I wasn’t sure what to expect before spelunking critically into McKeever’s Pencil Head #1. Much of that is thanks to my, at best, cursory exploration into his intimidatingly deep and largely Eisner-nominated body of work. In fact, I’ve really only brushed up against his more recent stuff, like Miniature Jesus and Superannuated Man, which, being pretty goddamn bizarre, scratched my itch for the sequentially non sequitur most suitably. On top of that naïveté, the internet simply didn’t give much up in the way of a preview for the book, its art or its premise, other than to call Pencil Head a “semi-autobiographical love letter to the comics industry.” Luckily loving weird shit that doubles as social commentary, I was all in, sight-unseen. And the end result was... well, it was mostly what I expected: a beautifully quirky, oddly simple bit of abstract surrealism, but one that isn’t saying much beyond what it does on the surface. Yet.
Pencil Head #1 follows McKeever’s avatar, Poodwaddle, a freelance comic book artist who works on books like Monorōl (one of many thinly-veiled references to real-world books and people; in this case, a shout out to McKeeever’s Metropōl). Poodwaddle has become disenfranchised with working at mainstream publishers, thanks to the prevalence of annoying industry trends and even more annoying editors, manifested in this case by Gargle Plottz, a stand-in for the very real Carl Potts, former Marvel editor and creator of Alien Legion (which, with other misnamed books, is given a shout-out).
From there, Poodwaddle goes about his day, mourning the loss of his ideals and that of his work; hanging out with his friend and fellow creator, Luthais; surviving the perils of deadly strip bar cuisine (and the law it could bring); finding inspiration in the menagerie that scuttles within the New York public transportation system; and, of course, being secretly h(a)unted by one of his own artistic creations: a toothy little dammit that’s somewhere between an Isz and one of those things from Attack the Block. And despite a relatively prosaic setup (even if it does flirt with a sort of magical surrealism), I dug Pencil Head #1 for its quirky, if not yet batshit crazy or too damning a critique of a story.
Most of McKeever’s cuts at the industry are deep here; I, for one, had to look up and search for that Potts reference, as well as some of the books that were on his shelf. Other readers with a more refined connection to, or knowledge of McKeever’s formative days in the industry, however, will most likely recognize and gobble up these little easter eggs with vim. Even not picking up on those references, though, he successfully paints an endearing, relatable “portrait of the artist” in Poodwaddle, as well as the living, seething curiosities that are both New York City and the comics industry.
Saying that, this is not as scathing, self deprecating or close to the bone as something like Robinson’s recent Airboy series, but nor is it meant to be. Pencil Head is quirkier, its menace, as yet, simmering more deeply behind its surface. It’s also written as something a lot less linear, more fantastic, and as such reminds me of a much smaller, more esoteric indie book, a description I don’t mean as derogatory. Still, there is commentary here, more ostensibly about editorial oversight, but also about how creators can be in danger of being consumed (literally here) by their mainstream work. It still hasn’t found is voice yet, though, and tends to meander around its point in favor of expressing the eccentricities of life as a cartoonist. And that’s okay, for now.
The true strength of this book, or at least of this inaugural issue, is McKeever’s inimitable artistic style, which is, alone, worth the price of admission, and more than enough to make me want to go back and check out his earlier work. His figures look flimsy and strung out; loose skin and teeth pulled haphazardly over wire frames, or perhaps more simply, those ill-fitting thumb puppet monsters with the googly eyes and floppy appendages. His art only heightens the charm of this story, but also subverts it with the rows of sharp teeth that, in many panels, gnash smilingly in the shadows.
McKeever also does great work in the quieter moments, but these feel more like a love letter to New York than it does to the industry: snapshots of a disused subway and quiet, grotesque caricatures of the denizens who dwell there. Sometimes, I feel the narrative actually gets too far away from these moments, or perhaps IN the way of them, though never too egregiously, it must be said.
I’m still figuring out Pencil Head #1, which stands to reason really, since it feels like it’s still trying to figure itself out; that, perhaps, being the point. But I’m invested in the story and especially the art, and regardless of how the ending sort of trailed off, I am interested in seeing where this goes, and more importantly, how it gets there.
Pencil Head #1 Writer/Artist: Ted McKeever Publisher: Image/Shadowline Comics Price: $3.99 Release Date: 1/20/16 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital