Publisher: Changeling Studios
Writer: Owen Michael Johnson
Illustrator: John Pearson
Letterer: Colin Bell
Release Date: 9th May, 2015
After an impressively successful Kickstarter campaign that saw it reach its funding target within the first twenty-four hours, Owen Michal Johnson and John Pearson’s Beast Wagon has finally been unleashed on an eager public – and boy was it worth the wait.
Introducing us to the animal (and to a lesser extent, human) inhabitants of fictional Whipsnarl Zoo, this utterly hilarious yet oddly unsettling opening issue sees the zoo in a state of unrest as the mysterious ‘revealing’ time approaches, with talk of revolution and a ‘new messiah’ spreading throughout the animals.
Pearson and Johnson are noticeably holding back in this opening issue, keeping things intentionally vague and unclear throughout, and letting the reader fill in the blanks on their own, focusing on the feel of the title rather than the details themselves. We get to know a few of the key characters, both animal and human, and get a general sense of what’s going on, but the impending tidal wave of change is merely hinted at for the majority of this first issue… until the final couple of pages, at least.
As gloriously surreal as the bulk of the book undoubtedly is, the sharply written, blackly comic dialogue from Johnson keeps things from ever running the risk of becoming too serious or severe. From the clueless revolutionary monkeys to the indignant, shell-shocked petting zoo inhabitants to the lovelorn Hippo putting her heart on the line in an impassioned confession to the subject of her affections, Johnson keeps the hilarious situations coming thick and fact, all underpinned by a faintly disturbing aura that something truly bad is coming – a feeling which is only enhanced by the visuals of Pearson.
The artwork on display here is truly impressive, with Pearson’s near-photorealistic animals and frenzied, chaotic layouts combining to provide a raw, almost dream-like aesthetic. The colours are muted and used sparingly, only springing to life in moments of significant drama or emotion, and Colin Bell’s typically slick lettering serves as the guide that leads us by the hand through these jaw-dropping pages, conveying Johnson’s spot-on comedy and quasi-philosophical ramblings with a firm, steady hand.
Oh, and for the record, I can also vouch for the fact that this first issue actually improves on repeat readings, having just finished my third. Details are picked up that may have been missed before, subtle foreshadowing takes on greater meaning, and the jokes? Well, let’s just say that I’m not over-exaggerating when I say that this may be the funniest comic I’ve read all year, and do you know what? It’s not even close.
Honestly, and this is coming from someone who reads and reviews what could be considered an almost unhealthy amount of comics on pretty much a daily basis, Beast Wagon is utterly flawless stuff, and has rightfully leapfrogged its way right to the top of any “you must be reading this, NOW!” list I happen to make in the future. Surreal, compelling and utterly hilarious, this is a rare case of a comic with almost unrealistically high expectations actually managing to exceed those expectations, providing the very definition of a ‘can’t miss’ title.