2. synopsis. Grue is a mutant humanoid sea creature. He and the crabs that live on and around his body spend their time mostly in lonely isolation under sea. But they must eat, and for food Grue goes to the surface to lure high schoolers who hang around the beach. He appears to keep parts of their bodies in a treasure chest too, ‘curing’ and ‘aging’ them it would seem for better flavor. Grue is also a creature who can speak. He has found with some regularity corked Kiki Cola bottles floating on the water, each one containing pages from a Shakespearean play. Somehow he was able to learn to read and speak English — and his manner of speaking throughout the book is rhythmic Iambic Pentameter. (At the end of the book the author provides, through the character of one of the crabs, a little How To guide for reading/speaking in this manner, what syllables to stress and how the grouping and rhythm works — I suppose that combined with the explanation of it on Wikipedia would get you going pretty well —- it’s not altogether too hard to get through Grue’s speech in the book. It couldn’t been worse!) This raises the question: Who is sending out these floating bottles containing pages from Shakespeare, and why?
Grue decides to search out the person, believing the messages are surely meant for him. He goes ashore to look for the person who must be his soul-mate. At the same time, readers are introduced to some police offers who are on the hunt for whoever has been snatching up teenagers. Grue soon spots a pudgy kid (Bobby) who sells Kiki Cola and starts to follow him, attracting a lot of attention as he does so (stealing a bike and later a policeman’s horse). Grue follows Bobby to his ‘house,’ which is a relatively large sailing yacht sitting offshore. Bobby lives there with Zola, his mother. She is a very fat Latino-type woman who spends her time trying to maintain the boat, acting in the belief that her husband who abandoned her will soon be returning. Bobby’s brother also lives there as does his Aunt Giulietta. Giulietta is locked in a room on the boat, a chain holding the entry hatch closed. Grue decides to watch her. That night he sees her arm emerge from the hatch and she tosses a Kiki Cola bottle containing paper to the water. Surely she is the one. (We also at this time learn that Zola is perhaps a prostitute? and that she is in some way attached to a macho policeman, who informs her that her son Joe has been arrested — the prime suspect in the various beach murders).
Grue finds Giulietta’s bottle and decides to set her free from her prison. Giulietta is a self-imposed shut-in it. She looks like she is wearing a hospital gown, and she has a worn face and short-cropped hair. She must be in pain and have some kind of mental issues. She is afraid of the outside world, we’re left for a short time wondering as to the source of her problems. In the meantime, Grue and Giulietta meet and instantly get along. Grue wants to take her away and within a short while convinces her to go off with him. The ride off on the stolen police horse. Giulietta tells Grue the story of how she came to be a crazy, guilt-ridden recluse as they sit atop a hill watching a drive-in movie in the distance. She is saddened by the tale so Grue tries to cheer her up by tickling her. Just then the gruff police officer rides up and sees her screaming (but he doesn’t realize with laughter). He shoots, Grue runs away. From here much of the rest of the story is concerned with the policeman hunting Grue. In the meantime, Grue sets about trying to clear Joe’s name (Zola’s son who is being held on murder charges) — as he also finds out Giulietta has been institutionalized and that the locals want to sink Zola’s ship. He retrieves his treasure chest from the depths, as it will provide more than enough evidence that he is the killer and not Joe. Grue gets captured and we find him under the observation of some shady and/or horny scientists, from whom he soon escapes —- to return to Giulietta. Will she forgive his murderous ways and go off with him or will Grue be left alone to die of heartbreak and face an inevitable doom?
3. description. Jonathan Case is a talented draftsman. We are told in the intro to the book that this is his impressive comics debut. I would agree it looks very good (while having a pretty proficient story and naturalistic/smart dialogue — this is what Steve Lieber talks up in his intro). You get a stark high contrast black and white style. At times it resembles Charles Burns. At times it resembles Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Perhaps on occasion it looks a bit like Jaime Hernandez, but it’s never sexy. All the drawings are done in brush and ink, giving you mainly outlines to describe figures and dark shape-filled backgrounds with occasional flourishes of texture. It is bold, and it brings to mind the looks of an old Black and White B movie from the 1950s or 60s. That ‘look’ would be appropriate, as this is a sea monster / beach bunny story afterall. Case often ‘borrows’ in other ways too: a dopey policeman is lifted straight from Barney Fife and a water pump repair man looks oddly like Robert Crumb, a cab driver later looks quite a bit like Fred Astaire. I’m certain he’s pulling from various other old B movies as well… and certainly characters may be echoes of persons from Shakespeare. I am not getting every reference if that is the case. I suspect the average reader wouldn’t either.. but the story works pretty well on its own even if you don’t get all the references (or maybe I’m imagining more than there really are). The story itself is interspersed with humor throughout. Grue and his crabs provide several jokes and Grue’s murder tactics and ineptitude with his victims and pursuit of Giulietta can be funny. Grue himself is somewhat clown-like in appearance. But it’s never *very* funny. And it would appear that Case is attempting to do most of his humor through visual gags in the drawings, but I’m not convinced it always works. Grue grinning goonishly is there a lot and so are his big gestures, and we get him dressed up in a fancy gown and lady’s hat at one point. Later Grue tickles and octopus and gives it an orgasm. I guess it’s sometimes on the verge of funny, but it’s not really a very funny book. I guess he wanted to tell a strange Beauty and the Beast-type love story but since he decided to use a mutant sea creature, Case must’ve felt obliged to give it some goofiness so it didn’t take itself too seriously. It exists somewhere between a good weird story and a limping comedy. I don’t think it’s a hybridity that necessarily serves it well in the end.
4. intention. SOME SPOILERS. It’s really hard to tell what Case intended with this book. An updating of Beauty and the Beast? Maybe he has a personal love for bad B-movies about sea monsters? Maybe he is a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and wanted to do something along those lines? Maybe it was the result of a brainstorm after realizing he had an interest in the message in a bottle theme — how to run with it? What if a sea monster was intercepting the messages and somehow learned to speak English ..what would that creature do, how would it eat, what would it want and how would it achieve its goals, etc etc? I feel like Case presented himself with that ‘problem’ to solve and worked out a story accordingly. He also sets the story post-WWII, in presumedly the 1950s and maybe into the early 1960s. You get a mutant character — the result of nuclear waste or experimentation with radiation or genetic mutation. It would play into the Cold War anxiety of the time. It’s a way of updating the Frankenstein’s monster story. Case gives us a character very much like the monster — sympathetic, with a sensitive kind of mind, ultimately pursued by people who wish to do him harm over his ‘nature’… Yet in the end Case gives us a happy moment and not tragedy. Its ‘happily ever after’ construction makes me wonder. Why not kill the monster? Why not leave Giulietta institutionalized? He says you can send out a message in a vast sea..it will reach its recipient and that recipient can return to the sender. Against all odds the couple will work out and all problems and baggage (conveniently out-run murder charges and an easily overcome agoraphobia) can be cast aside as they, the determined lovers, set off in the setting sun over the water. It seems kind of naïve to me when I think about it. Plus, you have two ‘freaks’ basically that come together, into the fringes to be together and escape the bad things in their lives. Even the biggest freaks can find true love. Why tell the true love story of Frankenstein’s monster? Bride of Frankenstein kills herself rather than be with the monster, right? In that story the freaks belong dead. Here they are able to live happily ever after. … is it saying ‘for every Jack there is a Jill’? Be true to thy freak self and it’ll all work out for the best. I guess. We’re all just freaks when you think about it. ….. ? Maybe it’s a cop out, wanting to leave it uplifting… but comics aren’t generally known for their goony optimism. Nor is a Shakespeare play typically going to end happily ever after. Why go that way with this book? I can’t see any strength in the deviation.
5. strengths. Case is very good at drawing, even though I’d say he falls just short of finding his own unique style at this point. It seems derivative in some ways. But he’s got a lot of potential. He’s good with bodies and body language and positions and facial expressions. His pacing is solid and not distracting and he punches up the energy frequently with nice diagonals and other kinds of bursts. It’s an ok story that ended up being more enjoyable to read than I first suspected. I thought it was amusing often and certainly there is a solid balance between the pictures and the written text. Both do a good job of pushing forward the story and it lacks a considerable amount of distractions and unresolved issues along the way. It’s pretty solid formal comics storytelling… I just think the story itself has some problems in the end. He does bring this world to life well along the way and the characters are ones I found interesting, despite them being somewhat shallow ‘types’ consistently who in no way believably change as the story arcs to its completion. It’s just fun and better to not think too deeply about it.
6. weaknesses. I’d say aside from the story itself, the biggest weakness was Case’s character design. Grue seems like he should’ve been thought out more… He’s kind of nondescript… nothing about his body seems to have a realistic functionality for a sea monster, and his coloring brings to mind drab gray, period. He’s got a fish face and pointy bony appendages, and kind of a puffy exposed brain? His mouth is suckery and toothless. His hands and feet have webbed and clawed digits… and there slits or gills at various places on his arms and legs. The crabs living on him are equally oversimplified and nondescript. I wouldn’t want him to go so far as to give each one a Disney Under the Sea annoying quirky personality… but maybe a little differentiation and texture? I guess the other various characters are unique enough to stand on their own within the context of the story itself (as is Grue), but outside of it they’re kind of same old same old. Other components that weaken the story are the Barney Fife cop (seems like a rooky thing to do I guess and there’s that urge but probably should’ve edited it out by the time the book was finished), the appearance of Robert Crumb for no justifiable reason, and the Octopus that ends up getting hearts for pupils in its eyes after Grue gives it an orgasm. I guess that was a good gag, but it didn’t seem like the rest of the story in any way. Maybe it was from an earlier draft from before he settled on a ‘tone’ and it just got left in? Or maybe he thought goofy stylized comic relief would work in a story where there’s nothing else resembling that aside from some cartoony zip-lines earlier when Grue steals a bike? It would’ve been better to be consistent about the B-movie looks and do it with a straight face the whole time. No need for a slide whistle. Main complaint though, as I said, would be the ending. I mean it was safe and satisfying and a relief that your characters got out of the ‘jam’ and found love, but I don’t know how compelling a story that makes…
7. recommendation. I would recommend this book to anyone I guess… though it would be *way* down on my list of books to recommend, particularly to people who are new to graphic novels. There are a ton out there that beat it. If you’re already into graphic novels and want to read another one, and one that is pretty good and entertaining and well done… here it is. It’s definitely an impressive debut from Jonathan Case and I look forward to seeing more from him. I just hope he gets less sappy. We don’t need another Craig Thompson on our hands. Jonathan Case has the capability of doing good references and working in a strange B-movie / Sci-Fi / Horror style and he should run with it and not be a wimp about it. The ‘happily ever after’ ‘story ends when the couple decides to commit to one another forever’ thing is not really working any more for anybody… it’s an easy device and I’m sure Case can find shake it up or find another model.
8. other books. It looks like Case teamed up with Jeff Jensen recently to write/draw Green River Killer: A True Detective Story…. a true-crime story about a serial killer. I’ll have to look into it.
9. rating. Dear Creature is a 3/5 or maybe 4/5 book.