Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Monsters: That's more crusty penises than I ever needed to see

This one is good.

By Ken Dahl

Who would have thought a comic about herpes could be so funny? Maybe those who are familiar with Ken Dahl would expect it, but those of us who haven't read his prior work will probably be surprised at how he takes such a serious subject and wrings a great deal of humor out of it, while still educating readers about the disease and delving into the physical and psychological toll it takes on those affected by it. It's definitely a testament to Dahl's cartooning skill, as well as his fearlessness when depicting himself in a less-than-positive light.

That's right, the monster of the title is Dahl himself, who discovered in 2003 that he had herpes when his girlfriend came down with a genital infection. He had often suffered from cold sores, but never considered that he might have the disease. Needless to say, he soon devolves into a state of guilt and self-loathing after their relationship falls apart, and much of the rest of the book chronicles his attempts to come to grips with feeling like a sub-human freak who could spread disease to anybody he touches. It can be hard to watch, since Dahl seems like a likeable fellow, but he's so hard on himself, and he's angry at the unfairness of being put in this position. For over half the book, he acts irresponsibly, sometimes being unsafe with others when he gets drunk, all because he seems to think that if he doesn't face the situation and learn more about it, he won't have to accept the reality of the situation. But he does eventually take action to educate himself, and then we see him learn to deal with things and be responsible. And eventually he gets a chewing out from another character, who lets him know that he's making a much bigger deal of things than is necessary, and he needs to just "man up" and quit feeling sorry for himself. It's a nice emotional arc, one that really puts the reader inside Dahl's head and makes them feel the reality of the situation. It's a surprisingly enjoyable ride, and one that makes you feel smarter at the end and ready to deal with the situation yourself, god forbid.

As mentioned, Dahl's cartooning is what's really makes the book work; he's got a lively style that makes the reactions and emotions incredibly expressive. There are tons of bulging eyeballs and distended limbs and necks as Dahl freaks out about the turn his life has taken, and he uses a lot of great cartoon imagery, often depicting himself as turning into a freakish mutant or a giant herpes virus:

When he decides to become celibate, he gets so turned on by the sight of random women that he morphs into a Tex Avery-style wolf:

And he's often haunted by anthropomorphic herpes viruses who try to tempt him into spreading the disease or ridicule him for being such a freak:

It's gorgeous work, simple and effective when it needs to be, and full of funny details in crowd scenes or other settings that call for it, like the co-op store where Dahl works, giving him a chance to make fun of his hippie-ish lifestyle:

The "facts" section, in which Dahl lays out as much information as one can quickly process about herpes in only a few short pages, is likewise effective, offering a lot of information in a way that makes sense and is easy to understand, while still being entertaining. It's impressive work, of the same type that fills every page in the volume. Dahl is great at storytelling, and hilariously frank, holding nothing back when talking about sex and often depicting himself in the nude. And he doesn't whitewash the effects of the disease by making them cartoony and silly; several pages are filled with realistic images of outbreaks of sores on various body parts, so be prepared to see some graphic stuff within these pages. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's a great read, entertaining, informative, perfectly paced, and very, very funny. But don't let the subject matter scare you off; it's amazing to see a creator bare their soul, expose their foibles, and educate readers about something important all at once. Ken Dahl does all of the above, and much more; he's an exciting artist to watch, and I for one can't wait to see what he does next.

Per FTC regulations: This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. It wasn't a bribe though; I liked it on its own just fine. Just because I didn't pay for it doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it. Please do; it's good. Really.

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