Blood. Bits of human bodies strewn on the floor, hacked apart with clumsy implements and sewn together with dirty needles. His eyes stare out a face that seems to lack skin. He’s afraid, he’s screaming, he’s mocking you, but whatever he is, it’s hard to look at him without getting the feeling he’s howling, or moaning constantly. No space could contain his painfully large body, and the rooms he inhabits are dank and cramped. Has black and white hatching ever looked so brown?
Junji Ito’s Frankenstein is a comic chasing a feeling, a vibe, one great impression gleaned from Mary Shelley’s novel and essentially nothing else. When Ito is not chasing this feeling, the comic falls slack, stiffening into the straightforward retelling of a Classics Illustrated, where pages upon pages unfold of men and women in stodgy Victorian dress and upright posture, discussing plans for weddings that I couldn’t care less about. Maybe I have a short attention span, but it often seems that Ito does as well. These pages are light, literally so - daylight leaves little room for Ito’s oppressive hatching, and it leeches away the distinctive character of his art. Without that gloomy labor, Ito could be any mangaka, and this is just a comic book of Frankenstein. But not for long.
The brilliance of Ito’s version reaches its pitch in Frankenstein’s creation of the monster. In Ito’s hands, there is no marvelous invention, no awe-inspiring contraption to ogle. Scientific-looking trinkets are littered about the room like scattered beer cans, the room of his birth more a 19th century man-cave than a laboratory. What we are drawn to is the mass of body parts strung together, their organs oozing onto a mat laid out so that maybe the floors will stay clean. It’s too big, gnarly, already a mistake, too much body for the room to bear. And then he stands up! In the room that can’t sustain him! There are plenty of depictions of Frankenstein’s monster that capture the poetry of this moment - Bernie Wrightson’s illustrated version immediately comes to mind - but this is the rare vision which makes the act of creation as violent and grotesque as an act of killing. Here the delirious dirge of horror pollutes the prettiness of the plain.
Ito’s Frankenstein looks like a massive version of HP Lovecraft but with the skin boiled off to expose the raw flesh, a kind of object that doesn’t quite create sympathy but rather a feeling that his pain in existence is so harsh that its comprehension would harm you. He’s large, but in an emaciated fashion, a walking hollow that can never be fed. He is literally too close for comfort. When the monster is given a prospective mate by his creator, the moment we see the two together on the page we understand why these two will reject each other - there’s no room for them to stand together!
Claustrophobia is key in this adaptation. That memed image from the comic -- you’ve seen it, the one where he’s tapping on the window laughing -- it’s actually a perfect distillation of the comic. Frankenstein’s monster is a man too close to you at a bar, the one who starts telling you a story and won’t leave. You can smell his breath right now can’t you? Poking, tugging at you just by looking at you. He makes you feel like dirt, and understanding him even a little just makes it worse. It’s like the old man’s coiled body in Uzumaki, a body pressed on body, pressing on you with your need to see it. No image in this book is as perfect as that one, whose serialization began around the same time Ito finished his Frankenstein in 1998, but in Frankenstein that sensation is brought about in action, making the reader witness to the spinning of his monster people. In the very different context of this comic’s project, it’s like watching the old guy bend his body bit by bit into that wretched shape. In this adaptation we get another side of Ito’s post-Lovecraftian thinking, the willingness of people to contort themselves along a grotesque arithmetic that we can comprehend but defies understanding.
However, the reader of Viz Media’s Junji Ito’s Frankenstein is going to meet a lot more than Mary Shelley. The prolific localisation deposit that is Viz Media (or, more likely, the fine hucksters at Asahi Sonorama, whose 2013 reprint is apparently the source of this edition) have filled the back half of the book with some classic Ito chillers - well, more than half, really, the back two thirds. More bang for your buck perhaps, or maybe a way for the enterprising publisher to get out their Ito in bulk. Frankenstein is followed by Neck Specter, a very early Ito story in a similar vein to the first Tomie about a boy who kills his best friend and is menaced by visions of long necks. The long neck thing is a pretty classic J-Horror thing, dating back to some folklore I remember reading about back when I was seeing a lot of J-Horror with the long neck thing, but what stands out here is Ito’s art. Early Ito comics aren’t quite so polished, he doesn’t have the time and maybe not even the skill yet to do those impressive swirling intricacies he’s known for. Instead, he makes use of a powerful line, making wobbly marks that emerge from dark patches like pus from a zit made of ink. Screentone saves time on walls and big spaces, their regularity in contrast to the crudely erratic figures creating a locked environment, trapping his heroes in a narrative quarantine with open sores.
Most of the stories that round out this collection feature a recurring character, Oshikiri, a sullen teen boy who looks like a chubby YA version of Kazuo Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy. The stories concern strange phenomena happening at first to his friends, than increasingly to him, as it becomes clear with every chapter that a multitude of people from parallel universes are harassing him, often evil versions of himself, and their entrance is an undefined spot in the huge house where he lives alone. The rapid escalation of paranoia in these stories is fantastic, not only for tying together random one-offs in a way Ito would perfect in his better known work, but in tying that escalation to a certain anxiety, that any bad thing in the world that you can’t understand is a product of your being there, that the air your breathe turns toxic at exhale, that to live with you is to live in hell. If there’s a theme which ties together this tome likely thrown together on the quick by an enterprising editor, it’s the fear that being too close to something will ruin everything. Ito has the kind of popularity that can grate on the longtime reader, the degree of presence that permits easy dismissal. But there’s still a reason to read these comics, and I hope Ito’s audience will give this book the attention it deserves.