Interview: Jamie S. Rich & Megan Levens on Image’s Madame Frankenstein

Madame Frankenstein #1. Cover by Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi.

Madame Frankenstein #1. Cover by Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi.

Jamie S. Rich is the writer of comics including A Boy & A Girl, It Girl & The Atomics, and Spell Checkers. Megan Levens is the creator of Somewhere in Between, draws advertising storyboards by day and comics by night. Together, they are the creative team behind Madame Frankenstein from Image Comics. Westfield’s Roger Ash contacted Rich and Levens to learn more about this new look at the Frankenstein story.

Westfield: How did you come to work together on Madame Frankenstein?

Jamie S. Rich : There’s some serendipity here. I met Megan about 10 years ago. One of my last trips, if not the last trip, as editor-in-chief of Oni Press was to the Savannah College of Art and Design for one of their comics editors weekends. Megan was graduating and I gave her a portfolio review. This was 2004. Cut ahead to 2009 at San Diego Comic Con, and Megan comes up to the Oni Press table where I’m hawking You Have Killed Me. She mentions having met me, and I asked, “Was I nice to you?” sort of expecting her to hit me with her portfolio or something. She said, “You told me I’d definitely work in comics one day.”

Knowing that I never said such a thing lightly, I made her show me her work again. We started communicating not long after, and did a short story for Tim Seeley’s Double Feature online anthology. We haven’t stopped working since.

Megan Levens: It’s kind of funny also that when Jamie and I first met, at that portfolio review at SCAD, was about the time that I was first sketching loose character designs of the Monster. So we met each other back when I first had the very basic concept of this story, then years passed, with this character buried in old sketchbooks. Then we had the good fortune to reconnect at SDCC and started working together. Two years and two projects later, I randomly started drawing this monster design again in my sketchbooks, still trying to figure out who she was…and that was when Jamie asked what our next book together should be. So I showed him the sketch and we went from there.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 1.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 1.

Westfield: Why did you decide to revisit the Frankenstein story?

Levens: On a very basic level, as a female creator and artist, I always found it intriguing that this genre-shaping classic work of horror was written by a young woman. So I thought it would be interesting to take the basic concept of man trying to control life and death, and turn it into a story of man trying to control woman, really pushing it to a truly female perspective. Visually, too, Frankenstein’s monster is always portrayed as this grisly, stitched-together creature, so I thought it’d be appropriately ironic that our doctor sets out to create the “perfect” woman but the process of resurrection produces something a bit grotesque.

Westfield: Why do the story as a period piece instead of a modern setting? How much design work was done before you started on the book?

Levens: It was kind of arbitrary…at first, years ago, I drew the character in a vaguely futuristic setting. When I revisited the idea, I started drawing the monster in all these lush 1930s evening gowns, and just liked the contrast of the glamorous styles of the era being worn by this walking corpse. There’s a lot of drama in the clothes and architecture of that period that I thought would be a nice backdrop to the story, so that’s the time period I suggested to Jamie, and he really ran with it. Our characters would’ve been children during World War I, so he used the events of the war to shape the backstory. He even nailed down the exact year so that the James Whale Frankenstein film would have existed, and possibly been seen by the characters, in this world.

When I started reading the level of detail and research he’d put into the script, I set out to make sure the art would live up to that standard. I designed all of the main characters and the basic look of the laboratory for our initial pitch to Image, so all of that was laid out before I started pencilling, but a lot of smaller details I created as I went along. If I was drawing a party scene in a frat house, for example, I’d have my iPad propped up with several Google Images search windows open, with everything from furniture to glassware from the era. For clothes I bought several books of 1930s fashion, and I basically “shopped” for outfits for the characters in those.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 2.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 2.

Westfield: What can you tell us about the book and who are the main characters we’ll meet?

Rich: There is a central trio that drives the story. Almost a quartet, actually, if you consider the monster has two identities. When she is brought back to life, she is named Gail, but in her original existence, she was Courtney, a flapper who ended up caught between two men. Henry Lean and Vincent Krall grew up together, though their history is strained. Henry’s father was rich, and Vincent’s father was his chauffeur. After the death of Mr. Krall, there were promises made to Vincent about the Lean family taking care of him, but then the Depression hit and things went south. Henry is partially responsible for Vincent being kicked out of medical school, and he’s also the one who ended up with Courtney. They are out on a date when she dies, Henry was drunk and crashed their car. All of this history goes into Vincent’s decision to bring her back to life. He had already been experimenting with reanimating dead flesh, so Courtney becomes his human test subject.

Westfield: Aside from Frankenstein, Pygmalion is obviously an influence and you also deal with magic as well. Why did you decide to bring these elements into the story?

Rich: Megan was clear in her original pitch that she wanted the female lead, the monster, to be a real character, a real woman, and that we needed to engage in what it meant for a man to be trying to rebuild a woman he supposedly loved and molding her to fit a completely different image of who she is. As an Audrey Hepburn fan, I couldn’t help but think of My Fair Lady. And, of course, I’m also a fan of the 1938 film version of Pygmalion starring Wendy Hillier. Given that Mary Shelley originally built the Frankenstein narrative using the myth of Prometheus, it seemed fitting to go back to the original source for Pygmalion. It’s basically the original prototype for the kind of tale we wanted to tell.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 3.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 3.

Westfield: The three main characters – Vincent, Courtney, and Henry – are all flawed, some more so than others. Do you enjoy working with characters who aren’t traditionally heroic?

Rich: They are certainly more complex and challenging as a writer, because you still have to find some way to make them sympathetic. In some horror stories, there is a blatant evil and an obvious victim. Dracula, for instance, as seductive as he can be, doesn’t have much goodness left in him. Frankenstein and all its iterations, on the other hand, is about choices. Everyone here is faced with certain decisions, and those decisions lead to consequences, affecting them and those around them. There is more psychology to it. Vincent has a reason to build his creature that is more complicated than a need to feed. He’s vain, but he’s also broken-hearted. As an author, it’s up to me to make his bad decisions understandable, even if we’re clearly not exonerating him.

Levens: I also think it’s important that Gail is a victim, but in her previous life, as Courtney, she wasn’t exactly an angel. It’d be a little hypocritical to create a story about the vanity of a man trying to create the ideal woman, if she really was presented as some sort of feminine ideal of virtue and grace. It’s much more interesting to me that she’s not. She’s never been helpless, and neither of these two men are heroes. As I just wrote this, I just had a really insane mental image of girls running around comic conventions wearing “Team Vincent” and “Team Henry” shirts…and me crying out, “You missed the point! They’re both awful!”

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 4.

Madame Frankenstein #1 preview page 4.

Westfield: What can you tell us about your collaboration? How do you two work together on the book?

Rich: We actually completed a romance graphic novel for Oni Press before we started this. It’s a graphic novel called Ares & Aphrodite that I think will be out late this year or early 2015. That was a concept I brought to Megan, and I had a fairly extensive series bible put together already. But, it was still early enough in the scripting stage that we could establish a real back and forth. Her designing the look of the characters informed the story, and I checked with her almost daily to show her what I was doing next, to get her feedback, and work it through.

Anyway, I finished the script for Ares & Aphrodite about a year ago and immediately asked, “What’s next?” It was a pretty smooth transition to apply the working method we’d established to building Madame Frankenstein from the ground up. I ended up showing Eric Stephenson all the concept art, and the first six pages, last June when we were filming his episode of From the Gutters. He gave us the greenlight to publish this at Image Comics, and as soon as Megan finished inking Ares & Aphrodite in September, we started rolling. She’s a machine. More than half the book is drawn and we just solicited #1.

Levens: When we first started putting together the story for Madame Frankenstein, I sent Jamie a handful of character sketches I had from various old sketchbooks, and told him the basic concept, and that was it. A few days later I had this richly detailed backstory, of who the characters were and how they knew each other and what led Vincent down his path. So I responded to that with new character designs of Gail and Vincent, in the lab, interacting. Then he’d send chunks of the story as it came to him, and we bounced back and forth that way until we had hammered out the storyline for the series. It was like each bit of the story that he wrote gave me some new visual to draw, and every new drawing gave him more insight into who these people were and how to write them.

He sends each script as soon as it’s finished (with tons of great photo reference!), which has been awesome, because while I’m working on one issue, I can read what I need to be building up to, and that informs the way I might draw two characters interacting with one another, or how I might design a certain environment I’ll be revisiting later. And I’m fond of sending snapshots as I’m working, just to keep him up to date on where I am, or to show off when I think I’ve really nailed a particular panel. Mostly the latter.

Westfield: Are there any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to mention?

Rich: Obviously, folks will want to watch for Ares & Aphrodite, I think Oni will be giving some official details on that soon. I also have a book from them coming out in June, a weird crime graphic novel called Archer Coe & the Thousand Natural Shocks that I created with an artist named Dan Christensen. It’s almost like the evolutionary link between You Have Killed Me and Madame Frankenstein. The crime of one, the horror of the other. Dan has a very classic pulpy vibe to his line work. Kind of like Matt Wagner and Will Eisner had a love child and that kid went to work for Fantagraphics.

I also have an ongoing digital series via Monkeybrain called The Double Life of Miranda Turner, with art by George Kambadais and colors by Paulina Ganucheau. It’s a superhero story in a similar vein to It Girl & the Atomics. Lots of cool ladies having fun kicking butt. It’s lettered by Crank! who is also our excellent letterer on Madame Frankenstein.

Levens: Ares & Aphrodite is my next big thing for people to look forward to. I’m really excited that my first two big books are so drastically different, but they’re from the same team, so, people will get to see how versatile Jamie and I can be working together.

Madame Frankenstein #1. Cover by Christopher Mitten.

Madame Frankenstein #1. Cover by Christopher Mitten.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Levens: I hope people enjoy reading Madame Frankenstein as much as I did drawing it! Is that cheesy? This book has been amazing to work on, and I hope a tiny bit of that joy shows through to the readers.

Rich: I think we should also give a shout-out to our cover artists. Joëlle Jones and Nick Filardi are collaborating on all of our covers, and #1 has a bonus variant by Christopher Mitten. They’re doing tremendous work on our behalf, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

I’ve actually been joking with them that we’re all going to be competing at the end of the year for the “Best Use of Frankenstein in 2014.” Joëlle and Nick are doing the art for Oni Press’ Brides of Helheim, which is like a Viking hybrid of the Frankenstein mythology, and Christopher is working with Steve Niles on Criminal Macabre: The Eyes of Frankenstein over at Dark Horse. Mary Shelley is alive and well in the comic book world.


Madame Frankenstein #1


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