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Introduction: Monsters in the Margins

By Katherine Shaeffer and Spencer Chalifour

For years monsters have invaded our hearts and minds, and right now, they have us surrounded. In today’s popular culture, zombies—appropriately enough—are everywhere (The Walking DeadPlants vs. ZombiesWorld War Z, various zombie survival guides, Marvel Zombies, and so on … and on, and on … and the horde continues to multiply). However, zombies are not the only monsters currently celebrated in our collective imagination. The Ghostbusters franchise may be getting not just one but two film reboots; TV series like SupernaturalGrimm, and Once Upon a Time show us the monstrous side of urban legends and fairy tales; and every other week, the podcast Welcome to Night Vale serves up a fresh dose of Lovecraftian horror. Current comic series continue to include examinations of monsters. Scott Snyder’s Wytches has re-imagined the myth of the witch, and Mike Mignola continues to expand his Hellboy universe with titles like Hellboy in Hell and Frankenstein Underground. Monsters have even infiltrated Archie Comics in Afterlife with Archie. Junji Ito’s horror manga is seeing a number of new English-language editions, and Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan, in which humans wage war against skinless, man-eating giants, has become a worldwide phenomenon.

In April of 2012, the Graduate Comics Organization at the University of Florida held “Monsters in the Margins,” the Ninth Annual UF Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels. At that conference, we explored and celebrated the theme of monsters and the monstrous. The Call for Papers for “Monsters in the Margins” asked presenters to consider the following questions:

How can we depict the sublime terror of our anxieties? How can we convey our unabashed horror through image and text, and communicate those feelings? Why do we keep trying to re-imagine the same monstrous templates, especially when the tools of a craft are perpetually unable to represent the unimaginable?

The monster is the shadow self, the other self, the twisted mirror upon which we do not want to look, and comics make an excellent playground for monsters. Comics are monstrous themselves. Their very hybrid nature (text fused with image) makes them so. The discourse surrounding comics (frame, network, or sequence, text-dominant or image-dominant, closure or suture) calls our attention to their very visible seams: the gaps between panels, the borders between white space and image, the balloons which enclose the spoken word. Comics are a veritable Frankenstein’s monster of verbal/visual media, and they can show us monsters in glorious detail and vibrant color. Many of the classic characters to come out of the superhero genre have been monstrous or have had monstrous aspects (the Thing, the Hulk, Swamp Thing, any member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, etc.), and the horror and science fiction comics published out of EC in the ’40s and ’50s often explored the boundary between the monster and the human.

Comics offer a space to showcase how the alien or Other is made monstrous; comics can be a platform from which monsters can speak out. Titles like Charles Burns’s Black Hole, David B.’s Epileptic, and Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants all use monstrous images to show the reader the marginalizing effects of illness. While comics can reveal the monstrous, they are also a great place for monsters to hide. Comic monsters can lay in wait for the reader in the margins of their books, hiding in the imagined, implied space between one panel or moment and the next. Epileptic and I Kill Giants, for example, both obscure their monstrous images as even as they reveal them: their monsters lurk in shadows.

“Monsters in the Margins” was one of the first conferences at which we explicitly set out to showcase the work of UF faculty members to our broader international audience of conference attendees. UF’s own Laurie Gries, John Cech, and Anastasia Ulanowicz, whose work appears in this collection, were among the spotlighted UF faculty to present at this conference. They are joined here by Eric Doise, Caleb Simmons, and artist Jonathan Case. These authors illuminate and analyze the wide variety of representations of the monstrous in imagetexts. Childhood and adult terrors, contemporary worries and ancient fears, and examinations of the monstrous qualities of politics, psychology, and sexuality are all presented in the articles herein. Our authors not only reveal the myriad ways monsters can be represented, but how these various representations are all reflective of our oldest and innermost anxieties. We are pleased to be able to share the work of these writers with you in our “Monsters in the Margins” forum.

Our “Monsters in the Margins” forum begins with a short piece by John Cech, “From Humbaba to the Wild Things: The Monster Archetype That is Forever With Us,” which was adapted from the presentation he gave at the 2012 conference. John Cech offers a brief introduction to the monster archetype, its uses, and its permutations from the ancient world on. In his exploration of the monster tradition, Cech connects Humbaba, the monstrous grove guardian of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Lilith, the mythological first wife of Adam, and the Wild Things of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to trace the origins of our current, monster-loving culture. Cech turns to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night to discuss the importance of facing the monster within the self.

John Cech’s piece is followed by “Monster Picnic,” an imagetext by the Eisner-winning artist Jonathan Case that he generously contributed to this collection. Case was a featured guest artist at the “Monsters in the Margins” conference, where he spoke at length on his experience creating the artwork for Green River Killer, a graphic nonfiction title which he produced with writer Jeff Jensen. I (Katherine) invited Case to our “Monsters in the Margins” conference after reading his graphic novel Dear Creature, which remains to this day the best girl-meets-sea creature love story that I have ever read. “Monster Picnic” shows Case’s ability to represent the permeable boundary between the human and the monstrous with affection and humor.

After Jonathan Case’s contribution comes Eric Doise’s article, “Two Lunatics: Sanity and Insanity in The Killing Joke.” “Two Lunatics” maps out how the themes of sanity and insanity in the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland comic relate to the concept of the monstrous mirror image. Doise takes as his theoretical departure Slavoj Žižek’s commentary on the film The Dark Knight, and applies that commentary to The Killing Joke, the comic upon which Christopher Nolan’s film was largely based.

Laurie Gries brings this forum into the political sphere with “Obama Zombies and Rhetorical (Dis)Identifications in an Era of Dog Whistle Politics and Political Polarization.” In this article, Gries examines the rhetorical significance and political impact of the many zombie-themed parodies which sprung up during and after President Obama’s electoral campaign, with a central focus on a zombie parody of the Obama Hope poster. Gries looks at the rhetorical importance of zombies more generally while walking the reader through these parodies’ more problematic evocations of violence, as well as the polarized responses which that violence generated.

Caleb Simmons’s article, “Erotic Grotesque Redemption: Transgressive Sexuality and the Search for Salvation in Katsuya Terada’s The Monkey King Volume 1,” offers a close reading of its titular manga adaptation of the Chinese epic, Journey to the West. Simmons zeroes in on the connection between the spiritual and the sexual in Terada’a Monkey King, and “Erotic Grotesque Redemption” incorporates graphic sexual (and sometimes sexually violent) imagery into its analysis. Simmons pulls from the traditions of Buddhist doctrine and practice to unpack how violent and transgressive sex acts are reconfigured by Terada to become tools of spiritual salvation.

In “Chick Tracts, Monstrosity, and Pornography,” Anastasia Ulanowicz takes a different approach to exploring the rhetoric of the erotic. Ulanowicz describes how the production, distribution, and dissemination of Jack T. Chick’s conservative series of “Chick Tracts” ties them to the publishing history of comics counterculture, most particularly Tijuana bibles, whose distribution method Chick appeared to appropriate for his own work. Ulanowicz uses the theory of film critic Linda Williams to establish the Tracts’ relationship to the “body genre,” which, like Chick’s Tracts, portrays the human body in an “ecstasy” of either pleasure or pain.

These articles represent some of the engaging and insightful discussions that occurred during or were inspired by the “Monsters in the Margins” conference. We invite the reader to welcome the monsters contained in this special forum, both the gargantuan fiends who attack out in the open and the phantasms skulking in subtext. Read on and find inspiration in what these monsters can teach us about ourselves.

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