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Month of African-American Comics – Monsters 101, Books 1-10

All this month I’ll be reviewing different comic books by African-American creators, based on submissions from the actual creators of the comic books themselves. A quick note – since this month is so relatively short, I’ll be featuring an extra comic every week, for a total of 32 comics spotlighted! Here is a list of all the comics spotlighted so far!

I apologize for the recent delay. M. Rasheed mailed me copies of nearly his entire 10-book Monsters 101 series (each book is about 150 pages). That’s a looot of comic books to read but it’s also a lot of comics to mail, so I figured I really should just review them all. So the end result was my schedule was thrown off a bit. I’ll try to catch up today and I’ll be back on schedule hopefully by the start of the new week.

With that said, in this installment we take at the M. Rasheed’ thirteen-year epic, Monsters 101 (I didn’t actually receive the sixth volume, so I’ll just be reviewing 9 out of the 10 books)…

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Right off the bat, let me tell you, Monsters 101 is definitely quite unlike pretty much every other comic I have read. Rasheed is a strong cartoonist but the style of his art is that of an all-ages comic. However, he makes a point to tell a story that is definitely not all-ages. As you can see from the covers above, he specifically warns people on each comic that it is for mature readers. Here’s the thing, though, in the nine books that I read, I could probably make, like, ten edits and the books would be readable for, if not “all-ages,” certainly at least, like, a fourth grader. People still die, but I don’t think that means that a book can’t/shouldn’t be read by pre-teens. Heck, plenty of people die in the Harry Potter books, right? Moreover, the vast majority of the series tells a fairly normal fantasy adventure. There’s really not a whole lot of “darkness” in the series (besides some occasional killing). Except, of course, the very first volume.

Monsters 101 begins with the tale of Willy Pugg, a bully who routinely picks on a nerdy kid named Mort. One day, though, Pugg is accosted by, well, monsters…

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They admire him for his bullying and offer him a deal. If he brings them kids to eat, they will turn him into a monster. If he doesn’t, then they’ll just eat him themselves. And they can get at him wherever he goes, so he is kind of screwed.

It is a fascinating exploration about the idea of how much evil can you do before you really ARE a monster before TECHNICALLY becoming an actual monster. In a moment of chivalry earlier in the story, though, Pugg saves a girl from a different bully. She becomes enamored with Pugg and even after seeing him deliver a kid to the monsters (it is pretty messed up), she believes that there is goodness within him. Ultimately, she teams up with the kid that Pugg was picking on, Mort, to round up a bunch of kids to stop the monsters. By now, Pugg has officially been transformed into a monster.

The book ends with Pugg embracing his inner hero, but not before he loses someone very close to him. It’s a touching and bittersweet ending. Really, Volume 1 could easily just be read as a complete tale.

And then things go a WHOLE other direction, as Rasheed basically just turns the book into a fantasy adventure series. Which is fine, of course, I am not knocking that, it’s just an interesting transition. It’s really a lot like if William Golding wrote a sequel to the Lord of the Files where the surviving kids all formed a team of adventurers, using the skills that they learned on the island to fight crime.

Book Two pits Pugg (now calling himself Pugroff) against a superhero, who happens to be the father of the aforementioned foreign exchange student who was killed by the monsters. The book also develops the relationship between Mort and Pugroff. Mort is helping hide Pugroff, but not just because Mort’s a good guy, but because he has always wanted to be a REAL magician, and now that he knows that monsters exist then that must mean that MAGICK exists, so he figures if he hangs out with Pugroff long enough, he’ll get the chance to do some magic. That wish comes true when the two comes across a magical talisman that the monsters who Pugroff defeated in the first book had and it transports them to another dimension. When there, they run afoul of a jerky young devil and his sweet sister. When they meet the sister, they end up pledging to rescue her brother and that’s when they meet a MONSTER magician! This sets up the third volume, when they are now guests of the devil kingdom where Mort will begin learning magick (as the girl they help is a magician). The second volume is split pretty evenly between the superhero/Pugroff conflict and the adventure in the other dimension. The superhero is an interesting character, a man who uses all of his wealth to become the most powerful superhero out there (genetic modifications, etc.) but you can see that it is all about ego and not really about doing good. He’s an intriguing foil for a monster who’s trying to be hero. The new magical characters introduced in the second volume are interesting, as well, especially Benkom, a monster who is trying to become a magician himself.

Book Three takes place in the Devil’s dimension, where Mort is a hero but Pugroff is seen as basically his servant. Meanwhile, the monsters from the first volume are back to cause some trouble, along with a new villain, a dragon. The devil girl that we met in the previous volume turns out to be a PRINCESS and this gets Mort into trouble when he has to put the little magick that the princess taught him to duel against the devil that is betrothed to the princess. There’s a lot of good world-building in this volume, as we learn more about the world and the customs of the devils. However, while Mort wants to be a magician, that doesn’t mean that he wants to live in a devil dimension and his spurning of the princess, even though he does so nicely, will have consequences down the line.

Book Four has the monsters from Volume 1 trying to improve their lot in life by finding a magical weapon of their own (they are set on their way by a duplicitous dragon who figures that he can just steal the weapon later from them). It is actually pretty amusing watching these brutes try to solve riddles and the like. Mostly they try to use brute force to get past the challenges required to get an ancient faerie weapon (we get a quick chapter just giving the origin of the original owner of the super-powerful axe). Once in possession of the axe, though, Maescus (the head of the monsters from Book 1) actually tries to strategize a bit and decides to try to become the king of the monsters, with the help of Mort’s magic. This leads to a journey to the land of monsters, where Pugroff meets a monster similar to him who becomes a mentor of sorts. We also see the monster king. The monster king has an interesting set-up – throughout the series, whoever is the monster king gets challenged CONSTANTLY. It’s a pretty funny gag by Rasheed. Anyhow, Maescus’ plan fails miserably and it is up to Pugroff and Mort to save the day before the monster king can kill Pugroff’s new mentor. At the end of the volume, Pugroff ends up in possession of the super axe. He rescues the other monsters, who from this point forward now become basically supporting characters. It is interesting to see the way Rasheed plays with the idea of morality when you are a monster. To wit, can we really call a monster evil for killing humans? Are we evil for killing chickens and cows?

Book Five brings the boys back to Earth, where we discover that their old principal used to be a superhero! He discovers their arrangement…

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And he wants in on the whole “transformed into a monster” deal. I mostly just showed you those pages to show you what Pugg looks like as Pugroff.

One of the two villains in this volume is the dragon Azoratain, who wants the axe for himself. He uses a magic spell to resurrect one of the kids killed in Volume 1 (a hall monitor who was basically a “good guy bully” – a theme Rasheed uses a few times in the series – “good guys” who are just as brutal as the “bad guys”) to use as his super-powered warrior against Pugroff.

The other villain is the monster king from the previous volume. Can Pugroff defeat him and become king of the monsters? Well, Pugroff IS one of the stars of the series, so probably. There’s also an interesting sequence where Pugroff discovers bullying among the various monsters and decides to take a stance against bullying.

I didn’t get Book Six.

Book Seven opens with Pugroff as the king of the monsters, but he ends up possessed by an evil being known as Irylor. Irylor (in Pugroff’s body) then basically declares war on Earth. This volume is almost entirely just balls to the wall action as a team of superheroes shows up to fight the possessed Pugroff. When that doesn’t work, some Earth-based magicians take their chances. Mort teams up with these Earth magicians (since Volume 3, he’s been searching for an Earth-based magician to mentor him) and their battle for Pugroff’s soul is pretty intense. The end result is Pugroff becoming human again.

Book Eight is split between Mort’s further development as a magician now that he knows how to enter the spirit world, mixed with Pugg’s situation as the king of the monsters while not actually BEING a monster. In the end, Pugg becomes a monster again, only this time he is a FULL monster and not a mutated human monster, and that is a major change as we will see as the series goes on.

Book Nine is Mort intensive. He first must deal with the unresolved situation in the devil dimension and then must also continue his training. He comes across a group of “magicians” who turn out to want something less noble from the pursuit of magic. It’s a fascinating exploration of the power of being part of a “clique.” I was watching this week’s edition of Frontline on PBS and a big part of it was how companies were catering to teens by trying to make them feel PART of something (like being able to prove that you are one of the world’s biggest Hunger Games fans). Rasheed addresses a lot of those themes in Mort’s interactions with the “African Architects.” This also allows Rasheed to go on a riff about the way African culture has been European-ized when it comes to Ancient Egypt. The book ends with Pugroff beginning to make some waves with his newfound kingdom.

Book Ten basically wraps up everyone’s story, with Pugroff making a world for himself (while also sadly having to sever ties forever with humanity, since full monster Pugroff, well, you know, wants to eat humans) and Mort coming clean to his grandmother about his magick and also making strides of his own towards reaching the next level of being a magician. Also, there is a hilarious riff on the candy bars that Pugroff has been obsessed with the whole series (he has been stealing so many that the company has gone out of business – so his monster lackeys have to find a way to get the company to start making the candy bars again).

As you can tell from the sample pages, Rasheed is an accomplished cartoonist, with an excellent sense of story and a good sense of character design. The stories are fun, character-driven pieces that slowly expand the cast to the point by Book 10 that the cast of the series is quite large, and they’re all interesting characters. As I mentioned earlier, this series has been a thirteen-year epic for Rasheed (the first stories were from 2000) and it was fun to see him develop as a storyteller as the series went along. It was a real blast.

If you want to pick up the Monsters 101 series, check out Rasheed’s website here.

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