From cave paintings to Medieval stained glass windows to silent movies, wordless stories have long been a part of our culture. In recent times, they seem to have lost some of their appeal as creators have struggled to produce quality stories. Thankfully, artists have successfully revived the medium in works like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Mark Tatuli’s Lio—and now we can add Gustavo Duarte’s Monsters! & Other Stories to that list.
Sergio Aragones, the great illustrator of Mad Magazine fame, sets the stage in his introduction to Monsters! & Other Stories. Aragones discusses the history of wordless storytelling, situating the book within this tradition. He remarks that Duarte’s care for craftsmanship, balanced compositions, and superb storytelling capture this lost art, as well as the attention of the reader.
In this volume, Duarte presents three wordless short stories that build on the storytelling tradition, inspired by the monster movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Duarte captures the feel of these silent movies in each entry, and as a result, the book is difficult to review; some of the best panels are the ones that would reveal too much of the story. For this reason I have tempered aspects of my review, leaving out the best scenes so that the reader might examine the panels for themselves, discovering with joy the mastery that Duarte brings to these pages.
“Co!” tells the story of a pig farmer who has a surreal encounter with aliens. Although I suppose all encounters with aliens are inherently surreal—particularly when farm animals are involved—this one takes it to the next level. From the first page Duarte subverts our expectations, placing a television set atop the panel in which it is being watched by the farmer. The artist uses shadows to illustrate the farmer’s movement through space and reveal the mysteries behind the aliens’ purpose—or does he? Duarte plays with our expectations and assumptions, both within “Co!” and the second story, “Birds,” in which the two main characters have a date with Death himself. But is that what really happens?
The final entry is the longest in the collection, and in my opinion, it’s the best of the three stories. “Monsters!” tells the tale of a city simultaneously besieged by three monsters from ancient legends. Who can possibly save the city and its inhabitants? The army? A scientist? Or a humble old bartender? That’s right: our hero is a graying bartender who has seen many years, but he’s studied Aleister Crowley and he’s up for one last adventure. Duarte is at his best here: a raised eyebrow or a simple shrug of the shoulders tells us more about the character than any words can accomplish. In the artwork and layout, Duarte shows his mastery as the monsters slowly rise up out of the ocean, capturing the reader’s attention and pulling them along as they move to the next page. Astute readers may also notice characters from the other two stories in the last installment.
These are fantastic stories, not just because of Duarte’s gorgeous illustrations, but also his subtle humor and evocative gestures. While there is some violence and horror, it is nothing more than what appears in horror movies from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Monsters! & Other Stories is a book that students of comics should study to see how to break panels, how to use light and shadow to capture the story’s essence, and how to keep the reader turning pages until the very end. Teens and adults will enjoy this book immensely.
Monsters! and Other Stories
by Gustavo Duarte
Dark Horse Books, 2014