By Ken Dahl
208 pages, black and white
Published by Secret Acres
What do you know about herpes? Some readers might know that it’s a disease that almost three-quarters of Americans have, and it’s incurable. Except, of course, there’s more to it than just that. If you finish reading Ken Dahl’s Monsters with nothing more than a better understanding of what herpes really is and how it can effect you, that’s a good start. With his semi-autobiographical graphic novel, though, Dahl does more than just simply educate about the herpes simplex virus. Instead, it’s a harrowing—and in places extremely uncomplimentary—journey into his own psyche.
Dahl wisely opens Monsters with a scene of "normalcy," so that readers will have something with which to compare the events to come. He’s in what appears to be a good relationship with his girlfriend, and life proceeding in an every-day manner. Then Ken and Rory discover they have herpes, and things begin their slow descent. What struck me upon reading Monsters is that Dahl avoids any definitive settling of blame, save perhaps for the self-inflicted. There’s no narrative voice that explains where the infection came from, no simple and tidy pointing of fingers when Ken and Rory’s relationship starts collapsing under the weight of their negative emotions. The closest that Dahl comes to this is when Ken (repeatedly) looks at the situation and then beats himself up over it.
The meat of the book for me, though, isn’t so much how Ken and Rory’s relationship falls apart, but how Ken lives his life afterwards. It would have been an easy choice of Dahl to polish up his alter-ego’s life and decisions along the way, here. Instead, though, Dahl continually second-guesses himself, heaps new piles of blame on his shoulders, and fails in tests that he’s put in his own path. It’s a combination of depressing and pathetic, and reminds me a lot of the same attitude that pervades Joe Matt’s work in books like The Poor Bastard and Spent. When the climax (no, not that kind) and resolution of Monsters finally show up, it’s hard to not breathe a large sigh of relief.
That said, Monsters might have ended up still forgettable if it wasn’t for Dahl’s strong art. Drawn primarily in a 2×2 panel grid, Dahl brings the virus to life, literally, drawing its phantom manifestation to haunt Ken as it weighs on his mind more and more with each passing day. It’s a hallmark of Dahl’s art in Monsters, twisting the physicality of Ken as different emotions race through him. From a caved-in face as a divine figure crushes his face (after getting ripped a new one by an acquaintance), to transforming into a dog while lusting after a passerby, what could have come across as silly or cheesy instead gains an extra physical punch to the gut, with Dahl’s meticulous lines bringing out Ken’s feelings and emotions.
It’s hard to not pass judgment on Dahl when reading Monsters, with its semi-autobiographical nature. I think that’s missing the point, though. Sure, Dahl is putting himself out in the open, warts and all. From acting weak-willed when given the opportunity of even the simplest of physical contact to slobbering over women that walk by after being deprived of sex for a long period of time, there’s a lot of behavior that readers can easily turn their noses up. But as Ken learns in the pages of Monsters, it’s a disease that a majority of the population of the country already has. It’s a disease that people are afraid to talk about even while relatives like shingles are socially acceptable to reveal. At the end of the day, it’s just another fact of life, even while Monsters is anything but just another graphic novel. This one’s going to stick with you for quite a while.