By Ted McKeever
Something you see more often in film than in comics is stories about the act of creating a story. These are films like Eight and a Half, All That Jazz, Birdman, Dangerous Game and the like, movies that revolve around directors trying to create some ambitious vision while being caught between the harsh realities of life and the fantasy of their own imagination. Pencil Head is the second time recently Image has put out a comic book iteration of that same idea, with the first time being last year’s controversial Airboy. Much like Airboy, Pencil Head is about a comic creator trying to hold himself and his artistic vision together under the onslaught of real world stress and, in particular, comic publisher politics and pressure. As this goes on, fantasy elements slowly begin to creep in as we more and more start to wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real, symbolic, or imaginary.
If that description comes off a little neutral sounding, it’s only because Pencil Head is a very neutral comic. In many ways its caught in a web of mundanity that it spun itself, flapping its more creative wings against the sticky banality of the overall plot. So much of what we see is stranded in the realm of “man doing his not terribly interesting job in the real world,” it’s hard to find an anchor to grasp onto. This is sort of the opposite problem Airboy had, in that Airboy’s big problem was a sense of unearned intimacy weighing down the more fantastical elements of the story and relying too heavily on blunt force confession to give us character insight. In Pencil Head, the main character, named Poodwaddle because funny, doesn’t really have an identity beyond being haggard and bored with his current comic production situation. That’s all well and good, but if the character is tired and haggard there’s really no reason to engage with them or care about their situation. We only know Poodwaddle through the lens of his annoyance and exasperation, there’s nothing endearing about his situation or insightful about his identity. What’s more, there’s very little done with the idea of this revolving around a comic creator as Poodwaddle could just as easily be a novelist, photographer, or stripper and his frustrations with the pressure and restriction of work would be exactly the same. Going back to Airboy again, as it’s a useful comparison point, it was at least telling a story that fit distinctively into the comic book lexicon thanks to its emphasis on revival, adaptation, obscurity, and teamwork. Poodwaddle works alone on a book we have no information about and would like to work alone on some new book we know nothing about, there’s no detail to his struggle or his identity.
The artwork is a mixed bag, insomuch that everything is severely stylized in a manner that doesn’t really fit the material. The designs are all solid and cohesive, each character existing as a surrealist caricature of their baseline emotional state that borders on the grotesque, but it’s a design aesthetic that might’ve been better suited to a story more overtly about the oppressively limiting and stressful nature of society as a whole. As it stands, the artwork is very good, but it does nothing to enhance the story; in fact it actually detracts from it. All the normal folks look so nightmarish and exaggerated that when the actual monsters show up they don’t really look that out of place. Maybe that’s the point, but if the artwork is already going out of its way to make the literal stresses of life monstrous, there’s no point in adding figurative stresses of life in the form of monsters as well.
The big problem with Pencil Head isn’t so much that it lacks insight, it’s a first issue and these things take time, it’s that it hasn’t laid the ground work for the journey to insight. The basic mechanics of telling a story about the personal creative process or even the struggle of trying to achieve a creative vision in a hostile world simply aren’t here, certainly not in the way they’d need to be to make the journey to whatever insights the book might eventually offer worthwhile. Our hero is every bit as banal as the working world he seems so suffocated by while we lack any details on his art, the creation of which, should be the focus. Combine that with the mismatched visual palette and this is a drab and uneventful read that remains stuck in neutral from start to finish.