Fair Trade Comics: Monsters

A comic review article by: Danny Djeljosevic


Fair Trade Comics is an ongoing series where Comics Bulletin looks at creator-owned comics that you can read without guilt or moral compromise. 


In general, I tend to balk at autobiographical comics written by neurotic white males, despite being one myself (to put it lightly). Blame guys like Joe Matt for this shit, but too many indie comics are about guys who suck at relationships and view themselves as outsiders to mainstream society -- so much that they feel the need to make comics about the subject. Some of y'all learned the wrong-ass lessons from Harvey Pekar, f'real. You gotta be more than your record collection and your inability to talk to girls.

Obviously, my harsh opinions don't apply to white males with interesting stories to tell. Craig Thompson is the first to spring to mind, but Ken Dahl makes a great case for those of us who have already come of age and read Blankets, thanks to his (emotionally) painful, educational, autobiographical Monsters.

Ken, the focus of Monsters, is a regular dude. He rides a bike, works a shitty job and makes fun of those vaguely Lynchian pharmaceutical commercials that feature people running through fields, alleviated from the tyranny of their STDs but shackled to such side effects as electrified anal fissures and poisonous priapism. In the same breath, he judges people with herpes as if they were lepers. That is, until his girlfriend Rory starts itching real bad -- like, in her pussy -- and Ken finds out, oh shit, I gave my girlfriend herpes.

From there, it's a downward spiral for our hero as his relationship crumbles and, newly single, he triesto maintain a life of chastity. Which turns out to be a complete failure because he's human and therefore horny, and it turns out when you try to deny yourself you just want it more. It's hard to turn down sex when you want to have sex with the person who's offering you sex (I assume), so Ken ends up dealing with it the only way he can -- disastrously. Pathetically. Like a human being. For Ken -- and presumably countless others -- his herpes is an albatross, a scarlet letter, a facial tattoo, a club fedora on his dick.

Until, eventually, he learns the truth.

Monsters is a mega-important comic if you're a person who likes to fuck, because chances are you don't know much about herpes. To me, herpes was just a tool -- as a teenager, my friends would shout "I HAVE HERPES" to get crowds in my overcrowded high school to part like the Red Sea so we could get to the front of the line at the rotunda to buy slices of Papa John's pizza before they ran out. To us and many others, herpes is an offhand joke, a reference that has no bearing on your everyday life (so you think) -- fodder for laughable pharmaceutical ads. Obviously motherfuckers need to know.

In the end, after much emotional turmoil and several ruined relationships, Ken (and, by association, the reader) learns exaclty how herpes works through what amounts to an infodump from another character. Which one might look down on, but it's exactly the antidote to the vague prescription medication ad that opens Monsters. The details are actually a major revelation, and to go over them would actually spoil the effect of the book, considering how much Ken's own education is tied to the narrative. Chances are you, like me, don't know as much about the disease as you should, but you can do some Googling to find the answer.

But Monsters goes beyond After School Special education or and avoids odious portmanteaus like "edutainment." For one thing, it's great comics thanks to Dahl's handle on storytelling and cartooning. The aforementioned advertisement/infodump actually two of three informational moments of the book, each one punctuating a specific moment and giving Monsters a clear strucutre. The vague, side-effect-laden medication ad precedes herpes entering his life and the decay of a relationship; a highly detailed (and largely negative) informational section finishes Part 1 of the book, bringing our hero to his lowest point while the final (and a bit more positive) infodump comes in as a new relationship blossoms to close out the story. Shame that Ken learns all this in the wrong order, but it gives the book a great narrative arc.

As far as his art goes, Dahl has to have one of the most expressive pencils in comics. His style leaning more towards caricature than realism allows him to go surreal as large, anthropomorphized germs dogpile all over his protagonist, perfectly capturing the feeling of feeling disgusting and diseased. He can also reach for Charles Burns-esque horror as in the second (highly detailed) infodump, where Ken floats in a sea of disease while herpes germs and information assaults him and sores form on his body. Body horror aside, he also nails oppressive guilt in the most hilarious manner -- Ken waking up after a night of drunken sex with a gaping hole in his chest, a giant finger coming out of the sky and smashing his face in, leaving it stuck that way for several pages -- and even uncontrollable urges:

He's also a master of drawing human genitalia, which is something I actively encourage in comics.

While a comic about a white guy getting herpes sounds like a real self-indulgent "woe is me" affair, Dahl has actually has self-awareness on his side. As Dahl's outlook gets darker and more unpleasant in Part Two he briefly considers suicide but then imagines a headline in the newspaper: "Fragile White Male Gets Oral Herpes, Kills Self -- While Millions Starve, Sufer, Endure Without Complaint." Couple that awareness with the clear vision of hindsight, and Monsters transcends autobiography to become a great story that also really happened.

While it seems like I'm slamming autobio comics, it's just that I find that they can be problematic -- comics is a world full of singular, internalized visions, and sometimes a creator can be far too inside his own head to realize their own self-indulgence or that maybe their story isn't exactly worth telling. Not that everyone needs an editor, but some perspective is always welcome. Which is actually an idea Dahl engages with, as our protagonist is so in-his-head about his disease that he stops acting rationally. It's only when someone else says the words that he realizes what he's been doing for the majority of the story. 

Monsters is the best (and probably rarest) kind of education one can hope to get from an artistic work because the protagonist's learning is tied so organically to the story itself -- one that leaves the reader a coda that's hilarious and, surprisingly, kind of sweet. If there's ever a case to be made for creator-owned/indie/Fair Trade comics, it's Monsters, a comic about real people that tackles a real subject that mainstream comics couldn't/wouldn't/probably shouldn't address.



For more Fair Trade Comics, check out our other features in this series:




Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.

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