Weird Worlds: Department of the Peculiar, Haunted Bowels and Roachwell
Posted by Andy Oliver on Oct 4, 2012
Small Pressganged is Broken Frontier’s weekly column designed to shine a spotlight on the often overlooked world of small press and self-published comics. Every week 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’s offerings are, once again, titles submitted by their respective creators for review here. Remember, my contact details are at the end of the column if you’re a small presser looking for some Broken Frontier coverage. As ever, prices quoted are the originals for point of origin. Please check out each individual store for details on international orders and postage and packaging costs.
Department of the Peculiar #1
Rol Hirst (writer) Rob Wells (artist)
Rol Hirst, creator of the dark fantasy comics sitcom Too Much Sex & Violence, has been no stranger to this column over the last year. (Indeed, you can read my interview with him here and reviews of TMS&V here and here). It was Rol who introduced me to small press comics twenty years ago with his popular ‘90s series The Jock and over the last few years I have found myself becoming something of a devotee of the often rather deliciously cynical undercurrent of his writing, as splendidly represented, of course, in the pages of his anthology comic PJANG (“People Just Ain’t No Good”).
His latest offering Department of the Peculiar starts with a simple enough premise: if there really were super-powered people in the world then the last place they would be running around in ludicrous gaudy costumes would be the United Kingdom. We would, of course, have a far more detached, reserved and ultimately slightly embarrassed view of the whole metahuman thing. And so it is in Hirst’s opening issue that we are introduced to a world not of “super-humans” but of the more coyly termed “peculiars”, and that titular Department of the Peculiar tasked with dealing with threats brought about by this rather troublesome condition.
The three main players introduced in this issue are, firstly, the world-weary and abrupt head of the DOTP, Lisa Cole, who has an apparent immunity to just about everything. There’s also her distracted underling Karine Murdoch with a somewhat unreliable ability to look into the future. And, thirdly and finally, we have the rather intriguing Malcolm Drake who, with a casual wave of the hand, is able to infect his chosen victim with the illness of his choosing.
Drake is the standout character of this first issue. When the story begins this New Yorker, and presumably former super-hero, is trying to live a quiet life outside of the spotlight in Manchester. However, in a Hirst-ian twist that could have come straight out of the pages of the aforementioned PJANG, he just can’t help using his powers on the ill-mannered, the tiresome and the loutish, all in the name of giving himself a quieter life.
Hence a couple playing tonsil-hockey on public transport end up with chronic cases of halitosisis (left), and similar fates befall other public irritants before our Mr. Drake finds himself co-opted into the Department’s ranks. (As an aside, one can only hope in future issues that Mal inflicts his powers on similar social criminals – ignoramuses who push on to tube trains before anyone can get off, those who stand on the wrong side of escalators, and people who don’t cover their mouths when they cough are all high on my personal wishlist for the Drake treatment…)
Despite his desire to put as much distance between himself and the human race as possible, Drake is blackmailed into a DOTP assignment by the pushy Cole. Their first mission sees the loose “team” summoned to a siege at the offices of a shady junk food corporation where another “peculiar” with a grudge against the company’s dodgy business practices is set on wreaking a particularly appropriate revenge on those he blames for his plight…
I shall now make a little confession and a plea. Firstly, I’m a little worried about even superficially labelling this as a super-hero book here. Not only does it do it something of a disservice in terms of too easily pigeon-holing it into a set genre but, most pertinently, it’s a description that I am aware, from feedback on the column, may well put off a certain section of your good selves – the ‘Small Pressganged’ audience – who I suspect would actually enjoy Department of the Peculiar the most. So here’s that aforementioned plea: if super-heroes are not your bag then please don’t dismiss this comic on that basis alone. Rest assured there are no capes, costumes or masks (as yet anyway) in this book. Nor is it about affectedly playing with the traditions of the genre or knowingly sending up its conventions. This is a comic that’s more about British reserve, social awkwardness, and all those brilliant little observational character set pieces that Rol Hirst does so well in his work, than it is about men in tights.
Rob Wells brings all this weirdness to memorable life with his crisp, slightly angular, black and white artwork. Hirst sings out his praises at the beginning of the book (being typically self-deprecating about his script in the process) and it’s a well-deserved spot of acclaim. In terms of characterisation alone, Wells brings so much to the realisation of the cast here: the portrayals of the dejected and slouching Mal, the pointed and almost predatory Cole, and the subdued and fatalistic Karine all owe as much to artist as writer in terms of the reader understanding exactly what makes each character tick.
Borne out of an apparently discarded script, offered to Wells on a whim, Department of the Peculiar depends on reader support if the audience wants to see more of these characters beyond issue #2. And I sincerely hope that backing is there because Rol Hirst is not just one of the most dependably entertaining writers on the British small press comics circuit but also one of the most criminally underrated. With a misanthropic charm that sums up Hirst at his gloriously pessimistic best, and able visual support from the talented Mr. Wells, Department of the Peculiar belies its origins as a cast-off, forgotten project. Pick up this book now because it would be a crime against pop culture to allow Department of the Peculiar to fizzle out after its second issue.
Haunted Bowels and Roachwell
Craig Collins (writer), Iain Laurie (artist – Roachwell), Various creators (artists – Haunted Bowels)
With a wit so dark they make The League of Gentlemen look like an episode of Terry and June, writer Craig Collins’s small press humour anthology Haunted Bowels and webcomic Roachwell are singular reading experiences. Roachwell is a collection of what Collins aptly describes as his “surreal horror comedy comic”, a collaboration with artist Iain Laurie which is available to read online here. While Haunted Bowels compiles a number of Collins’s delightfully weird gag strips from a variety of sources and is illustrated by a sampling of artists from the Scottish small press scene. I read this in the now out-of-print collection but all the material therein, and much more besides in the same vein, is available to read for free on Craig's blog here.
Both these projects embrace a style of comedy that the adjective ‘black’ does not even begin to do justice to. This is exquisitely macabre material drenched in a flawless cynicism; wonderfully and self-indulgently morbid in its delivery, it is gruesomely entertaining fare. In the strips that make up Haunted Bowels, Collins combines clever bad taste humour with perceptive pop cultural parody, and just to name some of the shorter features here would sadly give too much of their contents away. Suffice to say there are rather adult (be warned!) takes on a Gerry Anderson Supermarionation classic, a popular high school musical TV series and a robotic sci-fi film franchise that will forever change the way you view these cult phenomena!
I’m on far safer ground mentioning a few titles of some of the longer strips which will very quickly give you something of an idea of the tone. There’s a Clint Eastwood Western spoof called ‘The Lonely Ballad of Pistol Nipples’, a rather unique and brutal look at the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan in ‘Ants in the Pants of the Pirates of Penzance’, a brilliant super-hero send-up when we meet everyone’s friendly neighbourhood booze-slinger ‘The Amazing Cider-Man’ and my personal favourite – the tale of one Irish poet-playwright’s fractious relationship with his upstart genitalia in ‘Seamus Heaney’s Heinous Penis’ (both below).
Aside from the one-off gag pieces, scattered throughout are a number of recurring characters and situations. The disembodied head known as ‘Omniscient Zorgo’ spreads his own special brand of existential angst throughout the multiverse with his devastatingly downbeat predictions (an example here) and, playing on the expectations engendered by a well-known confectionary item with a toy surprise inside, the children who open their ‘Zinder Kurprise!’ candy find themselves treated to gifts of a bizarre and often rather ghastly nature (see above for three samples).
Throughout this comics cavalcade of creepy characters Collins is capably backed up by a number of artists, including Curt Sibling, Dave Alexander and Robert Thomson, all with imaginations perfectly suited to bring twisted life to his ruthless satirical swagger. I particularly enjoyed Paul McCann on the ‘Zinder Kurprise’ strips bringing a deceptive sense of child-like anticipation to the protagonists, that is quickly turned on its head by each entry’s inevitable maudlin ending.
Roachwell, while sharing a tone and structural similarities with the contents of Haunted Bowels, forms an altogether different relationship between page and reader. At a first glance these (mostly) one-pagers seem like a bleakly humorous collection of the incongruous and the absurd; unnerving shorts working up to a surreal punchline. However, where Haunted Bowels is direct in its delivery – to a frankly in-yer-face degree – Roachwell is, rather ironically given the ostentatiously weird atmosphere of each story, a more subtle reading experience.
That’s largely because Collins is unafraid to make the audience work a little harder in Roachwell – one of the strips, for example, appears to be in Scottish Gaelic while another is written in code. And what appears at a first read-through to be a series of unconnected, random set pieces is revealed to be something far greater as everything comes together in a final 6-page tale that reveals a bigger picture behind events. It’s a marvellously unexpected denouement that creates a cohesive narrative to what seemed to be disparate, throwaway strips about the likes of being pressganged by a 1990s house music group, premature burial and forbidden merman love.
If you remember DC’s Piranha Press series Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children and were a fan of that book then I suspect you will relish what Collins and Laurie have achieved with Roachwell. It’s a quite unique and unforgettable work, brilliantly realised in all its mad and slightly depraved glory by Iain Laurie’s distorted and borderline menacing visuals.
Haunted Bowels and Roachwell are comics that will worm their way insidiously into your psyche and squat there intimidatingly with threatening intent. Non-derivative, non-conformist and welcomingly subversive, these are works that you just have to check out. I would say Craig Collins’s work was now on my mental radar but I suspect it’s more accurate to say it’s crashed head-on into my consciousness with defiant, kamikaze abandon…
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.
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