PrintE-mail Written by Dominic Cuthbert

Man might be the most dangerous game, but Beast Wagon begs us to look a little closer at a species that is self-serving, sordid and doomed. Described by its UK-based creators, punky upstarts Owen Michael Johnson and John Person, as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with talking animals”, the first chapter (of a planned six) is a day in the life of Whipsnarl Zoo. A new arrival sends the inhabitants a bit batty and things only get stranger, with the madness manifesting in the staff, visitors and animals alike, sparking spiritual, physical and emotional journeys.

It was a roaring Kickstarter success, raising its target goal in under 24 hours, and attracting nationwide industry interest at its heady launch party and exhibition gallery. For illustrator Pearson, Beast Wagon marks his first foray into sequential art. Growing up on cult movies and 2000 AD was education enough, with his panels of militant scrawl coming across as visceral propaganda posters, snarling like so many lions. It’s also jaw-droppingly beautiful.

After earning critical nods for his work on Raygun Roads and Reel Love, Johnson struck out for his first creator-owned title. Sure, animals have been anthropomorphised to explain and explore social, economic and political ideas before, but Beast Wagon is something altogether different. It’s a sneering social commentary with a scathing wit to match. The dialogue of the animals is by turns snappy, insightful and funny with their human counterparts, in contrast, coming across as detached, stoic or strange.

Beast Wagon conjures the Samuel Johnson quote about getting rid of the pain of being a man, and perhaps the animals of Whipsnarl have taken on that pain to become far more human in the process. Be it the baboons, a ragtag bunch of religious zealots screaming bloody revolution, or the hippo Agatha waxing lyrical of her love for zoo worker Andrew. Then there’s the human lot, with Mildred, a dead ringer for Kathy Bates, caring for her mentally disabled relative. Author Patrick Edwards, meanwhile, is in a transcendental phase, disenchanted with populist prose and using the animals as research away from a fractured relationship and drug abuse. Jaleesa, bullied over her hijab and religion, is probably the most immediately likeable, eager to please and singing along to The Cure’s Love Cats before coming face to face with a big cat of her own.

Johnson and Pearson based the book on first-hand experience, like the comic book equivalent of gonzo journalism, snapping pictures and scribbling notes which informed the tone and style. The writing exists somewhere between incantation and stream of consciousness, with a mix of hard and unflinching literature thrown in to the mix. The first outing of this edgy and ground-breaking series is off to a triumphant start, letting us consider for a moment the rest of the food chain, but also the treatment of our own prisoners. If it’s not the most important series of recent times, it’s certainly the most ambitious.


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