HHow long would you wait for a comic? My 10-year-old son watching the mailbox (“Daddy! My Beano hasn’t arrived yet!”) He’s limited to about 48 hours. I want to say, “Two days? Try 35 years! “That’s how long the world has waited for Barry Windsor-Smith’s new graphic novel, Monsters.
In an industry that, for most of its history, has been dominated by fast art and on-the-go storytelling due to the fierce pace of weekly production, calling Monsters an outlier would be an understatement. The reason someone is willing to wait so long is because of the 71 years behind him. Before Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Dave McKean, Warren Ellis, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons and all the other UK creators who have had a disproportionate impact on the American comic book scene, I was Windsor- Blacksmith. He appeared fresh out of art school, more or less literally, to hear him tell it, on the doorstep of Marvel Comics in 1968 and has been, at times turbulently, in and out of funny books ever since.
Here’s a writer and artist who was part of Marvel’s “bullpen” when the physical office, as he put it, “could hold four people comfortably, with liberal use of deodorants.” He cut his teeth on Conan the Barbarian (his early career in the title of sword and sorcery has just been republished as a commercial paperback), and while he has often dismissed his early work as a goofy imitation of his hero Jack Kirby, even then its dynamic human-figure form and expressive cross hatching seemed fully formed.
His new book Monsters tells the tangled tale of an uprooted and damaged young man who shows up at a US Army recruiting office.Rather than being drafted into the regular force, he is quickly assigned to Project Prometheus. Remember how Steve Rogers obtained the Super Soldier Serum and became Captain America? Yes: this is not that.
He’s horribly tortured, full of God knows what, and ends up looking like a cross between the Hulk and Frankenstein’s monster. The plural title is pointed; narrative spiders to describe the protagonist’s abusive relationship with his father, and the grim origins of Project Prometheus in Nazi science at the end of WWII. But for all the horror, Monsters is drawn and inked with extraordinary delicacy, his pacing is often meditative, and he’s just as interested in family relationships as he is in superpowers. Monsters is strangely sweet.
There are overtones of Frankenstein here, but also Windsor-Smith’s celebrated 1991 story of the origin of Wolverine, Weapon X (evil scientists who torture a homeless man into a miserable superhumanity), and even a hint of The Shining. One of the cool things about Windsor-Smith as a writer and illustrator is that, as much as he rages in the commercial comic industry, he never seems to belittle the fantastic elements of the genre that are his bread and butter. It was his enthusiasm for drawing Kirby, and Kirby, let’s not forget, was a genius of the bombastic and esoteric, that brought this boy from art school to the other side of the Atlantic.
At its core, Monsters is a cute and involved family drama, but it comes dressed in not one, but two layers of fantasy: wacky Nazi scientists and a supernatural subplot involving ghosts and psychic powers. Interestingly, a comic book expert I spoke to told me that it started all those years ago as a Hulk story. With his lonely, super-powerful monster being hunted by an angry military man, the suggestion sounds very plausible.
When I ask, Windsor-Smith refuses to comment on that aspect of the book’s genealogy, but says: “Every layer, every tendril of history was presented as a means of corroborating what had happened before. But since he was working in a non-linear process similar to that of the story itself, it often happened that he could not locate what came first and what came next. Cause and effect are present in the finished work, but solving it as the story progressed was a complex puzzle. ”
Hence, perhaps, the long wait. Monsters has been his passion project. “I’ve produced other jobs over the years,” he says, “but making Monsters has been a slow and difficult experience that would drain all my energy between projects that paid the rent.”
In fact, the creation has been so long that when I ask him how he sees his style has evolved over time, he relates the question directly to Monsters: “Well, we all change, of course, and the appearance of my drawing pencil constantly altered to over 30 years. However, what holds the story together is my storytelling style, which has remained consistent throughout the book. ”
In an industry dominated – at least on the commercial end of it – by what Windsor-Smith has called the “chain gang system,” he has carved out a rare niche as an author; wrote, drew, inked, and lettered each page of the Monsters himself.
Windsor-Smith says the idea that he has gone from being an illustrator to a writer is not entirely correct, however: “I was never just a comic book illustrator. When I was trying to get a job at Marvel in the 1960s, I came up with a portfolio of finished stories. The credits you see published in the comics are misleading; at the very least, I was a co-writer for most of my work. “
He is known to be a deceptive customer, or, let’s say, uncompromising. His career at Conan was interrupted by periodic disputes with the management, and he left mainstream comics entirely in the mid-1970s to create the fine arts Gorblimey Press because he needed to be free of “restrictions and policies imposed by dictates. of creating entertainment for children ”. He didn’t return until 1983. When I ask him about that decision, his response is blunt: “The commercial comics industry is behind schedule. They don’t know how to treat their creators. “
The email interview was courteous but, my God, it was curt; his answers were half as long as my questions. He seems happy, for the most part, to take his advice. He ignored, among others, questions about his memories of Stan Lee and what Kirby meant to him; Dave Sim’s affectionate parody of his Conan work on Cerebus the Aardvark; why in the early 1980s he changed his name from Barry Smith to Barry Windsor-Smith, and how it feels to see the once countercultural Marvel and DC universes take their place in the mainstream.
But on rebranding comics as “graphic novels,” he replied, “Very few graphic novels deliver on the promise of that name.” Monsters? In my opinion, yes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism