Today, Michael and Patrick are discussing American Monster 3, originally released May 11th, 2016.
Michael: Brian Azzarello is an excellent storyteller who often takes us to the depraved depths of humanity’s soul to teach us something about ourselves. While the specific “hows” and “whys” of this revenge tale are still a mystery, American Monster 3 in particular maintains a very existential theme for its characters. “Why do I exist?” “How do I go on?” “What is my life worth?”
American Monster 3 opens with Felix Black and his gang attending the funeral of his best friend Josh –recently murdered by our mysterious burnt protagonist Theo Montclare. They have an Irish wake for Josh at the bar he owned as they mourn his passing, his fashion and his penis. The deputy shows up to pay his respects and (barely) stops Felix and his pals from getting into a fight with “Reverend Jimmy’s” gang. I’m not exactly clear on why – maybe because Felix punched Jimmy in the face – but Jimmy and his men are staking out the Black household and are about to strike when they see that Montclare is aware of their presence.
The opening scene of Josh’s funeral is probably the most striking sequence of the book. As the priest paraphrases scripture, Juan Doe breaks down the simple act of Felix lighting a cigarette and turns it into something elemental. The flame of the discarded match becomes the flames that engulfed Montclare, forever scarring him. It’s a great scene that very simply and clearly emphasizes the power of cause and effect. The scripture that Azzarello uses here is a blend of Bible passages from Philippians and Thessalonians; detailing the second coming of God, transforming us all into him. The passages don’t really need to be referenced though, as the text itself is very clear and complimentary to what we already know about American Monster. It all comes down to death, rebirth and retribution – visually represented by the elemental creator and destroyer: fire.
Alright that’s enough of the heady stuff, so let’s talk about something lighter: existentialism! American Monster is primarily a story of one man’s revenge, but Azzarello has also spend a decent amount of time focusing on the ennui of the local teenagers – including Felix’s daughter, Snow. Snow and her friends are so disconnected and disinterested from the world around them that Snow is even texting during her “Uncle” Josh’s funeral. Snow chides her brother Josh for working instead of attending the funeral, but she doesn’t seem to know or care that she’s being disrespectful herself. Snow doesn’t appear again until the end of the book where she comes face to face with Montclare. They have a brief exchange about how Montclare is going to kill people and she may or may not be one of them – her response: “Cool.” Snow doesn’t seem to be able to care about anything, even her own life.
In past issues we’ve seen Snow’s indifference or lack of self-respect, as she flashes her breasts in exchange for cash from the “Seesaw Man.” Here we see another one of Snow’s friends wrestling with that kind of murky proposal. She comes across the Seesaw Man who is asking for Snow, but before he drives off she hesitantly asks him if “that degrading shit you brought up the other night” would be worth it. What the degrading shit actually is is yet to be determined, but it’s definitely a moment where the girl is putting a price on herself and her body.
I think as we get older (or unluckier) death gets closer and closer to us. When you’re young, your older relatives are the ones who pass away but over time that will extend to your parents, your friends and your lovers. Franny’s existential crisis is being in that moment of losing her lover. She doesn’t seem terribly broken by Josh’s death – she even expected it – but she does question “who am I now?” Franny doesn’t want to have anything to do with Josh’s bar and intends on leaving the country altogether. Her husband is dead and she doesn’t think she can be the same person anymore, saying “now that he’s gone? I am, too.” It’s a sad but completely understandable reaction to someone who was a major part of your life just disappearing from it.
Patrick! This isn’t really a cheerful series, but have I managed to make it any more dour for you? What do you make of Montclare’s interaction with Omar? Any thoughts on Lawrence of Arabia? Did you enjoy the uselessness of the Deputy as he stood in a room where a bunch of guys drew their guns on each other?
Patrick: He’s kind of the classic deputy-in-a-town-run-by-criminals, right? In the previous issue, we saw Deputy Downs and the Sheriff actively trying not to solve the crime of “who shot the dog?” so it’s no real surprise that Downs would scoot away during a gang standoff. But I do think it’s worth pointing out that he’s even trying to intercede at all. It’s clear from the terse exchange when he comes into the bar that he knows he’s not welcome, but is making an effort to connect with Felix and the widow anyway.
Downs comes alone and for, what appears to be, a totally genuine purpose. He could have shown up at the funeral suspecting that there was a possibility for violence and had back-up, or even just asserted himself as an authority when he entered the bar. Instead, he’s got this very community-engagement focus, actively participating in the lives of the people he’s sworn to serve and protect, even if they are monsters. Like, you can call his actions ineffective, but holy shit man, he managed to cool down a potential shoot-out, reducing it to a simple punch thrown between rivals. That’s actually pretty damned effective.
Michael, I’m glad you brought up the jumbled Bible verses in the first couple pages. This is the sort of thing that I love spotting in Azzarello’s work – a fixation on language and culture in a way that’s more evocative than it is demonstrative. We get a few more of these later in the issue, like when the wake has turned into a drunken Metallica sing-a-long.
They’re singing “Enter Sandman” written out phonetically in James Hetfield’s singin’-metal accent. It’s not important that we are able to pick up the reference in a textual way, but it is important that the reader hear the song in their head when they read this page. I haven’t tried, but I’d imagine googling “ahfta nevah nevah lan’!” will net you few useful results. This isn’t meant to be a researchable reference. If you recognize what they’re singing, the effect is immediate and the fact that that the sound of Hetfield’s voice is spelled out on the page only serves to reinforce the idea this is something we’re hearing. Which means there’s no picking apart “why” this song is in here, but we do get a more complete image of this party.
There’s a similar attention to detail during that scene with the Seesaw Man. Snow’s friend asks him with the degrading shit will be “worth [her] wild” mangling a common idiom in a common way. Azzarello is quietly establishing values – the teenagers in the town don’t care enough about themselves to refuse the Seesaw Man’s perverted advances, but they also don’t value themselves to know what they’re saying. It’s like any time uses the phrase “for all intensive purposes” or “I could care less” – they think they’re saying something they’ve heard before, but they’re really just emptily parroting phrases. Azz twists the knife a little bit on this one, though, and he lets the Seesaw Man correct her. Just, y’know, in case you were getting too comfortable judging these kids and their sloppy texting and their general disinterest, you should know that you’re just like the Seesaw Man.
Michael, you also asked me about the interaction between Montclare and Omar, and I’m afraid that one’s a little bit more impenetrable for me. I keep going back to the title of the series, and trying to determine who is the “monster.” The disinterested teens? The local pervert? The criminals that run the town? The law enforcement that looks the other way? Omar mentions that he takes his name from Lawrence of Arabia because it’s a fantasy, and maybe that’s what “American Monster” really refers to – the fantasy that being a violent, disconnected, unscrupulous person defines a person. I find the way Doe draws Montclare in the final pages of this issue fascinating. He’s probably our most obvious candidate for “American Monster” right? He is — after all — physically disfigured and he’s always on the cover of this book. But check him out in this moment of existential ennui:
He’s round and soft and bottom-heavy, like a Chris Sanders drawing. And that seems to be what he’s struggling with – what’s the fantasy and what’s his true identity. The rest of the town might not recognize it in as many words, but they’re collectively asking the same questions.