Feature: Petrol Head and Lupa Interviews 

Rob Williams and Pye Parr Rev Up “Petrol Head”

By | October 9th, 2023
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

This November, writer Rob Williams and artist Pye Parr launch their new ongoing series “Petrol Head” at Image Comics. Set in a dystopian future during a climate-emergency, the series sees a young girl and her father trying to build a better world, and a robot from the defunct Petrol Head races might be their best hope. As dark as that sounds, this series is vibrant. To dig into the series and get some insight into its world, we’re chatting with the creators, Rob Williams and Pye Parr.

I’ve read more than a few post-climate crisis stories with characters trying to change their world, and more than a few times those characters have been young adults or robots, but I still haven’t read any like “Petrol Head.” This world is largely a wasteland and yet the lead character still sees beauty in the world around her—and rather than that being a factor that creates distance between her and the reader, because a desolate wasteland world is pretty unappealing to us, Parr’s vibrant art bridges that gap and shows us this world through Lupa’s eyes. How early on in the concept for this story did you lock into the idea of making “Petrol Head” vibrant?

Rob Williams: We wanted the book to be fun, first and foremost. And exciting and kinetic and colorful. Pye’s colors naturally lend themselves to a book that has an ‘up’ tone. And also, we wanted Petrol Head to be a comic that all ages could enjoy. So while we have a Climate Emergency as a backdrop to this futuristic city and I guess you could say that the book falls into the category of ‘dystopian sci-fi’ (even typing that makes me worry about cliché), there’s nothing depressing about the book. It is, at its heart, a story about a race of drag-racing robots in the future, and one girl who ends up going along for the ride.

Pye Parr: I’m naturally drawn to lurid colors, so it’s much of a personal preference as anything else. That said, this is supposed to be a fun story, and we wanted it to jump off the page, not be some moody slog. It adds a bit of unreality to it, and allows me to give each scene a sense of place or a mood. I read a good quote from George Miller on the black and white cut of Fury Road, saying something like the natural endpoint for making sci-fi movies more and more dull and washed out is to just film in black and white, no color at all. But ’cos he wasn’t allowed to do that he thought he’d go the exact opposite and be as vibrant as possible, to show the world as the people living in it see it.

There’s a moment in the first issue with Lupa looking up at particles igniting in the sky, and that could’ve been an element playing up how horrifying things are for humankind, but through her eyes it’s beautiful. When you say, ‘to show the world as the people living in it see it,’ that’s the scene that immediately comes to mind.

And with the robot racers, the Petrol Heads, the colors play into another dimension—they’re meant to be marketable, they’re meant to easily translate to toys. They each have distinctive silhouettes, even from a distance. I imagine the two of you must’ve had fun brainstorming what Petrol Heads could look like and what kind of vehicles they’d drive.

Pye: Someone mentioned that they’re a bit like professional wrestlers, which I’d not considered before, but is exactly right. Each has a style and character targeted at a specific demographic (with the exception of Petrol Head himself, who’s made of spare parts and scrap… Although I suppose he’s targeted at the reader themselves, being as he’s the underdog and looks the coolest!). We were quite literal in a few places—The O, the overseer robot who controls the whole city is a walking mega-brain with loads of eyes, Petrol Head literally has an engine for a head etc., etc. Hybrid, Petrol Head’s main rival in the first issue is a bit more Hollywood movie star, and his athetesis—slick, square-jawed and human looking (I think Rob mentioned Paul Newman in his brief) although he’s also bit ridiculous—i like that he wears a racing helmet and overalls AT ALL TIMES. He’s a robot, he doesn’t need any of those things, but he’s playing a part.

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We made their cars as much about their character as the robots themselves too. A couple of the vehicles undergo transformations—the first being Petrol Head’s hotrod that he’s been tinkering with and improving for years and years in his retirement, and the second is later on, although that’s a bit of a spoiler so I’ll shut up about it, but it’s cool to think about how to best represent their personalities.

Rob: It’s really not a meta book, but I guess the one aspect that is meta is the fact that the Petrol Heads were this race of robots who were all designed to appeal to certain demographics, to have certain narrative storylines attached to them, and that’s also what we’re doing as the comic’s creators. There’s a moment in #1 where the fix in the big Petrol Head race gets ripped down by something unexpected and The O, the City administrator (and our big bad guy) says “Narrative pivot!” and he makes sure a different audience-pleasing storyline plays out—in quite a cruel way.

But yes, the Petrol Heads were designed to be toys as well as robots, and we’ve designed them as such. Our main guy, Petrol Head, is the only one who doesn’t fit into the marketing team’s paradigms, and that’s because he’s made from spare bits left lying around. He’s the grumpy wild card, and there’s a bit of a soul in there too, which is easy to miss from his pugnacious manner.

Yeah, I love his design, especially the asymmetrical eyes that make it feel like he’s been punched in the face and he’s squinting. It definitely plays up the underdog aspect of the character. But also, Petrol Head’s face is totally rigid. He’s not like Hybrid, who has this very emotive face. But Hybrid is also very fake.

I find this an interesting creative choice though, because it means Petrol Head has to be expressed through body language, composition, color choices, and I think most importantly, what he chooses to do. There’s so much story baked into his design. As you both started work on this story, how did you hone this character into the guy we meet in issue #1?

Rob: The moment we landed on the name Petrol Head it seemed right. And it suggested a lot of story aspects. Here’s a robot who literally has an exhaust on his head and fumes belch out of it. That sort of led us down the road of the Climate Emergency backdrop, and that he was obsolete in an age of robots who look like they’re sort of derived from iPhone-tech. Everything’s getting slimmer and sleeker, and he’s not. He’s a very bad design for a racing robot. So, he’s the underdog.

And he’s a bruiser. Sort of a mix between Ernest Borgnine and Ben Grimm and Hellboy and Han Solo. He’s really the Han Solo archetype. The cynical grump who’ll cheat in the races, who will tell the world he doesn’t care, but really we know there’s a good soul in there somewhere. The fact that Petrol Head made Dave the Bird, who’s his conscience and is a pretty little thing. Well, that says a lot about what’s inside Petrol Head really, even if the exterior says otherwise. At the end of #1, Petrol Head makes a choice that isn’t really the act of a nice guy, but then something happens and a line is crossed and he’s immediately ‘Hey!’ He has a moral line. He’s forced into doing the right thing, maybe, but I like to think he was going that way anyway, eventually.

Yes, in the previews for issue #1, that aspect is already coming through when we see him with the metal rose he created.

Pye: Yeah, I think the metal rose and Dave the robo-bird tell you as much about his character as anything in that issue. There’s more going on inside there than you might expect looking at him. Rob was a little worried at one point that he might come across as a little too unlikeable at the beginning, but they pull him back.

It is interesting trying to get him to emote though being as his face is so static, so it’s all about body language and the angle we show him from. You can almost make him smile by tweaking the proportions a bit and moving the ‘camera’ so his frown’s not so pronounced.

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This first issue is a double length, and it’s absolutely packed. In particular, you really get to showcase a Petrol Head race. Given the breathing room of the extra pages, this sequence reads with all the energy of race, because you can do these big panels that show so much all at once. I’m just going to pick one from the preview here, where the foreground racer, Sump, gets taken out.

But in addition to that, we can see Hybrid taking the lead, we can see Petrol Head reacting quickly and swerving to avoid Sump, we can see Chief hanging back in third place. With less page real estate, this panel wouldn’t just be a smaller panel, it would need to be broken up into more panels to clearly convey all the information, which would slow the comic down and we’d lose the energy of the race.

Fast-paced action is a big part of the promise of “Petrol Head,” and this first issue delivers in spades.

Pye: Thanks. Yeah, it was nice to get that big race scene in. It sets the tone (and I get to draw cool stuff smashing into each other and exploding), but it’s as important in telling you about the characters as the scene directly before it where he’s all sad and lonely. What I really like about what Rob’s done here and later on in the book is that whoever wins these races is never really important—this isn’t a story about some dude fighting to win the league and be the best racing driver everrrr. There’s more at stake, and it gives you a much stronger reason to root for our protagonists.

Rob: One of the joys of making the first issue double-sized is letting everything breathe. That’s not just the big action sequences like the Petrol Head 5000 race flashback, but the character moments too. But one thing in comics is that if you want to do an action sequence that’s cinematic with little action increments—it eats up a lot of room. So for a car race sequence, foot on the floor, gear stick slammed forward, tightness of the driver’s eyes, car swerving through traffic—that’s a page, probably. And it’s just one part of a race sequence. So going double sized for #1 was important, we thought. And we’re giving readers a lot of bang for their $4.99. But then you can also have pretty much silent intro pages for Dave the Bird and Petrol Head’s garage, and the cat stalking Dave and him reacting. It’s a fun little sequence which establishes a lot about who Dave is, which we’d probably have had to have cut if this were a twenty-pager, say.

The issue certainly benefits from giving us key moments with each character. The marketing has called this series, “The Iron Giant meets Fury Road,” and as much as I enjoy the big Fury Road-esque action scenes, the character beats are what have me really hooked. So let’s discuss the other lead, Lupa. What made you want to write this story with a twelve-year-old protagonist?

Rob: Possibly because my daughter was twelve years old when we first came up with the pitch, and I figured I can get my research in for an authentic voice in the house. And the other reason is that this is meant to be a comic that all ages can enjoy, including kids. So, again, I have my own focus group at home. I’d been writing the reboot of “Roy of the Rovers” for Rebellion in the UK—Roy’s a very famous sporting icon in Britain, and a comic that has a Young Adult audience. I really enjoyed writing in that rather hopeful-but-with-drama tone. I found it quite freeing. You have to cut out the tendency towards over-complication and ‘look how clever this is’ and just bore down into accessible, clean, big emotional beats storytelling. And I thought I did some really good work in those “Roy of the Rovers” graphic novels as a result of that. So, that was an approach I wanted to bring to Petrol Head.

Pye: I think she’s a good foil to Petrol Head, he’s grumpy and cynical and past his prime, and she’s the exact opposite.

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I couldn’t help but notice that the things Lupa sees in her father that she admires and loves, are also attributes Petrol Head shares, most notably having a good heart.

Rob: Yup. They’re the good guys in this story after all.

Pye: Ha. Yeah, although I do really enjoy the bit where he chucks her under the bus (not literally) the first time they meet. You know he’s a good guy deep down, but he subverts your expectations a few times till Dave puts him straight.

“Petrol Head” was announced as an ongoing series, which is unfortunately something we’re seeing less and less of in comics lately. I like that you’re swinging big with this one and that you think it’s got fuel in the tank to go the distance. You mentioned in another interview the first arc is going to be five issues, but it only explores a small part of the world you’re creating together. How do you approach this sort of world building, where it has to serve that first arc really effectively, but also support more to come?

Rob: There’s an awareness that you’ve got to grab people quick and can’t wait too long to play your big moments or you’ll lose an audience, especially in the current market. But you also want to pace this out for the long haul. Our first arc, up to issue five, is really our heroes trying to get to one goal. You tease out little bits of world building along the way and they suggest all sorts of other stories we can tell in the future. Issue #1 states that the City, The O-Zone, is one of six cities containing what’s left of humanity. That one line alone could fill five more graphic novels, should we wish. And then you tease out certain plot points, like at the start of issue #2 you see a little of what happened to Lupa’s mum, and that could easily be another arc going forward. We certainly want this to be an ongoing. We’ll see how we sell.

Pye: I think you have to suggest rather than explicitly show that there’s a larger world beyond the main characters. This is another benefit to having the big spread images and the space to show more than just the immediate needs of the plot—we can do service to the background world as much as the action in the foreground. Rob’s really good at dropping in lines here and there that do this—the mantra of the City Administrators “The city is all, the city protects,” adds a kind of weird ritual element to their lives, and we don’t really learn anything about any human lives other than Lupa and her father, who clearly aren’t very typical anyway as they live in a laboratory… It’s all waiting to be explored. Can’t wait!

Neither can I.

You can learn more about “Petrol Head” over at PetrolHeadComic.com. The first issue comes out November 8, so make sure you pre-order soon; final order cut-off is Next Monday, October 16.

Written by Rob Williams
Illustrated and lettered by Pye Parr

On sale November 8, 2023
Lunar Code: 0923IM323
Full color, 48 pages

SERIES PREMIERE. JUMP STRAIGHT INTO THE NON-HUMAN RACE WITH 42 ROBO-GORGEOUS LAUNCH-ISSUE STORY PAGES! In a climate crisis-ravaged future metropolis, an old, grumpy, obsolete, smoke-belching, cigar-chomping, HOTROD-RACING ROBOT is one 12-year-old girl’s only hope. Together, can they outrace the chasing Robo-Cops with an invention that might just save humanity?

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.