Beasts! Book 1Curated by Jacob Covey; Written and Illustrated by 95 writers and artistsFantagraphics; $28.95
Beasts! stretches the definition of what a comic book is, but we’re adventurous folks, right? At first glance, it’s an art book. Ninety different artists each depict a cryptozoological creature in the style of his or her choosing. There’s also a paragraph about each by one of five different writers, but that sounds like the kind of thing you’d flip through once and then stick on the coffee table. It certainly doesn’t sound like a comic. There’s no story and that’s what comics are. They line up pictures to tell stories.
Except that this book does tell a story. Not a very conventional one perhaps, but it’s there.
The first clue is Jacob Covey’s title. He didn’t edit the book; he curated it like a museum exhibition. The book’s Introduction further reinforces that notion. It reads like a program, with a definition of Cryptozoology and notes about the artists, the creatures they selected, and the approach the curator took in putting the collection together. It also shares interesting facts, points out easily missed elements of the book’s design, and even suggests the best way for “the enthusiastic reader” to experience what’s to come. In other words, it’s not only a program; it’s a tour guide. By the time I was done reading it and ready to turn the page, I genuinely felt like I was entering an exhibit. Not just an art show, but a fascinating trip into The Study of Hidden Animals.
As you’d expect from a collection like this, there’s a healthy mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. For every Bigfoot and Unicorn, there’s a Barometz and Utukku. That’s not only true for the creatures, but also for the artists who depict them. I saw lots of recognizable names – Colleen Coover, James Jean, and Richard Sala, for example – but I was also introduced to a lot of folks I’d never heard of. As much as I loved seeing new work from old favorites like Kevin Dart, Dean Yeagle, and Jason, it was even cooler to discover new artists like Tim Biskup, Ryan Clark, and Nathan Jurevicius. Covey didn’t just approach comics artists for this project, he talked to people from all over the art world: from fantasy illustration and children’s books to animation and graphic design. Beasts! is full of people whose work is primarily seen in art galleries and on rock posters and skateboards as well as in bookstores and comics shops.
Because of the wide variety of ways these artists see the world and approach art, it’s understood that some pieces delighted me while others left me scratching my head. But even the head-scratchers – especially the head-scratchers – left me pondering various aspects of the mythical and legendary creatures in ways I’d never considered before. Why for instance does Maxwell Loren Holyoke-Hirsch’s Loch Ness Monster appear to be a beached, black, amorphous shape stood over by four people (are two of them carrying pitchforks?) instead of the familiar aquatic dinosaur I’m used to seeing? Perhaps something to do with the way humans have popularized this formerly mysterious creature, metaphorically dragging him up on dry land for our examination and entertainment? I’ve no idea if that’s close to Holyoke-Hirsch’s intent, but who cares if it is? That’s art.
Finishing the book are a fascinating and enlightening conversation with Yeti-expert Daniel Taylor, a very helpful Taxinomical Diagram (a beastly family tree that organizes and categorizes the creatures by various traits like habitat and appearance), and a handy Bibliography for those interested in further study. Once I was done, I realized that I'd held onto that feeling of going through a real, marvelous exhibit of strange and wonderful creatures. Like I’d been told a story in which I was the main character, visiting this museum, learning about these beasts, wondering about them, and in turn creating stories of my own.
Discussion Question: What’s the best comic you’ve ever read about cryptozoological creatures?