What is Frankenfiction?

Image via Editorial Planeta

The remix, the mashup, and the reboot have come to dominate Western popular culture. These texts are the ‘monsters’ of our age—hybrid creations that lurk at the limits of responsible consumption and acceptable appropriation. Like monsters, mashups offer audiences the thrill of transgression in a safe and familiar format. And like other popular texts before them, they are often read by critics as a sign of the artistic and moral degeneration of contemporary culture.

With this context in mind, my research explores the boundaries and connections between contemporary remix culture and its Others (adaptation, parody, the Gothic, Romanticism, postmodernism). It often does so by examining remix culture’s most ‘monstrous’ and liminal texts: Frankenfictions, or commercial narratives that insert fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts. In this definition, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein serves as a touchstone, offering an ideal metaphor for appropriative creativity in the twenty-first century.

Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling Quirk Classics novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful (2014–2016), the depiction of monsters through an historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s photorealistic paintings, and much, much more. It is monstrous not only because of the fantastical monsters it contains, but because of its position on the boundary between remix and more established modes of appropriation. Too engaged with tradition for some, and not traditional enough for others, Frankenfiction is a bestselling genre that nevertheless remains peripheral to critical discussions of remix. 

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer

For my PhD research into monster mashups, I’ve ended up reading a lot of things with cheesy titles. Jane Slayre, Wuthering Bites, Grave Expectations, Mr Darcy, Vampyre – I could list them all day. Compared to these, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer isn’t too bad, but it’s got the same gleeful level of camp and (ir)reverence for classic stories as the rest on the list. As one might expect, Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer follows the exploits of our favourite wooden boy, and takes place in the world of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). When a pack of the undead disturb Geppetto’s workshop, Pinocchio discovers that his nose doubles perfectly as a vampire stake. All he has to do is tell a lie.

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The bigger the lie the better.

 

Not only does this premise make for some great one-liners, but it also makes a surprising amount of sense. Of course Pinocchio would make an amazing vampire hunter, just as it makes perfect sense that even the zombie apocalypse can’t stop class struggle in Pride and Prejudice, or that Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Rochester is a werewolf. I’m constantly amazed at the ease with which the supernatural can be injected into classic stories, and I always have to wonder whether this is primarily due to the skill of the contemporary remixer, the willingness of present-day readers to accept genre bending, or the underlying fantasticality of the classics themselves.

This is one reason why it’s tricky to analyse mashups in terms of how ‘comedic’ or ‘serious’ they are. The collected edition of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer has a nice little foreword by comic book writer Mike Carey, who seems to appreciate the peculiar blend of humour and sincerity that mashups like this tend to exhibit:

On one level, this is a preposterous piss-take. Of course it is. Pinocchio kills vampires, and he uses his famously adjustable nose as a stake, which means (spoiler alert) all he’s got to do to make a kill is tell a really big lie […] it’s when Jensen and Higgins start to take the story seriously – and to question its premises – that it grows wings. (p. v-vi)

The entire premise of Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a joke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t do serious things along the way. Or that traditionally ‘silly’ things like monster or genre fiction are less culturally valuable than literary or artistic fiction. As a culture we still tend to look at drama and realist fiction as somehow better than humour and the fantastic, but it’s a preconception that’s now changing, albeit ever-so-slowly.

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This comment from Cricket reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s take on fantasy.

 

Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is illustrated in beautiful black and white – a bold choice for a comic marketed primarily to teenagers, as my edition clearly states, but also a choice that works well with the source material. This is especially true of the storybook ‘flashback’ pages, which are more stylised than the rest of the comic, and have a lovely woodcut feel to them. Pinocchio‘s monochromatic images give it an old-timey quality, and make it seem more like a visualised fairy tale than a run-of-the-mill superhero comic. The visual sombreness also helps to counterbalance the (very, very sad) jokes throughout, and keeps the characters from becoming too garish.

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Very, very sad.

 

With comic books (or graphic novels, if you will), I often find the distinction between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’ material to be pretty arbitrary. Most often it’s the sex that earns imprints like Vertigo the ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ warning, but officially adult comics definitely aren’t the only works dealing with ‘adult themes’, however we define that term. There’s not a lot of sex in Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (beyond the mandatory love interest and occasional innuendo), but violence and gore abounds. This includes one particular scene that reminds me of another text I just looked at for my research, Wolfcop (2014). Let’s just say both involve skin-tearing and leave it at that.

Pinocchio gets away with all this a bit easier because the gore is in black and white like the rest of the comic, but it’s not afraid to embrace the gruesome hyperbole that traditionally characterises both vampire stories and fairy tales. It also alludes to its film and literary heritage whenever it can. Quotes from the Collodi version are peppered throughout the text. There was a fun moment in the middle of the narrative when, during a long carriage ride, Cricket offers to help pass the time with some music. He gets as far as ‘When you wish upon…’ before the surly driver interrupts him with a stern ‘No singing’. The moment served both to recall how indebted our knowledge of the Pinocchio fairy tale is to the 1940 Disney version, and to humorously highlight the differences between that version of the story and this one. There’s even a visual echo of another monster mashup, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), in the troupe from the Grand Puppet Theater.

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See any resemblance?

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it makes a particularly poignant nod to the original Collodi fairy tale that really highlights how differently we approach both fantasy and storytelling today.

In the end Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer is a lot of fun, and it uses that fun both to reintroduce us to a classic story, and to forge new connections with other stories. I would definitely recommend it to fans of vampire fiction, as well as to most fairy tale fans. If you love both, then you’ll be able to fully appreciate its weird and wonderful way of remixing this story of a magical puppet who wanted to be a real boy.

And if all else fails, there are ‘rabbits of ill portent’ to entertain you:

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Everyone loves a creepy rabbit of doom or two.