Sunday, November 22, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Monsters

Rob reviews the bracingly personal new comic from Ken Dahl, MONSTERS (Secret Acres).

Ken Dahl's MONSTERS created a sensation when its first few chapters were released as minicomics, winning an Ignatz award. In their original format, the minis were barely-disguised autobiographical comics about a particular relationship he had and how it came crashing down when both partners realized they had herpes--and that he probably gave it to her. The final version, published by outstanding small press concern Secret Acres, changed some of the details and appearances but left the emotional core of the book intact. Dahl, working very much in the tradition of underground comics, created a hilarious but bracing story about living with a disease that by its very nature creates a state of perpetual alienation. The craving for intimacy is permanently balanced by an intense feeling of guilt and self-loathing, a sense of not being worthy of intimacy because of the disease. That feeling is further multiplied by the understanding that while herpes is incurable, it's not especially harmful. There's always the temptation to simply withhold one's diagnosis from potential partners.

After all, as Dahl noted, something like 60% of all adult Americans has herpes in one form or other--but most people don't know it. For a conscientious person, the feeling is akin to shoplifting being the only method one can use to obtain a product. Shoplifting is clearly a crime and an ethical lapse, but the line between right and wrong becomes very thin at that point of desperation and little harm that can be caused.

MONSTERS turned from the dynamics of a particular relationship to the specifics of day-to-day living with what was once euphemistically called a "social disease". Dahl infused the book with a weird tension. It's part confessional, part educational comic, part gag book at his own expense. Living with constant pain in his mouth, and without proper insurance for medication that might help, led to a miserable day-to-day experience. At the same time, Dahl felt guilt for being that miserable, considering that nothing was really "wrong" with him. Of course, the worse part of the experience was the sense that it was not only not possible to experience intimate contact ever again, but that he didn't even deserve intimacy. What separated this book from simple melodrama was two things: Dahl's acidic sense of humor and his virtuostic linework.

Dahl used a clever trick in depicting life with the disease, creating an anthropomorphized version of herpes as a sort of constant companion. Dahl leaned heavily on the comically grotesque in the depiction of his "friend" as well as himself, going over the top on many pages for humorous effect. Crumb was an obvious influence on his line, but there's a bit of Peter Bagge in there too, especially in terms of character design. Any influence he took from others was mostly that of inspiration and boundaries of what was possible in comics--seeing what could subjects could be addressed. Dahl is very much an original, who manages to walk the line between intense rendering and clear page design. His figures went from simplistic to naturalistic to cartoony, sometimes all on the same page.

MONSTERS is a book that has a lot of narrative text, but it's just in support of the intensity of the images on every page. Dahl either employs a funny drawing or grotesque drawing in nearly every panel, powerfully underlining the central theme of unearned alienation. It's a tribute to his skill and sense of humor that this unrelenting intensity doesn't become overwhelming to the reader. It does help that Dahl employed several series of silent pages, including detailed renderings of actual herpes sores, the morning routine of assorted pills and powders and a hilarious sequence where the herpes-ridden finger of god squashes his head.

The central plot arc of this story is a simple one. Dahl goes from oblivious, to denial, to shirking of responsibility and knowledge of herpes, to overobsessing about the details of the disease. The quotidian details of the various "homeopathic" remedies he tried to relieve his oral discomfort dovetailed neatly with several hilarious sequences depicting his job making food at a Whole Foods-style, vegan grocery store. Dahl excels at depicting screaming, pompous & deluded lunatics from all walks of life, but he saved a special sort of venom for the health food fanatics he used to serve. That sequence pointed out that stress tended to trigger his pain, but it also pointed out how much he was beginning to hate a group of people that he theoretically thought of as like-minded folk. Overcoming his fear of humiliating rejection and self-loathing, the feeling that he deserved to be alone, became his biggest task, one that he finally achieved when he acknowledged his need for intimacy with a particular person while being honest with her. When she told him it wasn't really a big deal, Dahl depicted himself as having layers of slime and goo falling away from his skin, revealing just another person. He even had sympathy for the anthropomorphized disease, acknowledging that it was just another form of life trying to get by.

That climax is followed by a twist-ending epilogue that comically took the rug out from under Dahl, rendering five years of his life a "corny sex-ed PSA". It's an ending so unlikely that it has to be true, but it didn't nullify the emotional truth of what he was trying to accomplish with this comic. There are a number of pages of fairly didactic material, but Dahl's skill as an artist (and some truly gross drawings) made these fascinating to read. Slightly less interesting was the time spent on the laundry list of foods he was trying to avoid, and how that clashed with his attempt at the time to be a vegan. The book was at its best when Dahl simply went about his day and tried to figure out how to relate to others.

At its heart, this is a book about ethics in its truest sense: what do we do about others? How do we relate to them, and why do we want to? Do we treat them as objects at hand or as ends unto themselves? Dahl was confronted by a scenario that forced himself to ask these questions every time he wanted to kiss someone, have sex with someone one or initiate any kind of intimate contact. It underlined not only the ways that we take such things for granted, it illuminated the entire issue of how our material needs intersect with our conception of self and other. It also highlighted the ways in which society's taboos on openly discussing sex and sexuality lead to situations where disease is spread. MONSTERS is both a funny confessional story highlighting the mistakes of its protagonist and an attempt to open a dialogue, and it's a rousing success on both counts.

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