Dear Creature by Jonathan Case
So here I am, fresh off a review where I admit that it seems graphic stories just aren’t for me, and lo and behold, here comes one that proves the exception to what has been a pretty consistent rule. Jonathan Case’s Dear Creature is a wonderfully quirky story that nicely mixes humor, pathos, 50s monster movie nostalgia, and a heaping portion of Shakespeare. And it all works.
Set in a California coastal town during the early 60s, Dear Creature relates the story of Grue, a Creature of the Black Lagoon-like figure who spends his time eating hormone-ridden teens and hanging out with his crab buddies, who make up a consistently comical Greek chorus throughout the story. His routine, however, has been interrupted by the arrival of a series of empty soda bottles containing Shakespeare’s plays. The stories and language capture Grue’s soul and he foreswears his murderous past, vowing to turn over a new leaf. His first attempt doesn’t work out so great, in one of the story’s more humorous and yet sad moments. Rather than seek out a random encounter again, Grue decides to go in search of the source of the Shakespeare-filled bottles. He tracks the bottles to an agoraphobic named Giulietta, whose home is the hold of a boat she shares with her sister (abandoned long ago by her lover) and her sister’s children, one of whom has just been arrested for the murder of one of Grue’s victims. In love with Giulietta, Grue has to navigate the chaos of several situations: how to deal with Giulietta’s illness, what to do about her sister’s accused teenager, how to avoid a local policeman trying to clear the son, what to do about scientists trying to learn about the local monster, and finally, how to manage — if possible — the consequences of his past. All the while being prodded by his crab companions to simply return to his past life
Grue is a wonderful creation in terms of both the visuals (like a mix of the Black Lagoon Creature and a smiley face button) and his personality. One can’t help but be caught between two reactions — anger over his many murders and hope that he finds a way to escape his past. Case’s choice to have him speak in iambic pentameter much of the time is a great decision, lending him a sense of depth and nobility that is both comic and moving.
In fact, there are lots of great decisions in Dear Creature: having the crabs not simply comment on the action but actively try and turn Grue back to his darker side (often doing so perched atop his shoulder like the proverbial devil); having Giulietta be a middle-aged, frumpy, mentally ill “damsel in distress”; having her desire to escape her agoraphobic prison mirror Grue’s own such desires; having the lawman be both admirably noble and distressingly self-blind; and a host of other such spot-on choices. One of the few missteps, I thought, involved an encounter with a squid, but it is a relatively brief and unimportant scene.
The art is all black and white. Sometimes I found the lack of contrast or sharp definitions a bit of a hindrance, but for the most part the artwork both carried and enhanced the narrative as one would hope in a graphic story. There are several perfect scenes where the art is perfectly meshed with the text or, lacking text, with the mood of the moment. Case also sprinkles in some great “cliché” images, but cliché in the positive sense of a classic scene that folks will respond to with a soft smile of recognition, such as the cover picture which is in the style of the classic “mutant/monster/alien abducting the girl” shot from 50s movies and old science fiction magazine covers (save for the smiles on both their faces). There are even a few Western images in here, thanks to the local lawman’s penchant for riding a horse.
Finally, as a bonus, there’s a truly funny appendix wherein one of Grue’s crab friends gives a semi-tutorial (“semi” in that you probably don’t want to trust all the “facts” presented) on iambic pentameter.
It’s been quite a long time since I’ve read a graphic novel I responded well to. Dear Creature was for me a near-perfect concoction: just the right tone; just the right level of seriousness; a good mix of humor, sorrow, and angst; simple, clean, clear artwork that carried and enhanced the story without getting in the way of it; a story that went just the right length and knew when to stop; a few quirky and intriguing characters to focus on. And iambic pentameter. Strongly recommended.