The Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch

First published in The Webcomics Examiner, March 2005

When The Webcomics Examiner ran its list of The Best Webcomics of 2004 in December, the list provoked considerable debate among readers about comics that were included that shouldn’t have been, and comics that weren’t, but should have been. Which is perfectly natural—in fact, provoking such debate is one of the major points of publishing such a list. What was notable about the debates, however, was that the absence of one particular comic was commented on more than any other. That comic was The Perry Bible Fellowship, by Nicholas Gurewitch.

The Perry Bible Fellowship (PBF) is something of an odd duck in the webcomics world. Despite more than a year’s worth of weekly updates and an increasingly vocal following, the strip has remained virtually unknown within a large portion of the webcomics community. This may be due in part to the strip’s having followed a reverse path from most webcomics— while many creators who have established their popularity on the web are now seeking to break into newspapers, Gurewitch came to the web having already established a print following. PBF got its start in a college paper, Syracuse University’s Daily Orange, then went on to win Baltimore City Paper’s Comic Contest in September of 2003. PBF has appeared in Baltimore City Paper’s print weeklies and on the newspaper’s website ever since, and has begun showing up in a number of additional metro weeklies as well.

When it comes to form, PBF isn’t pushing against any boundaries— it’s a straightforward three (or sometimes four)-panel gag strip, formatted for newspaper syndication. And unlike most such gag strips, PBF isn’t daily, or even thrice weekly. One three (or sometimes four)-panel strip is all you get each week. But what PBF lacks in form and frequency, it more than makes up for with consistently funny writing and some of the prettiest artwork you’ll see in any newspaper gag strip.

Gurewitch’s humor is decidedly strange, oftentimes downright morbid. Which isn’t to say that it’s in any way angsty, pessimistic, or gothy. It may be morbid, but…it’s cheerfully morbid. In fact, many of Gurewitch’s best moments result from his juxtaposition of the horrific with the wholesome. For instance, there’s the strip titled “Astronaut Fall,” wherein an astronaut on a spacewalk slips out of orbit and plummets toward Earth. The second panel depicts the horrifying scene of the doomed man burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. By the third panel, there’s nothing left but a single bit of falling ash, spied by a pair of children playing outdoors. The sweet little girl catches the ash on her tongue, chirping her delight at having caught the first snowflake of the season. The sequence is horrible, disturbing, and perfectly precious.

Or there’s the more recent strip, “Cars,” about a pair of adorable cartoon cars who are bored with traveling to the same places all the time. So they set out for an exciting new destination: “the ocean!” And it’s all very picture-book sweet— until you notice the terror-stricken human passengers, all of whom are silently drowning to death while the bubbly cartoon cars have their little adventure.

Despite the title, The Perry Bible Fellowship can’t easily be mistaken for a Christian comic. Although religious themes do come up, Gurewitch’s handling of them is far from reverential. For instance, God’s preoccupation with sex has been demonstrated more than once, in strips like “Eden” and “Angel’s Caught.” But even such religious satire is only an occasional theme. In fact, PBF isn’t consistently concerned with any particular subject matter, beyond Gurewitch’s interest in blending seemingly incongruous imagery into cheerily subversive humor. There is no ongoing story to PBF, nor any recurring characters, save the Schlorbians, a group of space-faring aliens who spend their time tormenting Earth and killing puppies. Even God’s handful of appearances doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s the same god, as he appears quite different in each instance.

Gurewitch’s artwork has come a long way from his early strips. His early humans were usually undefined blobby figures, much like what Box-jam might look like without the muumuu. He has continued to rely on those blobby figures, but has since refined their representation into a more clay-like form, still highly anonymous, but with much greater physical dimension. (“Cars” offers a good example of this.) More than anything, they resemble elongated Pillsbury doughboys, a fact of which Gurewitch is likely aware, judging by his e-mail moniker of “pillsburysoldier.”

Despite these strangely shapeless people, Gurewitch’s art is, in fact, not often minimalist. His choice of style varies widely from strip to strip; contrast the pleasant perkiness of “Cars” with the faux vintage woodcut detail in “Gotcha the Clown.” His style even varies within individual strips, such as the combination of futuristic cartoony-ness and more detailed line-work in “Captain Redbeard.” Or, more impressive still, “Billy the Bunny,” which progresses from simplistic picture-book doodles of Billy the Bunny getting chased out of a carrot patch by a farmer, to a considerably more realistic panel of a mom and baby reading the picture book, while glowering at mean old farmer Ben. Finally, the strip culminates in an even more realistically detailed image of farmer Ben crying in his ramshackle hovel, because Billy’s destruction of the carrot crop means he won’t be able to keep his family fed through the winter. As the story progresses from pure fantasy, to accepted reality, to harsh reality, the artistic style adapts to suit, effectively capturing the thematic movement of the mini-narrative.

While most of the print versions of PBF are black and white, for the web incarnations, Gurewitch adds color to many of the strips, and his color work alone makes PBF worth visiting. For most of the color strips, Gurewitch favors vivid, but softly textured colors, reminiscent of Metaphrog’s use of color in their Louis books. The effect, of course, is to heighten the sense of innocence captured in the artwork, bringing yet another level of irony to the disquieting content of the strips.

Between the cool, distinctive artwork and the unpredictable and genuinely funny writing, the worst thing there is to say about The Perry Bible Fellowship is simply that it doesn’t update often enough. The weekly update schedule may very well be the prime reason why it has taken more than a year for PBF to start to achieve a higher profile among webcomic readers, since it can be very difficult for a webcomic— especially a gag comic— to gain a wide audience without daily publication. And yet, unlike most gag strips, PBF is able to create a memorable impression with just a single strip, nearly every time— an enviable achievement for any comics creator. While a weekly schedule would result in a seeming dearth of content and spell failure for most gag strips, in The Perry Bible Fellowship’s case, it simply leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the next week’s update. For those who don’t mind sacrificing quantity in favor of quality, Nicholas Gurewitch’s odd little comic is well worth waiting for.