I love monsters. Monstrosity is a concept that’s important to me. As a transfeminine person, monstrosity is a label forced on me by transmisogyny. As a nonbinary person, monstrosity is a position I choose to reclaim as an alternative to maleness or femaleness. Monsters are a potent symbol, the unknowable adversary that stands against and in contrast to humanity. But also I just think monsters are cool as hell, so what.
I’m always looking for stories with monsters in them, the scarier and/or weirder the better. Natalie Riess’ Snarlbear delivers in a huge way.
Snarlbear follows a fairly familiar formula: normal human discovers and/or is sucked into a strange fantasy land and has adventures while trying to get home. Except Daisy isn’t trying to get home. Home sucks. Even before she falls into the Rainbow Dimension, she’s fantasizing about being a mythic hero as a way to escape her mundane life. Fortunately for her, the story wastes no time in presenting her with a colorful portal out of her monochrome home universe. There’s no sentimentality for Earth here, no lingering setup of Daisy’s life there that she longs to return to. Snarlbear isn’t about that at all.
Snarlbear is about a girl whose mild demeanor hides a monster. The Rainbow Dimension is a dangerous place, but Daisy quickly proves herself to be more dangerous, slaying the vicious Snarlbear with nothing but her severed bicycle and being granted its name by the tiny adorable bean people it had been terrorizing. Joined by the opportunistic elf Flint Galena – her self-appointed manager – she sets off to make her name and fortune as a professional monster puncher.
It all sounds a bit silly, and it is, but a strong current of horror runs through the core of this comic, and that contrast creates an atmosphere of sinister surreality. At one point Snarlbear gets brutalized in a jail cell by magical unicorn cops named Sunshine and Spangle. At another, she gets invited to brunch by the tiny Miss Ribbon and her necktie-wearing-bean-person dad, but she declines; she has to go decapitate the Rat Queen with her bear hands. I mean bare hands. Shit. The point is, the setting appears cutesy, but the Rainbow Dimension hides a host of horrible and weird secrets. It’s enough to push anyone over the edge.
Or is it? The longer Snarlbear spends in this polychromatic wonderland, the more savage and violent she becomes, but is her descent into monstrosity caused by the Rainbow Dimension corrupting and changing her, or are her new surroundings letting out the internal monster she always kept caged in her previous life? Do the mutations manifesting in her body have an external source, or is she just finally unlocking her true potential? Did the Dimension open for her because it wanted to prey on her? Or did it simply recognize the monster within her, and welcome her home?
I often talk about how art quality just doesn’t matter that much to me in terms of how much I enjoy a comic. Buuut there are some comics that are truly a joy to just look at! Art is no substitute for a good story, but it can make a good story into a gorgeous work of art. And Riess’ color work is truly gorgeous, enhancing the story at every turn. It captures the murky gloom of the Sapphire Town sewers, the frenetic heat of Snarlbear’s rage, the wet splatter of monster viscera. An especially interesting technique is Riess’ use of flat colors in certain panels – a sharp contrast to the smooth, painterly gradients normally employed – to depict split seconds where the constantly-shifting hues of the Dimension are frozen in time. Yes, I’m also a glutton for rainbows and obnoxiously bright colors, but a Snarlbear without color would be a pale (hehe) reflection, unable to tell its story as effectively.
And digital coloring isn’t even Riess’ only strong point! Each chapter boasts a gorgeous watercolor painting for a cover, which gives a clear visual representation of the breadth of Riess’ skill with color across media. These covers also lend the comic a classic, old-school feel, like they should be sitting on the shelf next to your Bone, Conan, and Swamp Thing trades. Come to think of it, a print edition of Snarlbear would look really nice in my collection! I’d back that Kickstarter.
Daisy’s journey from grocery store employee to adventuring hero to terrifying force of nature has been thrilling and unsettling, but the question remains as to what, exactly, Snarlbear’s true nature is – and what, exactly, her inner monster looks like. Is she righteous or vindictive, a hero or a villain, a human or… something else? One thing’s for sure: I adore her, warts (and fangs, and scales, and glowing rainbow blood) and all.
Final verdict: Fans of whimsical children’s media with sinister undertones, like Adventure Time or Steven Universe, will undoubtedly enjoy the similar elements in Snarlbear – as will fans of full-on cosmic horror.