Updated: May 3, 2021
Every now and then over the last couple of decades, comics fans would hear rumors of an epic graphic novel that legendary Marvel Comics artist Barry Windsor-Smith was writing and illustrating. Well, it’s finally here, and it’s a whopper, and that’s not just a reference to the 365 page count. It’s an emotional, gut-wrenching whopper: a grueling, devastating horror study about the fragility of the human mind, and the many ways that humans can inflict physical, mental, and emotional abuse on each other, whether with evil intent or not. BWS covers just about every way a person can be a monster towards others. Lie down, put this heavy book on your chest for three hours, and you may get an idea how your heart will feel after reading it.
All of the character arcs in Monsters revolve around a shadowy post-WW2 government project named Prometheus, run by a former Nazi, rumored to do cruel, unspeakable things to its subjects. The project's name is an apt nod to the alternate title of Mary Shelley’s classic horror story, but while Prometheus transforms the main protagonist Bobby Bailey and others into every bit the sight of Frankenstein’s creation, they aren't the Monsters the title refers to.
It becomes obvious very early on that the title is more a commentary on the evil in humanity. There are many monsters in Monsters: evil Nazi scientists working for the U.S. government who butcher subjects in gruesome, supposed “SuperSoldier” experiments (but secretly they are continued Master Race efforts); bigoted and cruel American military officers; and most notably to Bobby Bailey and his mother, an abusive father and husband.
The main character arcs involve the Bailey family: Mrs. Bailey's struggles at home while her husband is enlisted in Europe during WW2, and the spousal and child abuse inflicted by Mr. Bailey after he returns home. In the last third of the book, we see every horrific detail of his traumatic wartime experiences, as a way of explaining why he is so abusive toward his family. We also see how exposure to abuse can even rub off on good people, and start a vicious cycle that is passed down. But Bobby Bailey is used as an example of how that isn’t always the case. He is one of the few good souls we meet in Monsters, even after what his father and Prometheus have done to him.
Monsters is extremely painful to read…I was unable to get through it in one day without giving myself emotional breaks. The Bailey family dynamic reminded me of the abusive storyline depicted so disturbingly in the pages of The Incredible Hulk and on screen in the Ang Lee Hulk movie.
When Bobby flashes back in several sequences to a fateful Thanksgiving Day during his childhood, he re-experiences the holiday in his monstrous present day body. This is the absolutely brilliant visual approach BWS chooses to illustrate these memories for us.
The section of the book dedicated to Mrs. Bailey’s diary entries slows things down to a crawl, and is much longer than it needs to be. While they are beautifully designed pages, her letters belabor the point about her family’s issues, and don’t really add anything extra to the novel, other than many more pages that could have been cut.
There is even a supernatural element to this story. One character, McFarland, possesses a Second Sight, a gift passed down in his family. BWS has a lot of fun with his daughter Nina’s personality and dialogue…she is welcome comic relief from the book's subject matter and all her family's drama, including her father’s feeling of dread about what the Prometheus Project is doing to Bobby. He feels responsible, since he recruited him and delivered him into their hands. By the way, Nina's scenes may start out as humorous asides, there is more to her than cute dialogue…much more.
BWS’s inkwork is even more beautifully intricate and complex than usual, since this novel is all in black-and-white, and more linework is necessary to convey tones that color would normally help communicate. It would be difficult to maintain the same quality over 360 pages even if they were all done in one year, never mind over dozens. It’s apparent that some sections have been given more attention than others, and others much less. Windsor-Smith is a noticeably tighter, less fussy artist in the last quarter of the book. However, Monsters is a master class in the graphic novel art form: brilliant page layouts and visual transitions, 3D panel breaks, homages to modern art paintings, conveying emotion without a word having to be spoken or read, and inkwork that Albrecht Durer would envy.
Who knows how much, if any of these abuse stories are autobiographical (one would hope not for BWS’s sake), but one of his personal opinions could have been done without. BWS appears to want it both ways in his decision to speak through one of his “good” characters, and say that there is no afterlife, that there’s just…nothing. Yet his “good” characters all seem to be existing together in a “Good Place” in the end.
Three hundred pages in, I felt weighed down by the depressing subject matter, emotionally battered and drained. Perhaps that was BWS’s intent. But I found myself wishing for a happy ending, and not a tragic one. I leave it to you to read Monsters and see for yourself which way he chose to travel.
Monsters from Fantagraphics was released April 28, 2021.