The origins of the Frankenstein theme
and the development of its visual concepts

Global warming and the effects that climate changes may have are now a general concern and topic of discussion, but very few people are aware of the fact that one of fiction's best known characters - the Frankenstein Monster - owes its existence largely to similar circumstances: a temporary but pronounced change of climate. The volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa (today part of Indonesia), which lasted from 5 - 15 April 1815, ejected massive amounts of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere, where two previous eruptions in the Caribbean (1812) and the Philippines (1814) had already deposited a substantial amount of dust. As a result, less sunlight passed through the atmosphere, leading to abnormal climatic conditions (and subsequent food shortages) throughout 1816, the"year without summer" (Stommel, 1983).

In July of that year, 19-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, but the climatic disturbance prevented them from enjoying the outdoor activities they had planned:


The Villa Diodati, situated on the North-West shore of Lake Geneva, as depicted in Finden's Landscape & Portrait Illustrations to the Life and Works of Lord Byron, vol. 2 (John Murray, London, 1832)

Mary Shelley did not visit Chillon Castle (situated on the Eastern shore of Lake Geneva) herself, but the chateau displays much of the eerie atmosphere which she portrayed in Frankenstein


"It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house. Some volumes of ghost stories, translated from the German into French, fell into our hands." (Shelley, 1831)

Byron then challenged Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and his personal physician John Polidori with a contest to pass the time:

"'We will each write a ghost story' said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to (...) I busied myself to think of a story, a story to rival those which had excited us to this task (...) Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated (...) perhaps a corpse would be re-animated (...) perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth. Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw - with shut eyes, but acute mental vision - the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion (...) The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me." (Shelley, 1831)

This wake dream, according to Mary Shelley's own description, planted the seeds for what would become one of the great classics of romantic horror literature:

"Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. "I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow." On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. I began that day with the words, "It was on a dreary night of November", making only a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream. At first I thought but of a few pages of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length." (Shelley, 1831)

"It was a dreary night of November" eventually became the opening line of chapter four of the final work which she entitled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

First published anonymously in 1818, the standard edition generally referred to is the revised third edition of 1831, published in London under her name of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Basically the first literary work to feature the concept of the "mad scientist" (Tourney, 1992), its success was instant: while most early Victorian reviewers were critical of what they considered sensationalist and gruesome elements, most of them praised the author's imagination and powers of description (Bomarito, 2006).
Stage adaptations appeared very shortly after the publication of Frankenstein, the first being Richard Brinsley Peake's Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, which opened at the English Opera House on 28 July 1823. It would pave the way for many more adaptations to come, in the sense that "adapted" would more often than not mean "changed". Peake - who was under pressure from conservative moralist groups - changed the plot in order to avoid boycotts and, to that purpose, introduced an assistant to Frankenstein by the name of Fritz, who served as on-stage moral commentator for the audience. Mary Shelley herself attended one of the performances but found that "the story was not well managed" (Baldick, 1990) - a more than understandable reaction. But her creation was already so popular in England and Europe that by 1826 - only eight years after the first publication of the novel - Frankenstein had seen more than a dozen stage dramatisations, all of which had already changed the general plot considerably by discarding central themes and adding aspects which were not to be found in the novel, such as the assistant and the creation of the monster in a laboratory setting (Shelley did not reveal how Frankenstein actually animated his creation). Ironically, even Mary Shelley herself could not resist the influence of these stage presentations entirely as she made certain adaptations to the text for the third edition in 1831 when she strengthened the cautionary elements of the story and introduced Frankenstein's allusions to lightning and galvanism as the basis for resurrecting the lifeless form.

Following the motion picture's development from a travelling vaudeville novelty to an established large-scale entertainment form since 1895, Frankenstein became the first horror film in 1910. Produced by Thomas Edison and directed by J. Searle Dawley, it was filmed over several days in January at the Edison Motion Picture Studios in New York and premiered on 18 March 1910. The film, which ran for 16 minutes, was received favourably by critics, but not by paying viewers, and whilst some films stayed in circulation for years, Frankenstein quickly faded from the public's memory - so much so that it was believed to be lost until the 1970s when a sole surviving print was discovered (Drees, A.N.).

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the first Frankenstein movie had no lasting influence on later visual depictions of the monster. Actor Charles Ogle, who played the monster and was also responsible for his own make-up (as was generally the case in those days) thus failed to leave his mark on the general public's idea of what the Frankenstein monster might look like. Ogle's visual portrayal was, in fact, fairly consistent with Mary Shelley's description of Frankenstein's creation in the novel:

"By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs (...) his yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips." (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, chapter V)


The monster as depicted by actor Charles Ogle in the 1910 Frankenstein movie (which can be viewed in various versions online)

Subsequent film adaptations (Life without Soul [USA 1916], Il mostro di Frankenstein [Italy, 1921]) were no success either. No prints are known to have survived, and information with regard to the visual appearance of the monster is virtually non-existant (Fournier, 2007).
When Universal Pictures, the leading studio in the horror genre with films such as The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula, decided to take on Frankenstein in 1931, chief makeup artist Jack Pierce, director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff thus had a blank canvas upon which they could project their visual interpretation and rendition of the monster.
The resulting image of Karloff in undersized clothes and heavy boots with a flat head which displayed clamps, scars and bolts, would became the definitive impersonation of the monster and is since virtually synonymous with the word "Frankenstein".

"I [Jack Pierce] did not depend on imagination. In 1931, before I did a bit of designing, I spent three months of research in anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminal history, criminology, ancient and modern burial customs, and electrodynamics. My anatomical studies taught me that there are six ways a surgeon can cut the skull in order to take out or put in a brain. I figured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practising surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way. He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a potlid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight. That is the reason I decided to make the Monster's head square and flat like a shoe box and did that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together." (Manguel, 1997)


Jack Pierce in the process of applying the monster make-up to Boris Karloff

The most influential horror image of all times quickly became an icon of popular culture, as did the setting in which it moved.

Stylistically influenced by German expressionist movies of the silent era, Victor Frankenstein's tower and his laboratory are imposing architectural features, with huge walls and irregular stairs, and strange machines, electric devices and bubbling test tubes which together with the actors cast eerie shadows everywhere. As the Monster is lifted to the top of the lab's tower and is exposed to lightning, the claps of thunder almost drown Frankenstein's both triumphant and hysterical cry - "It's alive!".

The script of the movie deviates extensively from Mary Shelley's novel in a number of core points, but it would become the definitive rendition of Frankenstein's tale, not only in terms of imagery, but also in terms of narrative. Subsequent adaptations of the theme would be influenced by and indeed base themselves on Universal's movie rather than Shelley's novel.

Comic books were not only under the influence of the Universal mould, they were more or less forced to conform to it in order not to disappoint the visual expectations of their readers, despite the fact that Universal held a copyright on the make-up (Frank, 1974).


First page from Menace #7 (September 1953)

  An early example from Marvel's Atlas era pedigree is the 9 page story "The Return of the Monster" in Marvel Tales #96 (June 1950), pencilled by Syd Shores, which was reprinted in Where Monsters Dwell #32 (November 1974) with a newly pencilled cover by Larry Lieber. Another example - coincidentally scripted by a certain Stan Lee (with artwork by Joe Maneely) - is "Your Name is Frankenstein!" in Atlas Comics' Menace #7 (September 1953) which conforms almost completely to the Karloff portrait.

It also highlights an aspect of the rendition of Shelley's novel in popular culture which is often criticised: the equation of the monster with the name of its creator, i.e. Frankenstein. Neither the novel nor the Universal film attribute a name to the monster, but the all-in movie title Frankenstein was, of course, not without influence.


Where Monsters Dwell #32 (November 1974)

Universal's movie also had the most direct influence on comics possible by leaving an indelible impression in the mind of one of the most important and noteable artists of the industry, Gene Colan, whose credit to fame includes Marvel's classic Bronze Age horror title Tomb of Dracula:

"[It was] at the age of 5 when I was exposed to my first horror film. It was Frankenstein. My father wanted to see it and he took me along. Boy, did that traumatize me! That was in 1931. From then on, I was intrigued with horror. I didn’t realize it in those years, but it kind of crept up on me. I sort of took what I loved from the screen and put it on paper." (Dlugos, 2002)

The brand Marvel Comics was introduced on 9 May 1961 when Amazing Adventures #3 (cover date August 1961) was the first post-war comic book to display the "MC" box on its cover. By that time, Frankenstein's creation had already experienced a period of absence from the company's output, and the hiatus would grow even longer as the newly introduced and highly successful superhero formula created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko caused a general switch from the horror genre to superheroes.

It was not until January 1968 - way into the so-called Silver Age period - that Frankenstein's Monster made its first appearance in a Marvel comic book when X-Men #40 featured an android version of Victor Frankenstein's creation. Written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Don Heck (pencils) and George Tuska (inks plus cover), the core element of the storyline was that the Frankenstein Monster is - a robot, created by an alien race and deployed to Earth in the hopes of facilitating communications. However, the messenger was mistaken by those who saw it for a monster, and after a malfunction which led the "monster" to menace humans, the aliens pursued it to the arctic circle where it was frozen in a block of ice.


X-Men #40 (January 1968)

  Eventually, the android was found by a museum expedition and brought to New York for study.

As the robot was unfrozen, it smashed its way out of the museum lab but was intercepted and destroyed by the X-Men after they gleaned the android's origins through a telepathic scan by Professor X.

This rather sub-standard story concept (which wasn't very well executed either) was probably influenced to a large extent by the ruling restrictions of the comics code at the time (Nyberg, 1998), which in all practicability ruled out a "straight" monster.


Panel from the final page of X-Men #40, explaining the robot background

As the restrictions of the comics code were relaxed a few years later, the concept of having an android as source of inspiration for Mary Shelley's book and thus explanation for the existence of a Frankenstein monster in the Marvel universe would be dropped. In terms of visuals, the monster robot was a very close take on the Karloff image.

Silver Surfer #7
(August 1969)

  The name Frankenstein next appeared in - of all titles - Silver Surfer #7 (August 1969) when a descendant of Victor Frankenstein attempts to create a monster of his own - just as the Silver Surfer is flying by. Deceived into helping the scientist animate his creation, the Surfer finds his powers duplicated into the form of an evil Doppelgaenger (later dubbed the "Frankensurfer") by Frankenstein.

The Surfer finally becomes aware of his grave mistake and clashes with his evil spit image, eventually destroying it amidst utter destruction.

Scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by John Buscema, this was another fairly unbalanced and slightly oddball appearance, although noteable for the way it generated storyline interest by having a Frankenstein monster "inside" an outward appearance which was completely removed from all the classic Universal movies' monster images.

In this respect, the approach by Lee and Buscema was highly unconventional both for its time and the comic book media, even though the final result didn't really live up to the amount of innovation the basic plot provided.

The Silver Age was not a period for horror genre characters at all, as can be seen by the simple fact that the classic monster par excellence only featured in two Marvel comic books throughout the entire period (other classic characters weren't present at all) and that even those two appearances were disguised one way or the other, i.e. as android or "Frankensurfer".

continue with
Marvel's 1973 - 1975 The Monster of Frankenstein

The illustrations presented here are copyright material.
Their reproduction in this non-commercial context is considered to be fair use.

Text is (c) 2008-20014 Adrian Wymann



BALDICK Chris (1990) In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press

BOMARITO Jessica (ed.) (2006) Introduction - Gothic Literature, Gale Group (available online at, accessed on 30 August 2007

DLUGOS Jenn (2002) Gene Colan Interview, available on-line and accessed 9 June 2008 at

DREES Rich (----) Edison's Frankenstein: Cinema's first horror film, available online aat, accessed 2 June 2008

FOURNIER Pierre (2007) Silent Frankenstein, available online at, accessed 3 June 2008

FRANK Alan (1974) Horror Movies Octopus Press

MANGUEL Alberto (1997) Bride of Frankenstein, British Film Institute, London

NYBERG Amy Kiste (1998) Seal of Approval: History of the Comics Code, University Press of Mississippi

SHELLEY WOLLSTONECRAFT Mary (1831) Introduction - Frankenstein, Colburn & Bentley

STOMMEL Henry & Elizabeth (1983) Volcano Weather - The story of 1816, the Year without a Summer, Seven Seas Press

TOURNEY Christopher P. (1992) The moral character of Mad Scientists: A cultural critique of science, in Science Technology & Human Values Vol. 17, No. 4, 411-437


page originally published on the web 10 September 2008
revised and posted to 1 March 2014