Best Shots review: Barry Windsor-Smith explores trauma and grief in ways that he has never been able to before with Monsters

(Image credit: Barry Windsor-Smith (Fantagraphics Books))

It's been 16 years since Barry Windsor-Smith's last book and in Monsters, you can see the work of those days and years on every page and panel. Drawing the story of three generations of characters, Windsor-Smith richly layers lines, images, and even timelines in this book. His classically influenced style, as rich now as it was in the '70s, fills the pages with drawings and sequences you can easily lose yourself in the depths of. His fine linework establishes the brokenness of the character, depicting a post-World War II dream that possibly was never anything more than an American nightmare. Windsor-Smith makes sure that no line and no detail is superfluous, every element of this story builds on the tale's structure to reinforce Windsor-Smith's themes and concerns.

Monsters credits

Written by Barry Windsor-Smith
Art by Barry Windsor-Smith
Lettering by Barry Windsor-Smith
Published by Fantagraphics Books
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

At first, this story could almost pass for a Hulk story. It is one-part origin story for a military-made hulking brute as the military recruits and performs experiments on Bobby Bailey, a young man who carries the scars of his youth but sees no future other than following in the footsteps of his father Tom Bailey. As we see more and more of Bobby's story, we can see how lost he must be if he is trying to be like his father. When this experiment turns him into some kind of monster, you may think that you are starting to see the shape and direction of this book. And you may be partially correct but Windsor-Smith is not here to give you a simple, straightforward story.

(Image credit: Barry Windsor-Smith (Fantagraphics Books))

This is a story that needs a lot of space. On each of the more than the nearly 360 pages that make up this work, Windsor-Smith settles into a pacing where each sequence allows the story and the characters to breathe. Bobby Bailey, the most obvious of the titular monsters, gets to be a character we see at the beginning and near the end of his life, becoming this tragic figure who was destined to be nothing more than a victim of life. Windsor-Smith appears liberated from the constraints of the kind of 20+ page comics that he built his career on. From Conan to Solar to Rune, Windsor-Smith always brought a high degree of craft to all of his work, creating beautiful illustrations that served the needs of corporations and their restrained views of what comics should be. His work over many different comics created a body of beautiful and fluid drawings. But after that amount of work, he has now created a work that his legacy will be forever tied to, melding his stylistic artwork with a story that explores trauma and grief in ways that he has never been able to before.

Monsters is built on the connections of Bobby Bailey and his family to the closing days of World War II. That war was the result of monsters, but it created its own monsters who carried an evil spirit back to their homes and families. But these monsters existed even before the war but spread like an infection after the Allied Forces declared victory and thought that they were going to be heading to their homes soon. World War II may be the catalyst for this story but what Windsor-Smith explores is a much larger and even more pervasive evil than the horrors of war. He examines an evil force that travels through generations, bringing the sins of the fathers to their sons and daughters. Tom Bailey brought those horrors back to his family in the states but the McFarland family, another one caught up in these events, had to live with the death of a father during the war. Tom Bailey and Leon McFarland walked into the heart of darkness in 1945 not knowing that their families would be living in the shadows of that darkness for the next twenty years.

Time collapses in on itself in this book, blurring the lines of the past and the present. Windsor-Smith constructs this story with flashbacks upon flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. Because of that, time becomes its own type of monster, fluid but unyielding. He uses time to build the layers of this story, following the effects of actions long before the cause of them. This sets up mysteries for us to follow but it also gives us the ability to live in these moments, inhabiting the world of Bobby Bailey from childhood to the days where he's on the run from the army. Bobby is one of the few innocent people in this book but he suffers the most. He has to carry all of the sins even as he himself was never one of the sinners.

Bobby literally becomes the monster in this book but nearly every character acts like a monster at one point or another. Whatever force that leads him on his path infects everyone, including his mother, a woman who struggles to rise above her troubles. The book is about men and women who succumb to the world, who fight for as long as they can before being beaten down and transformed into some corrupted thing. In many of the characters, we see moments of good and moments of evil; in that way, they're ultimately very human as they exist on a spectrum of morality. There is a pervasive evil in this world, some original sin that infects nearly every character. Windsor-Smith sets the majority of this story in a Normal Rockwellesque America, one that is easy to idealize and idolize from our distance to it. He uses that as a backdrop to question what is the cost of war.

With that question as a central theme of the book, Windsor Smith understands that war is something that eats away at the fabric of society and families. Monsters is a war story as all of the threats of the story tie back to Germany and 1945. Bobby may have only been a young boy as the war ended but his whole life, whether he knew it or not, was affected by what happened in Germany to his father. Windsor-Smith crafts a war story that recognizes that wars don't end with an armistice. For some people, wars never end as they have to live with the experiences and atrocities every day and every night, even after they eventually get to go home.

Monsters is available now in print and digitally. For the best digital comics experience, check out our list of the best digital comics readers for Android and iOS devices.

Freelance Writer

Scott is a regular contributor for Panel Patter, GamesRadar, and Newsarama, covering comic books since 2002. He specialises in comic book reviews, and also runs the blog I Lost It At the Comic Shop.