It really is just coincidental that I'm posting this on Halloween.
A few years ago, I saw a preview of Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's latest comic, Necessary Monsters (with art by Sean Azzopardi instead of Goodbrey this time). Considering that Goodbrey is one of the more idiosyncratic writers to come down the pike recently, I was enthusiastic about it. It was supposed to come out from AiT/Planet Lar, Larry Young's publishing empire, but somehow it got held up. Well, this year at San Diego, Larry, in conjunction with his new venture with First Comics, had the book, this time published through First, and Larry was nice enough to give me a copy (even though the price tag reads $12.95). I'll give you an idea of how long it's taken for this sucker to come out: Kieron Gillen's introduction was written in November 2009. Sheesh!
Necessary Monsters is exactly what the title says it is: the story of monsters (not Godzilla or King Kong, of course, but human-sized horrors) who go around policing other monsters, thereby making them, you know, necessary.
It's a somewhat old-school monster story - a group of people who live on the fringes of the world get together, not exactly by choice, and work for a mysterious group called the Chain, which orders them to find rogue monsters. Considering that the "good guys" tend to go around killing people in their spare time, you can imagine how horrible the bad guys are. Goodbrey introduces us to our main characters: the bad guy, Thomas Harp (whose "monster name" is Harp's Bane), visits a monster called the Knife Mother in Tokyo and convinces her that he has a scheme and he needs her help. The Chain recruits one of their best agents, Jonathon Gravehouse, who gets a team together. He uses two experienced agents, Charlotte Hatred and Cowboy 13, but one of the other agents he wants to use is dead. Luckily for him (and for the reader, who needs a point-of-view character), the agent had a daughter who inherited his power (which involves stalking people through their dreams). That young lady, Tuesday Jones, is recruited rather forcibly and Gravehouse and the others explain to her (and us) what the deal is. It's always good to have a POV character!
Essentially, the book is about this team tracking Thomas Harp and trying to thwart his scheme. Of course, Tuesday is the key to it all, and of course, she discovers that maybe Thomas isn't quite as evil as Gravehouse says he is. Goodbrey doesn't break any new ground with that aspect of the plot, but the book isn't quite as plot-driven as all that, so there's plenty of opportunity for interesting stuff along the way, which leads to a climax that doesn't work out quite the way we think it will. The first interesting aspect of the book is the central idea - that monsters exist and that the Chain works to keep them in line while still allowing them to cut loose occasionally. The Chain puts shackles on the monsters that compel them to obey when given an order, and the fact that Thomas figures out how to get out of his is what scares them so much. But within that stricture, they have a lot of freedom. Cowboy 13 is a big galoot dressed in overalls but wearing a latex suit underneath, complete with zippered mouth. He stalks the farmlands of the Midwest slaughtering amorous teenagers - one of the best things about Goodbrey is his twisted sense of humor, which comes up a lot in this book. Charlotte, meanwhile, spends her time scaring school bullies to death.
Tuesday only hunts "criminals," and Gravehouse tells her that occasionally she'll need to hunt bigger criminals - the Chain only goes after monsters who, they say, threaten all of humanity. What's a few dead horny teenagers compared to that?
Goodbrey has a lot of twisted fun with these characters (Cowboy 13's nemesis is inspired), but he also has some interesting points to make about monsters and their place in the world. Tuesday experiences something halfway through the book that first upsets her, then makes her more comfortable with her lot and helps inform the way the book ends. There's a great line she gets toward the end that sums up her worldview, which is horribly tragic. Of course, Gravehouse is a bit different than he appears, too, and Goodbrey does a nice job showing how this world works and how the characters operate. The characters aren't the deepest around, but we find out enough about them to get into the plot very well, and Goodbrey does such a good job with Tuesday that I felt like I was experiencing the world from the inside. It's nice that Goodbrey makes all these monsters feel as "normal" as he does - there are very few regular folk in this comic, so we need to identify with the monsters.
Azzopardi does some things well and others, well, not so much. This is a somewhat gory comic, and Azzopardi gleefully shows a lot of it. His character designs are really well done - Cowboy 13 would be laughable if he weren't so scary; Charlotte is a terrifically spooky Goth chick; Tuesday alternates nicely between a "normal" self and her creepier dream self. Cowboy 13's nemesis is wonderfully silly and horrifying, and Azzopardi does a nice job with the creatures in the big climax. However, his action is often a bit stiff - there's not a lot of fluidity to his characters and he doesn't use a good deal of perspective to fit bodies into his panels.
In a few panels it's unclear exactly what's going on, and I wonder if those panels are too small, which works to give us a feeling of claustrophobia but breaks down when we actually need to see what's happening. Azzopardi does help give the book a nice, anxious feel to it, but when I look at the comic, I wonder if he and Goodbrey could have opened it up just a little and allowed the art to breathe a bit. It's a tough balance to maintain, especially because of the mood Goodbrey is going for.
Necessary Monsters is a well constructed horror comic that once again shows why Goodbrey is such a good writer. He has weird ideas that work well in horror, but he makes sure there's some meat on the bones, too. Even though I'd like to know a bit more about Cowboy 13 and Charlotte (and the last page claims that the title will return, so who knows), Goodbrey's work with Tuesday, Gravehouse, and Harp is well done, and it makes the comic a more interesting book than it would be if it were a typical horror comic. Feel free to check out the first chapter here to get a sense of the comic. I'm not entirely sure if the book is out yet - it's not at Amazon - but it's definitely worth a read.