Review by Allan Harvey
The Book: Bailey doesn’t realise he is about to fulfil his tragic destiny when he walks into a US Army recruitment office. Secretive, damaged, innocent, trying to forget a past and looking for a future, Bobby is the perfect candidate for a secret US government experiment, an unholy continuation of a genetics program that was discovered in Nazi Germany nearly 20 years earlier in the waning days of World War II. Bailey’s only ally and protector, Sergeant McFarland, intervenes, which sets off a chain of cascading events that spin out of everyone’s control. As the monsters of the title multiply, becoming real and metaphorical, the story reaches a crescendo of moral reckoning…
The Review: By now the back story of the creation of Monsters, Barry Windsor-Smith’s recently-published magnum opus, is probably familiar to many. However, it’s worth restating, if only to better grasp the sheer effort and determination of the writer-artist to get his story told. The initial kernel of the idea that became Monsters occurred to him around 1985 and formed a proposal for an Incredible Hulk origin story. However, while he worked on the pages, the basic idea was used by other creators in an issue of the regular Hulk comic. Once Windsor-Smith became aware of this, his story mutated into something else: something deeper. Something darker. It’s a story that clearly gripped him and held on tight for the last 35 years, and we are now, finally, able to explore the world of Monsters.
The book begins in 1964 with Bobby Bailey, a young man who reports to an army recruitment office, only to find that – unbeknownst to him – his lack of family and regular social network marks him out as the perfect candidate for a top-secret military experiment to create a super-soldier. Spooling back to 1949 we learn, in graphic detail, the circumstances that led to Bailey becoming that perfect recruit. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the recruitment officer has had second thoughts about what he’s offered Bailey up for. His actions result in a chain of events that lead to us meeting the much-changed Bailey and a confrontation that ultimately reveals a deeper truth about human nature and, perhaps, a redemption.
At 360 pages, Monsters is not a quick read. Nor is it an easy one. In fact, it’s often gruelling. Its complex structure, which encompasses ever-shifting timeframes, unreliable narrators, dreams contrasting with reality, foreshadowing and payoffs, readily leads one to believe the book took decades to produce. Keeping the story straight must have been a nightmare for its author, but the result of that effort is that it reads well. Everything is clear in the storytelling. The dialogue fluid and believable.
That the title is Monsters – plural – rather than the singular form, instantly tips off the reader that the book is less about Bobby Bailey, and more an exploration of the question, who is more monstrous, the monster or those that create him? While Bailey is at the heart of the book, it’s not about him. He is essentially what Alfred Hitchcock called a “macguffin”: he’s there as something to hang the plot on. The book actually concerns the people with whom Bailey has been involved during his short life.
By far the best-drawn of these is Bailey’s mother, Janet, whom we get to know well through a series of letters. Hers is a harrowing tale of crushed dreams and domestic abuse. Elias McFarland, the recruitment officer with a conscience, is given a rich home life and family. Similarly, we get to know Janet’s friend Jack Powell, and we learn the truly horrific tale of the Nazi scientist that created the super-soldier experiment. Bailey’s father, Tom, is something of an enigma, and we’re denied an insight into his inner life, which is, perhaps, a small failing. Or, perhaps, there simply is no way to understand the inner workings of such a man.
That’s the writing, but Windsor-Smith is primarily known as an artist, and it’s the art where the book really triumphs. Starting out drawing pinup pages for the back covers of the UK’s Power Comics imprint (published by Odhams) in the late-1960s, Windsor-Smith made for the US and soon landed himself perhaps his most famous job: Conan the Barbarian. He drew 22 of the first 24 issues of the title, quickly evolving his style away from Jack Kirby towards more fine art influences, such as the Pre-Raphaelites. He thereafter left comics behind to focus on selling prints of his paintings, returning in the mid-1980s on series such as Machine Man, the X-Men and the influential Weapon X. A stint at Valiant and a creator-owned, almost solo series, the tabloid-sized Storyteller (for Dark Horse), followed, as well as an announcement of the Monsters project, after which he disappeared almost completely from the comics limelight. Until now.
Windsor-Smith brings all the experience of his fifty years in comics to bear, and every page is magnificent. The images drip with detail, panels filled with finely cross-hatched, gestural figures that seem to breathe with life. When action is called for, there is the kind of kinetic storytelling one would expect of a super-hero tale, but, amazingly, the interest of the reader is more than maintained throughout the multi-page talking sequences, which is no mean feat. A special word, too, for Windsor-Smith’s lettering – apparently all hand-applied, old school style – which acts as a crystal-clear map guiding the reader through the sometimes-complex page layouts. All in all, it’s a remarkable job.
Thirty-five years ago, I was still in school. The world has changed markedly since then. Through it all, Windsor-Smith has beavered away on his story. It was a story clearly important to him. A story worth the telling. And, what’s more, thankfully, it’s more than worth reading.
Monsters is a masterpiece.
Monsters by Barry Windsor Smith
Published by Random House
Available now from all good bookshops | Buy Monsters here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
Allan Harvey – online at allanharveyrestoration.com – is a Welsh artist, graphic designer and writer with a passion for comics. He has created comics for a variety of publishers over the years, including Factor Fiction Press, POS and the Comics Creators Guild. He has also written articles for Back Issue magazine, published by Twomorrows, looking at aspects of comics history. In more recent times Allan has been heavily involved in the restoration of numerous classic comics, utilizing his extensive digital photographic and graphics expertise. The A Distant Soil restoration, which saw him digitally remastering several hundred pages of Colleen Doran artwork to pristine glory for a new graphic novel edition for Image Comics, led to further such projects from a variety of publishers. He did much of the production work, including the classic Marvel cover restorations, for Stan Lee’s Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir graphic novel. He lives in London, and is allergic to his cat.