BOOK REVIEW & INTERVIEW: Monocyte
Creators Discuss Dark New Hardcover from IDW Publishing...
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Writer/creator Kasra Ghanbari and artist/creator Menton3 have a story to tell you. To some, this story will appear grotesque, twisted and sad; to others, beautiful, enlightening and maybe even joyous. No matter your interpretation of the duo's creation Monocyte, this story is one fans of unique graphic novels won't want to miss. However, to say this oversized 9x13.5" hardcover release is simply a graphic novel is impossible...
The massive 224 page tome is a compilation of not only the story prequel (previously available only digitally), the original four-part IDW comic series and back up stories by the likes of such fine creators as Ashley Wood, Bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, Phil Hale, Barron Storey, Ben Templesmith, Riley Rossmo, Christopher Mitten, David Stoupakis, and Chris Newman but also over 60 pages of new content including creator notes, poems, and - maybe most impressive - a gallery of artwork by internationally recognized artists like Scott Radke, Matthew Bone, Guillermo Rigattieri, Richard A. Kirk, Alberto Ruiz, Tim Roosen, Richard Friend, Toby Cypress and others. Again, this isn't some simple graphic novel but a compilation of time spent by imaginative artists in the production of creative brilliance.
Monocyte makes for an imposing piece on the shelf. The first thing once notices is the book's size: 13.5" tall, 9.5" deep and over 200 pages thick. It's hard not to notice it next to your run of the mill trade paper back or even Marvel and DC's oversized hardcovers. The book's cover art (above) instantly catches the eye as its provocative nature makes one immediately wonder about what's inside. No doubt those who brave to open the covers will find themselves delving into a story which may evoke feelings of weakness and bravery, frailty and strength, anger and peace and - quite possibly - confusion as well.
The story - which I found to be some what ambiguous - follows two warring immortal races who use humanity as an end to their means: power and conquest. The embodiment of Death - Azrael - plots quietly to regain his former power and using his supernatural powers calls forth Monocyte, a long sleeping, one-eyed immortal necromancer and warrior. With a desire only to die, Monocyte agrees to be Death's proxy in return for his greatest desire. Thus, the One-Eyed seeks to deliver Death's message to all he encounters and finally find permanent rest.
As I mentioned, the book seems ambiguous to me, with a variety of meanings for those who may be at different places in their own journey of life and understanding. To say you've never asked yourself "What's my purpose?" is simply untrue and thus we see this question and others reflected in Ghanbari's story, which reveals some intricately woven stories and themes that will find anchor with some and miss other readers completely.
Upon first reading the story, Monocyte can seem confusing, rotund and even a bit convoluted at times. Monocyte includes everything from transhumanism, Judo-Christian history and alchemy to pagan ritual and mythology, Biblical scripture and Shakespeare. There are challenging ideas on every page and the language Ghanbari uses isn't your average graphic novel's 6th grade reading level. However, upon repeat readings, the story's purpose becomes clearer. As readers, we have been challenged and the creators expect us to question and grow. For some, this may be too much; but for those willing, Monocyte's story design and progression makes for an engaging tale that's unusual, unique and altogether worth the experience. Add to this the musical CD Monocyte, a combination of trip-hop electronics meets violin and cellos by menton3 (as Saltillo) and you've got yourself a wholly unseen, unheard creation that's both perplexing and mesmerizing to the average comic fan.
Readers explore not only the two warring immortal races and the main character and his origins, but also various other supporting characters, to which many readers can and will relate. Likewise, the supporting stories by artists and creators help reveal an amazing landscape that's both sickening and twisted yet filled with familiar beauty and hope. The back-up story in issue #3 by George Pratt especially speaks to what's happened to the human race during this never-ending war between two deathless tribes.
Complimented by Menton3's beautifully created and composed artwork, which many will find to be worth the price of admission alone, Monocyte as a whole is chalk-full of a type of creativity rarely seen in comics these days. Bravo to IDW Publishing for supporting these creators and this project, which is rare even in today's broad comic market. One hopes IDW will continue to promote Monocyte and other atypical graphic stories such as this.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Monocyte's creators writer Kasra Ghanbari and artist Menton3 and discuss both the book and the character Monocyte, the book's themes and ideas, the duo working with such an amazing assortment of artists, their other artistic work, and more...
FIGURES.COM: As ambiguous as Monocyte is, it seems one thing is certain: the story is driven by the desires of its characters and not what is right or wrong. Can you explain this in more depth and tell us why you've shrugged off the typical comic/graphic novel formula and chosen to bring to life a story like Monocyte?
MENTON3: Firstly allow me to say, I believe in no way that Monocyte is ambiguous in anyway. I understand one hundred percent why one would see it that way, but in my opinion there is not one thing in Monocyte that is ambiguous. Fundamentally we set out to ask the question, “How would you have it be?” Most people can sit and tell you what they think is wrong with the world, most even wax poetic about it. OK, great, now truly and in all honestly tell me how you would set a change to it? To me, that is what Monocyte is. I am not offended in anyway if people do not see it, or see it in another way, but I know for myself that is the story we wrote.
As to the second part of your question, there is enough bands, artist and writers out there trying to make something they hope people will like and buy. There is no need to add to this number, as we have this in abundance. I come from the standpoint of trying to make something I would love, something that means something to me and pushes me forward in the the areas in which I want to know more about myself. Please don't get me wrong, I love it when people like what I do, but it is in no way behind any of the reasons that I create. I create for me.
GHANBARI: The story is constructed on top of the very concept of right and wrong and all the inaction, apathy, compliance, and even propogation that has gone into creating a truly disgusting and wholly avoidable reality. We gave perspectives on what people may think are right or wrong, which leaves it to the viewer to lean one way, empathize with this character or that race, etc. For instance, did Monocyte desire to die or had he come to the conclusion that it was right?
FIGURES.COM: One of the things you've said in previous interviews is your work is you "externaliz(ing) the internal." Considering your work on Monocyte, what part of your inner psyche did these images come from and what inspired their creation? Why do you think it's important to "externalize the internal" and do you think everyone should do so? Why or why not?
MENTON3: Well, in my way of thinking, everyone does whether they’re conscious of it or not. The unconscious will find a way though regardless. Ask yourself the question, what is your 'favorite' thing? What do you like to collect? What inspires you? Then truly ask yourself the question…why? This is not a question you’re asking in any way to talk about with anyone else. But why is this thing something you value over another thing? May I submit to you, my friend, if one is truly honest with one’s Self, you will end not knowing why you truly favor a thing. Nine times out of ten this is one of the places our unconscious iconography and symbols live. C.G. Jung called this area projections (I am using that loosely).
I can say for myself at least that I want to know why I favor a thing, why do I think that image, church, book or person is beautiful. And the answer is not always clear. But as I am sure everyone can agree, the things we fear and the things we hope come into our dreams a great deal, dreams being the playground of the unconscious part of our psyche, the shadow side if you will.
For me, the very definition of art is to watch an individual individuate themselves this way. For me, this is what I believe I am looking at when I see a painting from Van Gogh, Goya or even reading The Divine Commedia by Dante.
Then you get to someone like Hieronymus Bosch who went so far into the area that he understood the symbols in a conscious why to the point where he could communicate to you without you knowing, using image to push, change or even inform projections, causing change to occur.
I am not always smart or fast enough to ask where is this image coming from, but I am good at allowing the projections to come out the way in which I see them. This is the area that Monocyte comes from.
FIGURES.COM: Who do you want to read Monocyte? What is your target market or who would it appeal to? One reviewer said Monocyte was not for "a child, an idiot, a Christian or otherwise devoutly religious (person)." Do you agree?
GHANBARI: We touched upon elements that both mainstream and indy comic book readers could attach to while having appeal to readers of illustrated fiction of all types. Menton and I are both horribly frustrated by how compartmentalized readership for comics/sequential storytelling can be and wanted to do our part to blur or transcend the lines, even if that meant the feedback and acceptance of the book would suffer.
But ultimately, we didn’t set out to intentionally exclude anyone or to overly fashion what others might think about it. So in regards to that particular reviewer, it’s not for me to agree or disagree. That’s what he came away with and felt compelled to say. I think we can all agree that it’s quite quotable, though.
FIGURES.COM: Besides artwork, what other mediums do you work in?
MENTON3: I make music as well, playing the violin and cello. I work under the project name Saltillo.
FIGURES.COM: The story is completely action and reaction based. It seems there are only two types of characters in the book: those that act and those that react...or die. Do you consider the main character Monocyte the perpetrator or victim in the story and can you explain why you made him so? What were your intentions in creating a character like Monocyte?
GHANBARI: Monocyte can be both perpetrator and victim, depending in large part on what the reader wants, desires, and feels is right. There were a lot of reasons that Monocyte was created, ranging from the simple and mundane to deeply personal and psychological. We liked the way he looked, thought it was a cool character, a different take on the idea of the hero. He embodied issues related to anger, frustration, and honor. And representationally, we liked what the character allowed us to say, as well as how.
One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people didn’t even consider that Monocyte could be human. In issue #1 he was cold, stoic, detached, ruthless. In issue #2 he was given greater voice, and that seemed to break the relateability veil for some, and they were left thinking he was a strange, bad *** creature. By the end of issue #3 where his mask flies off and the beginning of issue #4 where he’s shown in full light, people were like oh wow, he’s human? He’s not infallible? He’s like us? There’s actually history and experience and reason behind his decision and actions? And that made them rethink things.
I wouldn’t say that all of this was entirely conscious on our part, but as a relational arc that reader’s had with Monocyte, it’s a pretty good one. What you end up finding out is that it’s one possible arc of many.
FIGURES.COM: We all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder as Kasra has said. Do you consider Monocyte beautiful and if so, in what ways? What do you say to readers or fans who look at your artwork and call it grotesque or horrific? Do you type cast your work and, if so, what style is it?
MENTON3: Well first off let me say no, I do not think I make art based in horror. But I am very interested in why people see it that way. It is always informative to my processes to hear such things. What I would say to a reader that says the images are grotesque and horrific? I would say that for them it is so.
FIGURES.COM: Who or what is your inspiration for Grod, the ruthless Olignostic who steps into the power vacuum created by Monocyte's actions and manipulates the masses for his own good? Grod quotes modified Biblical scripture in #3 to what end? What is the reason for using what some would consider a sacred text in Monocyte? In the story, should the reader like Grod for being an opportunist and attaining power or should we pity him for his lust for power and immortality? Why?
GHANBARI: Grod was inspired by a cesspool of egomaniacal power grabbers so fixated on their glorfication that they become functional caricatures that elicit pity and awkward voyeurism while causing massive harm. He quotes scripture as his self-determination was so excessive and intact that he would co-opt just such ancient language for himself. As for how the reader should feel, I couldn’t say. But there is a certain innocence and charm to the character, no?
FIGURES.COM: Your relationships to the two warring races in the book - the Olignostics, who are technology based and the Antedeluvians, who are magic and nature based - are interesting as Kasra has managed bio-tech companies and Menton3 has studied the occult since childhood. Do either of you see technology or religion as being more or less influential on society today? How does this inspire you or shape your work, and do you think the influence science or religion has on our society should be cause for alarm?
MENTON3: I think speaking in the modern landscape can get one into a lot of trouble. But we can look at history with a bit more of a third party perspective.
Can you name me a group, social or political, that has been responsible for as much genocide, rape and misuse of power as the Roman Catholic Church? Yet when we see a church we think of it as a great place, even a loving or safe place. Most people just think of the Spanish Inquisition, but please take a look at what happened to the Knights Templar or the Cathars. They just outright killed them for some pretty amazing reasons if you get into it and read the declarations. I can say the Templars were killed on Friday the 13th more or less because of money. The more you look at the history of Catholic Church the more you will find things that are upsetting, to to say the least.
That is not to say there are not wonderful people that are Catholic. And I am not saying every church is evil. I know there are amazing churches that do amazing things for communities around the world.
Most of us can all agree that the National Socialist Party (Nazi) was a bad thing. If we saw someone walking by us on the street with a Nazi uniform on we would get upset and rightfully so. The National Socialist Party did horrid things, actions that go way beyond nightmarish. One thing we can single out is they killed people because of their nationality. Most of us know this was a very very bad thing. But what about the killing and torture of men, women and children because they did not believe in the same god as you? And even worse, we know the Catholic Church killed for land, money and power as well. Yet as a collective we still view the church as a good thing. If we see someone walking down the street in a Catholic priest outfit, we think nothing of it. May I submit we see them this way because they won?
Again, I am not Christian bashing. I know and love many Christians. I am not saying in anyway that their beliefs are wrong from them or bad. I am talking about the social structures and the organization of people with every intent to gain power over others. I am not preaching, but when I write a book I want to write it with my ideas and ideals. And when I read a book, I am in the hope it is written by the authors ideas and ideals. Whether I agree with it or not, everyone should have a voice.
This is what I was trying to articulate with the Olignostics and Antedeluvians.
FIGURES.COM: With George Pratt's gorgeous story in #3, we are introduced to the human plight in this depressing future. We, the reader, begin to realize the book isn't so much about the two warring races, but the humans - including Monocyte, who've essentially provided the means for everything to happen. Why add this idea to the story so late in the series and what are your intentions in providing readers with this?
GHANBARI: With issue #3, there’s a fundamental psychic shift that occurs with the humans where they once again become self-aware.
The humans and their story were expounded on and central from the very beginning. Then the conclusion of issue #1 had a two-page spread called “The Knight’s Tale” that essentially outlined people rising up in defiance of oppression. Even further, each issue had supplemental stories focused on the two human slave groups that roughly followed a four-step arc.
The entire Monocyte series was about choice, action, and brotherhood.
FIGURES.COM: You've collaborated here with a wide variety of talent. What was it like to provide a unique setting and characters to other creative minds and allow them to run within the Monocyte universe?
GHANBARI: Amazing, rewarding, impeccable, affirming, and unforgettable. Menton and I set out to create the book we wanted to read filled with the art we wanted to see. So it was no coincidence that we crafted a highly representational story driven by a thorough visual construction ripe for interpretation by artists that we respect.
For the last 10 years, I’ve done Art Agent work for a small group of hand-selected artists as a way to be involved in the arts while feeling mired in biotechnology. It was also as a way to utilize my professional experience to enable and facilitate the growth of relatively unknown artists whose aesthetics and beliefs I strongly identified with and supported. I believe in a shift of power back towards the artist and, to that end, in the emergence of the artist-entrepreneur. Essentially, my art rep work was structured as individual partnerships to explore this possibility. What I found residing at the core of this belief was cooperation, a sense of genuine solidarity amongst like-minded artists who had shed much of the doubt, fear, and submission born out of existing as an artist and how the general marketplace and society perceived, treated, and rewarded them.
So with Monocyte, we reached out to artists, both known and unknown to us, that we felt this way about. I can tell you that just through the action of doing this you’re rewarded. We were greeted with extraordinary generosity and creativity. And it doesn’t hurt when a world-class talent like Ashley Wood agrees to attach his name to your pitch as a cover artist! We’ll take any chance given to thank Ash for the support, trust, and incredible painting he created for issue #1 (above).
FIGURES.COM: Will the story of Monocyte continue and are there plans for more Monocyte in the future?
MENTON3: Well, the mini series we just put out, the four issues, takes place at a very pivotal point in the crux of the entire story. But me and Kasra have written story for hundreds of years before and after this. And we always kind of maintained that if the book was well received and people liked it and didn’t hate us for making it then we would definitely try to make more.
As to when that’s going to happen or if it’s going to happen, some of that is up to IDW. Doing the book with them was a lot of fun, but it’s going to depend on whether they want to continue doing it. So as many people that write to IDW saying that they love the book, the more possible it will become that they’re going to do more with them. I would definitely like to do more.
We’ve written something that would almost be considered like an on-going series for it. I don’t know that the book sales were up for that, and I don’t know if there’s an audience for it. It would be great if there was, but we can continue doing it as long as anyone asks us to. And I love the world. After finishing book four, I'm very sad that I don’t get to paint some of those characters any more. Which is weird, because normally when I finish a book I’m so sick of painting a character, but these characters I actually really miss.
Monocyte is available at fine book stores and your local comic shop.
- A special "Thank you" to both Kasra Ghanbari and Menton3 for the opportunity to review and interview as well as John Schork at IDW Publishing for book.
- Jess C. Horsley