It wasn’t the herpes that sucked me in when I opened my brand new used copy of Monsters that had just arrived in the mail. I went page after page thinking — wow, this is my life — until I had gone cover to cover, stopping only to pee. In the early pages of this graphic novel, Ken Dahl places his story within the context of his everyday life, his lifestyle and social scene, where travel happens by bike, cool jobs are still shit jobs, and there’s always that lady friend suggesting an herbal remedy for your problems. I felt comforted seeing my everyday world and my herpes world represented in the same space. I felt like I wasn’t the only rad punk who spent a chunk of their life nearly obsessing over the meaning of herpes in their life.
But this isn’t everyone’s life. And that’s okay. The point is that this story about herpes can’t be the full story without everything that isn’t herpes. The point is all our herpes stories are about more than herpes, because we are so much more than a medical diagnosis. By telling his story in such a personalized fashion, focusing just as much on his internal narrative as the external world, it becomes even more clear that herpes is subjective and three-dimensional in a way that a plus or minus sign could never be.
In insisting we are more than our virus, we could be begging the question — is this virus us? Or is it something else? Something entirely its own, independent, autonomous. Dahl goes farther than calling herpes “it.” He refers to them, the monsters. And yet this auto-biographyof him is defined by these monsters; the line is blurred. The more he tries to get rid of the monsters, the more they seem to come up. Denying the entangled human and viral narratives doesn’t seem to work — only when he forms a truce with the monsters can the story reach any kind of end. So just as much as we are not synonymous with our monsters, we must accept them in order to accept ourselves. On his path towards that point, Dahl must contend with feelings many of us have experienced — feeling unlovable, fear that we can’t have the things we want or that we don’t even deserve those things at all.
Enough with the serious stuff, though. Monsters is a straight up good piece of work. This dude can draw, and he can tell a story. And above all, this comic is HILARIOUS. When just about every joke out there about herpes falls flat to me and screams of stigma, Dahl’s brilliant use of illustration and frank representation of his own anxiety and neuroses create humor out of relatability, not out of mockery or objectification. Near the end of the book, he muses to himself: “It’s like the last 5 years were just a corny sex-ed PSA.” Hardly. PSAs and cautionary tales exploit our realities by using us as material for the sake of others. They are ultimately about the consumer of the story, not the subject. But Dahl’s story is undeniably his own. It is firmly grounded in the nuance of personal history, and it is through this specificity that he can suggest to the reader the beginnings of something more universal, something shared.
Thus, more than anything else I’ve come across on the topic, I would recommend this book to people who don’t have herpes — or, more accurately, people who don’t think they have herpes. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, and it’s nothing like whatever you learned in 10th grade health class.
But for my friends who knowingly live with herpes, I definitely recommend you check this book out if you haven’t already. Monsters touches on so much that we talk about on herpblr — including the big ol’ “must I disclose?” question. Plus, you might laugh a little. And maybe, you’ll even laugh at yourself like I did, when I was reminded that I’m not the only one like this. Just like Dahl’s stereotypes of drunk manarchist at the basement show or entitled gluten-free hippie with white people dreads are comedic relief because they are so accurate against my real life, my monsters are not as unique as I sometimes believe them to be. If we’re all worrying about and hiding some of the same things, maybe I don’t have to take it all so damn seriously.