Reading a review of The Prince on a reputable US comics site, I was surprised to read that Liam Cobb might be best known in that part of the world for some fill-in pages in an Image Comics sci-fi series.
Over here in dear old Blightly it’s a different story, as Liam seems to maintain an eye-watering level of productivity. With new comics popping up like Pret a Mangers, he’s creating a stream of high-quality work across a range of genres, from western (Slow Drift) and folk horror (The Puritan’s Wife) to the less categorisable strangeness of beautifully produced zines such as Shampoo and Conditioner.
Anyway, let’s hope that this double-barrelled blast – The Prince from Retrofit/Big Planet Comics and The Inspector from Breakdown Press – will give his profile the boost it deserves. Across the two books he pulls off the auteur’s trick of telling two very different stories with a stylistic flourish that is distinctly his own.
The weightier of the two, in both physical and thematic terms, is The Prince, a square-bound 110-pager. With its references to frogs, kisses and princes, plus supernatural goings-on and a theme of transformation, you might expect the book to be a more literal modern reworking of the familiar fairy tale. However, Cobb uses his trademark controlled style to steer things in a more disquieting direction.
Despite the title, our protagonist – captured on the cover – is May, a woman trapped in the gilded cage of a luxury apartment with her abusive husband; the first time we meet Adrian, he’s got his trotters up, demanding his dinner. And he certainly doesn’t become any more of a Prince Charming from there on.
Change comes from the strangest of sources. Summoned by a knock on the door in the middle of the night, May finds a frog on her doorstep. Pouring out her heart to the attentive amphibian, May speculates on what might happen were she to plant a smacker on him. When she does, we don’t get the transformation we might have expected. Instead, a more subtle metamorphosis ensues, with profound implications for May and the men whose unwelcome and predatory attention she attracts.
Using simple colour-coding to effectively mark the book’s then-and-now timeframe, Cobb’s cool precision (including ‘mechanical’ lettering) powers the book’s nightmarish feel, without losing any of its emotional impact; he’s a master of tone. His gift for creating environments – including his signature vanishing-point panels – also keep the story grounded, despite some of its weirder developments. I believe The Prince is Cobb’s longest work to date, and he manages his material skillfully to combine a withering look at mysogyny with elements of surreal horror.
The Inspector, a sharp 24-page blast of satire and slapstick, is very different in tone and pacing, while still being unmistakably Cobb. An absurdly OTT bit of work with a slight whiff of Viz about it, it tracks the misadventures of a Michelin restaurant inspector, in the form of the company’s instantly recognisable mascot, the bon vivant M Bibendum.
As his chaotic roadtrip unfolds, we’re treated to some incisive and inventive digs at the pretensions of haute cuisine. The comic even made me laugh like a drain during the utterly wretched experience of my daily commute, which doesn’t happen very often.
Cobb crams a lot more into his pages here, as the episodic story barrels along at full speed towards its climax. The most noticeable differences from The Prince are the busier pages and an altogether more expansive use of colour, delivered exquisitely by the riso-wizards at PageMasters in South London. In fact, while the story wants to whip you along breathlessly to the next situation, it’s well worth hitting the pause button every now and then to appreciate the craft of its production – a trademark of much of Breakdown’s output.
At first glance, it might be easy to focus on the architectural aspects of Liam Cobb’s work and to see a creator who is first and foremost a skilled and precise draftsman. However, his comics show a versatile narrative skill and a distinctive voice. We’re not big fans of the numerical rating in these parts, but both of these titles warrant a two-star Michelin rating: “excellent comics that are worth a detour”.
The Inspector: Liam Cobb (W/A) • Breakdown Press, £8.00
Review by Tom Murphy