Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Battling Boy

Written and Illustrated by Paul Pope
Published by First Second

There are monsters everywhere in the universe and heroes destined to stop them or die trying.

Then there's a boy, who really doesn't want what fate intends.

This is his story.

While I'm not always a fan of his plotting, from the first time I saw his artwork, I became a big fan of Paul Pope. His fluid lines that often feel like they're going to morph and change even as the reader encounters them. No one else in comics works quite like Pope. He creates intricate details that define his worlds down to the trash on the streets but can also be almost abstract in his use of space, all within the same story. His characters never lack for distinctive clothing that helps define them or give us a sense of place.

When you get a Paul Pope story, you get an entire world, especially when he's working in a futuristic time like we get in Battling Boy. And even if the script falls short, you'll have no problem lingering on the details of the creations put together by Pope.

But in Battling Boy, which made a ton of Best of lists (and just narrowly missed mine), Pope puts it all together, creating a story worthy of the art portraying it and raising him up from an artist who also writes to a creator, like Walt Simonson, Tom Scioli, or Mike Mignola. This is the kind of story I'd hoped to get from Pope but didn't in 100%, where the fantastic elements felt tacked on, rather than organic.

Battling Boy couldn't be more different in its approach. From the earliest pages, where boys playing ball linger on the streets too long and are taken by hooded, bandaged monsters, we know we're in a future that's bleak and in need of heroes. Pope gives us one in Haggard West, then promptly takes him away again, making things even more desperate than before.

It's great storytelling that gets a mirror version when we meet Battling Boy's father. He's a successful hero, bringing home booty while children in his world play ball without a care, waiting for their time to also be heroes. The echo is evident, and is part of the improvement in Pope's storytelling ability. This is a world where fighting evil is considered a thrill, showing a move to maturity when you come back victorious. If you can't handle it, you die, and that's better than the shame of living.

For the father, a world where monsters destroy families isn't a moral evil that must be vanquished (something we might see had this been a Ditko or Kirby story) but a rite of passage for his son. That arrogance takes away from his heroic nature, and puts the focus on the idea of why a person becomes a hero. Are you still doing good, if you're doing it for yourself, rather than the self-sacrifice such heroism usually represents?

That's a question that sticks with Battling Boy through its entire run. Our title character doesn't really want this life for himself, and it's clear that's the case as he tries to use the powers given to him by his parents (in the form of t-shirts that give him the powers of the creature displayed on it*) rather than his own innate talents.

Meanwhile, West's daughter, who doesn't have anything other than her desire to avenge her father by using his old weapons, tries against the odds to be the hero that Acropolis needs, risking herself without the aid of a safety net.  Complicating all of this is a clever politician who needs a public face to help him save his city--or be the scapegoat. His definition of what makes a hero leads to a deadly farce as this volume reaches its climax when everyone involved, from monsters to mayors, realize that Battling Boy is a lot less than he is supposed to be.

That's exactly the kind of complications that make Battling Boy so good. Pope is working out of the Kirby playbook (epic story, heroes and villains, technology and a bit of sorcery, increasingly strange creatures, etc.), which is part of why this one had a lot of appeal for old-school comics fans. But the thing I appreciate is that Pope doesn't just stop there. Like a good pulp style novelist who understands that what worked in the 1930s won't hold with a modern reader, Pope puts in shades of grey where those who he's emulating either could not (due the Comics Code) or would not (due to their own personal beliefs). Sure, Battling Boy is an adventure tale, but it's one with a lot of nuance and difficult questions, starting with "Why don't those people in the sky all team up and take out these creatures, one world at a time?"

The reason is left up to the reader--my personal take is that they care more for individual glory than in actually helping others--and that failing is what drives the narrative. Like it or not, Acropolis is on its own, with only children to stem the tide against overwhelming forces and weak-willed leaders who care more for show than in actually doing something.

That last bit could give Pope a lot of opportunities to make commentary on our world. After all, don't most start as idealized youth with a cause (like West's daughter), get pushed about by their elders (Battling Boy), and end up caught up in the chase of fame and power (basically all of the adults in charge)? In addition to the overall story and the character arcs, Pope can also do some social commentary, if he'd like, or even just leave those clues there for folks who want to take the time to do an extended reviews and analysis of what is sure to be a work that will be discussed at length once the entire story is finished.

And I am pretty sure this is going to be one of those stories. Unless Pope falls off the rails in the future installments (or fails to complete the tale), Battling Boy almost certainly will be an evergreen tittle. There's so much going on, and it's all being done so well, that I can't imagine this falling out of attention, especially since there's going to be more of it to keep it in focus. It's funny what will hold attention of comics fans, so I could be wrong, but I think this is the one that might establish Pope in the comics canon.

I've spoken a lot about the plotting elements, but I'd be remiss if I didn't also go over the art. After all, that's the major draw for Pope, and he doesn't disappoint. From the first time we see the hooded monsters (page three), with their ragged attire and bandages that mask what we eventually find is hideous grey flesh, it's clear we're in a world that may be Earth (as shown later) but is not meant to be our reality. The looks of fear on the faces of the captured children only shift slightly when West appears to save them. The things he must do to stop the monsters are nearly as terrifying for them, and Pope makes sure the reader understands that.

When we shift to the land of the "heroes" up in space, Pope moves from down to Earth grittiness (literally) to whatever crazy space concepts he can think of and put to page. We open with an Asgard-like floating city, which has greenery careening off the edges. Infinite worlds steam before Battling Boy's parents like DNA strands (another great visual touch), and tigers lounge around overgrown ruins that are either there for atmosphere or show the characters don't care for anything but battle, depending on how you want to read the story.

Once we go back to Earth, Pope mixes more insanity into the visuals. If this epic character is going to win glory, he must face creatures worthy of his mettle--or die trying. So we get a metal-eating, saber-toothed giant of a thing, with impotent wings, bat ears (complete with earring), and strength that no one can match. It's hideous and gorgeous, all at the same time, and Pope clearly enjoys romping it across his created world, destroying as much as it can before dispatching it with the ominous note that it may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Pope's innovation and refusal to follow any rules for character construction continue when the hooded monsters go to the bar to recruit. In background scene after background scene, Pope designs more unique creatures in a few pages than others might do in a year's worth of comics. Like Fiona Stables on Saga, Pope, working firmly on his own property, lets his imagination run wild, and the reader is the beneficiary. One of my favorites is a piano player dressed like it came out of a Spaghetti Western but featuring an insectoid head with giant teeth. (Things will evil teeth appear to be a favorite of Pope's--or perhaps there's a genetic reason for it that will be revealed in a later novel!) There are so many little differences and varieties of bad guys, some of whom we may never see again but help to show that the task of freeing Acropolis from its demons is damned near impossible.

Though less flashy, Pope's sections with the normal people of Acropolis are also quite skillfully constructed. He uses a lot of body language to indicate the schemes of the politicians. There's a sense of fakery that pervades an ill-fated parade, just by looking at how everyone reacts. Pope uses a lot of close, almost claustrophobic tight panels to show Battling Boy's discomfort. When we get to the military, their determination shows on their faces, even as their technology fails them. They won't give up, showing a heroism that even the space beings can't match, for all their pomp and power.

Battling Boy is a tour de force of what a creator at the prime of his skills can do. It's an adventure story, so common to comics, but it's also a post modern take, which makes it shine. There's action a plenty, but it's the moments of realization that drive Battling Boy or West's daughter. Even the villains have more than a straightforward motive of death and destruction. This is a book with rich depth in both plot and art, with the potential to be spoken of in the same terms as Kirby's Fourth World work. I don't throw that around lightly, either. I know what saying that means, but I think, based on what we've seen so far, that Pope is building on the world of the King and showing how it can be done for a 21st Century Audience

I worry that some passed on this because it's a story we're more used to seeing in single issue form, so they didn't grab it, and it's not quite like what we'd normally get in a graphic novel so others may have skipped it because it's too capes-like. Both categories are missing out. Battling Boy is a great book and well worth picking up now, so you can be a part of enjoying this story right away, watching it grow and become one of the classics.

*Side note: Is that or is that not the coolest thing ever? Do you know how many Spider-Man shirts I own?**

**Please don't answer that.

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