Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of 6

Posted by on January 4th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Ken Dahl’s Monsters

Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, however unwittingly, created a sub-genre of autobiographical comics with Our Cancer Year in 1995, that of “affliction funnies.” Since then, there’ve been precious few reasons to visit the sufferers’ ward as satisfying as Ken Dahl’s Monsters.

The book concerns STDs, specifically herpes simplex, and Dahl’s very personal involvement. There’s novelty in the disease and a bracing frankness with which Dahl discusses his situation, but what sets Monsters apart on the shelf is that the objective artist, at an aesthetic remove, effectively commandeers the host’s intensely subjective drama.

Dahl combines the episodes and asides of his case history into a considered, well-formed whole. Vivid, natural dialogue animates the recitation, speech no doubt based on excruciating memories.

Yet it’s the art that really drives the narration and compels our empathy. Dahl’s drawings capture the authentic gritty funk of a young man’s period of scuffling. He proves faithfully capable of presenting himself, as well as his milieu, unstintingly, without guise, without pretense. This makes the presentation of certain, hard-to-reach truths more possible; preeminent is the fact that the greatest anguishes arise not from bodily malfunctions but from the psychological and spiritual torments visited upon him and those in his intimate circle. A particularly relevant example for these days in America is Exhibit A: his partner’s plaintive dismay that they lack the health insurance necessary to seek immediate care.

I probably should have mentioned this before, but as a rule Monsters is a clever book and usually very funny … and not just in the savvy, postmodern, ironic ha-ha kinda way. Opera offers a relevant term: “dramma giocoso,” the union of elements of tragedy and comedy within the same production. While this ain’t tragedy, Dahl does his level best to convey the pain, mortification and scientific accuracy of his situation even as his drawings irrepressibly champion the way too human comedy.

You’ll laugh too. At the personification of his virus. At the outbreaks of his righteous fulminations over select matters both legitimate and — especially! — dubious. Or at the sustained, post-disclosure sequence where he goes about his business having his face pushed in by a deus ex epizooty.

In the end it is the end that sews up Monsters as a real aesthetic piece of work. There’s a decisive, encouraging conclusion that honors narrative convention and common sense. This is followed by two clinching toppers, an epilogue in which medical science has its final say, and another where Dahl demonstrates a humorous, hard-won, more substantive understanding of the world, micro and macro, with a crowning, profoundly human gesture.

Image nicked from Secret Acres’ website; [©2009 Ken Dahl]

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