Monsters. Throughout history people have been fascinated by them. Real or not, there’s something undoubtedly alluring about them. Whether they’re seductive creatures of the night or symbolic of humanity’s hubris, monsters have and will continue to be prominent elements of pop culture. In 2005, Top Cow and Dynamite joined forces to produce Monster War, a 4-issue miniseries that pitted legendary monsters against Top Cow’s biggest characters. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde would fill out the roster of monsters that would go up against Witchblade, Tomb Raider, The Darkness, and Magdalena. The results would be a fun, popcorn comic with elements of gothic horror.
The biggest detriment to Monster War is the artwork. Joyce Chin draws the characters – especially the women – in a cheesecake style that was outdated even in 2005. However, as Chin herself is a female creator, it does muddy the waters as to if this artwork should be considered exploitative. It’s easy to point to the work of a male artist and call it problematic, especially when it comes to the depiction of women. Greg Land and Clay Mann are two artists that have been criticized for exactly that. Whether or not there is a double standard, it is certainly something to think about. Personally, I find that cheesecake art is cheesecake art, regardless of the artist’s gender.
Looking past the characters, Chin has a great eye for scenery. Monster War features a lot of grotesque, gothic architecture that recalls the classic Universal monster movies. Vintage venues conjure up images of “old money” thanks to details such as dark wood walls and deep red curtains. Unfortunately, the Dracula we get is less Bela Lugosi and more Luke Evans. The youthful, body-builder physique of this Dracula acts as a harsh contrast against the moody scenery. Thankfully, the other monsters do not suffer a similar affliction, as Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde, and the Wolfman are equally grotesque, befitting the story.
Speaking of the story, writer Christopher Golden’s script has big enough stakes to bring these classic and modern titans together. Yes, there is an “end of the world” scenario, which typically means that the stakes are so big that they mean nothing. Dracula and Hyde serve as the main antagonists, with a plot to turn the world into one inhabited solely by the savage and unhinged. The details of how they intend to accomplish this are… icky. Ingenious, but icky.
However, Golden keeps the cast of characters relatively small and the settings intimate in order to ramp up tension. This is due to the story being structured as a series of four one-on-one battles. Dracula vs. Magdalena. Wolfman vs. Tomb Raider. Frankenstein vs. Witchblade. Mr. Hyde vs. The Darkness. These battles serve as the central framing device for each issue, but Golden manages to keep them from being the central focus. Despite its title and the publishers’ reputations at the time, Monster War is very plot focused. Both Lara Croft and Sara Pezzini spend most of their time fully clothed and investigating a case that happens to be much bigger than they imagined.
Perhaps the most admirable part of Monster War is that it’s not afraid to have its heroes lose. The series is framed as a sequence of battles, but for the most part the heroes do not come out on top – and even them saving the world at the end is debatable. In a send-up to classic horror, Golden and Chin conclude the series with stinger that is uplifting, but with an uneasy undercurrent. Monster War ends up being an entertaining mashup of monster tales and horror tropes, making it a great way to kick-off the Halloween season.