Home Books Monsters: by Barry Windsor-Smith

Monsters: by Barry Windsor-Smith

Comic books have become synonymous with serialization. Very rarely does an artist linger with a piece of work for decades. So, it’s automatically noteworthy when respected artist Barry Windsor-Smith announces a graphic novel he’s been working on for three decades. His clout speaks for itself, with accolades like Marvel Comics’ Weapon X—arguably the greatest Wolverine arc. It’s fair to assume the quality of an original tale from this writer/illustrator. To that effect, Monsters redeems the time Windsor-Smith spent on it as a triumph of masterful storytelling and emotional depth.

Originally conceived for The Incredible Hulk, Monsters echoes some of those character tropes—specifically the unforeseen effects of military science. The concept of evil scientists trying to make a human weapon might recall the aforementioned Wolverine arc as well. Except, Windsor-Smith doesn’t present protagonist Bobby Bailey as a brilliant scientist or a super-powered mutant. He introduced him as nobody. In fact, that’s exactly why Bailey’s attempt to join the army got him thrust into the neo-Nazi research project “Prometheus.”

Like the original Frankenstein, Monsters doesn’t really center on the horror of Bobby getting turned into a deformed, muscle-bound goliath. The majority of the book delves into flash-backs to the horrific abuse Bobby suffered at the hands of his father, who returned from World War II a broken man. The “monster” reveals itself as the byproduct of the true monsters, whether they be the Nazis behind “Prometheus,” or America’s military-industrial complex. The narrative’s depiction of PTSD and domestic abuse cuts deep—certainly deeper than the opening sequence might entail.

If starting Monsters with a mother finding her son getting beaten within an inch of his life by a psychopath screaming in German didn’t clarify this, Windsor-Smith doesn’t apologize for the pulp action/sci-fi/mystery aesthetics of his work. Speaking of pulp, the plot structure of Monsters compares to a Tarantino screenplay. Readers who pay attention to minutiae will experience cathartic epiphanies pertaining to the real significance of characters or how certain events tie into one another. The time Windsor-Smith spends fleshing out characters brings a level of humanity uncommon to comic books, further intensified by a spiritual undercurrent.

A character can get his brains blown out early on and still play a crucial role in the conclusion
(not in a Ben Kenobi force ghost way, mind you). And yet, it all feels real, and looks real too. Where a Mike Mignola or Dave McKean would focus more on stylistic flourishes and poetic symbolism, Windsor-Smith emphasizes stark grit and tangible detail in his black-and-white drawings. Monsters contains some of his most distinct illustrations to date, commingling with his words to provide some incredibly moving panels. He shows emotion as well as he writes it.

Every frame of Monsters feels intentional, offering many startling twists. Layers of spirituality and sociopolitical commentary elevate the pulp elements, finding a surprising amount of nuance within the “Nazis are bad guys who should be subjected to ultra-violent death” mantra. Windsor-Smith uses this balance to create something both timeless and refreshing. The blurred lines between corrupted victims and purveyors of evil give the Monsters title multiple meanings. Windsor-Smith’s monsters are sometimes made so unwillingly, while others choose their sordid path. The book illustrates the resulting cycle of trauma and pain in haunting detail.

Monsters’ appraisal of a wicked world isn’t without redemption, found in Windsor-Smith’s emphasis on the enduring human spirit. Monster might recount the tragedy of Bobby Bailey and those who hastened his demise, but it also portrays his death as the ultimate transcendence of worldly calamities. The casual rendering of death ends up diminishing its effect in comparison to tenacious legacies of goodness. In this way, the book maintains its severity without falling into despondency.

Windsor-Smith has created his magnum opus—plain and simple. He has realized the potential of the comic book medium in a way few creators have. It’s graphic literature as high art, transcending limitations and encapsulating the skill of a long-suffering artist extraordinare.

Windsor-Smith has created his magnum opus—plain and simple.
95 %
Masterful Storytelling

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