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Issue #1 of Monsters won an Ignatz award as an outstanding small press publication of 2006. I was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed this second issue. It’s no understatement that Dahl does almost everything right in this comic.
Monsters is the story of a young couple, Rory and Ken, who discover that they both have herpes, and the effect that herpes has on their lives. I was really captivated by the emotional honesty of the story. Dahl does a great job of showing the depression that the diagnosis throws the couple into, and how it becomes a huge wedge in their relationship. At the same time, the disease gives the couple a kind of bond, joining them together in their shared suffering no matter how their lives proceed from the point of diagnosis. The final few pages are a dreamlike sequence in which Ken dreams of a bizarre amusement park called Herpesland, which is full of symbolic imagery that shows the intense turmoil and guilt that the man feels.
Dahl’s art is wonderful. He works on a square page, presenting a grid of four panels to a page. That arrangement gives this comic a kind of steady pace, like moments and days passing through the lives of the story’s characters. But within that grid Dahl produces all kinds of interesting tricks. I love how the Rory’s word balloon on page five, panel four basically drifts off the page, and his artful use of the “steady camera” technique on page nine really emphasizes the depression that the couple feels. Each page is an artful surprise; each page is well thought out and designed to emphasize the scene that it’s showing.
Maybe the most interesting moment is page twelve, which is really the only page in the book to vary from the rule of four panels per page. The top two-thirds of the page is a picture of the couple, naked, facing each other with looks of fear, anger and uncertainty on their faces. In the middle of the page is a bubbling cauldron of questions bubbling up from the floor: “Can this lead to cancer or something?”, “Is this my punishment for looking down on people with herpes?”, and other questions come between the couple, symbolically summarizing their situation. This panel breaks out of the grid because it’s so central to the couple’s lives. It’s bigger because it sums up their entire situation.
This is about as far from an afterschool special as any comic can be. The topic and story in this comic are sad, but it’s exciting to stumble over such an interesting comic book.