Sajan Rai is part of the Backwards Burd collective of creators whose distinctive risograph printed comics feature not only their own work but are also used to promote the best comics submitted to their monthly online anthology. Rai’s Petty Beach is already available online here as a webcomic but if ever there was a comic that should be experienced in print form in all its idiosyncratically coloured glory then this is it. As you can see from the illustration below it’s a beautiful tactile object in and of itself but those strangely hued riso pages make it stand out noticeably as a physical object, giving the book a fittingly eerie atmosphere that accentuates its peculiarly off-centre storytelling approach.
Essentially, Petty Beach is a bizarre hijacking of all those “Hero of the Beach”-style Charles Atlas ads that used to run in U.S. comics decades ago. In this case, though, the put-upon protagonists are not facing the local bully but, rather, the locale’s figure of authority himself – the fascistic Beach Patrol Man! This unpleasant character has unearthly powers that allow him to selectively mutate those whose ire he invokes through their petty infringements of his rules and regulations. Fail to observe the correct seaside etiquette and you may find yourself with a hugely distorted head, punished with excessive beard growth or inflicted with any other number of odd physical deformities depending on the nature of your infraction.
Oak and Tina are two teens who come together after falling foul of this individual’s power trips and slowly begin to unravel the secrets of his past. After discovering his links to hirsute local lighthouse keeper Tim they begin an investigation that will lead them to the mystery of Sloth Skull Caves, its frightening inhabitant, and revelations about a longstanding feud between Tim and the Beach Patrol Man…
The sense of weirdness for weirdness’s sake that is so central to Petty Beach’s identity almost certainly guarantees that this is a comic that will divide any potential audience. However, underneath all the self-indulgent – yet really rather endearing – oddness of this comic there lies a central theme that speaks to us all. This surreal mystery connects with the reader because Rai’s Beach Patrol Man represents that monstrous abuse of authority that we have all endured at one point or another and, similarly, in Oak and Tina we have two underdog protagonists we can fully empathise with as they endure his misdoings.
Rai is one of those rare phenomena I encounter only sparingly in my travels across the small press scene – a creator whose work instantly stands out as being unique in approach, tone and vision. Petty Beach has an otherworldly, underground feel to it but it’s also a very funny piece of storytelling with some witty one-liners and an unforgettable cast of often grotesque and unconventional characters. Rai’s dreamlike visuals and subdued, yet expressive, use of colour give the book a trippy, freaky, psychedelic aura that enhances its narrative eccentricity with a suitable flourish. There’s something deliberately and rebelliously off-kilter about this comic and its fascinating world that is instantly appealing.
Where Petty Beach is less successful is the size it has been presented in. It does make the text a little hard to read in places in its print version and some of the gorgeously intricate and detailed scenes suffer from feeling so crammed. A slightly larger publication would have allowed the art to breathe a little more. Still, this is an impressive introduction to Sajan Rai’s style for those unfamiliar with his work and, even if you decide against checking out the print edition, I would strongly recommend a visit to the strip’s online incarnation.
You can check out Petty Beach online here on the Childish Butt-Vomit site. The print version of the comic is available to buy online here priced £5.00. For more on Backwards Burd visit their site here.
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