Feature: Petrol Head #5, page 16 Interviews 

“Petrol Head: Welcome to the Non-Human Race”

By | April 25th, 2024
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Last month, the first arc of “Petrol Head” wrapped up. For those of you that haven’t read it yet, the series is kind of The Iron Giant meets Mad Max: Fury Road. The trade paperback collection is currently available for pre-order with the final order cut-off on Monday, April 29, so make sure you get on that. Unlike our last interview with writer Rob Williams and artist Pye Parr, this interview is spoiler heavy. We’re assuming you’ve already read the comic and want to explore it further.

Petrol Head – Volume 1
There’s a moment in the third issue of “Petrol Head” when The O talks about how robotic life-forms are different from humans. “Humans,” he says, “spend their lives wondering what their purpose is. Artificial life, however, know we are built for one reason only.” And this one moment became the lens through which I view the robot characters in this series.

And this is why the Petrol Heads are interesting to me, because they have two purposes. They had to try to be the best racing drivers in the world, but they also had to be characters that the audience could root for, so they had a secondary purpose of expressing their personality. And with the Petrol Head races gone, it’s interesting to see how this latter purpose has evolved.

In the case of Petrol Head himself, he built Dave the Bird, and programmed the cockney Satnav Sid—cockney purely because Petrol Head liked a cockney character in an old film. Even when making something like a satnav program, Petrol Head can’t help making something that expresses an aspect of himself.

Pye Parr: I think Petrol Head himself struggles to show his personality, but his creations like Dave and Sid show there’s more life and soul in there than would otherwise be apparent. I remember early on Rob worried a little that he was bordering on unlikeable in the first issue and based purely upon his actions and interactions with the other characters you could almost think that. But the fact he creates Dave, who is not only fun but kinda cute and small and delicate, and Sid who is ridiculous shows he has another side.

Rob Williams: There’s a line in issue #1 about how they gave them Feelings Circuits so there’d be drama when they crashed, when they died. The Petrol Heads would feel it. Once you do that you effectively give them souls. They all have idiosyncratic personalities. They may be robots, but the moment you give them feelings they want things, they have fears, they have insecurities. You’re effectively making them humans. Although their primary programming is to be very good at racing and to try and win races.

Now The O is a different artificial lifeform. He’s been given the myopic drive of “keeping the city safe.” And maybe that bolt got tightened a little too hard in the flashback we saw in issue #4. As we see in that scene, he’s given the freedom to interpret “giving the humans what they need” in his own way. And that can lead to bad outcomes for certain individuals. Of course, he has zero idea he’s doing anything nefarious. He’s the perfect example of just doing his job. Keep the humans in the city entertained, keep them safe.

I find The O particularly fascinating. After all, his job is to keep everyone in the city safe. But that gets complicated when Lupa’s father may have developed something that could lead to humankind one day leaving the city. I have to wonder how The O then interprets his instructions. Does he consider keeping humans in the city part of his duty too, whether the outside world is dangerous or not?

RW: We see him getting a head nut tightened a little too hard in issue #4. That explains a lot. It’s kind of his origin tale, that extra bit of tightness. He’s quite literal on certain bits of his instructions. He’s been built to keep everyone in the city safe and as happy as possible. That means he has to keep everyone in the city. Linton’s invention would mean opening the city bubble. That’s terrifying to him and potentially lethal to the people in his care. So, it’s a threat. He’s not evil, he’s just following his programming.

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PP: Yeah, or at least that’s the way I see it—he’s not evil, just interpreting his function in a very one dimensional way. To him, keeping humans safe from the dangers outside the dome is the same if that danger is getting the flesh stripped off your bones from the toxic weather, or like, tripping over a root and getting an infection from a small cut. In that way he’s far less human than the other robots in the story. Not quite Captain-Kirk-could-give-him-a-short-circuit-with-a-logical-fallacy, but getting there.

He also has an interesting dynamic with the Petrol Heads, since it was his decisions that led to the Petrol Head races in the first place, and led to them becoming obsolete later. And it’s all just a terrible distraction—the races weren’t good for humans, but they were good for The O because it kept humans compliant. I liked the details in this world that show how extremely integrated into everything The O is. He’s even on their cereal. It’s not just that he’s involved in every facet of the humans’ lives, but he wants them to know it too. It’s almost like he wants them to think that removing him will literally break everything.

RW: The O on the cereal box was Pye. That’s not in the script. But it’s a brilliant little world-building detail. There’s a lot of those if you look. There’s a real nihilism to the humans’ existence in The O-Zone. Their world died. The vast majority of humanity died. If you walk outside the Dome you die. You’d not blame the inhabitants of The O-Zone for going crazy. The O’s job is to keep them alive and to keep them sane—hence entertainment and toys and computer games. It’s one step removed from us all, really. Hey, death’s coming! But let’s play Football Manager on the iPad for days on end (he says from experience). You know it’s there, waiting, you just want to look at SHINY THINGS to distract.

PP: Haha, yeah, my one contribution to the text! We never really go into the human experience in the book, besides Lupa, and she probably lives a privileged life compared to most I’d guess—the average family wouldn’t get one of the city elders dropping in for a chat. But stuff like that cereal gives a flavour of what life might be like for the rest of the average schmoes in the O-Zone. That kind of passive aggressive friendliness hints at something quite sinister going on. Do they go to work or live lives of idle entertainment?

Hybrid was another character that changed quite a bit over this arc. He’s introduced as a Petrol Head that craves audience approval, but there’s definitely more to him. I mean, this guy bakes for some reason. And it seems in the absence of an audience, he’ll try to gain the approval of whomever needs him.

RW: I love Hybrid. He might be my favourite character in the book, by the end of the arc. He’s definitely not smart, he’s immensely narcissistic—all of which is his programming, so not really his fault. All the Petrol Heads were designed to fit certain demographics. He’s sort of like a Boy Band version of a Petrol Head. But when his reason to exist is taken away from him, as it was with all the Petrol Heads, what does he do? He bakes. Alone. And gets really good at it. That’s sort of his secret life, revealed at the end of issue #3 when Petrol Head, Dave, and Lupa come back into his life. And by the end he does achieve some form of epiphany in his defeat by SuperCarStar—he’s not the fastest or best Petrol Head racer. “Know your limitations is the moral of the story,” is a funny line from him, but it’s also his truth. And when he’s saying “I feel peculiar,” in issue five, having had his head removed from his body—I think he’s going through some shit. It’s amazing to me that this level of character arc and depth can come from an ostensibly comedic character who we only really came back to because I liked how much he annoys Petrol Head.

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PP: One of the fun things with Hybrid is he takes himself quite seriously, so it’s fun to poke him a bit and make him look silly, but he’s a rounded enough character that there’s something quite likeable about him anyway. He does help them out quite selflessly in the end.

Then there’s SuperCarStar, a Petrol Head that gets reprogrammed to be evil.

We don’t really get to see it in this arc, but this does raise the question of how a Petrol Head’s emergent personality could interact with new programming.

RW: SuperCarStar is an anomaly really. The Petrol Heads all have their own distinct personalities. And she has hers. But The O reprograms her in order to use her as a weapon to take down Petrol Head and recover Linton’s invention. Is her personality still bubbling away beneath her new “evil” mission? We’ll have to wait and see.

PP: She’s got the EVIL FACE MASK on now, so who knows what’s going on under there. Maybe the whole situation is against her will…? Maybe she was a bastard to start with…? Why was she in a tank and Hybrid and Petrol Head were out in the world doing their own thing…?

Pye, one of the really cool things about the single issues was how you included extras, with a look at the design work on the series. It was particularly cool to see the design work for The Chief, considering it’s a vehicle that undergoes a major change from its racing days to its current version. There’s so much work that happens before you even start drawing the comic’s pages. What was this early phase of working on the comic like?

PP: I love drawing all the stuff in advance, as there’s no pressure to make anything work, you can play with style, and just come up with fun looking shit. Nothing is set in stone. The last thing you want to happen is have some MacGuffin you scribbled in two minutes end up being a major story point that you end up stuck with for hundreds of panels (and vice versa). That said, no matter how much you plan/design, I find characters evolve on the page anyway, as you find better ways to draw them or push the characterisation and proportions.

Dave is a good example; he looks significantly different at the end of issue #4 compared to his first couple of panels. Petrol Head changes quite a bit too but in less obvious ways. I was always tweaking the shapes that make up his arms as I realised I couldn’t make them move in the ways we needed sometimes. It’s like a constant quest to get the next image more correct than the last.

As far as deliberate evolutions go, I remember being a bit sad to start with when The Chief got upgraded as I really liked the way the car looked in the earlier story/drafts!

Rob was having to push me a bit to get it as extreme as it ends up. He was absolutely correct to do so—it feels right now and has much more personality. We went through a bit of “make the engine even bigger!” style back and forth, till I eventually added the jet turbine thing on the front almost as a joke, but it immediately stuck. At the same time I used it as an excuse to absolutely DUMP the ride height compared to the earlier version, which had started to bug me, and add some 70s F1 style touches—the big air scoop on the roof and some massive wide slicks etc.

Thematically, I like the way the changes to The Chief, the way it’s a louder design, with more of its engine exposed—it feels like Petrol Head expressing himself with no apologies.

RW: Yeah, it’s very much his id. Whereas Dave the Bird is his conscience. Petrol Head built both. Which, I guess, shows the nuance and complexity inside him. When they built Petrol Heads to have their own personalities, they kind of gave them a soul. Petrol Head’s creativity comes out the same way that any human’s does. You’re not entirely sure what you’re going to end up with. But it’s all parts of you.

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PP: I’d not really considered it that way, but yeah that’s right. His car’s no longer confined by whatever rules and regs it had to pass to run in the Petrol Head 5000, so he can do what he wants with it now, but Petrol Head himself is like the opposite, stuck in the smog zone with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

I’m glad you mentioned Dave and his shifting design, because in a way, you’ve got a story-based reason to change his design further in the next arc, assuming (fingers crossed) that he gets repaired.

RW: Well, we’ll have to see about that one. On the one hand it’s a cheap dirty writer’s trick to kill a character for the gut punch and then just bring them back. Petrol Head is speaking the truth when he says he “doesn’t know” if he can fix Dave. If the robots in this world have their own unique personalities and souls, it’s not as simple as just switching them off and switching them back on again. And maybe if they do get repaired, they’d be different.

PP: Oooh yeah, that’s a good idea actually—grizzled, eye-patch peg leg Dave with a lame wing… As Rob said though, no idea what the plan is there, so you (and I) will have to wait and see.

I wanted to talk about another character, one whose absence has been felt since the first issue, Lupa’s mother. She’s a character we’re introduced to in pieces, stemming from Lupa’s last memory of her. It’s a memory where she has to seem like a robot, and while you have humanoid robots in “Petrol Head,” their proportions are pushed to extremes far beyond human. This design choice has an interesting effect on Lupa’s mother, where her suit makes her look really alien—but as the scene progresses, as we understand that it is Lupa’s mother, the design has to serve another purpose, where it shows how isolated she is. The oversized headspace makes her look small and fragile.

I don’t know how much you can say about this scene, since there’s clearly still more to tell in future arcs, but I am curious how it evolved and why it was important to you to have this fear of robots in Lupa.

RW: That scene just came to me, fully formed, and then it was a case of seeing if it fitted, really. Lupa as a child, and the reason she doesn’t like robots, being so pivotal. Considering that she’s then going into a world surrounded by robots. Her as a young child being scared by this huge “robot” but then—misdirect—we find that it’s not a robot, but her mother in a containment suit. But the fact that her mother then walks off and leaves her, heading outside the Dome apparently to her death. That all becomes a very traumatic memory for Lupa that’s rather key to who she is going forward. She was left behind. She became an orphan and her association with robots goes back to that initial “fear.”

Of course, you could do the whole story without that backstory, with Lupa being the determined young girl teaming up with Petrol Head, but it adds some emotional weight to her, some tragedy. And it shows her relationship with her father, and how vital that is to her. Plus Pye drew that scene unbelievably well. And added small little “slice of life” details like the cereal being eaten, what breakfast is like in the Domed City. It grounds the story, small details like that. Makes people feel real.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews how Mad Max: Fury Road was an inspiration for this project, and this is one of those aspects where I feel that influence at work. The film is, after all, one long sustained chase, and part of the reason it works is because it’s peppered with shifting character dynamics between everyone on Furiosa’s rig. Did we need a thread tracking Nux’s footwear? No, but the film is better for it.

Considering this first arc is one long chase, and by the end it looks like the chase is set to continue in the second arc, I really appreciate these details. There’s no “chase fatigue” setting in—I’m eager for more. What’s the appeal for you in creating a story that’s primarily a chase, especially considering the long-form approach?

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RW: From a narrative point of view a chase story ticks a lot of very simple and necessary boxes—what’s driving our protagonist(s) on? They’re being chased by bad guys. What do our protagonists want? To not get caught. There be drama here, immediately.

Of course, it’s then up to us to make you care about those characters, to make the readers laugh and cry etc., and if you’re telling a chase story, it better be a visceral thrill, and Pye does that in spades with “Petrol Head.” It could easily be tough to sell car chases in a comic where you don’t have the sensory hit of the noise and the crashes, but I think we have some of the best car chases ever seen in a comic here. We’ve gone for the Frank Quitely technique of drawing in the SFX and making them part of this world.

Also, if the story was just one long chase that could get tiring for an audience, so it’s all about peaks and valleys. Having them stop off on their journey, before heading off again. And when it comes to Series Two, like any sequel, you kind of have to do the same thing again—it’s part of the DNA of the book—but with a somewhat fresh twist.

PP: The other thing that stuck with me from that film is the colours—absolutely ramped up so everything is bright yellow and orange and silver and blue.

Another reason the chase works so well is your art. The movement of the vehicles reads so beautifully, you can feel the speed and the weight. You capture that dynamism without warping the rigid body of the vehicles in a noticeable way. I feel like you hit just the right tone in the movement, where the action can be larger than life, without crossing the threshold into Looney Tunes physics.

PP: In a similar way to making faceless robots “act”, the body language of the vehicles is the main tool you’ve got to show what the cars are doing—weight shifting in corners, inside front wheel lifting off the ground under acceleration out of corners etc etc. The Chief is pretty jacked up to start with too, which was really helpful in selling that, but it also gives you a chance to show the different characters of the drivers—Petrol Head’s car slides, oversteers, wallows around and generally looks a lot more fun to drive than Hybrid’s car, which is more flat and purposeful.

Is there anything you’re particularly excited to tackle in the second arc?

PP: Lupa’s mum! “Give me the nano-bots and I’ll tell you where your mother is,” is a quietly devastating line from The O in issue #5, which is easy to overlook as it suddenly gets very fast after that. I’m also looking forward to revisiting some scenes we drew for the initial pitch which haven’t made it into the comic yet—namely a chase scene through heavy human traffic, with robots in a tank/bulldozer/supercar mashup in hot pursuit. And for some reason I can’t get the image of Petrol Head driving across the wall of the dome itself out of my head—wall of death style.

RW: We’ve talked about a bunch of things that made us giggle, which appears to be the defining aspect of what gets us excited about the story. Esoteric things like the over-zealous drone—“DESTROY!”—continuing his chase in a Captain Ahab-like manner.

Satnav Sid maybe getting a romantic interest. These are not plot-heavy details perhaps, but they seem to get us excited. There’s the mystery over Lupa’s mum. And really, with Petrol Head now entering the main City, The O-Zone, we have a whole new world to explore. The Petrol Heads were shut down and replaced by more advanced robotics and extreme sports—what will they look like? And there’s humans in The O-Zone in a way that there wasn’t in The SmogZone, where the bulk of Series One took place. That’s going to add a fresh fleshy element. Plus Dave. Will Dave be fixed? We’re eager to find out ourselves.

You can keep up to date with the latest “Petrol Head” news at PetrolHeadComic.com, or by following the “Petrol Head” Instagram, Threads, or by joining the “Petrol Head” mailing list. You can also follow Rob Wiliams and Pye Parr over on BlueSky.

Mark Tweedale

Mark writes Haunted Trails, The Harrow County Observer, The Damned Speakeasy, and a bunch of stuff for Mignolaversity. An animator and an eternal Tintin fan, he spends his free time reading comics, listening to film scores, watching far too many video essays, and consuming the finest dark chocolates. You can find him on BlueSky.