Gentrification is a machine made of many moving parts. There are the developers that come to low-income neighborhoods and force out the established residents by building new properties they can no longer afford; the politicians who paint members of a community as undesirable and dehumanize them so the rest of the city/country/world doesn’t care about their rights; the backers who put their money behind these projects because they see a return on their investment in the future rather than displaced human beings in the present. This machine grinds against oppressed people who lack the resources to take action against the conglomerate force, but the residents of the rapidly changing East London have new allies in the fight in Dalston Monsterzz (Nobrow), the debut graphic novel from Dilraj Mann.
Dalston Monsterzz shows a flip side to the Hayao Miyazaki influence seen in a book like Image’s Isola, which is set in a fantasy world rooted in the past à la Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Castle In The Sky. Miyazaki also crafts stories that bring a sense of wonder to more realistic contemporary settings—My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away—and Mann taps into that vein for his graphic novel. He takes Miyazaki’s environmentalist perspective and shifts it toward urban preservation. The monsters of Dalston can be seen as protectors of the neighborhood, awakened from their underground slumber by construction teams at work.
The presence of these creatures puts a fresh spin on the gentrification debate, while Mann gets to show off his bold graphic design skills with both the monsters and the gang members who ride them around the district. Dalston is captured in clean, intricate detail, his character gradually being erased by the uniformity of new developments. A standout sequence has Rosh and his companion, Lolly, fleeing a gang in a rooftop monster chase, where Mann makes remarkable use of staccato panels to create a specific rhythm that intensifies the movement. It’s an exhilarating scene, but it also creates some disappointment later in a montage of Rosh and Lolly facing off against other gangs, fights that could have been expanded considerably to put more spotlight on the titular beasts.
There are a lot of big ideas in these pages, perhaps too many. In his rush to cram all of these concepts into 76 pages, Mann doesn’t give the personal relationships time to take root and space to grow. The friendship between Rosh and Kay is a driving force of the story, but the stakes of Kay’s kidnapping would be higher if the reader had a stronger impression of their former connection and understood why Rosh would rush to save a friend who has been acting like an asshole recently. The inside cover does most of the work in this regard with a shot of Rosh’s bulletin board covered in photos of him and Kay, including one from when they were children, which reveals just how long they’ve known each other. Mann has a tendency to simplify, which makes for a smooth, easy read, but dulls the narrative’s dramatic impact.