead, in Akai. He's a 12-year-old, and he's not going to be a being full of rage, right?
He's a 12-year-old, and he's a sweet 12-year-old. So one, I wanted to show just a sweet black boy, just to have that as something you see in the comic, because I feel like you don't see that anywhere. And then two, the overarching battle on the spiritual level is Josephine, who is teetering between madness and sanity because of her grief at the loss of her son. And then you have these two literal embodiments of those choices: the Monster, on one end, is just the impulse to give in to grief and rage, and to just say "I'm sick of humanity, let's just kill everyone." And on the other end is Akai, who is, despite even what happened to him, still imbued with the spirit of hope. And to say, "look how amazing it is, Mom, through your brilliance and technology, there's still a chance for good in the world to still exist."
But if one of the themes in the original novel is hubris — even if Josephine brought back this sweet kid from the dead, she's still doing something that is ethically ... let's, say, murky.
The return of her son and the return of the Monster will force her into a larger consideration of many of the ethical choices she has made up to this point, and to make her have to stop having blinders on about her responsibility and her culpability in some of the harsh thing that her brilliance has brought into the world. The two guys who come looking for Josephine in the first issue work for a woman who is the director of this thing called the Lab. And they have been doing, as they must always do, "secret government experiments." [Laughs.] And Josephine was always the brilliant scientist at the heart of those experiments, but those experiments came with a cost as well.
Did she stop working at the Lab after Akai was killed by the police?
It was because of the birth of Akai, and that being the beginning of a flowering of new conscience. But I do really want to wrestle with some real-world things, and as women talk about quite a bit, you get pregnant at a high-powered job and they push you out. Even the people who are higher up, they lose confidence in you as a serious professional. So outside of the superpowers and the bringing-back-the-dead stuff, I wanted to deal with how hard it is to be an ambitious woman within an organization. It's harder than it is to be an ambitious man.
In the first issue, we see an allusion to the police dispatch call that leads to the police encounter in which Akai is killed. Did you model the way his killing happened on any of the specific stories of black people being killed by the police in the last few years?
That call is literally the call that is the beginning of Tamir Rice's murder. I went and found the transcripts between the dispatcher and the police who eventually showed up. The part we hear is the part where the dispatcher is trying to find a unit that can come to the scene.
Whenever one of these stories happen, there's always this impulse to decontextualize it. This person made that choice and t hat person made that choice and those choices seem to exist inside this sphere that only involve the people immediately involved. We don't appreciate the forces that bring a random black kid and a random police officer into contact, even though those things happen literally thousands of times a day. Not necessarily shootings like Tamir Rice's, but there's nothing aberrant about those encounters with the police. And there's a whole bunch of reasons, you know, why Akai Gurley was in a place where he had this encounter while he was just walking down a stairwell ...
Even down to how or why it was commonplace thing for the lights to be out in that building's stairwell, so that that cop walks in extra nervous and won't even walk in the stairway.
What I was even more interested in setting up was this other thing that gets lost. How did his parents meet? What was their courtship like? When we finally get to the moment when we sort of replay the moment in which he is killed, I want it to feel like, I've known this family since his parents met, since Josephine and his dad met at the lab. That all this life was ended there, and that all these lines of human existence that came to a close at that moment.
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