Retrospective collections always make the exercise of reviewing an interesting one given that, as in the case of Liam Cobb’s What Awaits Them from Breakdown Press, we have often reviewed much of their contents in individual, longer-form reviews already. This anthology of the celebrated creator’s work was nominated for a 2023 Broken Frontier Award for Best One-Shot Anthology, bringing together some of the very best practice from an artist we first reviewed at BF way back in 2012. Expect some new thoughts and some revisitations of previous Broken Frontier coverage in the following…
Fittingly, perhaps, this compilation of Cobb’s short-form comics narratives begins with ‘The Fever Closing’ (below), his first comic at Breakdown Press some years back. In this disarmingly nihilistic offering a man arrives at a remote, jungle-strewn island for a fancy dress party. Dressed in his Michelin Man costume he is continually misidentified by guests who claim they too are in fancy dress and that he is the guest of honour. But things are about to take an unexpected turn. The casual horror of ‘The Fever Closing’ combines elements that feel folkloric and ritualistic with a borderline oblique modern sensibility. It’s an offering that pointedly signals the tone of what is to come.
‘Green Graves’ (below) was originally self-published for Safari Festival back in 2016 and reviewed here at Broken Frontier. This intense short story follows an ill-fated 1905 jungle expedition with a group consisting of incompetent guide Harold, the gravely injured Hans who is suffering with a festering gangrenous wound, and group leader Jacques; all of whom are trying to locate a missing colonel.
From our original review:
From its very beginning Cobb’s Green Graves utilises a shifting sense of perspective to underline the almost alien nature of its tropical realms. Tight, claustrophobic and uniform panels accentuate the tense atmosphere between the characters with the occasional pulling back into single or double-page spreads emphasising just how insignificant they are in the greater scheme of the natural world they inhabit. Indeed, early scenes with the characters almost merging into the jungle or becoming obscured by its unwelcoming conditions seem to foreshadow later events.
It’s the carefully crafted pacing of Green Graves, though, that ensures its doom-laden build-up sweeps the reader away on a wave of inescapable fatalism. The monotony of the jungle march punctuated with backstabbing plotting and animosity until one pivotal moment marks a dramatic turning point. From there Cobb immerses us in a feverish, festering finale; a compelling character study that is haunting and dreamlike in denouement.
In ‘Adapting Walls’ (below), originally from the anthology Conditioner, Cobb uses the starting point of a lone holdout in a housing estate due for demolition to juxtapose architecture and nature with break-taking awe. Taking its inspiration from the demolition of the Heygate Estate in London, this story blends stark urban reality with unlikely flights of fancy. Carefully paced tours of mundane, built-up sprawl open up into surreal double-page spreads wherein the organic and the wild suddenly impinge on the constructed and the impersonal, with devastating consequence.
What What Awaits Them displays so well in its selection of Cobb’s work is how easily he slides between form-interrogating, metaphysical comics and more traditional, even genre-based, narratives. ‘Slow Drift’ (below) is a moody Western that follows two robbers fleeing across the wilderness, one of whom causes constant conflict with his co-conspirator by refusing to dispose of his ailing horse. Here Cobb’s visuals are stripped back to a black and white style that is both minimalist and yet highly sophisticated, from snow-swept vistas to the encroaching and near tangible darkness of the night-time scenes; the tension forever quietly ramping itself up for the story’s careful pacing.
‘Two Men in the Jungle’ may be the shortest strip in the book but it’s also one of the most interesting for how it plays with visual language. It focusses on the relationship between a man researching fungi in a remote South American jungle location and his newly arrived assistant Juan. One key shift in events brings a hallucinogenic twist to the proceedings, with Cobb’s pages assuming a hallucinatory, melting quality as the natural world seems to claim the characters as part of its very fabric.
My esteemed colleague Tom Murphy reviewed ‘The Inspector’ the final comic in What Awaits Them a few years back at BF. So it would be unworthy of me not to return to his considered thoughts on that tale.
From our original review:
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 into his pages here, as the episodic story barrels along at full speed towards its climax… 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.
What Awaits Them may have flown below many readers’ radars in 2023 and it shouldn’t have. It’s a collection that shows the breadth of Cobb’s versatility as a visual storyteller and his place as one of the most important artists the UK indie scene has produced over the last decade. It represents an essential record of the evolution of his work in that time.
Liam Cobb (W/A) • Breakdown Press, £22.99
Review by Andy Oliver with contributions from Tom Murphy