Remember the magic of the circus? The awestruck glee of children as they watch death-defying entertainers? The whimsical lunacy of the clowns? Yeah, me neither — but Steve Carey does a fine job of keeping the circus from scarring your soul with Poppycock Circus.
One’s first thought might be "Why do a comic about the circus?", and it’s certainly understandable. In this age of reality-based television, PETA and first-person shooter games, circuses aren’t the symbol of wonder and merriment they were, say, 60 years ago. At best they’re a throwback to a bygone era, and at worst they’re a breeding ground for the deepest, darkest nightmares of the inner psyche. Carey simultaneously tiptoes around this and revels in this bizarre setting by way of his well-developed cast.
Heading it up is Mike Poppycock, founder and ringmaster of the group. Mike comes across like P.T. Barnum’s world-weary twin brother, too good-natured and apathetic to outright swindle people continuously. That’s not to say he doesn’t favor victimless crimes, such as the government subsidized Poppycock Church, among other opportunistic endeavors.
Next is circus strongman Pete "Petulant Pietro" Von Stroffel, aka "The Strongest Man Alive". Like Poppycock, Peter is just edging past his prime. Once claimed to have "made it with all five Golden Girls," Pete has been humbled by age (though he won’t admit it), and serves as a sort of weird mentor for the rest of the cast.
Chauncey the Wonderbear is – as luck would have it – an actual bear. While his main stage act consists of juggling chainsaws on a unicycle, Chauncey serves as the soft-spoken, eco-friendly pacifist of the group. He’s the moral center in a world where morality shifts from day-to-day.
Clyde and Benny are Laurel and Hardy, respectively, in clown makeup. Rather, Benny’s in clown makeup. Clyde doesn’t actually need to wear makeup, we discover. He’s just a freak of nature.
Paul the Amazing Daredevil is a twentysomething former member of Jackass, forever shamed for getting on Kurt Loder’s bad side. It’s not exactly clear what death-defying stunts he performs in the circus.
In fact, the circus itself serves only as a sort of backdrop (no pun intended) for the comic’s character-driven storylines, which follow sitcom-style fare. Carey shows a clear love for 80s-style goofiness, and while there haven’t been any "Say No to Drugs" episodes, or storylines about enemies locked in the basement, the Reagan-era influence is there. At the same time, don’t think the comic is made of rehashed ideas you’ve seen before – the storytelling (and humor in particular) has a sharper bite than most webcomics out there.
Surprisingly melancholy in Poppycock Circus is how much of the cast is a bit pathetic at this point in their lives. Carey’s well-aware that circuses as a concept haven’t been in vogue for years, and his cast is appropriately aloof, either through blissful ignorance (like the younger members) or quiet resignation (like strongman Pete and Poppycock himself). One storyline is devoted to how a television show of Poppycock Circus would really only play well to the undead. Like a Coen Brothers film, the characters are sympathetic enough to be appealing, but pathetic enough to be mocked.
Carey’s full-color art is bold and sometimes rough around the edges, but it is credited with the consistency and old-school flavor of classic comic strips. It blends well with the circus motif.
The website itself is as bold and colorful as the comic, but basic enough where the comic still has center stage (again, I apologize). Webcomic sites often run a-clutter with blogs, sidebars, tagboards, surveys and other distractions on the front page, so Poppycock‘s use of "White space" is refreshing.
Because of its basic art style and simple design, Poppycock Circus is easy to dismiss. Like the circuses of Yesteryear, it has a charm that a quick glance may not recognize, but a zip through some of the archives may make you a lifelong circus fan, with none of the real deal’s emotional tainting.
Except for the comics that talk about the Golden Girls anyway.