“Write what you know” must be the most frequent bit of advice given to aspiring writers. Cartoonist Mark Julien does exactly this when he draws on events, interests, and experiences from his formative years as well as his adult relationship with his ailing father as inspiration for his debut graphic novel. Like many young children, bullies targeted Julien as gay and picked on him. It’s certainly something to which I can relate. When the bullying became too much, Julien found solace in a love of monsters and retreated further into his closet to start displaying homophobic behavior as a means of denial. Julien eventually accepted himself but circumstances always seemed to conspire against coming out to and sharing his relationship with his father who was afflicted with Alzheimers. Julien’s idea for Justin Case and the Closet Monster came about as a matter of reflection following his father’s death. Presenting it as a monthly comic strip seemed like a good idea since Julien was working as an illustrator for Genre magazine at the time. Husband Stacy Kelly persuaded Julien to change to a book format and so began a long process of Justin Case and a large ensemble cast to life.
Julien creates Justin’s world with a cartoonist’s sensibilities combined with a decorative art aesthetic and a sophisticated color palette. In this world every out or closeted queer person is given a guardian to watch over them. Julien presents these guardians as monsters in an effort to upend the much feared movie cliche; to some they are friends and confidantes while to others they are enemy. This paradox is the major plot point as Julien explores the lives and choices of two single, closeted men, the titular young Justin and the slightly older Father Peter. With Justin and Father Peter Julien shares insight into his own life. Like young Julien, both me are reluctant to accept the truth these monsters represent. Father Peter gives in to fear and seeks to control through blind obedience while Justin gives up his fear and indulges in acceptance. Which is not to say Justin doesn’t experience some problems along the way. Julien presents them as gentle stumblings of a sweet, young gay man exploring the magic of a world that was always there for him to see if only he looked.
Julien doesn’t limit himself to lighthearted humor and romance. Body shaming within the gay community is a subject Julien tackles. Mentor monster Crawford is that person we all know who insists on people changing things about themselves that aren’t really a problem just for the sake of conformity with certain usually unrealistic standards. Despite being a mummy, Crawford excels in keeping up that image and insists his charge Corey work harder. By having a much more laid back monster by the name of Marlon intervene in the matter in a humorously fitting way, Julien reminds us that our lives needn’t be riddled with anxiety and unhappiness. That is unless a person denies the truth. Julien uses Peter as a metaphor for the deadened people who shamble through life with regret and loathing as their companions.
As mentioned above, Julien’s idea to present Justin as a comic strip is retained in the print version. The oversized pages enhance the comic strip feeling though on a personal note the binding makes scanning images a real challenge. The comic strip method of storytelling presents its own set of challenges, particularly with pacing. Julien largely succeeds in advancing the main plot while introducing the extensive cast (a total of 20) with their own stories. There is an occasional instance, sometimes with a longer strip, that I wonder might have benefitted by a little tighter editing.
Julien has made a beautiful queer fable for the young and young at heart with his debut and I hope he’ll continue graphic storytelling in the future.
Justin Case and the Closet Monster may be purchased here.