Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith (graphic novel review).

When you read that a book has been thirty-five years in the making, it gives you high expectations. Such is the case with ‘Monsters’ by Barry Windsor-Smith, which began life as a story for Marvel’s Incredible Hulk character but evolved. There are several monsters in the story but the principal victim, not a monster, bears a strong resemblance to Bruce Banner’s alter-ego. For good measure, he’s relentlessly pursued by Major Roth of the U.S. Army and there’s a cameo by one Captain Talbot but this is not a Hulk story.

It starts back in World War II but, for the reader, begins in Saturday, 11 June 1949, at the Bailey home in Providence Township, Ohio. Like many modern films, the book aims for realism by giving exact dates and places for the events. The opening pages show a terrible event where a boy loses an eye, perhaps in a cycling accident, perhaps by other means. His father is unpleasant. His mother tries to protect him.

Cut to Los Angeles, California, Wednesday, 22 April, 1964 and Bobby Bailey is trying to join the U.S. Army, just like his dear old dad. Recruiter Sergeant McFarland discovers the lad has no identity papers and ‘no home. No relationships to speak of. No Social security card. Outside of his own head, he doesn’t exist.’ This makes Bobby Bailey the ideal candidate for Project Prometheus and, not long after, a car comes to take him away for genetic experiments that will turn him into a muscular freak. McFarland comes to regret his actions and tries to make amends.

After a certain point, the story keeps going backwards and the reader discovers more and more about Bobby Bailey’s terrible childhood. There are also extended scenes featuring Sergeant McFarland’s home life. Certain members of his family have the gift of second sight and perceive things others cannot see. The flashbacks are interwoven with poor Bailey’s current predicament, explaining it and heightening the emotional impact. There are unexpected connections between the characters. Eventually, the flashbacks return to Bobby’s father in World War II and the horror he encountered.

The art is as beautiful as you would expect, lovely detailed black and white, pen and ink panels used with the storytelling skills Barry Windsor-Smith has acquired over a long career. What’s astonishing is the script. Who knew an artist could write so well? Don’t expect slam-bang super-hero action, though. There are long scenes of domestic life, petty squabbles, introspection and, sadly, domestic violence. There are fights and car chases, too, but few of them in 380 pages. The pace is downright leisurely at times. That enables the author to give depth to the characters, and it’s never dull. Although there are Science Fiction and fantasy elements here, the basic setting is the real world, which has more monsters, past and present, than you could fit into a thousand Hammer Horror movies.

Monsters’ is a masterpiece that shows what can be done with graphic storytelling. Thirty-five years of work? It was worth the wait.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2021

(pub: Fantagraphics or Jonathan Cape/Penguin – UK, 2021. 380 page graphic novel hardback. Price: $39.95 (US), £25.00 (UK). ISBN-13 : 978-1-68396-415-5)

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