Overview

Small Press-Ganged: PJANG

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"People just ain’t no good…" – it’s a Nick Cave soundbite that gives UK small press book PJANG both its name and its inspiration. Written by small press veteran Rol Hirst and illustrated by a plethora of UK-based artistic collaborators, PJANG recently reached its fourth self-published issue. Broken Frontier took a long between the covers of this cynically titled, yet refreshingly structured, anthology comic…

In recent years the term "small press" seems to have been appropriated by some to designate certain sections of the professional "Indie" publishers. But for those of us of a certain vintage, it will always be a term defining those self-publishing stalwarts who produce their work for (presumably) little profit simply because they have stories to tell and a desire to share them.

While the small press scene most assuredly remains alive and relatively healthy, there can be no doubt that the enticements of digital delivery and the burgeoning world of webcomics have swallowed up many creators who would once have been active within its community. For us old school readers though, who prefer to peruse their comics on the actual page and not on a computer screen, there is something most comforting and reassuring in self-published, printed titles like Rol Hirst’s PJANG.

Those who have long hung out on the peripheries of UK fandom will, no doubt, be familiar with the name Rol Hirst from his numerous self-published offerings in the 1990s. Perhaps most notably he created and wrote the long-running and, sadly, never completed monthly The Jock. This was a dystopic tale of an eclectic group of D.J. freedom fighters and their resistance against the mighty YOURENT corporation, who were controlling the world’s population via their insipid, soul-destroying muzak. If your comics-reading preferences are far more mainstream then Hirst’s name may still ring a few bells given his near ubiquitous letter column presence in U.S. comics published in the early ‘90s.

PJANG represents the writer’s first foray into the comics scene for a number of years and, in terms of format and direction, is almost a checklist of things the mainstream wouldn’t touch. For a start, for the most part PJANG is an anthology title of complete-in-one short stories. Secondly, if the "A-word" isn’t enough, said stories also criss-cross genres from the old small press staple of "slice of life" tales to sci-fi/fantasy on to fast-paced thrillers and beyond. And just to check that final box, with just one exception there are also no ongoing characters or strips.

What ties these stories together, though, is their focus on strong character pieces; the genre of each tale is really only the background to the protagonists’ stories; each of which generally have something rather incisive to say about the frailties of the human condition.

                       

Above - Nigel Lowrey's covers for PJANG #s 1-3

PJANG #1 is an excellent example of the book’s central premise and of its diverse approach to character-led storytelling. It opens with an example of the aforementioned "slice-of-life" style of short story – "Grotesque" is the simple, yet haunting, examination of the roots of a doomed relationship. The second tale is the hard-edged and, one suspects, cathartic "Get Creative!" following a serial killer targeting advertising copy writers and illustrated by the magnificently Mike McMahon-esque art of Andrew Cheverton. The issue is rounded out by the whimsical "Rooms for Writers" wherein a recently deceased author discovers the afterlife to be not quite what he was expecting.

There's a slight change of pace for the second issue. PJANG #2 experiments with a full-length 23-page entry "24 (minutes)" with the darkly atmospheric and moody visuals of Davey Metcalfe. Set in a railway station, as a number of characters’ lives intersect, this is an ambitious fusion of Hitchcockian-style suspense and "real-time" storytelling.

                       

Above - Andrew Cheverton channels McMahon for "Get Creative!" while Davey Metcalfe provides brooding visuals for "24 (minutes)"

PJANG #3 is the strongest issue to date for me with the three-story format restored. Opening the proceedings is a deliciously cynical take on the end of the world/doomsday scenario and a return from returning artist Andrew Cheverton. Hirst’s long-time collaborator and former The Jock artist Nigel Lowrey is on hand for the second offering. His fluid, flowing artwork is a delight on "Lonely Boy", a story of teenage school bullying that ends with a twist implying PJANG may have its first ongoing character.

Finally "Blinded by the Light that Never Goes Out" is Hirst’s somewhat metatextual account of the effect music had on his formative years. It’s a playful and self-aware use of the medium that remains my favorite PJANG offering so far- although admittedly in this case a number of references to The Smiths was always going to be a draw for a reader whose musical awakening blossomed into being in the 1980s…

                       

Above - Nigel Lowrey on "Lonely Boy", the Chris Askham-illustrated "Stella" and Davey Metcalfe's art for "Blinded by the Light that Never Goes Out"  

With its Heat-style parody cover, PJANG #4 is another eclectic mix of genres and styles. Chris Askham joins the PJANG artistic alumni with another tense character piece in the shape of opening ten-pager "Stella". The second story is another with a last-page title that gives too much away to mention here but, suffice to say, it’s one that Hirst considered pitching to 2000AD as part of their "one-off" Future Shocks series. Although probably the weakest PJANG offering in this selection, its black humor sits well within the confines of that twist-in-the-tale sub-genre. Finally "Split" has the feel of The Twilight Zone on acid – an ultimately morbid account of personal choice run rampant.

None of us should need to be reminded that the small press is still very much alive and kicking or that the Internet is not the only medium for aspiring comics creators to get their work seen. However, what PJANG does underline is the ultimate creative freedom that self-publishing provides and the dividends for both creators and readers. It’s also a wake-up call to anyone who has bypassed that small press display on the shelves of their LCS to check out what’s available there. You never know what gems may be lurking amongst those self-published offerings you’ve been nonchalantly walking past all these months…

PJANG has a cover price of £1.75. For more details on ordering copies click here.

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