On the first page of Dalston Monsterzz, we see a white-collar man running for his life as he is hunted by an unknown monster in a structure called The Zag, all for the viewing pleasure of more powerful men. In one page, we learn not only that monsters are real in this place, but that the humans are as beastly as the monsters they use for sport. Dalston, an area of East London, is being developed and subjected to gentrification like many other areas like it. As developers break ground on new luxury developments, the monsters who have been underground all along begin to surface. Local gangs form and use the monsters to defend their territory.
However, Roshan is not one of these monster riders. Recently released from a youth detention center, Roshan has to enter a world where monsters roam, his family worries he won’t be able to get back on his feet, and his friend Kay has filled his life with other people, particularly a girl who goes by Lolly. The mysteries of the first page become part of Roshan’s journey when Kay is kidnapped and Lolly goes to Roshan for help.
Dilraj Mann’s illustrations are colorful and exciting, and his panel structure adds to the movement and energy of the setting. The cast looks, quite simply, cool as heck, and features different ethnic backgrounds, including a protagonist of South Asian descent. Each gang and monster has a distinct look and theme that comes across clearly. At 12 inches high, it’s a book I enjoy looking at and holding, but it won’t fit upright on your average shelf. So while its bright yellow spine compliments Mann’s style well and is eye-catching, it might not get the full attention of a scanning patron since it won’t be shelved the same way as standard-sized books.
The art drew me in, but I found I didn’t initially connect to the story as much as I was expecting. Roshan has missed so much while he was detained that I found myself wondering why Lolly takes the time to tell Roshan about Kay’s kidnapping? In fact, Lolly is really good at punching folks—thanks to a connection to her own monster—and is a self-identified “bad bitch”; why not go on the rescue mission on her own? So while Roshan and Lolly’s rescue mission is exciting, especially in the final act, it lacks some depth. Some background on Roshan and Kay’s friendship can be inferred from the artwork on the end papers, but additional character development would have been beneficial here. The book is only 76 pages long; just a few more pages to help the reader invest more in the friendships and how those friendships are changing could have gone a long way.
A strong part of Mann’s story is in its look at the development and gentrification of East London and how the rest of the city views the area and its residents. We learn that Roshan’s initial arrest and conviction are overkill and politically motivated, occurring in a time when riots were happening across the neighborhood. The rich men building new luxury flats are connected to the horrific events that occur in The Zag. No doubt due to classist prejudice and skeptical news reports, the rest of London doesn’t seem to believe that the residents of Dalston are living with monsters. The more Mann delved into the socioeconomic issues connected to the book’s events, the more invested I became.
Dalston Monsterzz could appeal to readers who enjoy stories along the lines of Scott Pilgrim, Attack the Block, or the slick edits and look of an Edgar Wright film. Overall, it’s piqued my interest enough to keep an eye on Mann’s future projects, and the look and aesthetics are really where the book’s strength lies.
by Dilraj Mann