Reviewed by Gar Shanley


Despite the current mood for angsty dimly lit heroes, if you say the word ‘comic’ to most people they will think of sensational visuals depicting over the top action, lurid terror, or zany hilarity. As a medium, comics seem to have spent most of their time roaring at their audience: “HEY KIDS, CHECK THIS OUT!”
There are other comics that take a more understated approach. Comics more likely to whisper than roar. Comics more likely to give you a gentle nudge and a wry smile than pin you down and tickle your ribs. Although they are the same medium as their smash mouth cousins, these comics use sequential images and text to visit the quieter places and moments that reside beyond all the banging, crashing and walloping. Places and moments that contain subtler truths.
The risk of this gentler approach is that it sometimes indulges narratives so slight as to make the reader wonder if they were worth embarking upon in the first place or, worse still, make the reader suspect the approach of being mere camouflage for a creator with nothing to say. These potential pitfalls do not apply to the less overstated voice of The Well Below – and Other Stories by John Robbins (and Sean MacRoibin of course).
The Well Below is Robbins’ latest self-published collection containing four narratives, three of which are comics and one that is purely text. The first narrative, Find the River, is a beautifully illustrated depiction of two very young boys as they play by a shallow river. The strange thing about these kids is that they are conducting a conversation that might very well take place in their future. Heavy drinking and parental access are touched on in the speech bubbles as two innocent kids muck about with sticks in the visuals. Find The River is both funny and poignant. What becomes of us as we grow old? What awaits the young? It’s excellent stuff.
The second story, Man From the Past, is one of those comics that puts me in mind of Chris Marker’s film La Jetée – a film that tells its tale via photo stills, sound fx and narration rather than live action. Man From the Past finds a narrator recalling an old school friend who refused to reset his watch and lose a precious hour of summer daylight time, falling out of sync with reality as a result. The images are not strictly related to the narrative but instead depict places and moments tangentially related. The core idea is amusing and ingenious and the way it is conveyed is effectively evocative. It also has a nice punch line.
The third story is the written word only story and, if my experience of including such things in comics is anything to go by, the one most readers will skip. It would be a mistake to do so though. The Time Machine is another return to childhood with a more explicit reference to time travel than hinted at in the two stories preceding it. The childhood of The Time Machine is a childhood of flying spiders, 2000AD comics, Top Trumps, extraordinary bowel movements, Rebecca Wilson (…ahh, Rebecca Wilson – didn’t we all have a Rebecca Wilson?), gullies and gushies, and an incident “even worse than when Tweekie got that new voice in Buck Rogers”. (I’m still traumatised by that last one myself.) The Time Machine is as funny as it is well written. The childhood voice is authentic (I’ve seen John do this before in Little Cunts) and that makes the eventual loss of innocence at the tale’s conclusion all the more striking. Hmm, the loss of childhood innocence and the human experience of time, I’m seeing a pattern here.
The fourth and final tale is a comic called The Well Below. In this story we discover that the story’s title, and the title of the whole book, is taken from the darkly comic song The Well Below My Valley. A song involving dead children. This story is drawn in a different style to the other two comic tales in the book. It’s a more humorous style John often employs to convey a different mood. Here, we meet Tom, a middle-aged man who has made the conscious decision never to move on from the sacred trappings of childhood. This has made him a very unusual fella with a novel approach to romantic liaisons. He is self-aware and seems happy to live in his emotional bunker, guarded and fortified by sci-fi paraphernalia and repeated Star Wars viewings. However, an encounter with a childhood crush motivates him to think differently. This story is cruder and seemingly more frivolous than the others in the book but that’s not say it isn’t as good. In fact, it earns its place as the final act because it reveals so much about what has being going on in the collection up to now.
“Adults are murderers, we’ve all buried a child” roars Tom, paraphrasing words that feature on the cover of this collection. I’m not sure if that is a quote from something but it certainly fits the unifying theme of the narratives in this comic. It’s a theme that has made itself known in much of John Robbins’ work to date, childhood, seen through the eyes of an adult, as a golden mystery that perhaps never should be solved. Tom, of the title story, may be one hell of a fucked up character but he seems to be finding a way to move on at the end of his section of the book, just as John Robbins seems to have found a way to directly address his recurring preoccupation in a collection that is disciplined and coherent. I really enjoy the vast majority of John Robbins’ work but I think The Well Below is the best yet. The man is a genius!!! (I just put that last line in to piss him off.)
The Well Below will be available from Philip (Blackshapes/Matter) Barrett’s stall at the Dublin Zine Fair, Ranelagh Arts Centre, on Saturday August 27 and will soon be available at the link below: