The socio-political horror genre is certainly kicking into high gear these past few years. We’ve had the in-your-face racial themes of Get Out and the audio-deprivation stylings of A Quiet Place last year, mirroring the uncertainty of the world in our news reels. Even comics have been getting in on the action, with outings like Image’s Infidel translating the vocabulary of ghost stories until it perfectly describes the Islamophobia and generalized suspicion of contemporary America. The comic we’re reviewing today takes off in a similar direction, although via a significantly different route.
Hollow Monsters is a six-part horror comic series Kickstarted by Monty Nero, writing, drawing, and colouring the book as a one man crew. The book follows a stand-in for the author,jumping back and forth between his childhood and his adulthood. He’s haunted by the past as amorphous entities stalk him from the background, tainting his past and his present. The horrors manifest in the form of the Hollow Man, an entity that is alluded to throughout the book. Though we never get to see who or what the Hollow Man is, perhaps it’s a better creative choice that we just get a strong sense of his lurking presence throughout the book, underscoring the narrative rather than dominating it.
First of all, the art is fantastic. The juxtaposition of rich colors and heavy inks recalls David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth’s work on Hawkeye and The Immortal Iron Fist. The layout alternates between various panel arrangements, even frequently making use of 12-panel and 9-panel grids. The first issue really does a great job of compressing a lot of different scenes into great story beats while maintaining tone, providing a complete introduction to the story that debut installments often lack. The art maintains the mood yet never gives way to indulgence. In particular, I enjoyed the subtlety in the brief glances characters give each other, particularly the main protagonist (Jay) when he’s a child, showing off an impressive range from shy to horrified to playfully innocent. Occasionally, some facial expressions miss the mark, but most land with undeniable aplomb.
Throughout the book, Nero effectively crafts a unique atmosphere for the world. Particularly in the silent panels, one can feel an almost otherworldly presence. There’s a glow to the digital backgrounds that he utilises to an eerie effect, particularly in the forest scenes (pictured in the featured image above). There are a lot of scenes that have a radioactive glow, giving everything a dark, twisted fairy-tale feeling which I rather enjoyed. On top of that, the use of silhouettes and shadows in contrast with lighter shades deserves a lot of praise.
Visually, the art connects the main character’s inner turmoil with the chaos of the outside world. The news channels run apocalyptic segments day in and day out while the protagonist’s own world turns itself upside. This mental agony is effectively conveyed not just through the character’s faces but also through visual symbols, as seen in the page on the right. Broken, cracked glass or mirrors are a pretty standard go-to metaphor for a mind in disarray or a world gone amiss, but the the author manages this late trope some extra life. Look at how the page on the right manages to create two diagonal cross-sections (an X-shaped pattern) with the panels of the damage alternating with images of the family. It’s just great, thoughtful panel arrangement.
Next we have the writing. We get a pretty strong sense of the protagonist’s character history and his childhood. The only other character of consequence is his love interest. They’re both fine, though I must confess I can never get a read on characters in a horror story till they interact with the central conflict, in this case the Hollow Man.
In terms of dialogue, Hollow Monsters is quite effective without being verbose or showy. Occasionally, characters lapse into a rehearsed-sounding speech, but it’s never too distracting. The moments where the comic really shines are the silent panels and when conveying characters’ inner thoughts, often depicted with evocatively surrealistic backdrops to match their emotions.
One of the major themes of the book is the baggage of memory and history. Nero implies this through interlaced snippets of broadcast news and a few bits of monologue about the treachery of recollection. We also get sense of Jay’s own fractured thought processes and the toll that time has taken on his psyche. The ennui of the world around him manifests as a creature in a forest or some amorphous evil felt but never fully seen.
My only gripe is that we get a few brief instances of horror that seem disconnected from our main characters. It offers the reader an appetiser, and it’s fine for what it is, but I can’t help still feeling peckish (though I suppose peckish is a better place to leave the reader than uninterested).
As far as criticisms go, I’d say there are a few panels here and there where I didn’t quite catch the symbolism (hello, random shot of George W. Bush as two characters stroll through the forest), and that the first issue starts off with a narrative device that just disappears. It also ends on an intrusive news segment that really doesn’t feel like a grand ending or a next-issue stinger. Take the bombshell ending of Infidel #1 as an example of what I’d expected. In comparison, this ending just peters out.
Still, I highly recommend the book, whether as a dip into what seems like a promising comic series or as an example of what type of high quality content a multi-talented and highly dedicated person can manage on their own. The art is great, the writing is effective and, while it didn’t truly scare me at any point, it did leave me positively intrigued. The author has a great set of themes and symbols to play with in future issues and I’m looking forward to seeing what he’ll do with them.