In The Dormant Beast, Bilal draws upon his Yugoslavian background, imagining a child, Nike, born in the ruins of war-torn Sarajevo. The child recollects huge black flies that enter his hospital ward through a mortar-blasted hole in the ceiling, and this prefigures his encounters, as a adult, with fly-shaped extraterrestrials seeking to enslave mankind.
At the heart of the paradoxical tale (reminiscent of the work of Philip K. Dick) is Nike's relationship with two others who were infants in the same hospital ward. His sense of love and protectiveness of them fuels his desire to defeat the alien conspiracy hidden within a religious fundamentalist movement.
Alas, Bilal's obvious seriousness in examining the effects of modernism and the legacy of religious intolerance and total war are undermined by the SF setting. All the gene-spliced miniature pets, flying cars, orbital space stations and ludicrous astro-punk fashions only lead us further and further away from credibility. Crowded with robots and androids, psychic links, and mind-control experiments, the story never succeeds in fleshing out its actual human characters. Our only emotional connection is with Nike's childhood recollections.
Bilal's visuals are as gorgeous as always. His soulful, realistic portraits are set against puzzling backgrounds of biotechnical gadgetry. His rendering mixes color and texture in fresh and unusual ways. His typically blue-grey compositions are enlivened by spots of bright color.
But his storytelling style is disconnected and awkward. Bilal rarely uses the pictures to carry the narrative; rather, the complex story is told with endless dialog and lengthly small-print captions whose relationship to the pictures is merely perfunctory. Typically in dialog scenes, the speaking characters don't even open their mouths; it's as if the story is transpiring on another plain, and we're just getting picture-postcards from the battlefront.
Almost lost in all of this is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the crazed super-villain. Doctor Warhole is a grotesque corpse-like figure with a blue metal nose clamped to his face. As he smugly explicates his plans for destruction, he brags, 'You know, I'm a chess player and a poker player rolled into one, even in research and medicine... I am a madman zigzagging away, and it's always worked for me...'
But the genial and funny stories in this collection are not the kind of personal exposes Pekar specializes in. Rather, McFadden focuses on the history of his eccentric and colorful neighborhood.
'Lincoln Avenue' for example is a recollection of local churches, particularly McFadden's own corpus Christi. He describes a notable church icon: '...the total jewel crown was under the right altar. A life-size DEAD JESUS under GLASS! A piece of work. Wounds? BLOODYJAYSUS, but this was a BLOODY JESUS! Mary and Joseph, the thing was AWESOME!'
'Hollyburgh' describes the film industry's love affair with Pittsburgh as a shooting location, and details McFadden's participation in the film 'Lorenzo's Oil', with behind-the-scenes profiles of Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte.
The most impressive story in the book is 'Sunnyledge,' about the Pittsburgh mansion where McFadden's grandmother served as a dining room girl. Gorgeously illustrated by Tom Hall, it chronicles the house's evolution from a watering hole for visiting dignitaries, to an avant-garde hangout, and finally to a bed-and-breakfast, the household treasures auctioned off.
'Ciggie' examines the tobacco addiction of Sigmund Freud in startling and horrific detail. Even after 33 operations for cancer, and the removal and replacement of his own jaw, Freud could not give up his cigars.
Rounding out the collection are tales about hypnotism, McFadden's psychiatric practice, and a funny anecdote about a guru visiting an Amway motivational seminar.
McFadden is an engaging writer with genuine affection for his home town. These well-illustrated stories communicate that affection very well.