The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack
Nicholas Gurewitch, writer/artist
Dark Horse, 2009
272 pages, hardcover
Every single Perry Bible Fellowship comic strip ever, plus a bunch of extras that didn’t make the website cut, in a sizable yet reasonably sized hardcover with one of those built-in ribbon bookmark things, for $25 SRP? Pretty glorious. Nick Gurewitch’s webcomics sensation–and that’s exactly what it is/was, a strip that batters past the most well-secured don’t-care-about-webcomics defenses–was already the kind of work you’d stumble across thanks to a friend’s recommendation and almost instantly attempt to consume in its entirety in one sitting. Which isn’t even all that hard, given the one brief shining moment Fawlty Towers/British Office brevity of its run. Moreso than with many other webcomics, a fat book collection serves the material well.
Placing every strip between two covers allows you to easily follow along on several parallel tracks. You can watch the maturation of Gurewitch’s art, for one. His line smooths and strengthens. His designs round out and combine with his increasingly sophisticated and subtle color palette to produce that sickly sweet Stay Puft feel. He becomes increasingly comfortable showing off illustrative chops not usually seen in a campus weekly–his dinosaurs, monsters, and animals would all be at home in Golden Age pulp or an immaculate children’s storybook, while his impersonations of Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein or his pastiches of Asian and commercial illustration styles are impeccable. His stable of recurring visual tropes–people with inanimate objects for heads, meticulously drawn fantasy- and animal-kingdom characters, those cookie-cutter people–have more of an impact each time.
You can also trace the evolution–maturation’s definitely not the word here–of his sense of humor. The strip starts out as the kind of bawdy, horny humor lots of collegiate wits unleash upon their newly parentless world. A recognition that sex is fun and attractive people are awesome joins hands with the realization that one’s pursuit of the aforementioned is often really stupid and the failure to make it happen is often miserably painful, and off they go, skipping and tra-la-la-ing across your funnybone.The strip also mines a lot of humor out of senseless violence from the get-go. But right around page 82-83, “Mrs. Hammer” and “Gotcha the Clown,” its riffs on that theme, and the whole gestalt of the strip, make a quantum leap. Suddenly the capriciousness of physical violence in the PBF world is joined with a gleefully anarchic sense of comic timing–that much-ballyhooed gap before the final panel, much wider than any other gag strip, leaving much more to the imagination, and making the payoff that much more unexpected and hilarious. Something awful will most likely happen by the end of any given strip; the trick and the genius of it is that you don’t have any more idea of what it’ll be than the poor saps to which it’ll happen.
It’s worth noting that it’s not just that leap of faith Gurewitch forces you to take between the penultimate and final panels that makes his strip such solid gold by the second half of its run. (To be fair, there are three or four head-scratching clunkers in the early going; it took him a while to make that punchline panel work.) It’s the way he sticks that landing, the moment-in-time specificity of the body language he so frequently depicts–freezing battling characters in mid-beatdown, capturing just the right looks of amazement on the faces of cheering crowds, doing the same with characters weeping in devastation or fleeing in terror. There’s also often a perfectly calibrated comedown from the pomposity and grandiosity of the beginning of the strip to the deflated rimshot or sad trombone of the final panel, and Gurewitch uses an array of tools to nail it: ornate, expressive lettering; shifts in illustration style; jumps in time or spatial perspective.
And then like that–poof–he was gone, off to do animation or funny award-acceptance speeches or whatever it is he’s up to. He left behind one of the most visually accomplished and mercilessly funny comics this side of Tales Designed to Thrizzle. If you like to laugh at comic books, this belongs on your bookshelf.