Readers of the Iowa Informer may be familiar with the work of cartoonist Samuel Locke Ward, in the form of his Scumbag Grassley comic. Ward is a prolific artist who also contributes to Iowa City’s Little Village magazine, where his Futile Wrath series was named cartoon of the year in 2020 by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He juggles this with multiple self-published comic book series and is equally (if not more) prolific as a musician, with a steady stream of album releases that cover a dizzying array of genres (and some that defy classification).
It’s a lot of fun to step into Ward’s world and see what he’s interested in currently, and I heartily recommend that you do, because I have no doubt you’ll find something you like, or, at the very least, something that will make you step back and say, “Now THAT is interesting.”
One of my favorite of Ward’s comics is his series Beasts Of Heaven, which ran for 12 issues from 2016 to 2017 and was the first longform graphic narrative he created. (Ward’s released several since, including Big Pork, whose first installment was featured by the Informer, and his recent ’93 Grind Out.
The main plotline of the series centers around used car salesman and self-proclaimed “King of Cars” Don Reeks, a drunk and sleazeball who lives in Common City. One evening after a drinking binge with one of his underlings, Barthe, the pair run across a gang killing. Reeks blacks out, and a giant woman barbarian in a mask with a sword is vomited from his mouth, leaving Reeks’ fleshy husk behind.
That’s just the setup, and to reveal too much more would be in spoiler territory, but this is only one of the story threads in Beasts Of Heaven that gets woven into a much, much larger tapestry. Throughout the 12-issue run, we learn about Reeks’ heritage and his daughter’s punk band and meet the mayor and much of the police force of Common City. The story reaches into the past with occasional flashbacks, and the ending goes to some pretty cosmic-level places, but along the way we get story beats from the used car dealership, the apparently immortal barbarian woman’s impact on this small town, gang warfare, and how the police force reacts to the ever-increasing body count.
All of these threads (and quite a few more, actually) are all deftly tied together, one by one, which is impressive. What’s even more impressive is how most writers would be heavy-handed about this kind of story, but Ward’s talent is very firmly rooted in the punk rock world, so the entire story is filtered through this lens, which means that the comic is labeled for “mature readers,” and it definitely earns that label. There’s lots of F-bombs, cartoonish gratuitous violence (eyes pop out of their sockets frequently, and the third issue proudly proclaims to contain “more punching”), and there aren’t really any heroes to be found anywhere in the series, just a bunch of small town folk responding to insane and ridiculous circumstances. We also get some occasional social commentary along the way.
The artwork, by being as punk and cartoonish as it is, downplays the actual gore factor, which helps add to the story. Ward is clearly influenced by underground cartoonists, and you can see hints of R. Crumb and Ted McKeever in his linework. The writing, however, is similar to a TV series in the vein of Fargo or The Sopranos — just with psychedelic drugs and a punk rock soundtrack.
The series has been collected in some compendiums, if you can’t find the single issues, but the unique story is well worth seeking out. You can also find a lot of his work for sale on his bandcamp page.