Piston Pumping! Rob Williams and Pye Parr’s Petrol Head – Exclusive Interview

Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)

2000AD writer Rob Williams and artist Pye Parr have an amazing-looking creator-owned sci-fi project, Petrol Head, launching in November from US publisher Image Comics. Luke Williams finds out more…

In a dystopian future Earth has suffered environmental apocalypse, humans live in six domed cities, governed by the robot overseer “O”. As a “bread and circuses” distraction, the authorities lay on a series of sporting events for the masses. One of these was the Petrol Head, an orchestrated race of robot driven cars, each drives carefully designed and marketed to appeal to the public – except one. Looking like the offspring of a one night stand between Hellboy and Atomic Robo, one robot was so poorly designed and unappealing that his manufacturers didn’t bother giving him a glamorous nomenclature, and just called him  “Petrol Head”. 

Petrol Head lives out his retirement in the smog zone of the city, with his smart mouthed robot blue tit Dave, spending his time building an illegal hotrod, dreaming of past glories.  Its life takes a left turn when he gets a visit from “O”’s robocops, pursuing a scientist and his daughter, seeking sanctuary in ‘Head’s garage. Head is completely oblivious to their presence, until the cops knock his door find the fugitives and his naughty hotrod.

Oppressive future cities set in an era of ecological collapse are common in fiction, but it’s how you use that scenario is what is important. Petrol Head has sharp plotting and Rob Williams’ ear for cracking dialogue and there are echoes of his other work, such as “Judge Dredd”, and the overlooked “Ordinary”.

Pye Parr’s art, is sumptuous, vibrant, and looks animated in places. If you are familiar with his work for 2000AD(particularly “Intestinauts”) and Judge Dredd Megazine, then you have an idea of what to expect. The world is beautifully and believably designed and populated by an expressive and distinctive cast. Each page is a feast for the eyes, the art glows (in a good way). 

Environmental and societal collapse has never been as much fun or looked so good. I had to find out more and managed to secure a Q&A…

Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)

What were the inspirations for the book? 

Rob: Pye was doing these gorgeous posters of futuristic racing cars and robot drivers. They felt like a comic just waiting to happen, so I dropped him a line and asked if he’s thought about coming up with a story, central characters etc for just that sort of world. Then it was a case of us building a story, a world, a central narrative that would have a dramatic drive. 

pye: During lockdown, I had a vague idea for a narrative art book, inspired by the Etherington Brothers’ Stranski, and Josan Gonsalez’ The Future is Now. Not quite a comic or art/design book, but a mix of both (I’m no writer, so full stories where a problem, but I wanted some comics action sequences). It was really just an excuse to do something with a load of the crap I’d been working on in my spare time for a few years – mainly hotrod drawings. The first things I did specifically for it where the futuristic robot/car posters Rob mentioned above, but what he came up with is so much better than anything I’d imagined.

For a strip that is set at the end of the world, it’s very brightly (and beautifully) coloured, was that a deliberate decision to play against how this environment is usually portrayed?

Rob: Again, the tone of the book was really suggested by Pye’s colours and, if I remember rightly, one of his robot drivers was giving a thumb’s up. It’s a story about a line of drag racing robots in the future. It should be fast-paced and funny and fun, as well as being dramatic. Also, I’d been writing Roy Of The Rovers for a Young Adult audience and I really wanted to bring that sort of all-ages approach to this book, to make Petrol Head a comic anyone could enjoy. So, all this contributed to us making something that is, primarily, a really good time.

pye: Honestly, I just like bright colours! As Rob said, it’s an all ages book, so I didn’t want it to be some ‘dark’ (urgh) slog, we wanted it to be fun. It helps with storytelling too ,though – I tried to limit my palette a little bit in each of the main areas of the first issue, give each part its own sense of time and place.

Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)
Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)
Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)

Why robots and cars?

Rob: Why not? It’s a fine combination. And allows us to slip in some AI-worries subtext in our main story threat. Our big baddie is called ‘The O”, and he’s a City Administrator robot who’s taken his dictum to “keep the population safe” a bit too far. 

pye: Ha! Cos that’s’ what I’m good at and enjoy drawing, which always results in your best work. Hopefully other people like those things too!

It looks like you had lots of fun with the design on the robots, cars and other tech. What was the process between you on deciding the look of the world?

Rob: The look of the world, and the domed City containing all that’s left of humanity – that’s all designed by Pye. Pye loves cars and designs great futuristic cars. In terms of the characters, he and and I would go back and forth. It was very important to get Petrol Head right. But the moment we came up with the title, his design kind of suggested itself. He’s a robot who belches petrol fumes out of an exhaust on his head. I wanted him to be big, a bruiser, very much like a robotic Ben Grimm. A terrible design for a racing robot in a world of the streamlined. So he’s immediately the scrappy underdog, and that’s an archetype people respond to.

Domed Cities - Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)
Rob Williams and Pye Parr went back and forth a bit on the design of Petrol Head. This might be the first complete illustration by Pye of the obsolete, hotrod-racing robot, with a head that belches smoke!
Rob Williams and Pye Parr went back and forth a bit on the design of Petrol Head. This might be the first complete illustration by Pye of the obsolete, hotrod-racing robot, with a head that belches smoke!

pye: Yeah, some of it suggests itself – the cars are an extension of their drivers’ personalities for example, so the robots come first. Rob will give me a sentence or two about them, or what they’re gonna do and we go from there. Petrol Head took a bit of back and forth as he had to be right, but the rest came quite quickly I think. 

The good thing about robots is they can be built for purpose, so we can be very literal with their styling. The O is a supercomputer who looks after the city, so he ended up with a mega-brained head and loads of eyes. The whole process has been really enjoyable.

"The O" Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)
“The O”, governor of the domed cities

The robot characters are all striking. ‘Head himself is very distinctive, he’s not symmetrical and looks like he is built from a bits box. What’s the thinking behind that? Did you draw inspiration from any other characters?

Rob: In terms of character – because the look of all these major players in the comic is built around character – Petrol Head is a mix between Ben Grimm, Ernest Borgnine, Hellboy and Han Solo. He’s the heavyweight fighter who’s retired, but is forced to come back for one last fight. But in our case, it’s a race. And he’s like Han Solo, inasmuch as he’s grumpy and at first glance appears heartless, but you know there’s a good soul in there somewhere, just waiting to show itself.

pye: he’s built from scrap – an afterthought, but I did want his various bits and bobs to have a purpose, like his whole body is a giant Swiss army knife but for vehicle maintenance. His big arm I thought might be some kind of jack so he can work on his car himself without dragging a toolkit around. The smaller, third arm is human sized, so he can still use human-scaled stuff – and if you look closely at some of the other cars and robots, you’ll find various bits of Petrol Head have come from their spare parts piles, so they all share a common origin.

Petrol Head by Rob Williams and Pye Parr (2023)

What plans do you have for a sequel?

Rob: Issue one is double sized (for just $4.99) and then we have single issues up until Issue 5. That’s the end of our first arc. 

We’re definitely planning to continue the book, and expand the world. Every issue seems to suggest some new avenue we could follow, and our cast seems to get bigger and bigger as we go. There’s definitely more Petrol Head to come.

pye: Yeah, absolutely – the story doesn’t finish at the end of issue #5, it’s just the end of the beginning. I really want to carry on, if only to find out myself what Rob has planned! so… please go buy it everyone and we can do more!

What other projects do you have coming up?

Rob: I currently have “Judge Dredd: Poison” running in 2000AD, an eight-part whodunnit with Dredd trying to track down the murderer of Judge Hershey, with art by PJ Holden, colours by Pete Doherty and letters by Simon Bowland. And there’s another few longform Judge Dredds on the way. Probably the next one will be “A Better World’ by me, Arthur Wyatt and Henry Flint. That’s looking just incredible.

pye: I’m on Petrol Head solidly until next year, but after that I have an “Intestinauts” story to finish for 2000AD with Arthur Wyatt, and some art/design left to do on the [Rebellion Unplugged] board game Joyride, that smashed its Kickstarter goal recently. It’s got a very similar vibe to it as Petrol Head, so if you like one, check out the other. 

Really though, I just want to do more Petrol Head, and I’ll be back on that as soon as possible! 

Petrol Head is written by Rob Williams with art & letters by Pye Parr (Image Comics 2023) | Interview by Luke Williams

• The final cut-off date for orders for Petrol Head #1 is 16th October 2023. Petrol Head #1 will be on sale in comic shops from Wednesday 8th November 2023

To preorder from your Local Comic Shop, here are the Lunar Codes for the variant covers on Petrol Head #1 (Nov) Cover A by Pye Parr – Lunar Code 0923IM323 | Cover B by Pye Parr “Green” – Lunar Code 0923IM324 | Cover C by Pye Parr “Purple” – Lunar Code 0923IM325 | Cover D by Laurence Campbell – Lunar Code 0923IM326

Preorder Petrol Head #1 and #2 from Forbidden Planet (Affiliate Link)

Check out Petrol Head online at petrolheadcomic.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Rob Williams is a comics and screenwriter whose comics works include Suicide Squad, Martian Manhunter and Action Comics for DC Comics, Amazing Spider-Man, Ghost Rider and Daken for Marvel, The Sword of Hyperborea for Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, Kingsman: The Red Diamond for Millarworld, “Judge Dredd” for 2000AD, Doctor Who for Titan Comics and Star Wars and Indiana Jones for Dark Horse.

His creator-owned works include Unfollow and The Royals: Masters of War for Vertigo, Ordinary for Titan Comics, Old Haunts and Out for AWA and Cla$$war for Com.X.

He currently has screenplays in development with Village Roadshow, Anton and The Imaginarium.

Find Rob online at robwilliamscomics.co.uk | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Pye Parr
Pye Parr

Pye Parr (“Pye”) is a graphic designer, illustrator and comic book artist. Best known for his work on 2000AD, he has a highly diverse body of work, from comic art to gig posters, book jacket design, concept art, large scale oil paintings and corporate branding.

Clients include Games Workshop, Image comics, Z2 comics, Titan Books, Rebellion, Hasbro, CAB, Harper Collins, Hachette, and Penguin.

Find Pye online at pyeparr.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Check out Petrol Head online at petrolheadcomic.com | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Preorder Petrol Head #1 and #2 from Forbidden Planet (Affiliate Link)

All images © respective creators or publishers

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