Webcomic Wednesday - Monster Parade by Ben Catmull
Previously released in print by Fantagraphics and now available to read for free in its entirety on Study Group, Ben Catmull’s Monster Parade is, indeed, a procession of of monstrousness on display for your enjoyment. That’s part of its structure — it consists of three separate and very different vignettes, so it feels like multiple comics in one — and its subject matter — there are an awful lot of different monsters in there. But most impressive is the variety in its emotional tone, a parade of unlikely and unexpected emotional effects all derived from the same basic visual vocabulary of strange creatures. The first story, sampled above and returned to as a sort of framing device throughout the comic, is all about scale and awe, with enormous beasts that operate on the level of weather phenomena. Imagine Maurice Sendak illustrating that one creature from The Mist and you’ve got the blend of whimsy, awe, and menace that Catmull has in mind.
The second story scales way down, taking place primarily in a single old-fashioned train compartment, where a well-dressed gentleman is trapped with a boorish fellow passenger by an off-screen monster rampage in other cars that prevents him from leaving the compartment. The trick here is using comedic timing, the slow build of the passenger’s increasing rudeness and disgustingness, to lead not to a punchline but to the appearance of the monster itself. You’re primed to laugh, and maybe you do, but it winds up being a gallows chuckle.
The final story, and to me the real knockout of the bunch, is a faux travel guide to a mysterious town named in an indecipherable alphabet, a town in which monsters have woven themselves into every aspect of life. Some are treated as being as common and harmless as squirrels. Some are vital to tourist attractions. Some go unnoticed. Some maraud through the streets, slaughtering indiscriminately. Some have been catalogued and thus rendered safe; others are “unexplained,” as is the reason why they’re unexplained but all those other creatures are things the townsfolk have gotten to the bottom of. “No one crosses the river,” the story intones at last, revealing that beyond the town’s borders even more terrifying creatures lurk. Blending goofy comedy, Gashlycrumb Tinies-esque gothy irony, raw monster-making chops, and subtle don’t-look-now chills to create a nowhere-land that makes the world a slightly more dangerous and disturbing place for having been drawn into existence.