Murkiness, Creepy Comics in ‘Montague Terrace’

Warren Pleece

Even as we’re offered a peek through its many keyholes, things at Montague Terrace are a bit hazy. Once a Web comic hosted at the Activate collective, the black and white now-graphic novel from British brothers Warren and Gary Pleece is an uncomfortable read — rarely are the dramatics brought to distinct conclusions, and linear paths are hard to come by. No matter, these are opaque vignettes worth exploring. The Pleeces’ comics are rife with paranoia, surrealism, and for good measure, an occasional rift that opens up somewhere between present-day and flashback storytelling.

In any given rental unit — within the apartment building where the book takes place — Montague Terrace‘s tenants are either anticipating imminent trouble or are on the production end of it. There are elderly secret agents, a rabbit whose magician cohort shouldn’t be crossed, and a determined seaman positioned on the roof, steering the building away from an oncoming storm. These are the unconventional figures for which the Pleeces are known, with art credits on numerous Vertigo titles (Warren drew Mat Johnson’s Incognegro, for example) and having self-published comics and comics magazines in the late 1980s as well. The off-center artist in Montague Terrace‘s “The Puppeteer”mulls terrorism and natural disasters while poring over careful stitch-work in his studio. It’s a grim and darkly humorous chapter that revolves around one of the complex’s typical tenants. And for their craftsman, a lean and sinister ghoul in a shoddy robe and scarf, the Pleeces draw on a lineage of cape books’ super-villains as frequently as they do that ventriloquist episode of The Twilight Zone.

For a doozy of an opener called “The Elephant Dwarf,” we get a nightmarish look at the career lows of an aging late-1960s-era songwriter named Paul Gregory. In the backward-peering panels, the Pleeces’ shaggy-haired hit maker’s company looks like the stoner kids who booze and get high in the woods in Charles Burns’s Black Hole. Pill-addled delirium of the era is here, too, as flashbacks are framed in collages of vintage Melody Maker magazine covers and woozy psychedelic meltdowns unfurl across the oversized book’s enthralling splash pages. Humans who would normally have human heads are given those of elephants or rats, and engage in sex acts backstage. Gregory’s bleakest turn is just ahead of him toward the end of “The Elephant Dwarf” — the pudgy ex-crooner storms through his apartment, throwing framed publicity photos around and thrashing everything else, all the while shouting along to his last A-side. The portrait of excess, Gregory is a disaster here, seemingly headed out the window face-first at any moment.

The Pleeces load up “The Elephant Dwarf” with allusions to Scott Walker, whose solo works cook slowly with dense character sketches and thick, orchestral though hardly typical arrangements. On his 1967 debut LP, Walker spun a yarn about the “scent of secrets” detectable in the halls of an apartment building. Before the cymbals herald the big ballroom chorus of “Montague Terrace (In Blue)”, Walker’s deep into reverberating percussive clip-clops a la Pet Sounds and creeping violins, going on about a big man upstairs who is making the only sound that can be heard: “His bloated belching figure stomps, he may crash through the ceiling soon.”

Preview early versions of this book’s chapters at the creators’ site.