Sometimes, as I’ve written in the past, a comic doesn’t need to have a high concept or poignant message. Sometimes it’s enough for it to just be fun! But sometimes… sometimes fun just isn’t enough.
(I went pretty deep on this one, and as a result, there’s some late-story spoilers ahead.)
Monster Pop is fun. It’s a slice-of-life dramedy about monster (and a few human) college kids as they navigate romance and friendship, identity and society. The main characters are lifelong besties George, an extroverted and somewhat reckless cyclops, and Franny, a cool and serious “genius witch”. Supporting cast includes quiet human trans boy Percy, shy gorgon nerd Marina, gregarious argus-eyed nerd Sasha, and uh… Ben. I’ll get to Ben. There’s some cute gayness and also lots of angsty gayness if that’s more your thing and even some angsty straightness for the real freakazoids out there. For the most part it’s a goofy and colorful coming-of-adulthood story where most of the cast just happens to have magic powers and/or the wrong number of eyes.
The problems come in when Monster Pop tries to dig deeper into the social implications of a world where humans and monsters coexist, or rather, don’t. In this setting, humans live in human cities, monsters in monster cities, and never, until recently, the twain shall meet. Unity University is the first integrated post-secondary institution in the country, and lingering anti-monster stigma serves as the focus of the first chapter. As a segregation metaphor, let me tell ya, it sucks. George and Franny don magic disguises to crash a human party, where they meet Ben, a rich asshole bigot. George likes him for some reason, and continues to wear her disguise so she can pass as human in order to date him. There’s a LOT to unpack there, but that unpacking is unfortunately left as an exercise to the reader, as the chapter wraps predictably with Ben discovering the truth and rejecting George, a fairly trite message about being true to yourself or whatever, and Franny calling Ben “racist” a bunch of times. George is white. I’m so tired y’all.
The pitfalls of using fantasy species as an analogue for race have been written about for years by many better minds than I, but when it shows up in a world a-step-to-the-left of our own, it’s especially galling. Race as we know it does exist in Monster Pop, but it’s apparently not the basis for racism, which is based only on monstrosity. At best, it’s tone deaf; at worst, it’s a flimsy excuse for a white author to play house with the trappings of the American Civil Rights era.
Fortunately, after the first chapter this clumsy social commentary is abandoned in favor of more typical slice-of-life fare, like George being an obnoxious but endearing shithead and Franny and Percy’s agonizingly cute mutual crush. UNfortunately this also includes the just-plain-agonizing, extremely by-the-(cis)-numbers subplot about Percy being trans and semi-stealth. We see him talking to his professors before each first-day lecture, pretending the girls’ dorm he lives in is coed, etc. but he never actually comes out to his friends except by implication in the angst-soaked scene where he and Franny finally hook up. That’s not to say it’s not “realistic” or whatever, it’s just the exact same story I’ve seen a million times before and I’m sick and tired of it.
Monster Pop scrapes by on the strength of (some of) its central characters and their cute relationships. It’s easy, for instance, to get caught up in George’s crush on Marina, even when she handles it like a petulant toddler. George and Franny’s enduring friendship is nice to come back to, and Sasha is just… I love Sasha. Percy, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a character beyond “quiet and studious” and “trangst”, and Ben- oh right, Ben comes back.
The most recent arcs have been a remix of the uncomfortable elements of the first chapter. Ben is reintroduced as Sasha’s friend who’s trying his best to make amends for being a shitbag in the past, which should feel like a great example of how bigots can wake up and learn to be better people, but actually rings completely hollow because all of his growth happened off-page. I prefer to see his return less as a redemption arc for him than a way of examining the protagonists’ reactions to him: George is angry but eventually decides to give him a chance; Franny is not so forgiving.
Franny’s got her own shit going on, though, in the form of her mom’s return from a 12-year space vacation. Her mom’s a star, while her dad and three little brothers are human. I admit that my guard was up when I realized this arc was an attempt at a metaphor for multiracial experience, but even after all the chapters that came before, I wasn’t expecting a scene where her parents literally tear her in two while fighting over the best way to raise her. It’s not completely out of line with the ways multiracial people I know describe growing up, but christ is it heavy-handed.
Of course, heavy-handedness is Monster Pop’s signature. While this is often a symptom of weak writing, I get the sense that Kern is deliberately aiming for campy melodrama, in which case she’s hit the target. But when this style gets applied to social commentary, the end result is generally either A Very Special Episode or, ironically, pat and unremarkable. The rare moments where Monster Pop tries for subtlety end up undershooting, as in Percy’s literally unspoken coming-out scene.
And then there’s the celebrity cameos. A side character introduced in chapter 2 is Tiny Minaj, a Barbie-sized version of Nicki who’s friends with George and Franny. In the latest chapter, we meet Seyoncé, a witch(?) version of Bey who’s attending a college holiday party. Their inclusion is apropos of absolutely nothing except maybe the cultural moment in which these comic pages are created, so it feels a bit like a cynical cash-in on the popularity of these successful black women, reducing them to mere mascots.
So the bottom line is that yes, Monster Pop is fun. But the footnote underneath that line is that the fun is often undercut by awkward writing choices, clumsy messages, and general cluelessness. These faults make it fall short of its terrific potential – a potential that has kept me reading for years, hoping. I’ll keep waiting for that payoff, but I can’t recommend you do the same.