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Few creators would consider drawing inspiration from My Fair Lady to retell the Frankenstein tale, only as one man’s quest to construct the perfect woman. Fortunately, there are few creators quite like veteran writer Jamie S. Rich and newcomer artist Megan Levens, the team behind the new comic series Madame Frankenstein.
Ahead of the series’ May 7 debut, I talked with Levens about, among many things, her nuanced examination of psychological horror. Madame Frankenstein #1 can be preordered using Diamond Code MAR140478.
Tim O’Shea: You first met Jamie back in 2004, when he visited the Savannah College of Art and Design. Which was the bigger ego boost for you — in 2004, when he reviewed your portfolio and gave you immensely positive feedback, or 2009, when your paths crossed again and he asked to work on a story with you?
Megan Levens: Definitely meeting again and beginning our collaboration in 2009. It’s a very different thing to have an industry professional tell you you have a future in comics when you’re an art student with your whole life of possibilities ahead of you, and to hear it again after five years of odd jobs to pay Los Angeles rent, rejection letters and connections that never quite panned out. I wanted it so much more by that point, and was willing to work harder to make it happen.
This reworking of Frankenstein is set in 1932. How much and what kind of research did you to get the right look for this period piece?
I’ve done an immense amount of visual research while working on this book. I purchased a book of everyday 1930s fashions, and kept that at my drawing table, so whenever I had to pick an outfit for a character to wear in a new scene, I could sort of go “shopping” and pick a whole appropriate ensemble from the period. I tend to look up reference as I go … when the script calls for a party, I’ll pull up an image search for tiny details like glassware or furniture or wallpaper designs, and work off of that. My search history definitely got a little weird during Issue 2 when I was researching morphine addiction and use in the 1930s, necrotic flesh, and antique syringes.
James Whale’s Frankenstein film was released in 1931. Did you watch the film for inspiration?
Absolutely! I had obviously seen the original Frankenstein years ago, but I rewatched it and Bride of Frankenstein before starting this book to get a feel for the mood of those films. I wanted the panel compositions, the lighting, and the characters to feel like they’d fit right into those films. We also deliberately established that our story takes place after the release of that film, so our characters could have seen it.
While there is a horror element to the story, I was struck that your art does not go for the gruesome approach. How early in the development of the story did you and Jamie decide upon the kind of horror tone you wanted to maintain? What I mean, for example, is Gail is made from parts of several different cadavers, but we never see Vincent harvesting the body parts in graphic detail.
Going back to the previous question a bit, I think the original Frankenstein films were very successful in creating a sense of horror without gore. We don’t see the original monster being built, either, only hints of his body being dug up and then we see his resurrection. The really terrifying part of the original story was what the human beings were capable of doing and creating. So in drawing inspiration from the original films, and the novel, it made sense to steer more towards psychological horror. I could argue that Vincent is just as terrifying as a man we know is capable of murdering a woman to harvest her arm, even if we don’t see him with the bone saw in hand. Although that’s not to say things don’t get pretty grisly and graphic later on in the series … I certainly am not opposed to doing a gory book, and it made sense in the end for this story to go a little more in that direction. I don’t want to spoil anything. I’ll just say the bone saw does come out.
I was struck by your discussion of the impact of emotion when working in horror. When did you first realize emotion had that power as a storytelling device?
I don’t know if it was a sudden, conscious realization, so much as I always found myself drawn towards comics that had very expressive, emotive characters. So those were the stories and artists who ended up influencing my work the most. The same with movies, the ones that really stuck with me and had an impact on my work were the ones where I connected emotionally with the characters. I think in any story, especially horror, there’s no real sense of jeopardy unless you care about the characters and what they stand to lose.
Was it a matter of budget or a creative decision to pursue the black and white format?
I always imagined it as a black and white book, or at most, with some gray tones. I really wanted it to look and feel like an old Universal monster film. We left the final decision up to the editors and they liked it as is, so we stuck with it.
How much discussion was there between you and Jamie on how best to balance revealing flashbacks/backstory for the characters versus present day plot?
Jamie and I have a pretty organic process for writing the story, and there’s a lot of trust on both sides, so I left a lot of that up to his judgment when he wrote the script. I think he was very successful in picking where to place the flashbacks, in moments where we could take a break from the present day  storyline, and then later on when we had enough hints of what had happened that we needed to go back and tell the whole story at once. Doing the book in black and white, there was the challenge of making sure the flashbacks read separately from the present day scenes, so we did discuss how to visually distinguish the two. I came up with the idea of using rounded borders, like old photographs.
Can you talk about your design approach for some of the characters?
Coming up with the look of the characters, I tried to put each of their individual stories and personalities into their designs, so you could read a little of who they are instantly. Vincent had to be handsome enough that his darker side wasn’t always apparent, but his face has very hard lines. Henry is pretty much a perfect, blonde, tall, all-American type, which at least for me is an instant read as “arrogant”. Gail and Courtney were the biggest challenge. They share the same body (mostly), so going between flashbacks and present day, the most dramatic difference between them is body language and expressions. I had drawn sketches of Gail the monster years ago [see the first two sketches below], so her general look didn’t change much from that (the stitches and bald head), but in updating her for the comic, I gave her a much more stylized face, and these exaggerated, almost manga-esque eyes. It takes her a while to regain her speech so her emotions needed to read very clearly on her face.
There are some scenes when reading the story, Vincent really creeped me out. As you worked on the story, did your own work ever creep you out as well?
Vincent definitely creeps me out! That’s always been the point. Aside from the obvious horror elements of this story, the real horror is in his relationship with Gail … that he was capable of mutilating her body to bring her back, that he treats her like a possession, keeps her locked in a basement, and yet he genuinely thinks he saved her. I get chills when I draw the two of them interacting. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing my job.