God, I’ve missed this. How fantastic is it to pick up something that surprises you, makes you laugh and makes you think at the same time? It’s rarer than you might think, but it’s something that Owen Michael Johnson seems to specialise in. The last book of his that I read was Raygun Roads; a mind-blowing, punkish, inspirational hit – for those who braved its glaring colours and Mobius-strip narrative. Both are published by Johnson’s indie press, Changeling Studios, a name to watch out for on the convention circuit. His latest work is an altogether different… er… beast, but no less thrilling for the change in tack. The elevator pitch might be ‘Modern-day Animal Farm kicks off at Whipsnade zoo,’ but to leave it there would be doing it a disservice. This is only the first issue so I may be wide of the mark, but it seems to me that the target here is not Communism but Consumerism; the rapacious way our society sates its desires far beyond what is necessary to survive. This is not some political allegory though, it’s a scalpel-sharp satire, slicing through the human façade to reveal and question our true nature. I think you’re gonna love it.
If all of life is a zoo, then all the men and women are merely animals. They have their routines and their degradation; and one person in his time may be on either side of the bars, observing the Other in admiration or disgust. The first couple of pages set Johnson’s stall out, asking the reader to think about all the ways we use ‘animal’ as a metaphor for the human nature we try to reject. The conceit of Beast Wagon is that all animals are sentient, all have a side that they believe they have risen above, and all are sick of the depths to which mankind has sunk. Mandrill cult leader Stokely (Stoke the fire! Stokely defier!) plans revolution – perhaps his own planet of the apes – but most of the animals watch and wait, hoping the ‘golden messiah’ of their religion will free them at last. Meanwhile, the humans have their own problems to deal with: Zoo employee Mildred is struggling to balance work with caring for her sick husband; her assistant, Jaleesa, faces racial abuse; and Patrick is seeking some meaning to life beyond milking the cash cow. Meanwhile ‘Aslan is on the move’ and two worlds are about to collide.
One of the (few) criticisms I had of Raygun Roads was how distracting the colours were, making it difficult to focus on anything else. Well, as you can see from the pictures here, John Pearson’s artwork is very different: a strange blend of detailed inks and blocks of fairly limited colour. It makes for an odd combination, but it ultimately works as a stylistic choice. More interesting to me are the ways in which Pearson breaks his own conventions when the story starts to open up. Technology becomes an intrusive element, with text messages popping up across comic panels, demanding our attention. Hordes of people passing by a single display become panel slices overlaying the splash page, glimpsed then gone again, only to be replaced by others. The shamanic tortoise – old, mad, drug addled – tells his tales and the page becomes psychedelic, bringing in colour combinations and fusions of imagery that are genuinely disturbing to decipher. It is also interesting to note that the animals are drawn with great attention to detail while the humans (though well-sketched) lack a certain definition. They are consistent and characterful, with some great examples of posture and expression, but there is a blankness also. Perhaps it is a texture thing. Fur and scales have so much more going for them than human skin, after all. Hmm.
It is hard to say who, if anybody, is a main protagonist. The focus darts all over the zoo, giving us snatches of conversation and character building here there and everywhere. It is almost like one of those old-time disaster movies where the incident is the star, not the people. Some of the ‘main’ characters feel like they are there for expositionary purposes, while some of the bit-part players nab the biggest laughs or greatest emotional beats. Of course, this being only the first issue, anything could happen to flip things around in the ongoing story. Honestly, I don’t know how people cope with single issues of comics. I find them frustrating as hell. Still, Johnson and team pack more into 28 pages than many comics manage in two issues, so I shouldn’t complain. I just want more. (Want, want, want. Have I learned nothing?) There’s a rage fulminating at the heart of Beast Wagon; a primal scream bursting to get through the pages and shake the reader, but it is cunningly tempered with broad scatological humour and a streak of absurdity. Make no mistake, you will be laughing out loud throughout much of this book, even as you curse your own foibles. Chapter 1 sets up an intriguing collection of social and political dominoes, using disparate characters and themes to begin building a grand design. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together – and how the dominoes start to topple. Bring on Chapter 2!
GS Rating: 4/5
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak