September 30, 2013

Comics Artist Paul Pope

Artists, critics, and comics aficionados will tell you there's no one quite like Paul Pope working in American comics today. With his hyperkinetic line contrasting with strong lush inkwork his panels alternately brood and slouch or animate themselves on the page, fizzing and hissing with energy. He has produced well received independent and adult comics (see Heavy Liquid, 741.5973 POPE in our catalog) or worked new creative angles on big name projects (the critically acclaimed Batman: Year 100 -- 741.5973 BATMAN among others).



In Battling Boy Pope he gets to play with a lighter touch, creating a coming-of-age heroes tale starring teen gods, action-science soldiers, and a world overrun with huge monsters and nasty boogeymen. He allows himself to play in a realm that harkens back to the pulp science fantasy stories of a more innocent era (Flash Gordon, or works by Jack Kirby) while keeping a contemporary feel.

The City of Arcopolis stretches from sea to sea, within its walls incarnate nightmares like Sadisto and his gang of child-snatching ghouls crawl out from the shadows causing havoc. The monster army is held in check only by the determination and savvy of the City's champion, science warrior Haggard West. Ghouls being masters of ambush however, the hero is led into a boobytrap and blown to smoke by a rooftop zapgun. The City, bereft of its defender, can only mourn and wait in fear.

Two heroes may rise to meet the challenge. Haggard West's daughter Aurora has been trained since birth to assist him , and now without her father has the will and determination to make his killers pay, but lacks the experience, his equipment, training...

Elsewhere, in the "hidden gilded realm' a young god has reached his day of turning at age thirteen, and ready-or-not he is kicked out of this Asgard-like floating kingdom to become a great hero and earn his godhood, or die in the process.

Pope's tween heroes are realistic kids. The eponymous hero is alternately unsure or overconfident, impatient or bold and ultimately somewhat overwhlemed by responsibility. When he gets into trouble (trying to defeat a city-eating batpig beast) he does what all good kids are trained to do, he calls his Dad, a bombastic thunder-god type who already has enough on his plate saving other universes. If the results are anticlimactic here it is still an important lesson learned, to feel like you have earned your stripes sometimes you have to handle things yourself.

In Pope's prior work he is noted for his ability to render the claustrophobic density of New York City (or Gotham, same thing). Soot and shadow, grit and garbage darken the pages. Here he still puts rivets on trestles and dirt in the streets, but his sprawling Arcopolis is a brighter more open landscape and skyline. The architecture and flora suggests the Southwest, perhaps even Mexico-- a cactus garden grows in a courtyard at Aurora's sprawling ranch home, icons of Aztec or Mayan influenced art decorate eaves and murals on the buildings. The color palette is even bright, occasionally too light -- as in an early sequence when the streetlights kick on and ghouls creep out from the shadows, but panels are still rendered in happy pastels.

The story is lighter in tone as well, fresh not jaded. These are kid heroes in a fantastic realm, not grim anti-heroes in a cynical world. Even if he is fighting nightmares face to face, Battling Boy's utter lack of experience prevents him from being crushed under the weight of responsibility.

Backstory suggests this lighter feel was the hope in creating this series, that there would be a market for the same sort of exuberant enjoyment of possibility as there was in the early years of comics, when comics books were intended to be read by kids.

While the technology may have the energy of 1950's whizbang gadgetry, other details reflect the world as we know it. Pope's heroes are always clothed in realistic costumes: his boots have a clunky dirty feel, jeans fray at the hem, teens' sneakers seem oversized as they always do. No seamless spandex, Pope will carefully render corduroy if it makes a character more credible. This is part of the charm of his stories, his characters feel real even when faced with an impossible world. Here he renders the impossible in a lively and plausible way. I'm looking forward to the next book, especially with the serious and determined Aurora West claiming more scenes for herself.

We'll preview Battling Boy in next week's Comics Jam, reading it aloud and projecting it on the Big Screen for all to enjoy the frenetic exuberance. Tuesday October 8, afterschool 4PM in the kids' room.

Then Thursday 10/10 at 7PM we'll be joined by the artist himself to read more, talk about the book and his other works, and hopefully do some live drawing for us. Hope to see you there!

Posted by Dave at September 30, 2013 09:00 PM
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