Comics Review: AMERICAN MONSTER from Aftershock Comics
AMERICAN MONSTER #1 through #5 (Aftershock Comics, January - October 2016) Writer: Brian Azzarello. Artist: Juan Doe. Colorist: Juan Doe. Letters: Juan Doe. Covers: Juan Doe. Rating: 17+. Also released on November 23 in a trade paperback edition.
AMERICAN MONSTER is not an easy book to summarize, so we’re going to be lazy and share what the official Aftershock website has to say about it:
“The ugliest side of humanity may be humanity’s only hope.
In a small Midwestern town, a large man with a horribly scarred face gets off a bus, and takes a room. He spooks the locals — nobody knows him — or do they? It’s impossible to say because he seemingly has no face. The man’s intentions remain unknown, until he takes on a corrupt sheriff and the rural crew of racist arms dealers. The town’s impression of the man changes, and he’s seen as a hero . . . until his real intentions bubble to the surface. The man isn’t there to end the gang, but to take it over. And he’s just getting started.”
That paragraph of description above actually clarified some things for me that reading the first five issues of this book did not. I found myself making multiple assumptions about what I was reading and viewing. AMERICAN MONSTER contains no captions or explanations. Instead, it relies on art and dialogue to tell the story.
There are multiple characters, and each issue skips back and forth among their individual scenes, without providing or even hinting at a link (although the first story arc does provide some of that near the end).
That is going to make it difficult for this book to connect with all readers. I suspect many will give up after an issue or two and move onto to something less challenging. It’s definitely not for the casual comics reader. In our case, we like books that challenge readers. We don’t mind being confused by a story as long as we can figure it out eventually. Multiple readings help uncover subtle elements that were previously overlooked.
AMERICAN MONSTER is a story about crime in a small midwestern town (our assumption). It also appears to be a story about redemption. The huge man who appears to be the central figure, is a war veteran with horrible scars and an unrecognizable face. He returns to the town where he used to lived, purpose unknown. We don’t learn much more about him until later in the story. Whether or not he is the monster referred to in the title remains to be seen.
The man, Theo Montclare, is as personable as his appearance - - that is to say he is not a likable character (although that may come later with more understanding). There really aren't any likable characters in the entire book. Each individual is off-center in one way or another. Some are criminal, some uninhibited, some rebellious, some depraved, and some may be mentally challenged.
This might just be the darkest story that writer Azzarello has ever told - - and readers familiar with his back catalog (100 BULLETS, LOVELESS, SPACEMAN, etc.) understand that’s saying a lot.
We thought that the underrated SPACEMAN was an experiment in new methods of comics storytelling. AMERICAN MONSTER feels like Azzarello is taking the next step and experimenting still further. If that prospect intrigues you, then our job is done. Please go and read the book. Having it now available with all five issues of the first story arc in a trade paperback will definitely help with comprehension. There was a two month or more gap between the release dates of the single issues, which made it difficult to keep it fresh in the memory.
If you’re still reading and not convinced about checking this series out, then the art should convince you. It was much easier to become engrossed in the magnificent art compared to getting a firm grip on the story. The art is just as experimental as the story: monochromatic color schemes, heavy black borders and backgrounds, borderless panels, white or black silhouettes, dark colors, etc.
After reading the first issue, and seeing a creators profile page with a photo of Azzarello and just a cartoon emoticon to represent the appearance of Doe, we thought the artist’s name might be a pseudonym. Is this the work of long-time Azzarello collaborator Eduardo Risso, using a fictional name to disguise his identity so that he can experiment with changes to his signature style? After all, Juan Doe sounds a lot like John Doe.
A little research reminded us that Doe is the illustrator for many of the ‘industrial revolution’ and propaganda style covers done for Marvel Comics. You won’t believe the wonders his unique style reveals when illustrating a full book. Doe’s work on AMERICAN MONSTER is creative and original, reminding of the best of Eduardo Risso, Darwyn Cooke, and Frank Miller’s SIN CITY period. What also makes this remarkable is that Doe does it all without any help = AMERICAN MONSTER is 100% penciled, inked, colored and lettered by Juan Doe. Did we forget to mention cover artist as well?
Perhaps that combination still doesn’t persuade you. If you’re still sitting on the fence, keep reading to learn more about this intriguing series. Others can stop reading now. Just get the book. WARNING: There may be unintentional spoilers within. . . . . . .
ISSUE #1 HIGHLIGHTS “American Monster”
The opening pages made us recall 1960’s science-fiction writer Alfred Bester’s words of advice to writers: ‘Punch the reader in the face repeatedly on the first page . . .”
On Page One the door bell rings at an isolated estate. A woman answers the door, as her husband is busy in another room. Upon opening the door, a muscular gauntleted arm punches her in the face hard enough to knock her down. The husband finishes up in the bathroom and sees a silhouette in the doorway. Soon he has a bag wrapped over his head by another intruder, and is taken off panel. The action images are colored in blood red and black with stark white for sound effects and dialogue balloons. Ouch. We felt that. (Apparently, Azzarello has read Bester.)
The horribly scarred man arrives in town, barely fitting in the doorway of the gas station where he gets directions to a hotel and restaurant. The station employee, his friend, and the janitor are open-mouthed with awe and fear of the stranger. It’s our first introduction to the big guy.
The See-Saw Man, a middle-aged sexual voyeur, visits some youngsters at a playground and pays teenager Snow to show her breasts while he fiddles with himself. Dumpy looking Candy, a cap-wearing tomboy, is jealous.
Flashbacks are illustrated in sepia tones. Two U.S. soldiers in combat gear walk into a trap. The site is not identified. From illustrations it appears to be either Iraq or Afghanistan.
A diner patron recognizes the big man (still unidentified) as a veteran and offers to pay for his meal in appreciation for his service. Instead of accepting, the big guy insults the patron in crude fashion and flashes a big wad of money (placing the stack on top of a newspaper with the headline ‘Bank Heist’). Outside, the big guy’s van explodes.
We return to the kidnapped couple from the opening pages, now forced to play a cruel and twisted game by their two kidnappers, Felix and Josh, who look like bike gang members.
So ends the first issue. We haven’t learned where this is taking place. We don’t know the name of the big man. We don’t know if these incidents are related, but suspect they will be important later.
ISSUE #2 HIGHLIGHTS “Road Kill”
We learn that Snow’s parents are no longer living together, and Snow stays with her self-important Mom (most of the time). Snow hangs out with four other friends, who are reckless and bored.
Gary, the local deputy, investigates the van explosion and this is how we learn the big guy’s name is Theodore Montclare. Deputy Gary acts a little backward and shy. His last name is ironically Downs. His boss, Sheriff Verdi, hates paperwork, takes shortcuts in enforcing the law, and doesn’t appear to be honorable.
Felix Black and Josh are arms dealers who are wary of doing business with crazy Reverend Jimmy Cross. Felix is Snow’s father. Someone shot Felix’s dog. If we tell you who gets shot dead next, and who did it, it will spoil your fun. And Gary still lives at home with a real or imagined mother, who may have Alzheimers disease.
We’re going to quit with the details now. After all, this is a review - - not a book report. We just wanted to indicate how complex this story is with multiple threads that have yet to be connected. We believe we’ve made our point.
ISSUE #3 HIGHLIGHTS “We Bury Our Dread”
There’s a hint here at which of the other characters in AMERICAN MONSTER has a previous connection to Theo, in a war-time flashback scene with flaming consequences. It’s amazing what Doe does with color.
The See Saw Man finds another susceptible teen to take his dirty money in exchange for favors.
After three issues, Theo finally talks nice to someone.
ISSUE #4 HIGHLIGHTS “Undergod”
Here’s a spin on the corrupt preacher concept: Reverend Jimmy Cross (more irony in that name) is a ‘guns and bibles’ evangelist. Check out his words to the media from Sin.N.N.: “If Jesus Christ and his Apostles were alive today, they’d all be proud gun owners.” Rev Jimmy is anti-Washington D.C., and predicts the fall of the empire.
Cam, the gas station manager, is Snow’s brother. Weird, too.
ISSUE#5 HIGHLIGHTS “Univisible”
This is the issue where all the loose threads seem to be coming together to form the big ball of yarn that should be fully formed sometime during the second story arc.
Theo meets the person who wronged him in the war. Does he have revenge in mind, or redemption, or something else?
The back of the book includes some cool examples of the process employed by Azzarello to communicate what he wants to happen on the page, and how Doe interprets and illustrates that. Here’s hoping there are more examples of this in the trade paperback.
BC RATING SYSTEM
STORY: AMERICAN MONSTER has been all about the set-up for the first five issues. It’s been a fun ride with Azzarello and Doe. The writing is dynamic, and reminds me of the way noted author Joe R. Lansdale sometimes tells a story . 3 POINTS.
ART: We love Doe’s illustration style and can’t get enough of it. 3 POINTS
COVER: Love the use of white silhouettes for the characters on the covers. Consistent each issue, except for #5 when the silhouettes go to black. 2 POINTS
READ AGAIN? If you don’t, you might overlook some fine details and be confused later. Repeat readings are rewarding, as they increase our appreciation for this work. 1 POINT.
RECOMMEND? While we love this book, we know there will be some who hate it. We can only recommend it to those who crave unconventional creations and unique story-telling methods. ONE-HALF POINT.
TOTAL RATING: 9.5 POINTS out of 10. Damn near perfect.