“Monsters” by Barry Windsor-Smith

The year is 1964. Bobby Bailey doesn’t realize he is about to fulfill his tragic destiny when he walks into a US Army recruitment office to join up. Close-mouthed, damaged, innocent, trying to forget a past and looking for a future, it turns out that Bailey is the perfect candidate for a secret U.S. government experimental program, an unholy continuation of a genetics program that was discovered in Nazi Germany nearly 20 years earlier in the waning days of World War II. Bailey’s only ally and protector, Sergeant McFarland, intervenes, which sets off a chain of cascading events that spin out of everyone’s control. As the titular monsters of the title multiply, becoming real and metaphorical, literal and ironic, the story reaches its emotional and moral reckoning.

In this pen-and-ink graphic novel, in 1964, Bobby Bailey is recruited for a U.S. military experimental genetics program that was discovered in Nazi Germany 20 years prior. His only ally, Sergeant McFarland, intervenes to try to protect him, which sets off a chain of events that spin out of everyone’s control. As the titular monsters multiply, becoming real and metaphorical, literal and ironic, the story reaches its emotional and moral reckoning. Windsor-Smith has been working on this passion project for more than 35 years, and Monsters is a part intergenerational family drama, part espionage thriller, and part metaphysical journey. Trauma, fate, conscience, and redemption are just a few of the themes that intersect in the most ambitious (and intense) graphic novel of Windsor-Smith’s career. Black and white illustrations.

Monsters is the legendary project Barry Windsor-Smith has been working on for over 35 years. A 380-page tour de force of visual storytelling, Monsters’ narrative canvas is both vast and deep: part familial drama, part political thriller, part metaphysical journey, it is an intimate portrait of individuals struggling to reclaim their lives and an epic political odyssey across two generations of American history. Trauma, fate, conscience, and redemption are just a few of the themes that intersect in the most ambitious graphic novel of Windsor-Smith’s career. 

Monsters is rendered in Windsor-Smith’s impeccable pen-and-ink technique, the visual storytelling with its sensitivity to gesture and composition is the most sophisticated of the artist’s career. There are passages of heartbreaking tenderness, excruciating pain, and devastating violence. It is surely one of the most intense graphic novels ever drawn.

“After putting so much time and investing so much creative energy in this project,” says Windsor-Smith, “I’m pleased that it’s finally being published.”

Barry Windsor-Smith began his career by drawing mainstay Marvel characters such as the X-Men and Daredevil in 1969 in the traditional Marvel style. However, in 1971 he broke from the Marvel formula when he started drawing the Conan series, turning heads with a fresh and controversial stylistic approach and winning numerous industry awards. Part of a young generation of artists that included compatriots Berni Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, and Jeff Jones, Windsor-Smith proceeded to carve an independent path for himself. In the ‘90s, he conceived, wrote, and drew three independent series, The FreebootersYoung Gods, and The Paradox-Man. In 1999 and 2001 Fantagraphics published Opus volumes 1 and 2, autobiographical coffee table art books. Monsters is his first book since The Freebooters (2005). 

“I’ve known Barry for over 50 years now,” explains Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, “so publishing his biggest and most artistically mature work to date is a personal and professional milestone for me, and I’m grateful that he’s entrusted this important work to us.”

“Barry Windsor-Smith has for over three decades, been working on Monsters. Almost twenty years ago I read an unfinished version and was shocked and astonished at the power and delicacy of the storytelling, by the honesty of the family relationships, by the feeling that this was being created by someone willing to reveal too much and go too deep in order to tell the story he had to tell. That it is completed and that it will be released to the world is something that’s genuinely exciting for any of us who care about comics, or stories, or the place where art and imagination meet.” — Neil Gaiman