Publisher: Changeling Studios
Writer: Owen Michael Johnson
Illustrator: John Pearson
Letterer: Colin Bell
Release Date: 27th July, 2016
As Owen Michael Johnson and John Pearson’s critically acclaimed Beast Wagon nears its conclusion, it’s worth reflecting on just how far this particular series has come over the course of these first four issues. Initially setting out its stall with a darkly comic, Chris Morris-esque take on the life of animals in a fictional zoo, the series has gradually evolved into something far more intense and far more engaging. While anthropomorphic animal tales are far from unique, I don’t think I can remember seeing one that delved so deeply into the troubled, fractured relationship between animals and humans than this. Think “The Secret Life of Pets” by way of Lynch and Cronenberg and you’re probably in the right ballpark.
This penultimate issue focuses more on the human characters than we have previously, particularly twisted Zoo owner Archie, who we found dismembering and eating one of the Zoo’s prized inhabitants at the end of the previous chapter. His matter-of-fact justification for these actions only makes him even more chilling, and his monologue directed at terrified and nauseated Zoo employee Andrew instantly elevates him from the role of “dickhead boss” to something far more sinister. We also touch base with Patrick’s drug-fuelled “vision quest” as he continues to spiral downwards into apparent insanity (or could it be clarity?), reliving a particularly traumatic moment from his past through a cracked, distorted lens. Finally, we see abusive, racist gorilla trainer Mildred’s story take a shocking twist – the real-life parallels of which are difficult to ignore.
It’s safe to say things have gotten incredibly dark over the last couple of issues, with violence, racism and even a fleeting, shocking moment of bestiality all crammed into these pages. There are still the occasional moments of humour to be had, although now they’re tinged with a bleak darkness, making it difficult for the reader to raise a smile given the troubling context. Johnson clearly has a lot to say, but once again he keeps things relatively subtle and nuanced, letting us draw our own conclusions about the events which are playing out within the confines of Whipsnarl Zoo – events which are in themselves a worrying microcosm of society’s relationship with animals and each other as a whole.
Pearson’s artwork maintains its stellar quality here, but while his work is rich with almost photorealistic detail and expression, it’s his sublime use of colour that really makes these pages sing. Everything is bathed in a dense, claustrophobic haze that only intensifies as events rapidly spiral out of control in the latter pages. It’s not an aesthetic approach that would necessarily work with a lot of other titles, but paired alongside Johnson’s surrealist concepts and almost hallucinogenic narrative flow, it works to absolute perfection. He also manages to reign in the overall structure of his artwork just a little here, making this issue a far more coherent – if no less disturbing – read than some of the previous chapters.
Twisted, challenging and intentionally uncomfortable in places, Beast Wagon remains an utterly captivating read from the first page to the last. Highest of recommendations for this one yet again, and the final issue simply can’t arrive soon enough.
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Beast Wagon Chapter 4 is currently available to pre-order from the Changeling Studios online store.