How Do You Illustrate Anguish? With Rage or Silence?

For this column, I’ve written in the past about Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” (356 pages, 18 years in the making, and weighing in at 3.5 pounds), Seth’s “Clyde Fans” (478 pages, 20 years, 3.15 pounds) and Jason Lutes’s “Berlin” (580, 22, 3.8). Add to the list MONSTERS (Fantagraphics, $39.99, 4.1 pounds), a 35-year labor by the British cartoonist Barry Windsor-Smith, and you have nearly a century’s worth of cartooning in just four books. For 365 large-format, black-and-white pages, Windsor-Smith conveys gruesome body horror and tender family scenes, nightmarish doom and quiet moments of connection. What starts off in the viscera-rich world of the gory EC comics of the ’50s morphs into a subtle exploration of memory, as the monster of the book’s title escapes from the lab, treks to his childhood home and listens to ghosts re-enact the tragedy of his youth for over 100 pages. Then things get really twisted.

In 1949 Ohio, a white boy named Bobby Bailey is brutalized by his insane father, losing an eye before his mother swoops in to rescue him. The scene shifts to California 15 years later, when a homeless and disoriented Bobby visits an Army recruiting office. He meets Elias McFarland, a Black sergeant whose ramrod posture belies past psychological turmoil. McFarland identifies blank-slate Bobby as the perfect candidate for the top-secret Prometheus project. But soon he’s racked with guilt, sensing some shared history with the rootless recruit. McFarland belatedly grasps the program’s hideous scheme “to create an ideal superman — an ultimate warrior,” using methods brought over by Colonel Friedrich, a Nazi remade into U.S. Army brass.

Despite the ample page size, the compositions start off claustrophobic: all dark walls and densely crosshatched faces, the panels like prison cells. Marinated in chemicals, Bobby turns mute, massive and gruesome to behold, like a decaying Hulk. Perversely, what seems poised to be a story of a tortured soul’s revenge instead turns inward. The clock rewinds to the 1940s, as young Bobby and his mother, Janet, await father Tom’s return from the war, where he is serving as a German interpreter for the Army. His homecoming keeps getting delayed, for mysterious reasons; meanwhile, the sympathetic deputy who delivers the updates falls for Janet. Once back from the war, Tom is shattered and abusive, having seen things he won’t discuss. The excerpts from Janet’s diary form the emotional core of the book. Windsor-Smith’s overheated prose style is subtler and more convincing here, as he writes in the voice of a woman widowed by the war in spirit if not fact.

In the ’60s, orderlies jokingly refer to mad scientist Friedrich as “Dr. Frankenstein,” and the name of his ghoulish project alludes to “The Modern Prometheus,” the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s monsterpiece. But a more fascinating precursor can be found in Windsor-Smith’s own work — specifically, his take on Wolverine, the X-Men stalwart with the foot-long claws.

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