For decades Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters was an urban cartoon legend. Originally launched in 1984 as a The Incredible Hulk one-shot exploring Bruce Banner’s abusive childhood, the story was put aside because of the word “damn” then reused later in Bill Mantlo’s run in the series, infuriating Windsor-Smith. The cartoonist bought a revised and significantly expanded version of the book from different publishers – at one point it was going to be published by Vertigo – but Monsters never materialized beyond some works of art posted on the Windsor-Smith website. Then, last year, Fantagraphics announced that it would release the 360-page black-and-white graphic novel in 2021, Windsor-Smith’s first new work in 16 years.
Monsters takes the seed of the painful upbringing of a terrifying character and turns it into a sprawling family drama about the horrors of war and its impact across generations. Bruce Banner is now Bobby Bailey, and his transformation into an unstoppable and disfigured bully is the end result of a tragedy that has unfolded since WWII. The book begins with the defining trauma of Bobby Bailey’s childhood, when his father, Tom, a newly returned WWII veteran, beats him within an inch of his life and permanently destroys his left eye. The short scene kicks off the narrative with suspense, mystery, and expressive horror that visually breaks from reality. As Janet Bailey walks away from her husband, cradling her bleeding son in her arms, the perspective and proportions of the surrounding environment begin to shift, creating a disorienting and nightmarish landscape where the gigantic Tom Bailey looms over his family.
Windsor-Smith is known for his meticulous inking and cross-hatching Monsters“World and characters remarkable dimension. His inks are mostly very tight and specific, but in the opening sequence the lines have a wild character that contributes to the chaos. Tom is drawn with a flurry of lines that gives his physical form an instability that reflects the madness that invades his mind. He is screaming in German and his word bubbles are filled with confusing text written in Fraktur, the typeface mainly used (and later banned) by the Nazis. This opening creates questions that history won’t return to for a while, and from there the action skips until 1964, when an adult Bobby Bailey enlists in the military and eventually becomes the test subject for Project: Prometheus, a Nazi super-soldier program pursued by the US government.
As impressive as the Windsor-Smith crosshatch is, it’s just as powerful when it minimizes line art. A three-panel sequence of a helicopter carrying Bobby Bailey is imbued with terror, thanks to the sea of black swallowing the plane, drawn with just a few white lines as it disappears in the distance. Towards the end, Windsor-Smith refers to Andrew Wyeth Christina’s world for a moment of transcendence of a character, but he removes the details and only draws the outlines to underline the passage into another plane of consciousness.
The first act of Monsters shares a lot with its creator’s most popular superhero work, Weapon X, another grotesque look at the government torturing an individual through experimentation. Originally published in 1991, Weapon X holds up well 30 years later, recounting how Wolverine obtained his adamantium skeleton through a fascinating mix of body horror and political commentary (with a touch of workplace comedy). Like Bobby Bailey, Logan is at the center of Weapon X, but that’s not the main character from the point of view. Instead, Windsor-Smith focuses on scientists who dehumanize their subject in order to turn it into the ultimate killing machine, examining the ethical compromises they make for their work and the emotional connections they make with their puppet. of meat. There is some very dark humor in the dynamics of the workplace, especially in the way the team engages with its sociopath leader, Dr. Abraham Cornelius.
Humiliation is a big part of the horror in both Weapon X and Monsters. Suffering in body and mind is not enough; the spirit must also be broken. In Weapon XCornelius needs to reinforce his superiority over his superhuman specimen, most pathetically in a scene where he pours coffee on the face of an unconscious Logan. Bobby Bailey’s humiliation at the hands of cruel Project Prometheus workers is the cover image of Monsters, a tight close-up of miserable Bobby with tears in his eyes and an American flag in his head. It’s a twisted version of an office prank, which deeply dehumanizes an innocent man who just wanted to serve his country.
There is one person haunted by these events: Sergeant Elias McFarland, the man who recruited Bobby and who is now tormented with guilt, and who has his own bizarre past with the Bailey family. The influence of superheroes is strongest at the start of Monsters, and Elias’ mission to save Bobby unfolds in an exhilarating car chase that leads to a devastating shootout. Dramatic sound effects punctuate key moments in the action, and the shootout is a showcase of the lettering’s impact on storytelling, with the thickness of the line, the shape of the letters, and the placement of the balloons working together to create a feeling of total chaos.
There are supernatural elements to Monsters, but they are more Stephen King than Stan Lee. The story shares some important similarities with The brilliant: a malicious supernatural influence on a father that forces him to terrorize his wife and son; a boy with extraordinary power; a black male character with “sight” who comes to the aid of the boy and suffers the consequences. But the broader themes, plot structure, and distinctive characters make Monsters his own beast. This is a story about how war corrupts individuals and institutions, exploring the idea through the eyes of a morally conflicted Black Army sergeant and a housewife whose life crumbles when her husband returns from overseas.
Elias’ relationship with his wife and children is as important as Bobby’s transformation into Monsters‘first act, and as Bobby is maimed, Elias’s guilt has a greater impact on his home life. His wife, Bess, finds it hard to believe in Bobby’s supernatural gifts, and as Elias becomes more and more obsessed with Bobby, Bess becomes increasingly concerned about her husband’s sanity. The family dynamic here is strained, but it’s rooted in affection and empathy. Elias and Bess communicate with each other, and even when they don’t like what the other person is saying, they are always ready to listen and respond honestly in the hopes of finding a solution that will allay both of their fears. This is in stark contrast to Janet Bailey’s relationship with her husband, who responds to one of her anxieties with aggressiveness and animosity, refusing to share in the trauma that plagues their marriage.
The biggest piece of Monsters focuses on Janet, presented with a mix of traditional comic book pages and handwritten journal entries accompanied by illustrations. Journal entries enrich the emotional content in many ways, starting with creating an intimacy between Janet and the reader as they access her inner life. Seeing her handwriting – and the places where she starts a thought and then crosses it out – brings Janet’s character even more life and spontaneity, which makes her domestic situation all the more devastating. She’s a woman desperate to understand why her husband became a different man after the war, and she constantly rationalizes his dangerous behavior. Janet doesn’t know what happened to Tom overseas to turn him into a violent alcoholic, and her story ends before she even learns the truth, although she gets a taste of it when she does. touches her husband’s haunted Nazi pistol.
Monsters has some frantic action and a lot of atmospheric horror, but the majority of the book is domestic and professional situations, highlighting Windsor-Smith’s skill at playing characters. The emotional beats are exceptionally clear, and he pays close attention to the different ways people feel pain, internalize it, and release it. It brings vitality to these characters and conversations, and by withholding information, the script creates a sense of intrigue that drives momentum forward when there isn’t much of a show. The book’s timeline pulls back, ultimately filling most of the blanks when it lands in Schongau, Germany to reveal what happened to Tom Bailey and his fellow soldiers at the end of World War II.
All the main characters of Monsters are interrelated more deeply than they know, and the script actively engages with the idea of fate rather than coincidence. These lives are connected like spokes on the wheel of fate, and as the story unfolds it reveals the full shape of that wheel and where it is going. The lampshade may not work for some disbelieving readers, but it’s heartwarming to think that in a world full of seemingly random suffering, there is a grand design that puts people where they need to be to help those in need. need.