Shiny Shelf


The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories

By Mark Clapham on 10 November 2007

A couple of years ago it seemed like Dark Horse had lost its way, with a handful of brilliant creator owned books (‘Hellboy’, ‘The Goon’, ‘Usagi Yojimbo’ but lacking the wider, balanced range of titles that such a major publisher should really have. Many of the licences that the company had built its name on had dried up, and even more alarmingly Image was putting out the kind of clever, niche titles (‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Frankenstein’s Mobster’) that used to be Dark Horse’s bread and butter.

Over the last year the company has made quite the impressive comeback: the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Buffy’ licensed books have seen a revival, the latter breaking the Marvel/DC stranglehold on best selling comics; notable indies like ‘FEAR Agent’ and ‘Rex Mundi’ have been tempted away from Image and into the Dark Horse fold; and, in a less spectacular but nonetheless clever bit of talent-scouting, Dark Horse has begun collecting a couple of notable, cultish contemporary gag strips. Following the paperback volumes of the web-only ‘Penny Arcade’ comes this first collection of ‘The Perry Bible Fellowship’, a newspaper strip available in various odd publications but also completely archived online.

Collections of strips that are archived online should, theoretically, be a hard sell – after all, the material is freely available to read on the website, and chances are that anyone willing to buy a book is likely to have read it all at least once already. Presentation is everything here, and ‘The Trial of Colonel Sweeto’ is really a lovely book, a 100 page square hardcover presenting the strips two-to-a-page, with glossy paper stock that really brings out the colours in the strips. It really is a gorgeous book, one that any fan of the strip will want to own, and an excellent coffee table book (providing you don’t have easily offended house guests, of course).

Of course, the content has to be worth the presentation, and worthy of re-reading, and thankfully this is very much the case with ‘The Perry Bible Fellowship’. Nicholas Gurewitch’s strips are standalone gag strips, usually three or four panels in length, often hinging on a twist reveal. Now many, many years ago, I read some guidelines for submitting to a TV sketch show that cautioned against ‘pull back to reveal…’ gags, as they were old hat unless the reveal was very strong and something the audience hadn’t seen before. One of Gurewitch’s great talents as a writer is to have a sufficiently demented but logical imagination to keep coming up with reveals that are both clever and funny. The gags are also usually pitch-black humour, with cutesy cartoon worlds descending into suicide and murder.

There’s no narrative to the strips, which are set anywhere from a semi-recognisable present, to a world where sweets are at war, to different fantasy and SF settings. Gurewitch’s art playfully adapts to the tone of each strip (or, perhaps, he writes gags for the art style he wants to use), varying from straightforward line-cartooning to painted children’s book illustrations and pastiches of other cartoons, animation or fine art. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the styles Gurewitch can work in – he pulls off pastiches of Edward Gorey, Robert Crumb and the pixellated visuals of an old Nintendo game on different strips. There are recurring themes and styles throughout – human characters are often doughy, noseless caricatures, while the Schlorbians (a bunch of prank calling extraterrestrial dicks) and the Pupulons (cute puppy aliens) appear more than once. There’s also some weird recurring thing going on with humanoid characters who have the heads of household objects.

The strips aren’t presented in chronological order here, and instead have been carefully ordered to balance the different styles and to spread the cruder early strips throughout the book rather than cluster them together at the start. There are also some great extras in the book, including ‘lost’ strips (most of which have been seen before, but deleted from the archive for various creative reasons) and a large-scale sequel to an earlier strip that wouldn’t really work in the usual format.

‘The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories’ is a beautifully put together book of very funny strips which are sometimes cute, sometimes sinister, often bleak, almost always gorgeous to look at, and frequently all of the above. It would also make a great Christmas present, if not for someone else then as a gift for yourself. Go on, you deserve it.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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