After a few days of single-issue stuff, let’s hit the thick stuff, okay? Today: HERPES!!!!!! (Yes, really.)
The fine folk at Secret Acres sent me a copy of Ken Dahl’s Monsters, which will set you back $18. I don’t think it’s quite worth $18, though, because it’s basically a public service announcement (as Dahl himself admits late in the book). It’s about a guy who discovers he has herpes and what he does about it. That’s it.
The story follows a guy named Ken as he navigates his life, beginning with an innocuous cold sore in 2002 through giving his live-in girlfriend herpes in 2003 through 2007, where the book ends. Ken breaks up with his girlfriend, moves to Phoenix, and attempts celibacy throughout 2004.
He finally succumbs on New Year’s Eve 2004, which of course makes the young lady with whom he had sex a bit grumpy when he tells her about his problem a week later. Eventually he feels so bad he actually educates himself about herpes, discovering that most adults are infected, and begins to take all sorts of homeopathic “medicines” to control it. He meets a girl and actually tells her about it before they have sex, which is a big step for him. She knows about it already and doesn’t think it’s a big deal, and they move on … until the epilogue, which is rather humorous and wraps up the book nicely. There’s not much of a narrative thread, as Ken just moves through his life trying to deal with his guilt and other feelings he has about the herpes, and even though Dahl does a nice job creating the characters, Ken’s relationship with Rory and then Hannah feels a bit perfunctory, as if it’s part of the PSA, showing how herpes affects these relationships. It’s certainly not a bad “story,” because informing people about herpes is a noble pursuit, but there’s nothing terribly dramatic about the narrative.
However, that doesn’t mean the book isn’t good, and the reason is because Dahl’s art is fantastic. He takes what could be a “The More You Know” segment on NBC and makes it a phantasmagorical journey through Ken’s psyche and a weird world of disease and sex and kooky characters. Ken himself constantly views the world as if it was swarming with diseased microbes, which I guess it is, but from his point of view, they’re gigantic and constantly chatting with him when they’re not oozing all over him. It’s a very cartoony book, as the characters are often exaggerated for effect (including a hilarious conversation Ken himself has after his face has been caved in), but Dahl makes sure that the exaggerations stem from characters’ emotional reactions to events, which helps get across the freakiness of their situations.
Dahl also puts in some extremely funny sight gags, especially when Ken moves to Phoenix and hangs out at organic groceries and other “hippie” stand-bys (one store, for instance, sells “Ethnicity in a Can” and “Inca Semen”). And as he doesn’t have health insurance, the snake-oil medicines he uses to treat his herpes are very humorous even as we feel horrible that he can’t get treated properly. (If there’s a subtext to the book, it’s that our health insurance situation in this country sucks. I’m not terribly sure if I think Dahl is going that far, but the fact that both Rory and Ken don’t have health insurance mean they can’t do much to treat their disease, and although Dahl doesn’t rant about it, it’s still there.) Ken imagines himself as a dog when he become desperately horny, and he imagines a vampire wondering why he gets shunned when so many other people are spreading diseases. You can open the book at any point and see a beautifully drawn page full of either horrific images or very funny jokes (based on where you opened it).
I should point out that the book is extremely graphic. Obviously, it’s a book about herpes, so it shouldn’t surprise us, but I’m just warning you.
Not only does Ken stand around naked trying to come to grips with his problem (and his masturbatory exercises turn into weird experiences with giant microbes slithering all over him), but Dahl also gets into the nitty-gritty with regard to what herpes does, and that means showing ugly sores on all parts of a person’s body. Dahl does a nice job switching from his cartoony style to a very realistic style (presumably aided by photographs), which is a bit jolting (in a good way). I’m just letting you know that there’s a great deal of nudity in the book, and it’s definitely not titillating (not that it’s meant to be, of course).
I can’t really totally recommend Monsters. It’s interesting seeing Ken slowly come to terms with his disease, which actually helps him become a nicer guy, but the fact that he learns he has herpes and it takes him over a year to actually learn something about it is a bit annoying. I can understand his reluctance to accept it and deal with it, but you’d think he would try to learn about it, even if he doesn’t tell anyone. Oh well. I will recommend it slightly based on the Dahl’s dedication to the cause and because of the marvelous art. This is the kind of book I think would work well in high school to teach kids about STDs (parents would probably freak out about it, though, which is a shame). It’s a funny yet educational look at herpes, and there’s nothing wrong with that!
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