In Review: Pencil Head #4

"Mostly true"? Absolutely readable. Highest possible recommendation.

The cover: Poodwaddle stares up at the latest editor-in-chief he has to deal with. This time it’s the new editor of Cleverland Comics, D. Idiot. One can tell that things aren’t going to go well since this character can hover, is grotesquely overweight, and has a demonic tongue come out of his/its mouth. The look on Poodwaddle’s face suggests he’s not really surprised. The text surrounding this image states “If you think things can’t get worse…then you lack sufficient imagination.” Great, or should that be “Terrible”?, tease from Ted McKeever on this penultimate issue. Overall grade: A+

The story: The first four pages of this issue have Poodwaddle reflecting on how he got into the comic business in the 1980s. He knew his style was “grungy” and “atypical”, but it reflected the world around him. His first two independent books were successful and he found himself working at Happy-Time Comics, “brought in by then Editor-in-Chief Alfie Wingood.” For all the terrible things that’s happened to Poodwaddle as he’s dealt with people in the industry it’s good to see that at least Alfie remains a bright spot: “An act of professional grace, that changed the course of Poodwaddle’s life, beyond measure.” With Alfie’s departure for Cleverland Comics, Poodwaddle’s work began to be meddled with by editors and their assistants. It’s at this point that the protagonist is brought back to the present as Cleverland’s Editor-in-Chief, the Great Kar-leenie, tells him that his art “for this one time only” is satisfactory for an assignment. However, one of the writers he’s been hired to work with, Toy Rhomas, refuses to be on the project if a “nonconformist like Poodwaddle is going to be involved.” Something surprising occurs just after this and that’s before it all goes downhill. Reading about Ted McKeever’s life in the industry is absolutely heartbreaking. As an ignorant reader of comics at the time, one assumed that everyone got along and played nice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poodwaddle wants to create comics, and wants to earn an income, but it’s easy to see why it’s not going to be possible for him to exist in such a horrific environment. How can anyone? The bottom panel on Page 9 is awful and the character that arrives on 13 horrific. To have to work with an individual in such a powerful position would be a nightmare. On Page 17 the book takes a major turn and everything changes. In fact, on 19 the book goes meta as the book looks in on itself. McKeever acknowledges this and the weirdness is addressed, ending in a space that’s been some focus in previous issues. Watching a man’s life fall apart is never enjoyable, whether it be in comics or prose; I just can’t enjoy fallings. With this set in the comic book industry, however, it’s impossible not to be drawn in to the private meetings and conversations where the unthinkable is said and done. “Mostly true”? Absolutely readable. Overall grade: A+

The art: The first panel of the first page features Poodwaddle alone. He has nothing but open spaces around him as he enters the comic field. Slowly, as he creates, the space becomes occupied by his characters. This is wonderful way by Ted McKeever to show how authors’ lives get taken over by their creations. The renderings of the comic professionals are more frightening than any monster Poodwaddle could create for his books, with Kar-leenie a hulking mass of teeth and Rhomas a drooling pit of anger. D. Idiot grows and expands as he fills with vile, turning into a floating Baron Harkonnen whose spittle showers the hapless artist. The most perfect opposite to this image, inspiring more hate in the reader than those of the walking deformities that block Poodwaddle’s path, is the top of Page 16: the reaction of the artist to such an image is justifiable in how it’s presented just underneath it. The setting on 17 is fantastic in how it’s initially illustrated and then by what it does; a perfect mirror for the protagonist’s feelings. With a turn of the page it’s as if the way before Poodwaddle is as this book began: empty. His future is uncluttered of anything he has created because he’s going off into the unknown. This is terrific symbolism. The final three panels return to the demons that have been haunting this book, though they appear in their smallest forms yet. And that’s what makes them unsettling. A visual feast. Overall grade: A+

The letters: There are no dialogue balloons or sounds in this book. Every panel has narration at the bottom of its illustration. In doing so, Ted McKeever makes the story much more personal as the commentary on the images is much more real. When someone or something is important, words are thickened to show the emphasis in Poodwaddle’s descriptions and it brings the reader wholly into the character’s world. Some panels receive more text than others, and when there’s a minimal amount of words it makes the image and the moment powerful. I’m such a fan, I even look forward to seeing McKeever’s lettering. Overall grade: A+

The final line: A man’s life falling apart in the comic industry is powerful reading. It’s the job every reader wants, but to see it displayed as this gives one pause. The dream has become a nightmare. Highest possible recommendation. Overall grade: A+

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer’s Guide for several years with “It’s Bound to Happen!” and he’s reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He’s taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.

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