How long would you wait for a comic? My 10-year-old son, staking out the letterbox (“Dad! My Beano still hasn’t arrived!”) has a limit of about 48 hours. I want to say to him: “Two days? Try 35 years!” For that is how long the world has waited for Barry Windsor-Smith’s new graphic novel, Monsters.
In an industry that has, for most of its history, been dominated by fast art and on-the-hoof storytelling, owing to the ferocious pace of weekly production, to call Monsters an outlier would be an understatement. The reason that anyone is prepared to wait that long for it is the 71-year-old behind it. Before Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mark Millar, Dave McKean, Warren Ellis, Glenn Fabry, Steve Dillon, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons and all the other UK creators who have had a disproportionate impact on the US comic book scene, there was Windsor-Smith. He showed up fresh from art-school – more or less literally, to hear him tell it – on Marvel Comics’s doorstep in 1968 and he has been, sometimes turbulently, in and out of the funny books ever since.
Here is a writer and artist who was part of Marvel’s “bullpen” when the physical office, as he has put it, “could hold four people sort-of comfortably, with liberal deodorant use”. He cut his teeth with Conan the Barbarian (his initial run on the sword and sorcery title has just been republished as a trade paperback), and though he has often dismissed his early work as clumsily imitative of his hero Jack Kirby, even then his dynamic way with the human figure and expressive cross-hatching seemed fully formed.
His new book Monsters tells the tangled story of a rootless and damaged young man who turns up at a US army recruitment office. Instead of being drafted into the regular force, he’s quickly earmarked for Project Prometheus. Remember how weedy Steve Rogers gets the supersoldier serum and turns into Captain America? Yup: this isn’t that.
He’s horribly tortured, shot full of God knows what, and ends up looking like a cross between Hulk and Frankenstein’s monster. The plural title is pointed; the narrative spiders out to describe the protagonist’s abusive relationship with his father, and the grim origins of Project Prometheus in Nazi science at the fag-end of the second world war. But for all the horror, Monsters is drawn and inked with extraordinary delicacy, its pace is often meditative and it is just as interested in family relationships as it is in superpowers. Monsters is weirdly sweet.
There are shades of Frankenstein here, but also of Windsor-Smith’s celebrated 1991 Wolverine origin story Weapon X (evil scientists torturing a drifter into wretched superhumanity), and even a hint of The Shining. One of the things that’s interesting about Windsor-Smith as a writer and illustrator is that, as much as he bridles at the commercial comic book industry, he never seems to look down on the fantastical genre elements that are its bread and butter. It was his excitement at Kirby’s drawing – and Kirby, let’s not forget, was a genius of the bombastic and esoteric – that took this art-school kid across the Atlantic.
At its heart, Monsters is a tender and involved family drama, but it comes dressed in not one but two layers of fantasy: mad Nazi scientists and a supernatural subplot involving ghosts and psychic powers. Intriguingly, one comics expert I spoke to told me that it started life all those years ago as a Hulk story. With its super-powered, lonely monster being pursued by a furious military man, the suggestion sounds very plausible.
When I ask, Windsor-Smith declines to comment on that aspect of the book’s genealogy, but says: “Each layer, each tendril of the story presented itself as a means to substantiate that which had gone before. But as I was working in a similar nonlinear process as the story itself, it was often the case that I couldn’t place which came first and what came last. Cause and effect is present in the finished work but sorting it out as the story went along was a complex puzzle.”
Hence, perhaps, the long wait. Monsters has been his passion project. “I have produced other works over the years,” he says, “but the making of Monsters has been a slow and difficult experience that would take up all of my energy in between projects that paid the rent.”
Indeed, the making of it has been so long that when I ask him about how he sees his style having evolved over time, he relates the question directly to Monsters: “Well, we all change, of course, and the look of my pencil drawing altered constantly over the course of 30 years. What holds the story together, though, is my storytelling style, which has remained constant throughout the book.”
In an industry dominated – at least at the commercial end of it – by what Windsor-Smith has called the “chain-gang system”, he has carved a rare niche as an auteur; he wrote, drew, inked and lettered every page of Monsters himself.
Windsor-Smith says the idea that he has moved from being an illustrator to a writer isn’t quite right, however: “I was never just an illustrator of comics. When I was trying to get a job at Marvel in the 1960s, I turned up with a portfolio of finished stories. The credits you see published in the comics are misleading; at minimum I was the co-writer of almost all of my work.”
He’s known to be a tricky – or, let us say, uncompromising – customer. His Conan run was interrupted by periodic disputes with the management, and he left mainstream comics altogether in the mid 1970s to set up the fine-art Gorblimey Press, because he needed to be free of “constraints and policies that were imposed by the dictates of creating entertainment for children”. He did not return until 1983. When I ask him about that decision, his response is blunt: “The commercial comic book industry is retarded. They don’t know how to treat their creators.”
The email interview was courteous but, my goodness, it was curt; his replies were half the length of my questions. He seems happy, for the most part, to keep his counsel. He ignored – among others – questions about his memories of Stan Lee and what Kirby meant to him; Dave Sim’s affectionate spoofing of his Conan work in Cerebus the Aardvark; why in the early 1980s he double-barrelled his name from Barry Smith to Barry Windsor-Smith, and how he feels about seeing the Marvel and DC universes, once countercultural, taking their place in the mainstream.
But on the rebranding of comics as “graphic novels”, he did answer: “Very few graphic novels live up to the promise of that appellation.” Does Monsters? To my mind, yes.