By O.D. Pomery
The first four issues of O. D. Pomery’s Between The Billboards have that immediate look and feel of something intriguing and mysterious; lovingly made, hefty card covers, heavy textural paper, minimalist cover art, fragment titles (“Inevitable”, “The Strength Of Solitude”, “Eloquence & Ignorance”, “Any Given Funeral“) … all of it adds up to suggest some art object, handmade and bound with care.
And although I’ve seen surface promise turn into interior disappointment before, I’m happy to say Between The Billboards doesn’t disappoint. It impresses greatly, and is a comic that may well be the start of something really great. Best of all, it surprises. And it does so not once, but twice.
Because although the careful construction shown in Pomery’s cover and design carries on inside, I was surprised to find his story wasn’t the abstract, drifting sort of mood piece I was expecting. It is a comic that describes a mood certainly, but I was thinking it was going to be something akin to Simon Moreton’s comics (my own particular yardstick when it comes to these abstractions of feeling and emotion). Instead it’s more akin to a documentary of a diarist, with the main character expressing himself through thought and in his increasingly difficult contacts with the outside world.
So the expected minimalist abstraction swiftly turns talky, something wordier, Pomery teasing his tale out in a series of monologues, captions, and conversations. And if I had to throw a criticism at the comic, it’s that it over-reaches sometimes with the thinking out loud and the narrator’s voice over in issue one really ladling that prose to purple and beyond. Thankfully, it settles down, and the mood takes over, one of isolation, of loss, of disengagement with the world:
Between The Billboards is the tale of one James Ebner. He’s an odd sort; lives alone, high above the city, in an old converted water tower, sandwiched tightly between two billboards, one facing the railway, the other casting its glance cityward, desperate to ensnare some daydreaming office worker.
But for a man in between such large, loud statements of capitalism, James Ebner is quiet, isolated, withdrawn, his grand box in the sky grants him a comforting anonymity, an escape from life down there on the city streets. Hints as to the why come early, a woman, a relationship that didn’t end well, clash of personalities, commitment problems on Ebner’s part – he can barely commit to vague, fleeting relationships with passing acquaintances, there’s no way he’s capable of committing to anything even remotely like a relationship.
A visitor in issue 2 brings concern, friends are worried about their friend, that ex-love is mentioned, and we get an idea of the bitterness on both sides in both her second-hand message:
“she asked if you’re still drowning in a empty water tank”
… and in Ebner’s response…
“She’s got a new boyfriend actually; he’s in mining I think.”
“Good that they share similar interests, she likes digging too. Gold mainly.”
Pomery’s dialogue skills come to the fore from the second issue, and there’s a sense of real naturalistic banter between Ebner and his visiting friend Israael:
“Come on Eb, it’s like riding a bike.”
“You never forget?”
“No. If you stop pedalling, you fall off.”
“What if you’re rolling downhill?”
“You said it Ebner, see you at the bottom.”
And that’s the second surprise. What starts as a single character narration piece transforms with issue two as friends and acquaintances are gradually introduced, imposing/impinging/drawn into the piece, and with each interaction, Pomery has a chance to deliver some particularly naturalistic and sparkling dialogue.
Subsequent issues take us further into Ebner’s life, as we watch a man pull away from the world, at times we get the impression he’d love to reach out, at others the sense of him desperately wishing the walls of his little world would get even smaller, cut his world off even more, stop the outside world even getting the slightest purchase on his life. No wonder the surprise funeral in issue 4 sees Ebner fantasising about the comfort and reassurance of a coffin, supercut with him lying on his floor of his own coffin, lodged between the billboards.
The four issues I’ve seen (and I really do want to see the fifth as soon as Pomery completes it) show a confidence that builds. Issue 1 is impressive up to a point, but it is held back; I’ve mentioned the over-wordiness, but there’s also a sense of constraint, in emotion and in art, as if Pomery is nervous of really opening up. Ironically, the final few pages, where he completes the visual metaphor of the old water tower turned box apartment given butterfly wings with its twin billboards, is where he really seems to open up himself, just as he creates the perfect allegory of the isolated, shut-in soul, happy in his little box, enclosed and taking solace in the darkness.
From that point on, Pomery really creates something good, page layouts are inventive without being showy, clever perspectives, almost an architectural feel, fitting in a story that’s as much about a city’s distance from humanity as it is about a man’s distance from the society within that city.
By issue 3 most weaknesses are long gone, and I was delighting in the art, with Pomery’s unusual method of vertical hatching, creating blocks of grey through black line, having at times elements of the wonderful Nabiel Kanan, never a bad thing. On top of that he’s doing wonderful things with 9-panel grids, and has an impressive handle on how to really capture time in comics. And boy, can he do city scenes…..
All in all, Pomery creates a unusual beast here; witty, naturalistic conversation butts up against misery and despair, isolation is held in stark contrast to the wide vista of the city, the man could have had so much, yet his inability to reach out and share a life effectively condemned him to a world between the billboards, where life flashes by on either side and he can but stare out, a fixed point watching all go by.
How Pomery intends this to continue I have no idea. But I know I want to find out more. I think you’ll find Between the Billboards a quiet, introspective, artistically promising piece, melancholy yet funny, well worthy of your attention.