Truth be told, first columns can be a real bitch to write. But then again, just like an extraordinary book, they can transport you to shores you’d never before considered visiting, show you things that you didn’t even know existed but a few days, or just a few moments, before they unexpectedly enter and expand your awareness.
Take this column, for example.
I’d planned to launch my reviews for CCN with an examination of another title entirely. It’s a book that has been unfairly overlooked in my opinion, lost amidst a literal flood of new and exceedingly good graphic novels and collections that were published at the same time. It’s also a title that I was eager to cover—and still plan to discuss in a future installment of this very column.
Anyway, I had everything about this first column mapped out clearly in my mind.
And then Monsters! & Other Stories arrived. Published by the good people at Dark Horse, it’s a wordless collection of short graphic tales written and illustrated by Gustavo Duarte, a Brazilian creator I’d never heard of before. The cover, which features a monster, huge maw agape and about to swallow a tiny sailboat whole, made me smile. So I casually opened it to glance at a random image on an equally random page…
And all my plans for this first column were crushed, discarded and forgotten for the moment, quite literally swept aside by the sheer narrative muscle and overwhelming power of Duarte’s vision. The more I pages scanned, the more impressed I was by his abilities as a draftsman, and his skill at exploiting the unique narrative devices native to comics to explore the boundaries and possibilities of the medium, all while remaining firmly ensconced within the confines of both his chosen genre and the straightforward, even seemingly-simplistic plots employed here.
Still, there are intimations of larger concepts and more ambitious themes at work beneath the slick surfaces displayed here, and real evidence that these fantasies draw—intentionally or otherwise—from deeper, more ancient wellsprings than might be imagined at first glance.
Consider the first tale, “Có!” In lesser hands, this yarn detailing a tipsy farmer’s too-close encounter with alien abductors would delight, although it’s unlikely that some of its deeper themes—the character’s grotesque physical transformations, as well as his continued half-life after extreme mutilation and injury are but two of the more obvious examples—would flash by without any real consequence aside from eliciting nervous, even gleefully horrified laughter from the reader.
But in Duarte’s hands, this weird fantasy assumes added weight courtesy of a variety of mutated mythos-driven devices and religious imagery secreted within the surreal narrative itself, with the moment of the terribly altered farmer’s salvation from his tainted state arriving once he accepts and then drinks the blood offered him serving as perhaps the most obvious instance. That final transformation proves so profound that it forces the farmer—and, by extension, the reader—back to an accepted consensual reality, relieved to wake whole in body, hopefully a little bit wiser and more aware of mankind’s, and by extension his own, place and purpose in that “real” world.
Visually, there’s a sturdiness to even the most ephemeral of Duarte’s elegant and lithe lines. Every arc, twist and curlicue on the page is shamelessly beautiful, yet purposeful. Even if it’s simply there to inject a sense of fun to the otherwise disturbing proceedings, it delivers precisely the right amount and manner of levity at exactly the specific moment and location in the story it’s needed.
If asked to compare Duarte’s efforts to other artists, I’d have to say that his tales embody the best aspects of cartoonists like Chuck Jones and Sergio Aragonés, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, all subsumed in a style that remains uniquely his own. Duarte endows every figure, human or otherwise, with a nearly palpable presence, a physical heft and an emotional resonance through his sure command of body and facial language. It’s a skill that serves him especially well in his second tale.
“Birds” pits a pair of anthropomorphized fowl office-mates, who fit the classic comedy duo “string bean and a couch potato” archetype, against the Grim Reaper himself as they desperately seek to flee their deadend destinies. Think Abbot and Costello meet Death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with a strong dose of Oedipus’ impulse to avoid the inevitable end, driving action which only serves to hasten the realization of Fate’s decree. This one’s so tightly choreographed, so closely timed that a claustrophobic atmosphere pervades the whole affair. And yet it unfolds effortlessly, with a seamless precision that seems natural, totally spontaneous. It is also a miracle of slapstick and visual comedy worthy of close study, as well as one that holds up well under repeated readings.
However, given its apparent narrative trajectory and limited plot, “Birds” could well be mistaken as a lesser effort, one much blunter in its approach and final effect than its companions in the collection. But that view would not only limit this tale, it would also ignore an important message buried in all that darkly ironic physical havoc, a theme revealed in the repeated selfless acts in which one bird’s attempt to save his companion’s life results in the Good Samaritan’s demise. And while these might seem easily dismissed as small or even insignificant actions, the truth is that, in such a tightly constricted and hostile universe as that depicted in “Birds,” it is especially those acts of selflessness and kindnesses that mean and say the most.
That belief is supported by the final page, a tableau that forces a re-evaluation of everything that’s gone before. It’s accomplished quite simply, by pulling the focus back until it is literally outside of the tale’s original narrative frame, granting a wider, perhaps more objective viewpoint for all that has come before. It’s a bold move, one that goads the reader by silently asking what value the fall of a sparrow might truly be in the larger scheme of things.
Throughout, the underlying architecture of Duarte’s layouts, combined with his impeccable choice of moments and point of view to portray, entrains the imagination even while effectively escorting the eye from panel to panel, and page to page with an elegant, assured grace—except when it breaks tempo, visually establishing an entirely different narrative rhythm for dramatic or comedic effect. Duarte also possess an infallible ability for spotting his blacks for greatest effect, while his backgrounds often seem to function like supporting players, effortlessly appearing or fading away as required, stealthily supporting and emphasizing everything occurring before them.
Blend all of those qualities and qualifications with Duarte’s droll, multi-layered sense of humor and impeccable comic timing, and the result is that rarest of books—a quick, fun read that can be relished by all ages and most cultures. Equally telling, it’s a work that can be read by those seeking pure entertainment, or celebrated as a literal text-book example of comics well-done. And nowhere is that more apparent than in book’s final entry, “Monsters!”
Both a mightily impressive tale and an utter a joy to read, the titular tale is the crowning achievement of this collection. While on one level it seems to merely catalog the destructive antics of three really awful-mean-but-still-kinda-loveable gigantic monsters as a delightfully deadly series of visual gags, it also stealthily addresses an important theme not yet touched upon—that of man versus God, or more precisely, the supernatural; earlier basic themes being man versus the universe, and the unending battle between man and death. But unlike its fellows, “Monsters!” offers up one possible means to address those with the introduction of an aged barkeep who also happens to be a mage of the barrios and a master monster wrangler.
Make no mistake, this piece doesn’t stint on wide-screen action, exaggerated humor and increasingly insane levels of destruction. There is plenty of that, and lots of fun moments of sheer mayhem and unbridled insanity. Still, at its heart this is more than just an overly strange urban monster hunter yarn. It’s also about one man’s mission to act as an agent responsible for negotiations between humanity and the surrounding nonhuman natural and spiritual forces, powers which can paradoxically nurture or annihilate a village…or an entire species. A big idea, true, but here it’s presented with the same unalloyed simplicity and practicality of purpose as the aged shaman’s use of a syringe as the delivery system for his magic potions. And the final pages of this tale offer a glimpse, in miniature, of how man writ large and small might find the means to foster an easy co-existence, or even alliance, with those larger forces of the world. However nonsensical it might appear, it’s a simply brilliant and completely fitting end to perhaps the single most satisfying and fun book I’ve had the pleasure to encounter so far this year.
If asked to pinpoint how he accomplished it, I’d hazard that it’s a byproduct of Duarte’s unwavering focus upon two concerns—clarity and concision of storytelling, combined with the purposeful and inventive use of those visual and narrative devices unique to comics—that both defines and empowers his unique artistic vision. I suspect that it’s also how he achieves that magical and perfect balance of levity and depth displayed in all three tales.
All students of the medium, as well as all readers looking for utterly enjoyable and well-wrought comics would do well to seize the earliest opportunity to experience for themselves the immense pleasures offered by Duarte’s Monsters! & Other Stories. This is a book that should not be missed, much less overlooked or ignored. It both deserves and receives my highest recommendation for readers of all ages and interests, save those possessed of the most delicate—or jaded—of temperaments.
This review is © 2014 William M.S. Baker. All rights reserved.