REVIEW: Dear Creature by Jonathan Case
|Pub Date:||October 11th, 2011|
|Chris’ Rating (5 possible):|
|An Attempt at Categorization||If You Like… / You Might Like…|
So in my brain, I had a great blog post all planned out for today. It was going to be a nice and meaty post about different schools of writing process, and the dangerous temptation of superstitious totemic twaddle that so many of us fall prey to. But then I went through my mail from last week, and found a review copy of Jonathan Case’s debut graphic novel Dear Creature. And then my plans went the way of all those of mice and men. I cannot stress enough how excellent this book is, as a work of sequential art, as a story, and as an exercise in writing.
I didn’t even mean to start reading it: I intended to put it on my to-read shelves, and to get to it maybe sometime in the next couple of weeks. But somewhere in the twelve feet between opening the envelope on my kitchen table and putting it on a shelf in my library (probably because I “just took a peak” at the first couple of pages), Case’s story sucked me in like a whirlpool. Dear Creature is the literary, quirky, heart-warming, and deliciously pulpy love story (yeah, I know, right?) of an atomic sea mutant named Grue. Living in a sunken nuclear sub, and to the chagrin of a crustacean chorus, Grue is no longer content to devour lustful beach-going teenagers. With his eyes and heart opened by pages of Shakespeare’s plays found in soda bottles, the lonely sea monster naturally tries to seek out whoever has been sending out these messages.
It’s tempting when reviewing a graphic novel to start with the art. After all, the art is intrinsic to a graphic novel’s storytelling. But what really set Dear Creature apart for me was the writing. While many people who write sequential art are uncomfortable drawing distinctions between comic books and graphic novels, I’m afraid I’ve never agreed with Douglas Wolk’s claim that the sole difference is their binding. A true graphic novel – like Dear Creature, or Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up – is paced and constructed very differently from a bound-up collection of serialized 24 – 32 page comic books.
Most prose novels, whether we’re talking about Dickens, Calvino, or Ian Fleming, cannot be split up into neat episodes without losing some degree of their resonance or storytelling unity. But a graphic “novel” that began life as a series of smaller comic books, like Allan Moore’s Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or Garth Ennis’ Preacher can never be more than the sum of its parts, however good those parts may be. That’s just the nature of the beast. But Dear Creature, while it is divided into chapters, coalesces by its very nature into a resonating, cathartic story that draws us in, makes us laugh, and satisfies us only when we have experienced its entirety. Case does not construct his individual chapters the way a comic book writer constructs particular issues: he constructs them the way a prose novelist constructs chapters, relying on the story’s over-arching flow, compelling characters, and emotional narrative to carry us along.
Case builds his characters through a flawless union of art and dialog. Grue, his lovelorn atomic sea monster, speaks in iambic pentameter entirely oblivious to its idiosyncrasy in 1962 California. With all of the book’s focus on Shakespeare, it’s tempting to try to find models in the Bard. But really, I trace Grue’s antecedents more to Cervantes than Shakespeare. Grue is like a modern day Don Quixote, in that for him the high drama of Shakespeare has applicability to every facet of his contemporary life. And if it doesn’t? Well, then by God it should! Case captures this touching quixotic earnestness in Grue’s every pose, centering our attention on his larger-than-life actions whether dramatic or comedic.
Grue is accompanied by a
Greek crab chorus used to great comedic effect. If Aeschylus’ Oceanids in Prometheus Bound represent a “perfect audience’s” reactions to the Titan’s plight, then what do Case’s crabs represent? It’s not like they’re sympathetic to Grue’s concerns. Instead, they poke fun at the beleaguered monster and exhort him to return to feasting upon human flesh.
And Grue’s Dulcinea del Toboso? Like Aldonza Lorenzo, the woman who captures Grue’s deep and soulful heart with torn pages of Shakespeare sent into the briny deep is not your stereotypical love interest. First, she’s crazy, as in violently agoraphobic. And she is old (well, middle-aged) in the same way that Aldonza is plain. But just as Quixote looks past the simple truth in the interests of his higher truth, so too Grue simply does not notice. The love that forms between a man-eating atomic sea monster and a middle-aged agoraphobe is poignant, touching, and tragic.
Artistically, Dear Creature is equally clever. Case chose to draw it in a style that made me instantly think of Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Like Eisner, Case uses solid black shading to add depth to his panels, while relying on iconic lines to draw his heroes. This quasi-homage seemed most apparent and appropriate in the case of Henry Craw, a retiring policeman who particularly reminded me of an aging Denny Colt.
By combining excellent character development with superlative dialog, and a heartfelt emotional arc, Case has written one of the best novels I have read in years. And yes, that is novels as opposed to graphic novels. Yet since this book is structured so much like a prose novel, and with characters and writing that clearly trace their lineage back to classic literature, it did raise a question as I was reading it: does Dear Creature need to be sequential art to tell its story? Similar love stories, characters, quirks, and pulpiness have all been captured in prose by other authors before, and in particular this book made me think of A. Lee Martinez’ great books. But what did Case gain through choosing to tell this story visually? I think the answer speaks to Case’s prodigious and multifaceted skills and talents: by writing Dear Creature as a graphic novel, Case was able to get out of his own way. The use of sequential art in this book obviates the need for exposition. By relying on the art to show us what is happening, the dialog is able to stand on its own and remind us of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and classic drama undiluted by descriptive text. Which makes the story tighter, and in some ways purer, than it would otherwise have been.
I commend Jonathan Case for this excellent graphic novel. It is very rare to find a storyteller who is able to write something that is at once literary and meta-textual, while remaining touching and hilarious. To then combine that ear for dialog and prose with artistic talent is even rarer. If you enjoy sequential art, then hands down, you should pick up Dear Creature.
And I think that it should be on everybody’s short-list for the Eisner award.