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Petrol Head: Look under the hood of the hit Image Comics series with creators Pye Parr and Rob Williams

It's the end of the world, but not as we know it

Petrol Head #3
Image credit: Pye Parr/Image Comics

Petrol Head is the post-apocalyptic comic you probably weren’t expecting — but is, very likely, the post-apocalyptic comic you need. Set in a far future where the ecology has collapsed and what remains of humanity is distracted from the hell outside of the protected O-Zone by robot drag racing, Petrol Head is the story of the eponymous robot and his mission to help the two humans who might be able to save the world… all done with a wit, style, and sense of optimism that put other comics to shame.

As the Image Comics series hits the midway point in its opening arc — #3 of the series is released this week — Popverse turned to creators Rob Williams and Pye Parr to ask about its origins, visuals, and the most important question of all: is the main character based on Walter Matthau? (Nope, apparently.) Also, courtesy of Pye Parr: process galleries for three pages from the issue, including the cover!

Popverse: It’s a strange place to start, but: where did Petrol Head come from? Not the series, we’ll get to that soon enough, but the character; since the first issue, I’ve thought of him as a robot Ben Grimm, both in terms of visuals (it’s the shape of the head! The orange! The cigar!) and the attitude.

Given that I think Ben Grimm is one of the greatest comic characters of all time, I mean the comparison is a compliment, but… where DID he come from? Was there a design before there was a character, or vice versa? Was he the answer to trying to work out how to make the comic work? Did Rob just write “He’s Walter Matthau and Peter Falk but a robot” and Pye just instantly knew what to do?

Parr: Some of the cars existed before we started, as I plundered and adapted things I'd come up with before... but not the characters. However Rob's descriptions weren't too prescriptive so it was a bit like you suggest. ‘He's a big, heavy, out of date bruiser' and that was about it. I'm sure it wasn't quite as easy as I remember but he did come together pretty quickly. The cars I'd drawn already suggested the level of tech they had so we tweaked that a bit in either direction to make the robots either more diesel-powered or more iPhone. 

Williams: Somehow the name ‘Petrol Head’ just sort of suggested itself and seemed perfect for a robot car racing comic, and so — Occam's Razor world-building here — our lead needed to be called Petrol Head and have a head that belched petrol fumes through an exhaust pipe. I sent that description to Pye and I'd not blame him for thinking 'what have I let myself in for here.'  I think Pye did one design that wasn't it at all and I said "he needs to be a big bruiser" and then pretty much the next design there he was, 95% fully formed and perfect.

Ben Grimm's part of his inspiration, I guess. For some reason I always saw him as Ernest Borgnine but a robot version. But we did follow a classic 2000 AD template for making the book. The comic needs to be named after the lead character and the lead character needs a punchy name that kind of spells out who they are: Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Rogue Trooper. Not many syllables. Petrol Head comes from that same ethos.

The obvious follow-up to that: where did the comic come from? It feels like the ideal mix of both of your sensibilities — the cars and aesthetic, especially, feel like solo work of Pye’s, but there’s something just spot-on tonally in terms of the writing that feels like it’s come out of Rob’s (very underrated) Suicide Squad or even his Roy of the Rovers, as unlikely as that might seem. (It’s the jokes and the optimism, I think.) How did you both come up with the series?

Parr: There's a bit of accidental chemistry going on I think. Rob and I hadn't worked together before this, so although my car drawings were the basic starting point, we've almost left that behind now and are just enjoying playing with the characters Rob came up with. It was a nice surprise to find we both enjoy the same kind of stuff - it's got heart and danger and adventure, but at the same time it doesn't take itself too seriously. I'll find myself sniggering at the dialogue reading the scripts, and I'll get messages from Rob when he sees the art and has cracked up at a funny facial expression or something.

Williams: Pye was posting these posters and designs for robots and futuristic racing cars on social media and they were both great and had a tonal feeling all of their own. They were colorful and fun. I asked him if he'd thought of doing a creator-owned comic with this aesthetic and world. Then it was a case of us talking and trying to build a cast, a narrative to frame all this around. It's funny you should mention the Roy of the Rovers GNs I did for a young adult audience, because that pacing, and that feel, was something I wanted to bring to Petrol Head. We wanted it to be the type of comic that any age could enjoy. With the colors that Pye brings, it had to be a hopefully 'up' book. The jokes always seem to creep into my work when my voice is at its purest, probably. There's drama here and pathos and stakes and all that, but ultimately this is a fun comic.

Something I’ve very much enjoyed so far is that the series seems to enjoy confounding expectations: it’s not just the Robots Do Drag Racing In The Future comic that it might have looked like from early previews, thanks to Luna and Linton’s involvement, and what they bring to it — but they also bring a sense of hope that steps on the dystopian nature of things like Rollerball or Mad Max that are clearly the starting point for some of the tropes you’re playing with here. Did you both go into the book thinking, “Nah, we don’t want to do what everyone thinks we’re doing”? 

Williams: Partly. The moment the words dystopian sci-fi are mentioned I kind of roll my eyes. It's all been done before. And our setup here is that humanity has destroyed the Earth with a climate emergency and what remains of the population live in these giant domed cities run by robot administrators. OK, so far, so bog-standard. What lifts it is the tone and the colours and the voice of the piece from that point on. The Petrol Heads were these future sport robots that were created to keep the population entertained with their races. To be toys and posters and computer games. But that was all a long time ago. They got shut down and now they're defunct and immediately the underdogs. And the bad guy shiny new robots are in charge of the city.

This, ultimately, is a story about trying to find hope in a horrible place, about maybe having a cure to the climate emergency, if only Petrol Head and Lupa can outrace the bad guys and get to the edge of the city. And it has a sarcastic talking bird robot and a Satnav who talks in Cockney Rhyming Slang. Fun.

Parr: Yeah that was a difficult thing to try and convey - the racing stuff is the background to the story, not what the comic's actually about. I was worried that the cars would be as much of a turn-off for some people as they were a selling point. By the end of #5 we've got a scooby-gang of misfits on the run from The Man, and I'm not sure that's what either of us quite expected when we pitched the series, so it's definitely evolved since we started.

There’s something about the series so far that feels — in the best way possible — as if it’s immediate, and almost improvised; there’s no sense that you two have spent years world building and now you’re looking for the best ways to introduce your next character or locations. It reads like Kirby’s Kamandi in that way; am I totally off-base, or is this series what happens when the two of you are purposefully playing, almost?

Williams: It's creator-owned, without an editor, so there's a sense of fun and play about the whole thing that probably leads to that feeling. There's structure there in each issue and in the first arc plot. We know where we're going and when we're hitting certain beats, but in between that, there's a fair bit that's made up as we go - and that's often where the happy accidents occur. Dave The Bird wasn't in the pitch and was only created because I realized that Petrol Head living alone in his run down garage meant that he didn't have anyone to talk to. And Dave's one of the best characters in the book and people seem to love him. Ditto for Satnav Sid, who just sort of popped up during a chase sequence when I needed a way to get them out of a jam, and he immediately made me laugh because he's a very silly idea.

It's creation writing in a pure form, rather than the sometimes digging down and down and down into the beats. You can suck life out of a story that way. But the drama and the world-building, they're built on pre-planned structure. In between that, we get to play a bit.

Pye, your palette for the series is another way in which it feels built to confound expectation: it’s bright, and far cleaner and more attractive than most post-apocalyptic stories one could think of. In terms of colors, there’s also an element of Herge’s Tintin in there, maybe? Or Rian Hughes, perhaps…? What’s your process in creating a page?

Parr: Man, i love Tintin. I wanted to be free to color some dudes' faces bright blue if I felt like it, or if the script needed to convey a mood, so I decided to go bright everywhere early on. I think I'd already drawn quite a bit of it before I realzed I didn't actually know what color Petrol Head was, as everything was lit so savagely by cast light! In all my concept sketches he was blue or pink or whatever.

Like Rian Hughes I was (am?) a graphic designer before an artist, so there's also that design influence of big slabs of colour doing the work for you - and it really doesn't matter what color things are, so long as they work together and make stuff readable.

Process-Wise: I'll do some very scrappy thumbnails on the iPad — Procreate or CSP — for Rob to check angles and composition and stuff against the script, then swap to the proper computer to do the 'pencils,’ again, digitally in CSP. This is the first book I've done 100% digitally, I did my pencils in IRL previously.

I letter the pencils before inking to make sure everything fits nicely, and can make any adjustments that help the flow of the dialogue/storytelling. I do the final line work and flat color together for the whole issue, then go back though afterwards to finish the colors, adding lighting and stuff. I have a smallish palette I use, which both keeps everything unified and stops me wasting time choosing colors. Too much choice is a bad thing, I think, and the limited palette gives it a style of its own. 

The first run of the series is five issues, so we’re at the midpoint. What can you tease about what’s coming up in the back half of this first storyline, and perhaps even beyond that? And can you just go ahead and promise that we’re going to get an oversized concept art sketchbook at some point, because the galleries we’ve seen so far have been beautiful…!

Parr: Ha! Both Rob and I immediately asked for an oversized hardback when the collected edition was brought up by Image... Luckily cooler heads prevailed and suggested that maybe a couple of small fry upstarts would be best off establishing a fan base with a more conservatively priced paperback before disappearing up our own backsides with giant vanity editions. Still: YEAH IT'S HAPPENING. 

Williams: Our first arc is five issues — well, six issues really as #1 was double-sized. It's really a case of can Petrol Head, Dave and Lupa make it out of The Smogzone into the wider City. Lupa is carrying her father's invention - nano-bots that can clean the atmosphere. But she has to get those to the City's edge and outside before releasing them. And it's a big City. of course, they're meeting different characters along the way and that seems to lead to the ensemble constantly growing because we like these characters so much. In #1 you met Hybrid, Petrol Head's narcissistic nemesis from his old racing days. we find out what he's been doing since that time in #3 and it's some of my favorite scenes in the whole comic. Much like Satnav Sid, Hybrid makes us both laugh. And if a character is popping with us, there's a good chance they'll stick around.

We have plans for the second arc and beyond. Like Pye said, we'd love to do an oversized hardcover at some point. Pye's work on the book absolutely deserves it. The design sense, his colors, just how great the acting performances are that he gets from these characters. He's an extraordinary artist and we definitely plan for more Petrol Head in the future.

Petrol Head #3 is available from Image Comics now. If you’ve enjoyed Parr’s process work adoring this article, you’re probably joining me in wanting that concept art book already…

If you want to see more Petrol Head, why not revisit this preview of the second issue of the series?

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