Drawing Rock 'N' Roll And Sympathy Into Frankenstein's World
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein has been adapted countless times over the years — into films, television shows and even musicals.
In his new graphic novel adaptation of Shelley's story, illustrator Gris Grimly says he set out to make the original text more accessible.
"The first time I tried to read Frankenstein, I didn't get through it," Grimly tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Frankenstein is not the easiest read when you're young."
The graphic novel contains nearly 200 pages of illustrations stitched together with Shelley's words. Grimly says he relied on film adaptations of the story. "I wanted to change that for the young generations to come — to give them a way to read the words and interpret the words ... and not have to rely on the movies," he says.
On not repeating previous illustrations of the story
I was gonna make it my own world, my own time period. Something kind of surreal and have an element of rock 'n' roll to it.
On Frankenstein's monster as a sympathetic, child-like character
It is definitely a huge part of the book. ... Some people say that has to do with Mary Shelley's upbringing and the pain — that she felt ostracized. And so she put that into that character.
I think that's one of the things that drew me to the story in the beginning is that fact that I kind of felt ostracized growing up. I grew up in the country, on a farm, and I just didn't fit in growing up.
On relating to the character
When I was 5 years old, I was burned seriously — my back, 80 percent of my skin, so I grew up feeling kind of like a monster. I felt that I was that creature that wanted to fit into society but was consistently told that I wasn't there, I couldn't. And I think that's one of the things that has always attracted me to the Frankenstein story.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Artist Gris Grimly made his name creating beautiful and terrifying illustrations, including for many children's books. Flip through his "Wicked Nursery Rhymes" or "Sipping Spiders through a Straw" and you'll see the creatures that populate nightmares. And so it is in his latest work, though this one is a graphic novel. It's Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" brought to life in Grimly's rusty punk rock Victorian world.
The story goes like this: Dr. Victor Frankenstein assembles a man from parts of corpses and brings him to life. But the creature is repulsive, and Frankenstein abandons him. The unwanted child spends the rest of the novel exacting monstrous revenge on his creator. We asked Gris Grimly into NPR West to talk about his creation, an illustrated version of Mary Shelley's novel. Gris Grimly, thanks for coming in.
GRIS GRIMLY: Of course.
RATH: So first off, your Frankenstein, the visual depiction - I mean, he's been fearsome in the movies, but he's more disturbing in your rendering. I mean, he's difficult to look at, in a way. There are bones and viscera that are visible, and he's more horrific, I think, in a way that feels more genuine.
GRIMLY: Yeah. That's funny, because it's definitely - I have, like, a fascination with the skeletal structure. I love the skeleton Halloween outfit, like, you know, just people wearing skeleton shirts that look, you know, the ribcage is exposed. And so I try to incorporate that in a lot of my artwork.
RATH: And the world that the characters inhabit that you draw, it's kind of a - it's sort of an ahistorical world. It feels kind of Victorian but sort of steam punkish. There are weird mechanical contraptions and automobiles mixed in. How did you come up with that conception?
GRIMLY: Well, first of all, there an artist, Bernie Wrightson, and he did a version of "Frankenstein," which is, you know, I mean, it's my favorite illustrated version. I think it's a lot of people's favorites. And...
RATH: It's a fairly classic sort of straight gothic...
GRIMLY: Yeah. Very traditional, like gothic. And I see Bernie Wrightson's "Frankenstein" as a masterpiece, and I didn't want to even - I didn't want to go there. So that kind of set the ground rules. Like, I was going to make it my own world, my own time period, my, you know, something kind of surreal and have an element of rock and roll to it.
RATH: Mm-hmm. People just sort of had the broadest outlines of this story. I'm wondering what you were trying to draw out in your rendering that people may be missing.
GRIMLY: Well, I mean, it's just so much more rich than the movie adaptation. And I think that - I mean, let's face it. When I - maybe it wasn't this way for you, but the first time I tried to read "Frankenstein," I didn't get through it. And I'm finding this is the same with a lot of people. "Frankenstein" is not the easiest read when you're young.
So I had the films as my - that became my interpretation of the book until I could read the book. And I wanted to change that for the young generations to come, to give them a way to read the words and interpret the words and get all the way from page one to page 200 and say I've read "Frankenstein" and not have to rely on the movies.
RATH: And it's very faithful to the - I mean, I think so faithful to the text I don't think there's a word in there that's not from the novel, is there?
GRIMLY: Not a word that's not from the novel. But it's abridged. We had to cut it back because every page is illustrated. In order to do that, we had to cut some of the dialogue out.
RATH: You know, I think that a lot of people that come to the book after the movie, which is probably most of us now. I mean, it was me - since I grew up in the age of movies and everybody did - is that the book feels so much more sympathetic to the monster...
RATH: ...and gets you inside his head. And that seems something that you really took to.
GRIMLY: You definitely get a sense of the monster's pain. And, you know, even though he's a monster, there's elements of it, you know, where he, you know, he goes and sees that girl next to the shore. I think she's throwing flowers in the water. And he wants to be a part of that, and he throws her in the water, and she ends up dying. You know, you can tell he wants to play, but he ends up killing her.
RATH: I mean, you see some of that childish - childlike quality to him.
GRIMLY: Yeah. You know, it is definitely a huge part of the book. And, you know, some people say that that has to do with Mary Shelley's upbringing and the pain that, you know, she felt ostracized. And so she put that into that character. And I think that's one of the things that, you know, drew me to the story in the beginning is the fact that I kind of felt ostracized growing up.
You know, I grew up in the country, on a farm, and I just didn't fit in growing up. And not only that, when I was - I think to go back and really pinpoint it, when I was 5 years old, I was burned seriously. My back, you know, most - 80 percent of my skin. So I grew up feeling kind of like a monster. I felt that I was that creature that wanted to fit into society but was consistently told that I couldn't. And I think that's one of the things that has always attracted me to the Frankenstein story.
RATH: Gris, this is great. Thank you.
GRIMLY: Yeah, it was a good time.
RATH: Artist Gris Grimly. His version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.