(Victor LaValle’s Destroyer and the Problem of Progress)
Victor LaValle’s comic mini-series, Destroyer, reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the context of the Black Lives Matter Movement. LaValle and artist Dietrich Smith make Frankenstein’s relevance to racial terror in America blindingly and depressingly obvious. In Destroyer, Dr. Josephine Baker, the last living ancestor of Dr. Frankenstein, decides to reanimate (and weaponize) her only son Akai after police murder him on his walk home from a Little League baseball game. The difference, of course, is that police viewed Dr. Baker’s son as a “monster” before his mother reanimates him.
An alchemic mixture of “New Black Gothic” and Afrofuturist sci-fi, Destroyer typifies the artistic and stylistic trends associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s particularly powerful in the way it intertwines Frankenstein’s critique of scientific progress with a narrative of race in America. Thanks to Mary Shelley, we now know to be wary of the blind pursuit of scientific “progress.” Not so with narratives of racial progress in America. Joseph Winters explains that when we imbue the story of racial progress in America with a “sense of stability, coherence, and achievement,” much as Victor Frankenstein does with his view of science, it ultimately “functions as a consoling and conciliatory narrative.” This consoling narrative of racial progress, Winters continues, enhances “the effectiveness of power [which] depends partly on its ability to produce forgetful subjects.” In the national responses to the BLM movement, bad faith though many are, a critique of “racial progress” has proven to be one of the activists’ most difficult rhetorical tasks. LaValle brilliantly sees in Frankenstein an opportunity to meet that task.
The first issue of Destroyer shows how LaValle short-circuits these two narratives of progress in an effort to retrain and redirect his reader’s skepticism towards the symbolic (but not always material) victories in the continuing fight against anti-Black racism. The series begins where Shelley’s ends, as the original Creature from Frankenstein reemerges literally out of our collective creation: in the melting of the polar ice caps. He is immediately confronted by violence, witnessing a blue whale harpooned. In horror, he surfaces from the water and destroys the whaling vessel, gaining the praise of a nearby group of save-the-whales protesters. From them, the Creature learns about the scientific developments that have taken place since we last saw him in Shelley’s novel, which include his modern-day foil, Akai. The full-page spread of these scientific developments best explains the function of Victor’s creature in LaValle’s modern-day narrative on race in America. In the vertically organized panels, the reader sees seemingly positive scientific inventions, like the light-bulb and flight, followed by images of mustard gas, nuclear weapons, and factory farming. As these inventions pile up, LaValle seems to echo the familiar view of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science.
Yet, the final two panels complicate how we interact with this familiar narrative. In the first, Steve Jobs holds an iPhone, inviting the reader to weigh both its negative and its positive impacts. In the second, in a seemingly abrupt shift, we see an officer shooting a young Black man in the back, caught on dash cam footage. The unexpectedness of this final image forces us to reconsider the earlier images of scientific inventions and their relationships to race. Is this final act of violence linked with a critique of scientific progress, or is it a non-sequitur? This framing invites us to consider the ways in which cell-phone footage has provided an avenue for exposing police brutality and racial terror; but even this invention has not been enough to achieve justice or closure for these victims in our legal system. From the Creature’s strained eye, we see the start of an uncontrollable urge or anger in response to these thoughts of progress, the unwillingness of society to learn from Victor’s mistake. In the following scene, the Creature destroys the shipping vessel—and kills the animals’ rights protesters as well as the nearby villagers, before charting his way north to Montana to put an end to Dr. Baker’s experiment.
LaValle brings this critique into full view in the next scene, when he introduces the primary antagonist of the narrative: Dr. Baker’s paramilitary ex-boss, the Director, and her cheekily named minions Percy Shelley, George Byron, and Captain Clerval. The Director wants to harness the power of Dr. Baker’s new invention, thereby achieving immortality and becoming a “God.” Such villainous objectives fit neatly into the comic horror genre. Again, the racial context complicates how the reader engages with the conventional narrative. Significantly, we first see The Director from a perspective that puts us behind her chair, looking out towards her office.
Two small but detailed paintings hang on the office walls: one of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632) and the other a presidential portrait of Richard Nixon. Of the former, the Director will later provide the context: “The dead man was a thief, recently executed, named Adriaen Adriaensz. In his life he did nothing of consequence. In death he’s a vital part of Rembrandt’s first truly great painting.” Referring to Adriaensz as “material,” she explains that, once dehumanized, criminals can become useful for artists and scientists alike. The panel underscores the interplay between scientific progress and the dehumanization of especially African American criminals by including the never-explained but always-haunting specter of Richard Nixon, widely credited for modern-day mass incarceration by initiating the “War on Drugs” that would be intensified under Ronald Reagan and again under Bill Clinton.
The legal and social dehumanization of African Americans through criminalization literally hangs over the story of Akai, a boy shown in the following scene not to be cut out for science because his instinct is to protect an earthworm. His mother chides, “What kind of scientist am I raising if you can’t even make an incision on an earthworm? You’re too tender-hearted.” In what turns out to be only a memory, Dr. Baker immediately consoles her son, who transforms into a corpse and releases his grip not on an earthworm – but a bullet. By reimagining Shelley’s Frankenstein in this context, LaValle shows the problems of scientific progress do not merely mirror the history and sustained prevalence of racial terror in the US. Instead, he challenges readers to recognize how scientific progress and racial terror overlap and affect one another; the two are simply inseparable.
So, what is the effect of this experimental mixture? Frankenstein was, of course, born out of a period of not only scientific but also political revolution. The French Revolution was potent and fresh in Shelley’s memory. Shelley’s ambivalence about revolution is well known and visible in Frankenstein. Johanna M. Smith argues, for example: “The tension between fear of revolution and sympathy with the revolutionary reveals Mary’s personal ambivalence, but it does more than that: by making both the conservative and the revolutionary arguments, Frankenstein dramatizes the tension between the two that characterized England in the years between 1789 and 1832.”
For LaValle, the urgency of the BLM Movement does not allow for a similar ambivalence. In Destroyer’s afterword, LaValle cites Mary Shelley’s own experience losing her child in 1815 and her subsequent act of artistic creation as the inspiration for Dr. Baker. Brilliant and prodigious both may be; however, Dr. Baker is not Mary Shelley. She is a Black woman in America. Her loss is not only a personal tragedy; it is also a state-sanctioned atrocity – and one of many. LaValle shows that Dr. Baker’s act of grief must be different than Shelley’s. Unlike Shelley, Baker “would create life, but she would use that creation for vengeance. Her grief and rage would inspire only one goal: destroy.”
Vincent Haddad is an Assistant Professor of English at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. He has written on comics and graphic novels for Black Perspectives and ImageTexT. Look for his forthcoming pieces on literature and the BLM Movement in The Comparatist and LA Review of Books. He is currently at work on his book manuscript Touch Me: Intimacy and the Contemporary Bookish Novel.