My Favorite Thing Isn’t “Monsters”

In 1983, Pink Floyd released The Final Cut, an album that hailed itself — in its own words —as “a requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters.” A none-too-subtle reaction to/commentary upon Thatcherism’s great betrayal of Britain’s national sacrifices during and after WWII upon a rotten altar of consumerism, anti-egalitarianism, and perhaps most disturbingly resurgent militarism, it was a commercial failure that I’m reliably informed divides fans of the band to this day, but its message is crystal clear : we become the monsters we fight against. Even — maybe especially — when we win.

Precisely one year later, legendary comics artist Barry Windsor-Smith began his own magnum opus that grappled with remarkably similar themes, although he certainly may not have been consciously aware of its scope at the time — after all, what has finally emerged, 37 years later, as Monsters actually began life as a Hulk story for Marvel. Along the way it morphed into a Captain America story for a brief spell, as well, and the remnants of both abandoned premises can still be clearly found within its pages. Somewhere further along the way, though, it turned into something Marvel wouldn’t have the guts to publish in a million years : a 366-page entirely sincere and often harrowing exploration of PTSD, family dysfunction, the generational effects and implications of abuse, the pissing on the graves of the war dead exemplified by the former Allied powers getting into bed with the Nazis to fight communism, age-old Frankenstein’s monster tropes, the enduing stains of prejudice and colonialism, the slippery slope that is patriotism and the unmitigated evil that is nationalism, toxic masculinity — and that’s all just the obvious stuff. If there’s one thing this book suffers no shortage of, it’s ideas.

It’s also — and this should really surprise no one — stuffed to the gills with artwork that will knock your socks off. On first flip-though you can absolutely see why it took almost four decades to draw this thing : Windsor-Smith’s attention to detail is just plain awe-inspiring, his intricate cross-hatching, masterful interplay between shadows and light, and achingly human and even more achingly monstrous figure drawing frequently leaving you dumbfounded at the idea that a mere mortal could even craft something so exquisite. Every panel of every page bears close consideration and study, and the extended sequences wherein the story’s many grotesqueries come to the fore have the power to literally leave you reeling. This is visual impact of the sort Hollywood spends billions trying to achieve but never will, because it takes much more than talent or money to do what Windsor-Smith does — it takes vision and purpose. Specifically, purpose that goes over and above making the cash registers ring.

Oh, yes, lest there be any doubt — this is visionary, purpose-driven work with its heart in the right place, crafted by an artist with the sheer skill to match the scale and size of his ambition. There is much to be admired about both the book itself and publisher Fantagraphics’ commitment to allowing Windsor-Smith to complete it in his own time, in his own fashion. The end result is a tale that is absolutely immersive from first page to last, and that you’ll no doubt remember for years to come.

The problem, however, is that you won’t always necessarily remember it for the right reasons, given that Windsor-Smith has a frustrating habit of being his own best ally and worst enemy — frequently by turns, sometimes even simultaneously. Many once-in-a-lifetime pages are let down by dialogue that is either ham-fisted, too “on the nose” for its own good, or both; the clumsy insertion of supernatural elements (about which I’ll give no more away) into the mix feels both disorienting and unnecessary from jump and never gets any better; multi-faceted portrayals of good men capable of terrible things and subsequently haunted by their actions are countered with cartoonishly over-the-top villainy in other instances (it doesn’t help matters that the worst of the book’s bad guys is a lecherous gay Nazi that’s literally not much more than every sickening and bigoted homophobic stereotype rolled into one and dialed up to 11); cliched settings like secret government bunkers are given more weight and power than they’ve enjoyed in years thanks to the Windsor-Smith’s intense atmospherics, only to have the elaborate stage trashed by the cast once somebody opens their mouth and starts talking.

Far and away the most regrettable aspect of Windsor-Smith enjoying the kind of carte-blanche that he has, for the record, absolutely earned, however, is that there’s no one to reign him in when he starts to meander and lose focus — which he does a lot. Ostensibly the story of “super-soldier” recruit Billy Bailey, who flees a violent home life only to embark down much the same path that broke his father (plus super-powers and genetic mutation), we actually find ourselves not just hopping from one protagonist to the next in this narrative (often with little to nothing by way of a transition — smooth or otherwise) , but literally being afforded detailed and intimate glimpses into their past and present lives, often for reasons that don’t make immediate sense. This is all fine and good if an author is playing a truly “long game,” so to speak, but here’s where things get really weird : after weaving an intricate tapestry together for the first 3/4 of his story, the last act sees Windsor-Smith rushing at breakneck pace to tie all his threads together, resulting in an ending that actually feels rushed and maybe even a bit haphazard. Again, this book is over 360 pages long — the idea that any aspect of it should come off ashastily-written, especially its big climax, is downright mind-boggling. And yet that’s precisely the case here.

That being said, I can’t quite bring myself to be completely down on the ending. It’s too convenient for its own good, sure, and stuck with the unenviable task of having to do way too much all at once thanks to the author chasing ghosts (literally and figuratively) when he could have been moving events forward, but it’s still reasonably goddamn powerful. It has the same strengths and weaknesses of the comic as a whole, really, in that what it wants to do — and, taking it a step further, to be — is suitably grand and monumental in terms of scale, but also intimate and humane in terms of its approach and its implications. Its intentions are noble, but its methodology is a frustrating mix of absolutely glorious (even when they’re gloriously ugly) visuals with disjointed plotting, dialogue, characterization, and narrative execution. There are no unforgivable sins here — which is just as well given the centrality of redemption (or lack thereof) to the proceedings — but in the end we’re faced with a Shakespearean irony that eerily mirrors the “arc” of more than one of this story’s characters :

Monsters is both Barry Windsor-Smith’s greatest achievement and his most tragic missed opportunity.

8 thoughts on “My Favorite Thing Isn’t “Monsters”

    1. Ryan C. (fourcolorapocalypse)

      It REALLY took me some time to get all my thoughts together on this one in a coherent manner. Apologies if that shows in the writing.

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  1. Very well written and some valid points although I disagree with your overall assessment. My review a couple months back was a not too qualified rave and as other weigh in, I have yet to read anything to change my mind. A troubled work, sure, (See the current issue of COMIC BOOK CREATOR for all the behind the scenes mess), but much more to my liking than yours. Still, enjoyed reading your take!

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  3. David Hartwell

    Thanks for the review. Challenging as it must have been.
    I wanted to LOVE Monsters. And, certainly, there are things to love about such an incredible work.
    But, I found aspects of the book, points which you’ve described well, took away from the overall appreciation for me.
    I found myself feeling that it wasn’t as “enjoyable” an experience as I had hoped.
    Of course, some of that could be due to the harsh and brutal subject matter.
    If it felt somewhat dark in it’s early goings – the latter banquet segment etc., doubled down.
    Thankful for some of the momentary redemptive and enlightened aspects.
    But, again, as reflected in your review….it’s struggle with narrative (surprising – considering Barry’s strength in that area), created unwanted question marks.
    I had been excited for the arrival of this book for some time, and I wanted to “enjoy” it as much, or more, than I had enjoyed Barry’s “Storyteller” hardcovers.
    A high bar for sure!

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    1. Ryan C. (fourcolorapocalypse)

      I think there was tremendous good will toward this project going in — after all, it’s the magnum opus of Windsor-Smith’s career. Unfortunately, as a wiser mind than I so succinctly put it, the book itself is easy to admire, but difficult to love.

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