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On April 13, 2021, publisher Fantagraphics is due to release Monsters, which, in their own words, is ‘the most anticipated graphic novel in recent comics history!’ Running at a mammoth 360 pages, the black and white comic book by the award-winning British illustrator Barry Windsor-Smith is a visual spectacle and demands attention. The cover alone, with its crisp design containing the image of a distressed ‘monster,’ sparks intrigue and promises a complex, disturbing tale.
Windsor-Smith made a name for himself in the 1970s, working for Marvel and winning several awards for his artwork in The Savage Sword of Conan. He also worked on some of the more feral superheroes and mutants, including the Wolverine origin story, Weapon X, where he had both writing and art duties. His latest opus has been a work in progress for over 35 years, and the final product carries the weight of that commitment, physically and metaphorically. Monsters weaves a web of horror and drama and reflects comics’ history within its modern gothic tale.
An Unfolding Horror
In the 1960s, the young Bobby Bailey attempts to enlist in the US Army, but his credentials aren’t up to scratch. His recruiting office, Sergeant McFarland, believes that he may know a part of the military where Bobby may fit in. And so begins a journey of horror, genetic mutilation, grief, and regret. Bailey and McFarland’s lives are destined to be linked, and the Sergeant’s moment of weakness at the beginning of the story leads them down a path of destruction.
The book’s tone is set within the opening pages where Bobby, as a child, is attacked and scarred by an overpowering monster of a man. Windsor-Smith crams the panels with tension, and raw terror as Bobby’s mother rushes to protect her son. The twisted depiction of the abusive father towers over the frightened mother and her unconscious son. It is impossible to escape from the situation, and the reader is drawn into the heavy line work and dark shadows. Almost incomprehensible text fills the monster’s speech balloons, which contrasts the clear, overly large text Windsor-Smith uses for Bobby’s mother. Within the first two opening double pages, Windsor-Smith expresses his mission statement for Monsters, and it leaves you reeling as you tentatively begin following Bobby’s journey through life.
Monsters combines gothic horror with comic book tropes to produce a melting pot of twisted drama, moral dilemmas, and unrelenting brilliance from the opening onwards. There is a powerful Frankenstein influence that has been combined with a Captain America style origin story. This is a merging of cultures and genres that crosses oceans, time, and mediums. Old British sensibilities have been grafted onto classic American pulp fictions to create something modern and inspirational. The narrative is the tour-de-force that Fantagraphics promise, and it will move you on several emotional levels.
Capturing the Monsters
Each page is packed with detail, and the panels are covered with meticulous linework that summons the scenery and characters from the whiteness beneath. Windsor-Smith’s shading is produced through heavy hatching that reflects the layers of narrative the creator has brought to the book. You can almost see the building blocks of the story, but just as you start to become familiar with the style, Windsor-Smith pulls the rug visually by breaking the panel frames or reducing the backgrounds to pitch black.
The character work deserves special attention and not just because this book relies heavily on the emotional connections between the cast. Windsor-Smith uses subtle gestures and specific props to heighten personalities. Characters fiddle with their spectacles like a nervous Peter Cushing in the scene of a Hammer Horror film, and tiny American flags are thrust into distorted bodies as an affront to military leadership hierarchy. These details make each page irresistible and slow the pace right down, building the atmosphere.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of dynamism and heart-thumping excitement. The action sequences are full of detail, but the emphasis is on movement and urgency. A car chase scene is a high octane affair where the page layouts open up with fewer, disorganized panels. Monsters manages to flip from speech heavy emotional drama to conflict heavy action on a page’s turn without breaking the narrative flow. The only drawback of this is that it is difficult to find a place to take a break while reading.
The sheer scale of Monsters makes it impossible to cover everything that is going on in the storytelling. There is just so much to unpack. Whether you are familiar with Windsor-Smith’s work or not, everyone will get something out of this book. The story, the characterization, the spectacular artwork, and even the cultural commentary all add layers for the reader to dissect like an uncontrollable Doctor Frankenstein trying to find the secret of life. It is an engrossing work of art that is beautiful and horrific in equal measures. Windsor-Smith even manages to breathe life into tired comic book cliches so that they seem fresh upon the page.
When this book hits the shelves, it may come with a $39.99 price tag, but Monsters is worth every penny. This deserves a place of honor next to the Collected Sandman, Asterios Polyp, EC Library collection, or whatever your most cherished books may be.
This is, without question, a must-buy book.