- Monstrous Imaginaries: The Legacy of Romanticism in Comics by Maaheen Ahmed
Maaheen Ahmed begins Monstrous Imaginaries: The Legacy of Romanticism in Comics with a quote from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleur des Mal: “Aux objets repugnants nous trouvons des appas . . .” (21). The line is from “Au Lecteur (To the Reader),” in which Baudelaire opines that humanity is compelled to seek out monstrous vices “. . . swayed / By noisome things and their repugnant spell.” In being lured by deviance, humankind steps ever downward, into hell. Ahmed mistakenly attributes the line to “Las Phares (The Beacons)” from the same collection, in which Baudelaire lionizes seven artists whose visions will be “re-echoed through a thousand megaphones” until eternity. But given that Francisco de Goya is one of the painters Baudelaire exalts, and that Ahmed posits comic monsters as remediations of Romantic tropes, her conflation of the two poems is fitting. One merely has to glance at the myriad choices in Netflix’s horror category to see that humankind’s obsession with repugnant monsters as mirrors for our depravities is alive and thriving.
Ahmed structures her ambitious text into five chapters, bookended by an introduction and a conclusion. Her first chapter contextualizes the dominant features of the nineteenth-century European movement known as Romanticism, and outlines the major characteristics of the monstrous archetype that emerged from the art and literature of this period. Ahmed postulates that the Romantic monster foremost embodies an imperfect version of humanity. Due to its ambiguous and often terrifying form, the monster becomes a spectacle that generates both fear and fascination and, as such, is eventually exiled by mainstream society. In forced solitude, the monster undergoes an internalized quest, rebelling against said society once it recognizes why it has been rejected. Ahmed’s remaining chapters are devoted to singular examinations of the monstrous but sympathetic comic protagonists in whom this Romantic legacy lives on: Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Monstre by Enki Bilal, Hellboy by Mike Mignola, and The Crow by James O’Barr. Her motivation for exploring this inheritance is well justified. As Ahmed asserts, the Romantic imaginary has been extensively researched in other disciplines but has not yet been explored in comics. Furthermore, little scholarly attention has been paid to the comics she analyzes here. Within each chapter, Ahmed deploys close textual analysis to great effect and illustrates how each comic manifests various facets of the Romantic imaginary. In the chapter devoted to Moore’s Swamp Thing, she makes connections between Goethe’s Faust, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Francisco de Goya’s demonic, disfigured forms. In the next, dedicated to Monstre, Ahmed finds echoes of Baudelaire’s ennui-laden modernity, interplay of opposites, and love of the counterpastoral. In chapter four, she shows how Mignola’s Hellboy intertextualizes Goya, Edgar Allan Poe, and the era’s dark nostalgia. Ahmed’s last analysis, of The Crow, explicates how O’Barr’s use of fragmentation and extreme emotionality resurrects the Romantic spirit, collaging the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, [End Page 361] the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, New Wave music, and postpunk aesthetics into one spectacular character.
The most notorious and most remediated monster from the Romantic period is in-arguably the antagonist of Frankenstein. Accordingly, Ahmed demonstrates how Shelley’s creature lives on, both conceptually and aesthetically, in comic form. Frankenstein’s monster is the obvious model for Abigail’s father, Patchwork Man, in Swamp Thing and shares much with him in his solitude and sorrow at being perpetually misunderstood. But one of Ahmed’s more nuanced theorizations proposes that the formal qualities of Shelley’s composite monster are similar to the structure of comics. In the same way that Victor Frankenstein synthesizes his creature out of various cadavers—essentially “patchworking” multiple dead bodies into one new life-form (a form both fascinating and repulsive)—so, too, does a comic artist piece together a textual and visual narrative. Additionally, comics themselves are comprised of ostensibly disparate art forms: literature, drawing, printmaking, and graphic design. A skilled artist like O’Barr can fuse these incongruent pieces...