Brian Azzarello & Juan Doe’s Chilling American Monster Vol. 1 Couldn’t Come at a Better TimeArt by Juan Doe Comics Reviews Brian Azzarello
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Juan Doe
Publisher: AfterShock Comics
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Who, exactly, is the titular horror of Brian Azzarello and Juan Doe’s ongoing comic series, American Monster? On first glance, most readers would likely point to the towering, murderous brute with burns canvassing his body, a physical presence to rival Andre the Giant. But he’s delightful compared to some of the other characters in the book: a smarmy religious fundamentalist fond of ominous anti-government statements; a murderous man with SS tattoos covering his back; and a mustached creep with menacing desires and the money to fulfill them.
American Monster is the sort of book where the antiheroes have antiheroes, and a reader will find themself wondering, Well, that guy’s pretty terrible, but at least he’s not a Nazi. We’re forced to grade on a morally relative curve, and given that Azzarello’s work often heads into the depths of crime fiction, this is familiar territory for him. Details slowly emerge about the scarred man, Theo Montclare, a veteran whose wounds are the result of a murky event that occurred when he was stationed overseas, but his reasons for visiting a small town remain mysterious until the end of this six-issue collection. It’s an archetypal story—mysterious stranger upends the lives of a small group of people—overflowing with grit, horror and shifting loyalties.
Juan Doe’s art is immediately striking. Montclare lies at the center of this story, and Doe captures his looming physique in center stage or the background of various scenes, as well as the disparate ways assorted characters view him: a veteran to be honored, an adversary to be fought, a killer to be feared. Some of the smaller moments—including one supporting character having a hateful phrase magic-markered onto her face as she sleeps—are carried out movingly, with nuance and attention to emotions and body language. Nearly every character has the ability to be monstrous in the series; all of them take advantage of it.
A few plotlines are more disconnected to the larger story, at least at this juncture: the aforementioned man with the mustache paying women (including one high school student) to strip for him has yet to reveal his resonance with the larger cast, and one scene involving him reads as both gratuitous and as a critique of gratuitousness. The book sings when it allows its mysteries to gradually unfold, slowly ratcheting up the tension from all sides.
Readers who enjoyed Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer might find some echoes of that series’ neo-Nazi focused “Highwater” arc in here—specifically, the arrival of a seemingly amoral outsider in a close-knit community where racist beliefs flourish. For readers of that earlier story, American Monster retreads similar thematic ground.
American Monster Vol. 1 Interior Art by Juan Doe
There’s one monumental difference between that earlier work and this one: the year in which it’s arrived. Elements of this story deal with everyday racism, the aftermath of war, the dangers of demagogues and the end results of unchecked greed— issues that have played a major part in the last American presidential election. Whether Azzarello and Doe are using these elements as window dressing for a noir-tinged story of revenge or pushing for a larger statement isn’t necessarily clear at this point in the telling, but the first word of the book’s title suggests the latter.