Dalston Monsterzz

Dalston Monsterzz

Dilraj Mann comes to his debut book with a few marks already against him. The first is that it is very easy, when encountering his work, to see it as ripping off Jonny Negron. The distinction between them that most favors Mann, that he seems more interested in what his characters are wearing than Negron's strictly ass-oriented approach to the human figure, also points to a place where he comes up short: His figures have less weight to them, less physicality, even though they still seem presented as fetishized objects.

There was also controversy the time Mann did a front cover for the anthology Island, which used imagery charitably considered "a bold choice" although more instinctively read as "yikes, that's racist." It's a black woman, fist up, with bright red lips, and a yellow afro. When I say "black woman" I mean the color of ink. Black as blackface, which also makes the lips and eyes and all features easy to interpret as caricatured, which makes the black power fist read confusingly. As a further weird indignity, the woman is also essentially being used as a design element to hang earrings and a patterned top on. The story Mann did that accompanies the image, printed in the same issue, attempts depth, talking about the life experiences of the character. It never gets to feeling thoughtful or true. If you saw the cover and presumed or hoped it was drawn by someone who might be personally entitled to use such loaded imagery, reading the story you realized Mann was not black, but did wish to be woke, and so he made his first step clicking through some hashtags.

I still went in to Dalston Monsterzz thinking that the weirdnesses of the short story were maybe a miscalculation, and that with more time to tell a story, Mann might be capable of having characters that a reader could empathize with, and that could bear the weight of his intentions without collapsing. Some of Mann's strengths are shared by an editor of Island, Brandon Graham: a bright color palette, softly bending lines that suggest the beauty or eroticism of his characters, and a desire to use a two-page spread to tell a story in an immersive way. The book's basic premise, of teenage gangs riding around London on monsters, suggests a visual world readers would enjoy seeing explored somewhat leisurely. Yet the book ends up feeling abridged: While Mann's art is clearly indebted to manga, there's no manga-style pacing to be found in the book's 70 oversized pages (closer to European album format). Very few scenes breathe for any length of time at all, actually, as the basic premise is put through the paces of a plot-heavy Hollywood-style movie. Some of the monsters are imprisoned in a maze by rich people, who watch as the monsters hunt down and kill people; there's a main character who goes from inactive loser to saving the day; and much of the things that the book seemed to promise as appeal end up only being set-dressing for all this other business that needs to be attended to.

The pace is fast, but not deliberate. Some of the moves seem taken from movies without having learned when to employ them. For instance, ending a scene with a character saying their name is generally done after the story has hinted at some previous point that they exist. There's no real reason to just introduce a character and then cut away otherwise, which is what happens here. Since it is a comic and not a movie, the reader can double back to check if they missed something. The answer is no, and looking back only reminds you of the comic's desperation to attempt to build and maintain narrative momentum. Later, in a climactic moment, a character's words are obscured by panel borders so they cannot be read, in order to reveal them in a flashback after the book ends, two pages later. It's like Bill Murray's whisper at the end of Lost in Translation, if his words were revealed in the sort of post-credits sequence seen in Marvel movies. There is absolutely no reason to do this. It only calls attention to how bad the dialogue has been at providing anything meaningful about characters' relationships to one another throughout the book's duration.

We're shown much that does not seem to matter. Exposition devices are varied and inconsistent. The opening pages contain a brief bit delivered via caption, in what we can assume is first-person narration from the book's protagonist, although this technique is never used again. It's an explanation of the monsters, how they appeared ages ago, and are now being ridden around by kids and gangs. The page is a visual moment where it's clear you're supposed to hear the Jurassic Park music playing, in a book that largely feels more indebted to The Warriors. It's also one where the captions essentially contradict the page immediately preceding, which had its own attempt to hint at the monsters before showing them. That page chose, as its expository technique, having talking heads in news stories accessed online in smartphone-shaped panels, and speaking of the monsters as uncofirmed rumors. While we see these panels of exposition as smartphone screens, we never actually see anyone looking at the news on their phones. It's vaguely reminiscent of the talking heads news anchors Frank Miller used in The Dark Knight Returns, but that comic showed characters watching TV and changing the channel. So, one expository narrative device shoehorned in contradicts another, different expository device shoehorned in on the very next page. It seems pretty amateurish. The smartphone news thing is just a design element, plopped atop a page.

Any claim that the monsters have never been videotaped makes no sense when you show them, a single page after hinting at their existence, as being several stories tall, in an urban environment where it's been established - even implicitly by the narration saying they haven't been videotaped - to be full of teens who have smartphones with them at all times. It's the sort of plot hole you only get when you're stealing from movies with completely different intents. When you're ripping off Steven Spielberg and Walter Hill, there's going to be some stuff you can't reconcile.

Like, uh, who exactly the main character is supposed to be: He's a teen who just got out of prison on unknown charges, whose main interests are comic books, toys, and video games. At one point his sister tells him his room smells like weed, but it's a little unclear where he would've gotten the weed from, as, in a similarly contradictory characterization, his best friend is a drug dealer who's been shown ripping off people looking to buy drugs, which would suggest that he is not actually a drug dealer. Generally speaking, the "likable nerd" and "mysterious past" characterizations are usually given to different characters, because they are the stars of different kinds of stories.

The book does, in the course of its telling, explain why the character was in jail. If you're asking yourself, "Is it a dicey secret that makes you feel strangely about the character, the way you would with a crime protagonist, or is it a completely innocuous story of someone being railroaded, so you know you are supposed to be on his side?" it's the latter.

The comic has issues in terms of visual depiction. When our main character says the newspapers "ate up" a politician's charges about how awful he is, we then are shown a newspaper with headlines that highlight the absurdity of his overblown charges; this isn't generally how newspapers work when they're against someone. Our likable hero was in jail on totally bullshit charges, and everyone in-story agrees, so much so that it really reaffirms that he shouldn't have been in jail at all. Even from a story perspective, all it really does is add more backstory to bog it down.

This comic also does the always-irritating thing of having a character use "Google" as a verb in a fictional world where the Google-type service is later shown to be called something else arbitrarily; here, the search engine is called "Soosle." Why?

There's also a point where a character says "Time for some exposition" as the author's self-aware joke, that seems unaware of how much stuff has already felt plainly expository, when the reader has been waiting, endlessly, for something to instead be evocative or atmospheric or thrilling. The comic has no style, despite the fact that it clearly wants to be something where its style overcomes its lack of substance. It has polish, but anything it's been applied to it's eroded.

The first moment where the story does breathe, and you see what might be underneath the whole thing, is a fight scene. It's clearly indebted to Street Fighter, or the impossible physics of similar fighting games, and it was so dumb I had to put the book down. I hadn't realized I hated the book yet, because it hadn't slowed down enough for me to see what it was even trying to do. That was the point where I realized the book was mortifyingly shallow, and that the scene of the main character playing video games was meant for a reader to identify with it, so they would be into the fight scenes with a Street Fighter vibe.

Because of this shallowness, it was also going to seem racist, despite having its main character be a person of color, or even because of that reason, because of how dumb he was going to be made to seem, because of how dumb the book just is. When a villain says he's doing something bad in order to make money, and the panel focuses on a gold tooth in his mouth… Dude. The most charitable reading of this moment is that Mann is genuinely attempting at giving the character motivation: They're motivated by money, and that stems from the ways in which a racist society can make someone desperate. Or you can just see it and say, "Yeah, that's a racist depiction." This character barely talks in the rest of the book.

None of the characters are likable in the slightest. They are mean to each other constantly. They act in ways pointed out as being dumb. To the point where you again wonder: Are these racist depictions? Because it seems like it was important to make the characters ethnic minorities, but none of them are given any positive qualities.

Let's double back to that short story in Island, because as I read Dalston Monsterzz I kept on thinking about it: One thing weird about it was the use of a celebrity character to say something about the black experience. All things considered, the small subset of people of color who are celebrities are already, pretty much by definition, overrepresented in terms of the stories we hear. A fictional black celebrity, then, would suggest the sort of story you might tell about a black person if your primary experience of them was through the media. Something about Dalston Monsterzz's lack of originality makes me think about this sort of reprocessing of stories the audience is already familiar with, this copying of popular images. Everything in Mann's work suggests his primary interest is in capturing the feeling of glamour, an attempt to create images in comics similar to those you can find in a fashion magazine. In reprocessing the idea of the glamorous celebrity for his own ends, any traces of the "authentic" that a celebrity possesses simply by virtue of being an actual human being get fetishized into the glamour image, and are no longer something that's relatable, but something that is clearly being presented as part of the "exotic" appeal. These stylistic intentions work against the reader identifying with the characters in favor of fetishizing them. He's using aspects of unpleasant lives spent dealing with the police as something to make his characters seem exotic. Mann conflates contemporary examples of powerful black women, pop stars and activists both, into a single stereotypical image on that Island cover, and the story only deconstructs his intentions enough to show that's what he's doing.

In Dalston Monsterzz, this interest in glamour fails him again. Our male protagonist is a person of color, and he is both the reader stand-in, and continually positioned as a loser. One of the people most consistently making fun of him is this white girl running away from her rich stepdad, who it is very clear we are supposed to think is super-cool. Again, if you're being charitable, you can say the racism being reproduced is accidental. Otherwise, you can view it as evidence of the author having some kind of fetish for public humiliation, of which the other evidence would be the decision to publish such a bad book.

The issue is that Mann is not a good enough writer to make his images into something more than what they are, with depth or nuance. The interest in the construct of glamour means that nothing feels truly observed from natural behavior but instead from how people pose. All he has is a visual aesthetic. He has undoubtedly spent time with people being themselves, but he has chosen not to take any lessons away from those moments.

There are mainstream superhero artists whose work readily betrays its origins in traced pornography. Dilraj Mann's fashion magazine aesthetic may be slightly more benign in the charge it gives its female characters, but it's no more capable at granting characters the appearance of interiority, past the mediated presentations of self.

One of the most galling things about Dalston Monsterzz, beyond any storytelling choices, is that the characters are so dumb and unlikable. If a character croaking out "my boobs" from off-panel after a fight counts as a joke, the jokes are unfunny. There are SO MANY characters, and they're all shitty to each other, all the time. (Two of the more prominent supporting characters are dating but don't exchange any tender words to each other in the entire book.) All character motivations are thin and base, even if obfuscations occasionally point in the direction of something more complicated for a second or two. Details of plot and world-building are nonsensical or contradictory. The layouts and storytelling are marred by unnecessary details.

The best thing about the book is its color palette. The thumbnails of spreads at the publisher's website will give you a positive impression. You will enjoy the book the most if you look at it at a distance past the point of the text's legibility.