(Fantagraphics Books, 2021)
Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters is his first attempt at a complete comics story since his Storyteller series for Dark Horse Comics abruptly ended its run in the ninth issue in 1997 and his publication of a reworked X-Men story titled Adastra in Africa in 1999. Since that time he has put out compilations of the Storyteller material, two volumes of an imaginative memoir titled Opus (all with Fantagraphics), five pages in a stray issue of Wolverine in 2001, and eleven covers to Marvel superhero comics, the last being Fantastic Four in 2002. However, it turns out that in the last two decades Windsor-Smith’s pens have not been idle. Hence the appearance, now, of Monsters, a 360-page black-and-white epic, a comic that the artist has been working on in spurts since the Reagan era, one that is a crowning narratival and artistic achievement by one of American comics’ greatest innovators.
The inordinately talented East London-born 71-year-old artist is both the Michelangelo and Leonardo of the comics world. Like Michelangelo, his career has been here and there potholed by a combination of over-ambition, dissatisfaction, and, most important, inconstant patronage. Windsor-Smith’s industry struggles are well-documented, and like those High Renaissance titans, he has left us tantalizing traces of nearly completed and fragmentary work, or repurposed material. That is why the 35-year project that is Monsters is a miracle, and no small one. It is as if Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II, which the artist wrestled with for four decades, had been completed in something approaching its original form, instead of as a diminished wall monument at San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome with its one great element—the statue of Moses—and the rest cobbled together and incomplete. But like Leonardo, Windsor-Smith has found, later in his career, a supporter who has helped him to achieve a certain amount of satisfaction and completion in his work. For the Florentine Renaissance artist it came in the form of François I of France, who lured him north from Italy to work on whatever projects he liked until his last days. For Windsor-Smith, it has been Gary Groth, the co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, who has consistently published his halted projects, repackaged unfinished work, and supported Monsters. The black-and-white Adastra in Africa, and opulent Freebooters and Young Gods compilations, along with Opus I and II, are glorious Fantagraphics productions that show off the writer/artist’s talents in ideal formats. But Monsters is the most impressive yet.
The 14-year old Groth first interviewed Windsor-Smith when he sent him typed questions in January 1969 to England via airmail and the resulting correspondence was printed in Groth’s Fantastic Fanzine of April/May 1969. By this point, the artist had drawn only one issue of X-Men. More Marvel titles would follow. Then known as Barry Smith, he had trained in illustration and design at East Ham Technical College and produced some work for British comics and fanzines in his teens before traveling to New York in 1968 with a mate and 50 pounds and knocking on the door of the Marvel Comics offices. His early work was a conscious channeling of the already legendary Jack Kirby and the neo-noir mod stylist Jim Steranko. After drawing and plotting some dramatically designed and Swinging Sixties London influenced issues of X-Men, Daredevil, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, Avengers, and some short tales for Marvel’s horror/mystery titles, Smith came to the attention of the comics world with his work on Marvel’s adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. This was not the muscle-bound lunk of a killing machine that Arnold Schwarzenegger would popularize in the eponymous John Milius film of 1982, but in Smith and writer Roy Thomas’s telling Conan was an attractive athletic sword-for-hire with a reasonable moral compass and a preference for keeping his chest bare. Smith only worked on nineteen color Conan comics, and a handful of memorable Conan stories for Marvel’s black-and-white magazine line, but in the course of four years his art evolved with a speed that no other comics artist’s ever did, from superhero stylizations with Art Nouveau mise en scène to finely-wrought Pre-Raphaelite style figuration and detailed naturalism with a cinematic fluidity in the panels. When Windsor-Smith had the time to plot, draw, ink, and color his own work, as in the deeply satisfying Conan number 24, “The Song of Red Sonja,” one of the greatest single comic issues ever, the results were astonishing. The level of detail and sensitivity to character and gesture, the delicate coloring, and command of setting were on another order from contemporary comics. He followed this with another classic, the monochromatic “Red Nails,” and then walked away, for nearly a decade.
In that time Smith adopted a tripartite name, in emulation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, the leading lights of the British avant-garde in the 19th century, and started a fine art company, Gorblimey Press, that published high-quality prints and portfolios of his paintings and drawing. These assumed a neo-Romantic air, and remain some of the artist’s lushest works. There were a few gallery exhibitions, and the Press was successful, but the workload was intense, and by the mid-1980s he began to dabble, again, in comics. There followed seminal work on X-Men, Machine Man, and Weapon-X, the Wolverine origin story that he wrote and cartooned, and which was adapted for the silver screen with no credit given to the artist. By then Windsor-Smith had evolved his modern-Victorian style into what he calls his “long-thin period,” a Mannerist treatment of bodies that leant itself to more simplified figural cartooning and comics work that held to deadlines. He co-created characters for new companies, such as Valiant and then Malibu. The art was always intriguing and attractive. The books wherein he was writer and artist, such as Archer & Armstrong in the 1990s, are stand-outs in the period. And the material he published in Storyteller, a series of three storylines in one monthly book, is genre-based, elegant, funny, self-referential, intricate, generously paced, bombastic, and beautiful. But the format was oversized for a comic, and the comic-collectors crowd, used to regularized formatting that fit acid free bags and archival boxes, were resistant. Dark Horse did not promote the book, and the artist threw up his hands, three issues from wrapping up the storylines. Chris Ware in his ACME Novelty Library and multiple other cartoonists have, since, successfully adopted irregular formats: Windsor-Smith was ahead of his time and his market.
The moment, however, is now, for this inordinately talented artist and writer who for whatever reason cannot let go of comics and to our infinite benefit has produced a masterpiece of the medium in Monsters. It started as a speculative Hulk story for Marvel in 1984 or 1985 and then, after the plot had been pilfered by a Marvel writer, languished in his studio for long periods. Windsor-Smith would come back to the pages now and again and rework them in search of new inspiration. In the end, the remnants of the Hulk storyline, in which the young Bruce Banner is subjected to child abuse, has been turned into a deeply engrossing tale of a White family in small-town Ohio and a father who goes off to World War II and comes back hideously changed, having witnessed horrific Nazi medical experiments. The main character of the story is Janet Bailey, who has been left home to care for their young son Bobby, and who is the emotional center of the tale. The plot is intricate and hops around in time from the 1940s to the 1960s. It is steeped in conventional genre motifs and techniques: a war story; a gothic horror tale; experiments gone horribly wrong; Nazis enlisted to advance American post-war military superiority; a seemingly berserk monster chased by the armed forces; governmental conspiracies; an illicit, convincing, and socially-devastating love affair; tense race relations; epistolary and diaristic devices; extreme child abuse; and a Black family who are crucial to the plot, who are the most sensitively rendered people in the story, and whose members have something akin to what Stephen King called “the Shine.” Somehow Windsor-Smith manages to weave all these familiar strands together into an immensely satisfying and exciting and deeply emotional whole. The keys are the storytelling and the art.
The style is realism, but the accomplished and laborious technique is hardly matched in contemporary comics. The closest analogue is Berni Wrightson’s illustrated Frankenstein from 1983. Wrightson was a one-time collaborator with Windsor-Smith in The Studio, a short-lived Manhattan artistic collective. His unabridged version of Mary Shelley’s classic effectively emulated 19th century woodcuts but was limited to 43 images–it was not a comic. Windsor-Smith’s updated Frankenstein tale, begun just after Wrightson’s book appeared, displays his own inimitable command of black-and-white, the format in which his comics had always been produced before being sent off to be colored. His style has evolved to an astonishing extent. Each panel brims with observed expression and life. His ability to convey screen doors (p. 179), wicker chairs on a porch (35–38), spider webs in white against shadow that are a stand-in for the hatching technique (38), a terrycloth bathrobe (164) with the most modest of ease is remarkable. There is no Mannerism here. The artist uses technical pens to produce crosshatching to brilliant effect, to convey illusionistic chiaroscuro as well as emotional intensity on faces. It grounds the book in realism and fends off a cartoony look. Even in the early Conan books, when not mangled by an inept inker, Windsor-Smith’s treatment of hair served as an organ of meaning, emotional states, and sentiment. In Monsters, Janet Bailey’s hair deserves a spin-off series. Pre-Raphaelite in its intensity, her curls frame her face and reflect her feelings. And there is no one in contemporary comics who moves the cartooning camera around a scene as Windsor-Smith does. Long ago in Conan he learned the power of overhead shots. Here that cinematic device, in addition to rotation around figures, jump cuts, deep focus, two shots, washed out compositions, spot lit figures emerging from tenebrist backgrounds, and an extended fade out at the end reveal Windsor-Smith’s mastery of narratival visual storytelling. It is complicated but utterly clear. The dialogue, and there is a lot of it, is pitch perfect: natural, humorous, horrific, sometimes in German, full of cadence and language appropriate to the 40s or 60s, and measured. Most comics today can be read in six minutes, outside a dwindling literate few that combine absorbing writing with top flight art (such as Saga, Lazarus, Monstress, Seven to Eternity, Gideon Falls, and a handful of others). But in Monsters there are also many wordless panels, or pauses for effect, that concentrate the narrative. Page 226 soars in this respect.
This is a book that demands and rewards your attention to every panel. Cartoonists today don’t much care for the term “graphic novel,” preferring just “comics” (although Windsor-Smith uses the term). But this is a book-length historical comic that fulfills the definition of a novel and conveys, convincingly and shatteringly, human experience. It is the most impressive comic on this scale since Jason Lutes’s similarly long in gestation Berlin of 2018. It has cost Windsor-Smith much to produce. Let us hope he can muster the energy to pursue further projects, because he is at the peak of his powers, and Monsters may be the completed work that will cement his importance in this essential literary/aesthetic art form.