Writer Owen Michael Johnson and artist John Pearson’s Beast Wagon was first previewed back in the latter part of last year with an introductory 6-page offering premiering at Thought Bubble. Following an astonishingly successful Kickstarter earlier this year – which included a memorable performance piece at the campaign launch at London’s Orbital Comics – the first issue of this eagerly anticipated six-part series has finally arrived in backers’ mail boxes this month.
Johnson described the book as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with talking animals…’ in the project’s initial press releases while Pearson noted of his collaborator at the time “Owen has pulled out the stops to explore madness and frustration across many complex layers. I’ve been scooping out my mind to put together a collection of images that feeds into the vision of hell we’ve had. Madagascar this is not.” One thing is certain. Neither gent can be accused of hyperbole…
Beast Wagon is set within the walls of Whipsnarl Zoo; a name which is, perhaps, a little on the nose but one that sets the stage for the twisting social satire to follow. In these bleak environs something is stirring within the animal population; a long prophesied change in the status quo between humanity and the beasts is coming; and revolution is in the air. And the unsuspecting human traffic milling around the park remain largely oblivious to what is approaching…
What Johnson and Pearson have so meticulously constructed here is an intriguing synthesis of styles delivered with an almost brutal finesse. On the one hand we have some very obvious paralleling of the human world and the animal kingdom with an opening pages sequence that may not be particularly subtle or original in its observations yet still makes its blunt point with an acerbic wit. Indeed, Beast Wagon is a darkly comedic piece full of moments of unlikely humour from monkey-based revolutionary banter (below) to a lovelorn hippo infatuated with her keeper.
As the animals within the zoo prepare themselves for their moment of rebellious glory we are also introduced to a number of zoo workers and visitors who will no doubt play a bigger role in the issues to come – bullied Muslim zoo worker Jaleesa, her superior Mildred whose apparent tardiness hides a tragic home life secret, top boss Archie whose inflexibility and ambition are immediately apparent, and novelist Patrick Edwards on a trip to Whipsnarl for the purposes of research.
This is perhaps where the longer-form nature of the work becomes more obvious. To a certain extent Beast Wagon is a graphic novel masquerading as a serial comic and – despite the cliffhanger ending – there is just too much going on in these opening 22 pages for us to get more than the briefest of introductions to the sprawling cast of characters involved. But that selfsame sense of frustration about being given only the most fleeting snapshots of all the various players involved is also a strong marker of how hooked the readership is in events on the page from the very outset.
John Pearson’s art has echoes of the photorealism of the great Arthur Ranson but framed in an ever changing panel structure that adds to the unsettling tempo of Johnson’s carefully – almost rhythmically – paced script. It’s the potency of that artwork, its busy claustrophobic confines, and the sense of oppression in its dusty, muted coloring that so powerfully ramps up the sense of tension throughout, aided and abetted by Johnson’s precise use of language and Colin Bell’s distinctively emphasised lettering.
With an almost grim psychedelia to its ominous, pounding cadence Beast Wagon’s taut and captivating storytelling makes this a brooding thriller to watch. And with a similar page count in terms of “extras” as there are story pages this is a bumper comics package. I don’t often select material for ‘Small Pressganged’ that fits into that area of more obvious ‘genre fiction’ but Johnson and Pearson’s atmospheric black comedy drama simply begs you to enter its murkily menacing world…
Beast Wagon is available here to order online priced £2.99.
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