Myths are a great temptation for any storyteller. Who wouldn't want to play around with cultural icons and archetypes, with names and images that resonate before you've even finished saying "Once upon a time..."? But myths pose a great danger to the storyteller as well: the danger that the teller will not be equal to the tale -- that instead of serving as a powerful tool for the artist, the myth will simply overpower them.
Marilyn's Monsters is a new book trapped by old ideas, and Tommy Redolfi is an artist overpowered by the myths he seeks to manipulate. Redolfi's book is an attempt at a dark allegorical fantasy version of the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. While effectively creepy at times, with a few intriguing conceits within its nightmare vision of Hollywood, mostly it seems that the energy of Monroe -- her particular mixture of power and tragedy -- proves too wild and elusive for Redolfi to know what to do with. He ultimately falls back on cliches, both in his understanding of Monroe and in his use of genre tropes, and for all the Lynchian dread and ghostly weirdness Redolfi can muster, the book doesn't really deliver much more complex a take on Marilyn than Elton John does in "Candle in the Wind."
The story follows Norma Jeane, soon to be Marilyn, as she travels from Nowhere, America to the land of Holy Wood, a magical forest settled by vaudeville performers and transformed into the source of the world's movies, which are sent hither and yon through a complex system of iron pipes. Here, Norma will be scouted by the shadowy, eldritch powers-that-be, and transformed from a human woman into the ethereal, glowing icon of Marilyn Monroe. It's a weirdly charming plot conceit that places us firmly in the realm of allegorical fable, and Redolfi's art presents almost all the human characters as something akin to grotesque New Yorker caricatures. Everyone and everything is a little (or a lot) unsettling to look at, which makes the eventual introduction of Marilyn as a literally glowing beauty queen all the more pronounced.
The fantasy setting and exaggerated character designs gives Redolfi some breathing room from reality, and allows him to explore a few interesting metaphors -- a photographer whose camera takes blurry pictures of everyone except future stars, or a Hollywood founded, run, and staffed by actual zombies -- but he doesn't harvest enough from these seeds to make a meal. And like myth, the allegorical form has its own temptations and dangers, mainly that when freed from the demands of realistic narrative, it can become too easy to move the story along through unmotivated, dream-like turns of events. Need to introduce Monroe’s future husband, Joe DiMaggio, in the middle of a scene between Marilyn Monroe and a Joseph Schenk stand-in at a secluded desert getaway? Well, just have a baseball game inexplicably appear in the middle of the desert in the next panel. What's meant to feel mystical or whimsical at times comes across as slapdash.
From page one, Redolfi makes it clear that his version of Marilyn is the tried-and-true "Babe in the Woods" image, Marilyn as Little Red Riding Hood, the beautiful victim of the wolves of Hollywood and American culture. There's more than a little truth to this version of Monroe's life, which is part of what makes it a resilient part of her myth, but there's also a lot left out of the telling -- namely, Marilyn herself. Redolfi joins a long line of hasty biographers and entertainment writers who write Monroe out of her own life story, reducing her to a bystander as opposed to an active participant.
To take just one example, Redolfi depicts the breakup of Monroe and DiMaggio’s marriage by having DiMaggio storm out of their home and Monroe collapse on the floor screaming his name, begging him not to leave. It’s a well-executed scene, emotionally harrowing, with the art style shifting into childlike scribbles spattered with red at the height of the couple’s anger and pain. You come away from the page with a visceral sense of what it’s like for a woman to be abandoned by a jealous man – but a generic woman, a generic jealousy. You would never guess from this depiction that Marilyn was the one to divorce Joe, and that she hired a powerful lawyer and held a press conference to do it. Likewise, no one could come away from the scenes of Monroe being abused and screamed at on film sets believing that she’d have the savvy or the strength to form her own production company and get director approval over all her pictures after 1955. In Redolfi’s telling, Norma Jeane doesn’t even get any say over her own stage name – the zombie matriarch of Holy Wood scrawls it on her face in a psychic fugue state.
The problem is not one of inaccuracy. “Marilyn’s Monsters” is fantasy, and it has no responsibility to accuracy. Art distorts history all the time, to great effect. But art does have a responsibility to truth. While Redolfi does grasp at some part of Marilyn’s truth, he only reaches for the part that’s repeated so often it’s gone stale – that she was beautiful, that she was abused, that men, Hollywood, and America used her up and threw her away. Nowhere in this book is Marilyn the shrewd performer, the ambitious businesswoman, the knowing salesperson, all of which she also was. Embracing wholeheartedly -- and being swallowed whole by -- the simple myth, Redolfi blinds himself to any kind of complexities that might have made this book something new, something more interestingly true. At more than 200 pages, Marilyn’s Monsters is filled with bleak moodiness and some effective narrative tricks, but in the end it’s just a song we’ve heard before – and Sir Elton managed to keep it under four minutes long.