Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters – a large and sinister patch of post-war angst | Comics and graphic novels
There are epic expectations, and there is the expectation of Barry Windsor-Smith’s new epic. This large, dark 366-page slab of post-war angst began life as a Hulk story that Windsor-Smith planned for Marvel in 1984. Now, 37 years later, it’s finally emerging, its striking cover bearing the crumbling face of a man, a Stars and Stripes sunk into one ear, his torn lip exposing a cavernous jaw, a tear falling from one half-open eye. Meet Bobby Bailey, the young man at the center of this powerfully and deeply moving drama.
The return of Windsor-Smith is great news. The Londoner got his break after sending sketches to Marvel in the late ’60s. He drew staples such as the Avengers and Daredevil, and brought romance and style to the award-winning Conan series. But Windsor-Smith has always had a vision of its own, and its relationship with an industry that has always held creatives on a tight leash has rarely been easy. “The business,” he said in a 2013 interview, “stinks”. In the ’70s and beyond, Windsor-Smith spent spells within the industry – writing and drawing Wolverine’s origin story. Weapon X for Marvel, working on multiple series for Valiant and creating the Storyteller anthology for Dark Horse – and long stretches outside. He has published virtually no new books for 15 years; his websiteThe news section ends in 2011.
Rightly, the ambitious Monsters uses time laps to great effect. It opens in 1949 with brutal violence, as Bobby’s mother, Janet, defends her young son against his enraged father, Tom. Fifteen years later, Bobby follows in his veteran father’s footsteps and enters an Army recruiting office. His claim that he has no family or qualifications sees him selected for a disturbing trial. A few months later, he was strewn with threads and hung in a stinking pool, his skin swollen with muscles and gouged with scars. His chemically enhanced body is now an Army investment, but Bailey has an unexpected ally with an escape plan.
It looks like a well-trodden setup, part Captain America, part Frankenstein’s monster. The Secret Project begins with a Nazi scientist adjusting his glasses with a claw hand, while Bailey’s noble savior is an African-American male with “hoodoo” powers. A lesser writer might take the clichés to another notch and focus on the violence and drama of a super-soldier on the loose in ’60s America. Windsor-Smith gives us shootouts, settlements and prosecutions, but Monsters is more interested in going back. It’s a book about how we got here; a story about a lost boy, his devastated mother and brutal, traumatized father, about tense dinners and PTSD, and how it takes a monster to make one. And his story is often brilliant.
The grim and dramatic Windsor-Smith panels later show a young Tom and Janet, happy before the war. The new father sends back tender notes to the face, his eye for a scene such that he “could describe the French countryside and the sounds of war in the same sentence”. But after a shock discovery in the chaos of the German retreat, he returns a changed man. The hands that once wrote love letters instead reach for the whiskey bottle and lash out at his wife and son.
Monsters hums with suppressed violence and regret, and Windsor-Smith renders both with real power. Her mastery of pose and gesture – Tom’s thick arms tightening in tension, Janet’s shoulders slumping in resignation – brings her cast to life. Some images stay with you: a bicycle with curled wheels in tall grass, smoke seeping over an officer’s messy dining table, a hatched shadow spreading over a face like a hood. Next to naturalism, there are stranger things: sausages turn into severed fingers and memories swirl in the present, their echoes turning simple conversations into a deafening hubbub. At the heart of the book, Barry as an adult relives his childhood traumas, his big, crooked face and bizarre figure come together on the stairs as arguments erupt around him.