So, let’s start with the cover. That is a stunning bit of striking design. Owen D. Pomery is an architect and comic artist.
You can tell, can’t you?
And as well as a gorgeously designed cover, it’s also indicative of what awaits inside; a sculpted, constructed comic of edges, of the troubles of being on them, of living between them, of hiding behind them.
Between The Billboards is the story of one man and his withdrawal, mentally and physically, from the outside world. And along the way it looks at all of the choices we make in our lives, about how our internal and external architecture is vital to those choices.
Now, I’ve already looked at Between The Billboards with reviews of the individual issues of Pomery’s self published comic and really enjoyed each one. But this reformatted and collected edition is something far more, complete with new framing sequence, extra strips and a new essay by Pomery, all linked into the architectural theme of the book. This is an exemplar of the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its individual parts. Make no mistake, this is seriously a fabulous work, the début of a major talent.
Between The Billboards is the tale of James Ebner, a man who wants nothing more than to be forgotten, a man looking to retreat from the cacophony that is modern society. Sure, we all feel that at times, and perhaps worryingly I can empathise more than I possibly should with the desire to cut yourself off, minimalist, reductionist, taking complexity out of life as a way to take all the problems and stresses away as well.
But Ebner takes this desire for isolationism literally to new heights, living in an old converted water tower atop a tall building, sitting hidden from the world between two big advertising billboards, one facing the elevated railway line, the other turning city-ward, looking to entrap some daydreaming city type bored in the office. His life in the box all encompassing, bar the occasional trip out to fetch supplies.
Ebner’s life between these strangely beautiful consumerist butterfly wings is his reaction to an increasingly troublesome modern life, the desire to exist in between these four, small walls a mirror to his wish to live within his own head, where all external experience is rejected and ignored, the space between the billboards proving his escape, his sanctuary, his desert island in the sky.
Pomery presents this as a man’s isolationist quest, and just as I can emphasise with the imagery of a butterfly with wings ready to unfurl, a temporary cocoon full of potential just waiting for the moment to fly again, there’s an equally valid viewing of the tiny box of Ebner’s existence being a ready made coffin. Pomery, being a bit good with the whole imagery stuff, threads both of these ideas in at various points in the book.
There’s a huge question that never really gets answered in Between The Billboards, and thats ‘Why?’. Why is Ebner like this? what was it in his life that led him here? was it a gradual progressive withdrawal of mind and body, or was there a trigger to send him running for the cover of anonymity and invisibility? Sure, there are big hints, a relationship that went south, commitment issues unsurprisingly the cause, this after all is a man who can’t commit to staying on the ground for longer than it takes to get the milk, can’t commit to even fleeting friendships, so how on Earth could this man have ever been capable of a relationship of any romantic form?
One of those friends, his only remaining friend really, gives us more insight into the ‘why‘, as in a brief, strained conversation we get a glimpse of the man, his cutting humour, his bitterness at her…
“she asked if you’re still drowning in a empty water tank… 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.”
“….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.”
That sparkling dialogue was a real surprise in Between The Billboards, Pomery’s touch for comedy a treat to punctuate the sombre, thoughtful tone.
Here’s an equally magnificently funny turn of phrase in the bowling alley:
“Can I get you a lane?”
“Only if that’s a new term for gin.”
“You should have a roll some day, do you good.”
“On my own?”
“What about air-hockey?
It’s got that sense throughout, the mood may be reflective and the ending might feel inevitable and dark and not far away, but whilst there’s a far bit of self-loathing in Ebner’s thoughts and actions there’s also plenty of self-depreciating humour to put a smile on your face no matter what, almost to the finale of the book. Almost.
Between The Billboards is a towering first comic, but it’s still a first comic, and as such you can see a roughness, inexperience at times, especially early on, but that’s soon eclipsed by the confidence that exudes from the pages and panels as the work progresses. Immediately noticeable from any example of Pomery’s artwork is that fine line and the vertical hatching, a style that starts good and ends beautiful, the end result still reminding me of the great Nabiel Kanan (of EXIT, Birthday Riots, Lost Girl, who will hopefully be returning to comics by 2016)
But where Kanan’s view is organic and full of deep, expansive blacks, Pomery’s is one of fine, straight lines, varying blocks of solid grey, and all of it shows the artist’s architectural view of the world around him. As I said in the reviews prior to this, you can practically see the architectural gridlines at times…
The sense of occupying space, Ebner merely one more object in the environment, not even the most important at times. It works beautifully to further isolate the man, the simplicity of Pomery’s fine line and architectural shapes perfect in establishing his ever more tenuous grip on this life he seems destined to leave behind in one fashion or another.
In the end Between The Billboards is a quite wonderfully minimal thing, the story on the page a mere fragment of a man’s life, but such an important one, and engaged by Pomery’s skilful storytelling you fall into his life, fill in the gaps, create a history. As a comic from an established artist it would be great, but from a débutante, well it’s a superb thing.
You can buy a copy of Between The Billboards from the Avery Hill website.