Publisher: Changeling Studios
Writer: Owen Michael Johnson
Illustrator: John Pearson
Letterer: Colin Bell
Release Date: 14th November, 2015 (Thought Bubble)
After a painfully long wait, it’s time to check back in with the inhabitants of Whipsnarl Zoo, the fictional setting for Owen Michael Johnson and John Pearson’s critically-acclaimed – and British Comic Award-nominated – Beast Wagon. In my review of the first issue back in May, I called Beast Wagon “utterly flawless stuff”, and “the very definition of a ‘can’t miss’ title”, two descriptions I’m pleased to say that I can happily dust off and reuse for chapter two. All the elements that made the first issue so compelling have returned here in spades; Johnson’s caustic black humour, Pearson’s sublime visuals and the faint, nagging feeling that something truly bad is about to happen.
On the human (or “furless”) side of things, it’s panic stations for the staff following the shocking conclusion of issue one; a tense, face-to-face showdown with one of the Zoo volunteers and their latest addition, an Asiatic Lion. Over in the monkey sanctuary, the impending revolution is in full-swing as Stokely whips his brethren into a frenzy and channels their rage at an unsuspecting – and quite possibly undeserving – new target. In the hippo enclosure, Agatha is struggling with the post-coital injuries inflicted by her aggressive mate, as well as her unrequited feelings for her keeper. And, in the gorilla exhibit, things are getting more than a little bit twisted… er… let’s just leave it at that.
Johnson is doing a truly masterful job with the dialogue, balancing the serious with the playful and the hilarious. This is Johnny Morris meets Chris Morris as the anthropomorphic insanity manages to be both side-splittingly hilarious and, at the same time, worryingly believable as the animals display their true feelings towards their keepers. The human characters are faring a little worse, for the time being at least, feeling less interesting and less distinctive than the animals they are responsible for – quite possibly by design. Once again though, this is most definitely a book that benefits from repeat readings, as throwaway one-liners and comedic gems that may be missed initially come scuttling out of the undergrowth the second and third time around.
Artist John Pearson continues to drop jaws with alarming regularity, providing detailed-yet-abstract pages filled with expressive, emotive animals. Once again the humans come across a little worse, appearing noticeably less detailed than the animals, but again, this may be by design to keep our attention – and investment – firmly rooted in the animal kingdom. His colour work is also worthy of additional praise, soaking the pages in deep hues that match the emotions of the characters while still managing to keep things clear and accessible at the same time. Colin Bell’s lettering also plays a significant part in this, keeping the dialogue flowing smoothly without cluttering up the pages and getting in the way of Pearson’s visuals; a truly underrated skill, especially in the world of self-publishing.
As hilarious as a large part of this book is, it also has some emotional heft behind it, dealing with the topic of physical and sexual abuse in a decidedly unconventional, but no less significant, way. The final pages also present a truly chilling sequence, culminating in a surrealist moment of pure, unadulterated horror from Pearson that promises to shift the tone of the series significantly as it moves forwards.
Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about Beast Wagon. Funny, dramatic, inventive, gorgeous… I could go on for days. This is genre-defying fiction at its finest; a melting pot of themes, tones and styles that makes for an utterly unmissable read. Buy it, read it, and thank me later.
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