Don't Call 'Petrol Head' Dystopian. It's a high-octane, kick-ass chase.
We chat with Rob Williams and Pye Parr about their deliciously political sci-fi road rager.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Rob Williams and Pye Parr about Petrol Head. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
The world around Petrol Head, the new Image Comics series from Rob Williams and Pye Parr, has the trappings of a dystopian nightmare, but it's a whole lot more fun than that. This comic is a joyous thriller where robots race cars for sport, and humanity eats it up even though it's probably destroying the planet. When a young girl suddenly finds herself the target of some nefarious agents, the titular hot-rodder is called into service, whether he wants it or not.
We chat with writer Rob Williams and artist Pye Parr about their collaboration and the pandemic that drew them together. Both are longstanding 2000 AD residents, and you can see their UK comics education bleeding all over this book. We discuss what separates Petrol Head from their previous work and the glee they have playing in such horrendous and recognizable surroundings. Petrol Head may exist in the future, but the view looks disturbingly familiar.
The first issue hits stands tomorrow (11/8), and it's not to be missed. Williams and Parr are building something massive with this story, and we could see this comic stretch into a long-running saga.
Rob Williams and Pye Parr Talk Petrol Head
Brad: What's so exciting about this book is it really does feel like a little piece of 2000 AD winding up in Image Comics. Does it feel like that to you?
Rob Williams: Don't tell anyone that or we'll get in trouble. A little bit, I guess me and Pye, we're both from 2000 AD effectively, it feels like that's our comics' college, for want of a better way of putting it. I've worked for 2000 AD for about 20 years, Pye as graphic designer was the main designer on 2000 AD for years, and there's lots of things in Petrol Head, it's sci-fi, I guess ... I always cringe when you use the word dystopian, because that always makes things sound miserable, and I don't think Petrol Head's a miserable book. But it's dystopian, sci-fi, it's got cool robots, and it's got a bit of irreverent sense of humor, all of which tick the 2000 AD box I think. And an amazing city as well, which if you squint isn't too far removed from Mega-City One, I guess. But we deny everything obviously.
Pye Parr: Yeah, it's all original.
Brad: One of my favorite sub-genres is car related future stories, so stuff like Death Race 2000 from the great Roger Corman and Paul Bartel. I guess even Mad Max: Fury Road. So when these pages were first previewed online, I was just like, "Oh, this really scratches a particular itch." My understanding, Pye, is that it scratches this itch for you too.
Pye Parr: Yeah, absolutely. Cars are my thing really. I'm not hugely well-known in America I guess, but I spend a lot of time doing cars and technology and engineering kind of stuff, it's just what I enjoy doing.
Lisa: I'm always so intrigued and baffled when I see people draw machines, because I know nothing about machinery. So when you are designing a robot, or you're designing this futuristic car, whatever, are you thinking about the mechanics of how it works? Or are you just like, "Ooh, lots of wires and stuff."
Pye Parr: A bit of both really, it depends on what it needs. If you notice very carefully on Petrol Head, I shouldn't really point this out to everyone, but the way I draw his arms subtly changes depending on what shape I need it to be. But there is a basic set of mechanics under there, and certainly if I'm drawing the engines on the cars I do try and make them so they work and all the points go into the turbos in the right places, and all that kind of stuff.
Rob Williams: All of which I have no clue about whatsoever. It just looks cool.
Brad: Give us the origins of Petrol Head. How does this collaboration come into being?
Pye Parr: Rob?
Rob Williams: I think it was in lockdown and Pye was doing these prints, these posters of really cool robots and futuristic hot rods and things, and they were just amazing. I saw them and they just looked fully formed, it looked like it was waiting to be a comic. So I dropped him a line and said, "Look, have you thought about doing a creator-owned with this stuff?" So the look and the tone and the feel was in what Pye was doing already I think, it just suggested what the book should be to me anyway. Then it was just a case of us creating a bunch of cool characters and a narrative drive and a reason people should care to read, and all of those things. But yeah, Pye was doing it anyways is the short answer.
Lisa: I love that this is another beautiful pandemic project, because that was a time where we all felt so tremendously unsafe. When coming up with, I'm going to use the word, don't be triggered, "dystopian," when creating this dystopian future, it has a lot of really interesting moving parts. It has the popularity polls, it has the city planning and all of that stuff.
Rob Williams: Basically the entire creation of it was all back and forth, and we chucked ideas at each other and built upon it. I think it's interesting what you're saying there, I think a lot of that stuff did probably go in subtextually because it was just part of our lives at the time, as you said, and there was people ... Our big bad guy in Petrol Head is a city planning robot called The O. Humanity, because of a climate emergency, has been trapped in dome cities of which there are six. The O is basically tasked with keeping humanity alive, what's left of it, and keeping them sane and entertained. So it's a very authoritarian regime in a fun kind of way.
There's this element of breathing in the first scene, because Petrol Head goes to the city where smoke-belching robots aren't allowed to go. The police come and he's ordered back to his own part of the city, the Smog Zone. It's tough for people to breathe in certain parts, that's an issue. So all these things probably crept in, Lisa, you're right.
Pye Parr: I hadn't really considered that, but there's quite a lot of that in the first issue, just the fact that they're all forced to live alone and all this stuff. Yeah.
Lisa: So for me, where I dive in with this first issue is in the racing flashback. We see Petrol Head try to re-rig an already rigged race, right? So the city planners have already decided, via population poll, that Hybrid is favorite to win, so Hybrid is going to win this race. But then we see Petrol Head interfere in order that Chief, this older model, can have his day, have one last hurrah, have his day in the sun.
Brad: Not just interfere, but straight-up cheat.
Lisa: Yeah, he cheats. So he is cheating in order for this other person to win, and we see that Petrol Head has this deep empathy for that which is going obsolete, right? The idea of planned obsolescence is one of those things where it gets me, it can just get me so angry, because it is unfair and yet I still buy the new Apple product every single time. So what is your guys' relationship with obsolescence, and how did it inspire this world?
Rob Williams: Well, you're talking about our careers obviously.
Lisa: Read whatever subtext you wish.
Rob Williams: Yeah. I forget, when we were first planning it, we talked a lot about whether to build Petrol Head as the underdog, which we were big on. We talked a bit how the new technology should be very sleek and very Apple-like technology-
Pye Parr: Yeah, and much like modern stuff, just feel a bit plastic-y and lighter and just ... As you said, the police robots get crushed quite easily by comparison to anything else, that goes for a lot of tech. There's a certain thing about everyone's got a fridge in their garage full of beer, which they've had for 40 years and will still be going when the bombs drop. You buy a new fridge or a new washing machine, it will last about two years. I think that's my relationship with obsolescence - it is vague irritation. My computer has been going well for ages, and now all of a sudden it can't run the latest version of Photoshop. The same thing, I'm forced to change, but I'm quite happy with what I've got.
Rob Williams: Petrol Head and the race of Petrol Head, we should explain hot rod racing robots, we see them in flashback in their heyday, but they are obsolete when we join the story in present time. They've been retired, they've been sent to this crappy part of the city, and they're not allowed to build racing cars because it would be dangerous. They belch out fumes. There's a line in it where people realize that in a climate crisis emergency, having robot races which just pollute so badly, someone went, "Is this a good idea?" Because human beings being human beings, they still ran them for years and years and years before finally someone went, "Maybe we shouldn't be doing this."
So again, this all builds into having a lead who's an underdog, who hopefully people can root for. Petrol Head is made in a race of racing robots who are supposed to be sleek and streamlined, he was designed really, really badly out of spare parts. He's the least effective racing robot, he should be, but he cheats. I think that's part of his charm. I don't think he cheats because he wants Chief to win, I think he just enjoys cheating.
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