While artist Robert Wells (Back, Sack & Crack ( & Brain) and Malty Heave) may be more familiar to Broken Frontier readers, his collaborative partner on Department of the Peculiar Goes POP! #1 – today’s spotlighted self-published comic – may not necessarily be. And that’s something of a shame because writer Rol Hirst was one of the driving forces on the 1990s UK small press scene. He was also the creator who first introduced me to that world when he sent me the first issue of his long-running dystopian future/music series The Jock in the early ‘90s.
Indeed, I’m quoted on the back cover of this issue saying of the Hirst-Wells partnership “Rol Hirst is one of the strongest storytellers I’ve encountered in self-publishing and Rob Wells is one of the most under-rate cartoonists in UK comics. Two ever dependable creators you can guarantee will deliver an engaging genre comics offering with their own idiosyncratic twist.” And it’s a pleasure indeed to see this duo returning to characters they first collaborated on in 2012 for a two-issue storyline. In the intervening years Hirst stepped back from comics while Wells continued with other projects but the two were finally reunited last year when they Kickstarted this new run.
If that past Department of the Peculiar history is starting to sound off-putting then don’t worry. The duo have made this long-awaited return an entirely self-contained story for which you need no prior knowledge. To do some scene-setting, the operatives of the titular Department are tasked with investigating what their American counterparts would call “superhumans” but, this being the UK, they’re thought of as “peculiars” instead.
In this new storyline we are reintroduced to the team who now consist of the super-immune and ever worldweary head Lisa Cole, reluctant illness-inducing operative Malcolm Drake, Karine Murdoch who has limited powers of precognition, depressed witch Thea Ajuoga and the deliberately nondescript Ian Popplewell. In this first chapter the group are investigating a case involving the deaths of exploding pop stars. Responsible for this carnage is one Gavin Leech, the manager of a terrible rock band called Areshole, who has discovered that his “peculiar” powers may just be enough to make stars out of his charges. But not without some terrible consequences for others first…
Hirst injects his own recognisable brand of bleak humour into the story and populates it with the kind of cynical outsiders and socially awkward characters who have been something of a trademark of his work over the years. His protagonists are often flawed and troubled individuals and, in Department of the Peculiar, it makes them all the more empathetic if not necessarily particularly sympathetic. Various subplots and that main mystery build up to a truly dramatic and unexpected old school cliffhanger this issue that acts as the perfect hook for #2.
Wells has come a long way since 2012 when he first worked on this cast and he adds extra layers to Hirst’s characterisation, emphasising the team’s varying personality traits with his expressive linework. What stands out here is how he understands how to use the contrast of light and shadow in black and white storytelling to enhance mood and even theme. And, as we know from Back, Sack & Crack ( & Brain) his ability to engineer moments of slapstick farce from the most unlikely elements is unparalleled; here that takes on an especially gory form. This debut also includes guest illustrations from Phil Elliott, Chris Weston, Mark Stafford and Sean Phillips.
When I first reviewed DOTP back in 2012 I said “it would be a crime against pop culture to allow Department of the Peculiar to fizzle out after its second issue.” It’s taken a while but it’s great to see the potential of this bleakly comedic spin on the super-hero world making a much deserved comeback!
You can order Department of the Peculiar Goes POP! #1 online here
Review by Andy Oliver