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.
Addendum: (March 18, 2018)
An addendum for Snarlbear has been brewing in my skull ever since it finished. It’s a terrific comic, a classic in its own time, and I feel like it deserves some parting words. Obviously, inevitably, spoilers below.
Snarlbear remains one of the best comics about monstrosity that exist, doubly so because in the end it managed to surprise me. In my original review, I saw Daisy’s character trajectory landing her in monstrous territory: the Rainbow Dimension’s tendency to transform heroes into terrifying monsters was manifesting in her blood, her teeth, her temper. My prediction of her transfiguration was in no small part wishful thinking; I really wanted to see what form she would take.
But in the end, it wasn’t Daisy who was changed – it was Flint.
From the beginning, Snarlbear’s strength lay in the juxtaposition of the horrible and the adorable, with Daisy straddling the line between the two. That meant that the comic’s tone could shift subtly from one scene to the next, making it hard to be sure what the overall tone was supposed to be: was this a horror comic with adventure elements, or an adventure comic with horror elements? I decided it was the former, and I was wrong.
Daisy’s monstrous awakening was a scary thing, making her more angry, more violent, more dangerous. If she had succumbed to it in the end, Snarlbear would indeed have been a horror comic. But for Flint to be transformed instead cemented the tone of the comic as hopeful and positive, which is a weird sentence to write without elaboration.
It’s easy to describe Flint as greedy and selfish. It’s equally easy to point to that as the reason he became a dragon, and look no deeper. But it wasn’t Flint’s greed that changed him; it was his grief. Flint’s driving emotion isn’t greed, but fear – he looks out for himself because he believes no one else will. When he attached himself to Daisy at the beginning of the comic it was because he saw her as a source of the financial stability and physical protection he sorely needed. But as she changed, her attitude towards him became harsh, even cruel at times. Just as he was finally ready to make a friend, that friend began to turn on him. And when defeating Princess Cassiopeia didn’t break the spell imprisoning his home Monochrome in crystal, he broke instead. Having lost his last hope, he latched onto the only piece of security he could find – a giant pile of gold.
The climax of Snarlbear isn’t the duel between unicorn royalty, or even the reprise attack of the still-infected Cass, but the painful battle and quiet reconciliation between Daisy and Flint. The real treasure yadda yadda yadda.
The fact that Flint doesn’t return to normal, even after the Eye of Spectra is removed and thrown deep into the earth, is what I love most about Snarlbear’s ending. Monstrosity is scary, dangerous, even evil throughout much of the story, but that’s not an inherent fact – Flint living happily as a dragon among the unicorns proves that. This also casts a new light on the monsters Daisy fought before: were they just bad people? Or, like Flint, were they driven to violence by the same pain, fear, and anguish that transformed them in the first place?
Speaking of which, I’d be remiss not to mention the late revellation of Spectra’s Champion, a nameless woman from Earth who in death became the murderous crystal that came to possess Cassiopeia. In the few pages of her communicating with Daisy there’s little time for elaboration – she’s finally evaporating into nothingness – but it’s clear she had a romantic relationship with Spectra. Unfortunately, Spectra seems to have been a bad girlfriend, using her Champion as a tool of death to the point where she wanted to escape back to Earth. Trapped and tricked by the goddess, the Champion’s anguish transforms her, too. Empowered by the crystal that forms in her body, she strikes down her former love, only to be killed in return by Spectra’s, um, spectral form. But her pain lives on in the crystals, which keep growing even after her death, still trying to destroy the Rainbow Dimension that she could not escape.
That the entire plot of the story is driven indirectly by the lingering trauma of an abusive queer relationship was a startling reveal to me, but not an unwelcome one. Queer abuse is a real, awful thing, and the way it radiates out to affect people in queer communities feels, to me, very similar to the way Crystal Cass ravages the Rainbow Dimension. Spectra’s abusiveness is clearly an extension of her divine power, the same way that power imbalances enable abuse in real life, and the vision that Daisy has while holding the crystal sword serves to humanize the story’s antagonist – we’re obviously meant to sympathize with the victim.
All this is why Snarlbear speaks to me so deeply. Its core theme is how pain, rejection, and abuse turn people into monsters – just like how oppression and bigotry serve to dehumanize people in real life. But, like Flint, I believe it’s possible and even empowering to embrace that place of social monstrosity. If they want us to be worms, let’s become dragons instead.