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Flights of Fancy: Between the Billboards and Chip n' Fish

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Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press, self-published and altcomics. Every edition we provide a mix of review round-ups of the best of current small press comics and spot interviews with some of the movers and shakers of the scene.

This week we’re looking at Owen D. Pomery’s pensive drama Between the Billboards and the all-ages silliness of Chip n’ Fish from Free Lunch Comics. As ever, prices quoted are those given at point of origin. Please check out each individual store for details on international orders and postage and packaging costs.

Between the Billboards Parts I-IV
Owen D. Pomery (writer/artist)

When I first picked up the opening issue of Owen Pomery’s Between the Billboards a while back, it was the comic’s intriguing premise that instantly grabbed me. The notion of one man voluntarily sequestering himself from his peers by living between two billboards in a converted water tank on top of a building is hardly derivative or lacking in originality after all. Central character James Ebner has decided to opt out of society by living this reclusive lifestyle and the four issues so far have charted his solitary existence living on the periphery of the human world below and his forced, awkward interactions with the society he has rejected.  

Each episode to date has comprised of between 9-13 pages of apparently scattered, random moments in Ebner’s life including unwelcome visitations to his hidden abode from past friends, his observations of those in the city below, and his perfunctory dealings with the few individuals he can be loosely said to “socialise” with. These fragmentary glimpses into his daily routine, or lack thereof, have a deliberately disjointed feel that serves to emphasise and mirror the lack of structure to Ebner’s reality. Replete with metaphor, Between the Billboards adopts a reflective and starkly philosophical commentary on its protagonist’s gradual slide into self-imposed obscurity; one that echoes Abner’s own growing flirtation with nihilism (although perhaps “seduction by” would be a better term).

One of my favourites soundbites from the series so far is this: “There’s a strength in solitude. It’s like a dictatorship, only nobody gets oppressed. Except yourself.” That’s because it so perfectly encapsulates the mood of the series; an overwhelming sense of self-repression as Ebner’s subsistence in his rooftop hermitage slowly deteriorates. Read in one sitting these first four parts aren’t offering a cohesive narrative but rather seeking to build up a picture of a fractured psyche through a gradual dripfeed of detached experiences.

From the composition of his visuals it’s readily apparent that Pomery is one of those creators who fully appreciate the unique storytelling opportunities inherent in the comics page. Rarely have I seen the 9-panel grid used to such skilful effect for example. Indeed there’s a page in the third issue using one of those eponymous billboards to mark the passage of time that is breathtaking in its elegance and deceptive simplicity; an excellent example of the particular storytelling tricks that can only be pulled off in this medium. There’s something more than vaguely reminiscent of Eisner in the way he portrays the cityscape as almost a character in its own right here.

             

Despite the bizarre circumstances that form this book’s central foundation we’re most assuredly not looking at dark surrealist humour for its own sake here. Between the Billboards presents an urban parable on the dangers of disconnecting and the necessity of human interaction. That it does so with such a confident and distinctive voice marks its creator out as someone whose work bears close watching in the future. It’s also a project that pretty much sums up why I love self-publishing and small press comics so much. Only in these environs can you so regularly come across creators taking such gloriously uncommercial and esoteric premises and crafting compelling and thoughtful narratives from them.

For more on Owen D. Pomery’s work check out his website here. You can order copies of Between the Billboards from his online store here priced £3.00 each.

Chip n’ Fish #1
Steve Kanaras (writer), Matt Ryan (artist)

Defying easy classification in terms of genre, Free Lunch Comics’s Chip n' Fish is easily one of the most quirky small press books submitted for review since we began this column back in 2011. No mean feat in the wonderful world of freely expressive self and micro-publishing!

Chip Tartar is a French fry who attends Cornucopia High School along with all the other little veggies. As a result of achieving the necessary grade to move on to the next school year our juvenile tuber protagonist is rewarded by his parents with his own mini-aquarium. But what Chip doesn’t know is that said fish tank is actually haunted, and when our young hero tumbles into it during a feeding-related mishap he’s transported to a bizarre underwater world within. As time runs out he must both find his way home and save the denizens of this watery world while dealing with the likes of the evil pirate Captain Squiddy and the menacing thug-like Sharx Brothers...

As will probably be obvious from that summary, Chip n’ Fish is clearly pitched at a younger audience. Writer Steve Kanaras serves up a curious mishmash of plot elements here; indeed the use of anthropomorphised food stuff as central characters seems a contrivance that serves the playfulness of the book’s title rather than the narrative itself. However, that said, the out and out silliness on show here is really rather endearing and I can see this having a huge appeal to its target demographic. The story is suitably simple for its ascribed readership but fast-paced and absorbing, with just the right amount of added peril. And, perhaps most importantly, it boasts a very colourful cast of bizarre baddies to stimulate the younger imagination.

             

Matt Ryan’s lively cartooning is animated throughout with a frenetic energy that suits Kanaras’s slapstick script. The whole package is rounded out with a light-hearted educational section that gives a little background on some of the marine life/edibles featured in the strip (though as a Brit I feel the perhaps pedantic urge to point out that mayonnaise on chips is not an innovation from these shores!). Finicky asides notwithstanding, Chip n’ Fish represents exactly the sort of endeavour we need to see more of in the marketplace at the moment: a genuine attempt at creating a fun and accessible entry point comic for kids coming into the medium for the first time.

Chip n’ Fish is available from Free Lunch Comics here priced just $1.00 as a digital download. Check out the Free Lunch Comics site here.

And rounding out this week, some snippets from the small press community. The contributors behind the always rewarding Team Girl Comic (reviewed as part of Small Pressganged on a number of occasions) have launched a weekly webcomic here. One to bookmark. You have just under a week to subscribe if you don’t want to miss out on the latest three month round of the ever excellent minicomics from Oily Comics. Details here. Simon Moreton of Smoo Comics fame (check here for a Small Pressganged testimonial to the strength of Simon’s work) is selling original art and commissions for a limited time on his site here. And, finally, in the unlikely event you have yet to see it, regular Small Pressganged favourite Lizz Lunney (reviewed a few times in SPG including here) is featured in a short film on her work by documentary filmmaker Sara Jackson. You can visit Lizz’s online store here. Team Girl Comic, Smoo Comics and Lizz Lunney all featured in my Ten UK Small Press Comics You Need To Own look back on 2012.

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Andy Oliver is Broken Frontier’s Managing Editor and a contributor to Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.

If you are a small press comics creator, or self-publisher, and would like your work to be reviewed in a future edition of Small Pressganged then e-mail Andy at andyoliver@brokenfrontier.com for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.

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