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Looking Back At Frankenstein

Today Doug Moench may be most widely known as the cocreator with artist Don Perlin of Moon Knight that was adapted as a Disney+ series. Moench began his comics writing career in 1970 with a couple stories that appeared in Eerie and Vampirella before moving several years later to New York City. Marvel beckoned the young writer whose name soon began to appear in many of Marvel’s Curtis Magazine imprint where the publisher could bypass the Comics Code Authority censors to feature more mature content. Just to be clear that doesn’t mean porn or even erotica but the organization had such a strangle hold on comics that vampires, ghouls and werewolves couldn’t be shown in comics until 1971.

Marvel had launched five different horror magazines all of which sold though not well enough to escape cancellation that created a backlog of finished stories that would see print in the new Legion of Monsters magazine appearing in September 1975. Behind the Neal Adams cover are four stories: Dracula by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano; the debut of Manphibian by Marv Wolfman, Tony Isabella, and Dave Cockrum; The Flies by Gerry Conway and Paul Kirschner, possibly inspired by Tod Browning’s 1932 movie Freaks; and the lead story featuring Frankenstein’s Monster by Doug Moench, Val Mayerik, Dan Adkins, and Pablo Marcos.

The plot of The Monster and the Masque is standard fare and Moench’s writing is overly florid but not unusual for a new generation of writers at the time. Frankenstein follows a woman (Cynthia) dressed as a princess running through town. Intrigued by her beauty, the Monster follows her through the town to a large two story home where a big costume party is being held. While standing outside a window hoping to see Cynthia again a man, let’s call him Robin Hood because of the archer costume, surprises Frankenstein with this intro and invitation.

Strange, right? At this point Robin is really just a plot device first for Moench to put Frankenstein inside the house. Moench could’ve written any number of replies for Robin to have instead of exclaiming “I’m straight as an arrow” but he didn’t because he was doing a bit of set up. Moench’s next line for Robin — “Just figured you belonged inside…” — can’t be overlooked though for its support and acceptance. Both messages were rare in mainstream and pop culture media at the time.

In the next few pages Moench has the Monster mingling with some of the guests including Cynthia who shares a short dance with him. They’re not freaked out because everyone thinks he’s wearing an incredible costume. A man in a jester costume notices how Frankenstein has been observing Cynthia and pretends to take the Monster into his confidence by telling him Cynthia’s life is in danger by another partier, her own husband (George) who’s wearing full knight’s armor. Jester recruits Frankenstein to keep close tabs on George. The monster does exactly that until this scene occurs near a bathroom.

Another woman then appears to accuse Frankenstein of being a gay man preying on George who is indeed her husband. The predatory gay trope had already been in use in media for decades when Legion of Monsters appeared in 1975. Most surprising is the word “gay”. Before my reading The Monster and the Masque I’d presumed the first use of “gay” in mainstream comics to reference homosexuality was in Fantastic Four #251 (cover dated February 1983) by John Byrne. Technically speaking it may be still since Legion of Monsters was marketed and sold as a magazine in addition to being distributed differently from comic books. That’s a small and important difference because comics had been subject to Comics Code Authority censors since 1954 when the board was created. The CCA is to comics as the Hays Code was to movie and television studios from 1934 to 1968. If you ever wondered why Lucy and Ricky’s bedroom had two twin beds it’s because of the Hays Code. How “gay” in the Fantastic Four story slipped by the CCA censors is a curious question.

Here we have the trope about gay men being predatory monsters out to seduce straight men though from the reader’s viewpoint it’s being applied to an actual monster; the same monster who was perceived solely as an abomination by the townspeople in Mary Shelley’s novel that was published in 1818. Moench has the Monster defend himself against the bigoted woman which after a bit of thinking reads to me as the writer sending an implicit message of support to the queer community six years after the Stonewall Riots. Alas, the idea planted in Frankenstein’s mind by the Jester guy to follow George has been a lie and a ruse perpetrated to facilitate a heinous crime. As the story nears its end Jester guy whips up the crowd who fight and grab at the Monster only to realize when he pushes back that his physical appearance isn’t an elaborate costume as they’d thought and then Frankenstein eludes the partiers turned mob and shambles off into the night.

Just a month before this story’s publication Moench’s Moon Knight, cocreated with artist Don Perlin, made his first appearance in Werewolf By Night #32. That two issue story was followed by another appearance in Werewolf By Night #37 and a two part story in Marvel Spotlight #28 and #29 in the summer of 1976. Marv Wolfman was the series editor while Len Wein was editor in chief. Jim Shooter who instituted the infamous “no gays” policy at Marvel came onboard as EIC in 1978 and lasted till 1987. Aside from being the character’s first solo story, Moench’s story in Marvel Spotlight is important for the introduction of the problematic gay villain Merkins. Yes, really, and you can read Merkins’ profile to discover why the character is so terrible. One factor that may be partly responsible for this awful depiction is the fact that the Moon Knight stories were published in comic book format which as mentioned above were subject to the Comics Code which at the time prohibited any positive representation of, to use its term, “sexual deviancy” Had the Moon Knight story appeared in magazine format Moench might have written a more nuanced gay villain.

Perhaps my reading of this story is wrong and I’m being too generous in thinking that Moench intended to signal support for the still new LGBTQA community. You can read this story and the entire issue for free on Marvel Unlimited if you’re a member or buy a digital copy. Or find the Monster and the Masque story reprinted in Essential Monster of Frankenstein, Monster of Frankenstein, and Decades: Marvel In the ’70s – Legion of Monsters. The entire Legion of Monsters issue is reprinted only in the Decades books.

I’d like to give credit where credit is due for bringing this story to my attention. I don’t remember if it was brought to my attention by someone getting in contact or if I stumbled across the article at SuperMegaMonkey and patiently waited to find a reasonably priced copy and then set it aside (for years) with other comics for research. Thank you to the forgotten person if it’s the former!

September 13, 2022
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