Frankenstein Cometh!

How far can you trace back your personal canons?

Anyone who has spent just a bit of time in our house will notice that Frankenstein’s monster has a bit of a presence. My ur-text is King Kong, which I saw when I was about six, but it was Frankenstein which really took root in my imagination a few years later. It’d be tempting to tell you how I identified with the sad, lonesome creature, trying to make sense of the world, but – I won’t. At that age I firmly saw the monsters as them while my heroes were more like Superman and Tarzan.

To be honest, aside from ‘general cultural osmosis’ I don’t quite know where I had picked up the basic story of “scientist creates monster, and monster goes on a rampage,” but I do know that in my imagination the creature was firmly that: a monster, an it even. I was ten when I saw my first Frankenstein film, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and I managed to ignore the comedy and be scared by the tropes it sought to parody: thin gruel does satisfy the hungry. My mind extracted from it a story of a man-made monster, a castle in thunderstorm and a sinister assistant mournfully blowing his horn. All that, hung on the skeleton of a single picture found in library book when I was seven.

The book is Hilary Henson’s Robots (in Dutch, pedantically, Robots en Computer) and the miracles of the Internet brought it to my doorstep today. And there it was, on page 19: it’s just a small image, a cut-out of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup. Out of all the other things that could grip me, and may have at another time (like the robot from Metropolis) it was that one image that fascinated me; I must indeed have been in a monsters! frame of mind. At the time, I made a drawing of it in my sketchbook. I can’t account, really, for the shirt. Perhaps it’s a transplant from the Universal Werewolf movies, but I think it’s more that these were typical shirts of the early ’80s.

It would be years before I got to see James Whale’s Frankenstein films properly. That is; I’d saved up for my own small TV set for in my room, and with the advent of cable, the BBC had been added to the few Dutch and German channels we’d received until then. The Beeb had an all-night Frankenstein night, and I remember watching Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride with the skylight above the bedroom door taped shut with black cardboard; mom and dad wouldn’t approve staying up until an ungodly hour. I also had the sound turned completely off. Just as well; I doubt I’d have appreciated the campiness of Bride of Frankenstein!


Who’s Afraid Of The Scaredy Kids?

Those of you who have enjoyed the first Scaredy Kids story (download it here) might be interested in how we came to it. It’s been a long time brewing; our first notes are of more than a decade and two homes ago. The concept has stayed remarkably true to its genesis, and we’re happy to finally having done something with it. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to do more!

The main inspiration for the Scaredy Kids, obviously, is Universal’s stable of classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy. I refuse to include Gill Man, as he’s not classic era but atomic age. It’s a nerd thing. Starting with Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) the original, establishing, films were soon followed up with “close family” films: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), and when by the 1940s Universal had run out of plausible family, team-ups started with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man in 1943. The monsters were familiar, and welcome, faces at the end of the war. The core gang were present in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (both 1945) and made a final bow in the still entertaining Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

The first notes have the name Little Monsters, and would be a cartoon series, comic strip or picture book for ages 5 – 9. The concept was: An ensemble piece about childhood insecurities set in a castle and its grounds, where the little monsters live with the scientist who made them and who is their father figure. Problems usually come from within themselves, likewise solutions. As characters we had a Vampire, Monster (Frankenstein), Mummy, Witch and Wolf Girl.

From a young age we’d both been fascinated by spooky things and have good memories of books like those witch and vampire books by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins. We used to borrow them from our libraries, and ebay has furnished us with our own copies, decades later.

We were very interested in making it aspirational, without being ‘improving’; these things should be fun! Our description of the Wolf Girl: Needs careful handling so that she never becomes a cheap joke or, God forbid, encourages little girls to feel insecure about their bodies, since studies show that girls in the target audience age-group worry about hair, weight etc. The opposite should be true, with the character learning to accept who she is. Find ways to make her dilemmas about how to do things rather than self-disgust.

We found parallels in existing cartoon series like Arthur, Muppet Babies and Rugrats. Angeline wrote, at the time: Rugrats was arguably the definitive children’s cartoon for those born in the late eighties or early nineties. I suspect that part of its appeal was that, in satirising the faults and foibles of the adult world, it was like a Simpsons for kids that little bit too young to fully appreciate (or be allowed to watch!) that show. Indeed, its creators had worked on The Simpsons, the influence of which is seen in the clever scripts, E-number-bright colours and visual grotesquery of Rugrats. But it also had a strong heart, and grown men and women have been known to weep at the episode in which Chucky deals with the loss of his mother.

When we then picked the idea up a while later, we added a few other characters; George the Dragon, the youngest of the bunch, and Cyril the ghostly boy. The kids would range in age from roughly 4 to 12, with Cassandra the oldest. We figured that, much in line with the Muppet Babies and indeed Peanuts, the Professor should remain unseen, so that we’d focus on the world of the children. As a new reference point we came up with “Pippi Longstocking meets the Addams Family”, which in turn made us think of the St. Trinian’s cartoons by Ronald Searle.

There’s another book that had been niggling at my brain for many years, and must have influenced the Scaredy Kids too: Eva Ibbotson’s The Great Ghost Rescue. I read it first when I was struggling with the name “George” (my father explained that it was like “Sjors”, a Dutch comics character). It’s a children’t book about a family of ghosts , who get evicted from their castle, and then travel through the country looking for a new home. What is great about these characters is that they’re for children, but they’re not cute. The lead, Humphrey, may be friendly, his mom’s a hag, his father lost both legs in the battle of Otterburn and was run through with a sword, his brother George is a screaming skull and his sister a wailing ghost covered in bloodstains. And then there’s Shuk, a pet like you’d not expect in a book for young children! They may be disfunctional and chaotic, yet it’s also really interesting how this, really, was an early (1975) example of supernatural inclusivity.