Apr/May 2009

Beasts!

Nicole Rudick


“O LORD, WHAT A VARIETY OF THINGS YOU HAVE MADE! In wisdom you have made them all.” We know He made the lamb and the tiger, but what about the yeti, the kraken, and the manticore? Not to mention the Invunche, a “twisted, deformed, pathetic creature” that started out as “an innocent Chilean boy who is sold to a warlock.” Then there’s the flesh-eating Burmese Khimakha, an ogre so hideous that he’s ugly “even by ogre standards.” Oh, and Mothman: It looks like a human, except that it has “massive wings, no head, and a set of large, reflective eyes embedded in its chest.” (I think we can blame that one on Charles Burns.)

Let us consult editor Jacob Covey’s cryptozoological field guides, Beasts! Book One ($25) and Beasts! Book Two ($35; both Fantagraphics). These illustrated volumes feature some two hundred possibly nonexistent species—from the Egyptian Amermait (a crocodile-lion-hippo mélange that devours souls) to the Appalachian Tailypo (a nocturnal man-eater ticked off by the loss of its tail). No culture is without at least one bizarre creature to explain away the terrifying, perverse, or just plain inexplicable things in the world. The Aztecs, for instance, have given us the three-handed Ahuizotl, which drowns fishermen who steal its fish. Beware, too, the Middle Eastern Utukku, a “feral and monstrous” humanoid believed to be “descended from virtuous beings,” and the Russian Bannik, a bathhouse spirit that chokes bathers with “impure steam.” Pregnant and virginal women have a particularly hard time, inspiring a wide assortment of vengeful and cruel hellions, including the Japanese Kekkai, a sort of living blood clot created at childbirth, “possibly an animated placenta.”

It’s not much of a stretch to picture what the Beaver of Killisnoo and the Deer Woman might look like, but what about the Polevick, the Tikbalang, and the Kabandha? Covey’s brave band of 180 artists—Gilbert Hernandez, Brian Chippendale, Stan Sakai (above, right), Tom Neely, Renee French, Dash Shaw, Seonna Hong, and James Jean, to name a few—put these mythological and folkloric beings on vivid display. The distinct and varied styles of the cartoonists, illustrators, and graphic artists give further evidence of each creature’s unique characteristics. In some cases, familiar manifestations are given fresh life, as with Lauren Weinstein’s Charybdis (above, left). Gone are the usual piddling whirlpools; Weinstein shows us a monster that has no form, a tidal beast so fantastically menacing it makes Jaws seem like a good time.

“They exist because they are believed in,” Covey tenderly observes of his bestiary’s denizens. The enthusiastically detailed evocations in these books give us all reason to believe.

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