The Rise of Aurora West

Something a little different for Panel Patter today, as we begin the week by participating in an art-driven blog tour for the new Battling Boy spin-off book, The Rise of Aurora West. Instead of a guest post or other things you might find on a blog tour, artist David Rubin is giving each site an exclusive piece of concept art to share with their readers! What a great idea! You'll find ours below within the review. 

After the review itself, you'll find details on how to read other perspectives on the book as well as see more exclusive art from Rubin. But first and most importantly, HOW WAS THE BOOK?

Written by Paul Pope and JT Petty
Illustrated by David Rubin
Published by First Second

In the pages of Battling Boy, we met Haggard West and his daughter Aurora, who were trying their best to fight the overwhelming surge of monsters plaguing their city and preying on the few children who remained. Just in case you haven't read the main book (and you should, my review of Battling Boy is here), I'll only say that things are going poorly, both for the city and for the Wests themselves, and Aurora must grow up far more quickly than her her heroic and protective father would like.

Haggard West and a Sadisto Gang Member
Art by David Rubin and provided exclusively
to Panel Patter!
The Rise of Aurora West takes a step backwards, to a time before Battling Boy himself shows up on the scene. The monster crisis is getting out of control, despite Haggard's best efforts, and now the monsters appear to be getting smarter, working to build a device that can't possibly be good for the people who remain alive. While helping her father to kill the creatures and solve the mystery, Aurora stumbles on a mystery of her own, relating to her mother's death, and nothing will stop her from finding the truth, even if it drives her father further into his obsession. Mixing current events and elements of her distant past, we begin to see just what kind of person Aurora West is--and the answer might just surprise her.

It's never easy to write a prequel, especially to a book as popular as Battling Boy, which was on just about everyone's Best of lists last year. Add into the mix the fact that artist and series creator Paul Pope was only contributing to the story, leaving someone else on art duties, and you have the potential for a disappointing book.

Except that, if anything, Rise of Aurora West is even more interesting than the main book, because the character of Aurora is far more engaged and active in her story, where as the titular boy in Battling Boy wants nothing to do with the life he's been drafted into. 

That's the key to understanding this book, I think--it quite literally shows us in black and white (no color this time) just how different Aurora is from the Battling Boy, and seeing how they inevitably work together in the main series despite this seeming incompatibility is going to make the next book in the main series that much deeper.

It's exactly what a prequel/spin-off book should do--be its own thing while also enhancing readers' enjoyment and understanding of the work being drawn from. That's something that many creators get wrong when they try to do a prequel. They want to "improve," "fix," or "explain" items that often don't need any of that forced triage.

Here, writers Petty and Pope purposefully don't try to explain everything we might have wondered when reading Battling Boy. For example, we now know that the monster issue has been going on for over a decade and part of the issue is that seemingly only Haggard can slow their progress. Anytime he's distracted, the monsters gain advantage. There's a hint that the monsters have been playing a long game, but who pulls their strings is still cloaked in mystery. Perhaps most importantly, we see that there's a definite link between the Wests and the monsters, but just how deep that tie runs (I have my suspicions) and what it means for Aurora when it's finally revealed stays in the background.

Instead, our focus is squarely on a young woman who's lived through the tragedy of her mother's death and is getting ready to be able to exact the unending revenge her father undertakes every night. This book is all about her, whether it's an accidental graffiti spree that leads to discovering a hidden evil in an analogue to Ancient Egypt or defying her father's wishes to find out the truth or her key role in the climactic battle between the Wests and the monsters, where she finds her resolve.

Watching this unfold (and seeing it flow so naturally) is a tribute to the co-writers as well as artist Rubin, who has to portray things in a style that's similar to (but not exactly like) Paul Pope. He's got a ton of times where his art is almost crowded out by dialogue-heavy sections, where the writing team leans heavily on exposition discussions. It's the only part of the book that's misses the mark. Rubin is so very talented and I would have liked to see the text-slingers give him a chance to show some of what the decided to tell instead.

When not in text-heavy scenes, Rubin shows why he was selected for the art duties. While not quite able to match Pope's layouts, he's still able to capture that wide-open feel in the action scenes. Panels are constructed from odd angles, the city itself feels as though it was patched together rather than organized for people to live, and structure is less important than form. There are times when he plays with perspective, putting the reader off-balance or using the technique to emphasize a key scene.

Rubin's characters actually emote a little better than Pope, with some really great facial features, especially on the part of the monsters who feel a bit more animated here and a little less just monstrous creatures of the night. My favorite of these might be Medula, a tentacled middle-woman monster whose minions are small, frog-like things (which is really sick, when you consider she eats tadpoles). At one point, she's framed in a building hole, machine guns blazing, and it's completely awesome.

While it's impossible to avoid the comparisons, anyone worried that Rubin can't fill Pope's shoes can rest easy. He understands the fluid nature of Pope's style, how to exaggerate form without falling into anatomic trouble, and ensure that there's an underlying sense of "not quite real" permeating every page. Because the world of Battling Boy is a place similar-to-but-not-exactly-Earth, getting that concept right is extremely important, and Rubin nails it.

Rise of Aurora West is a graphic novel that could get overlooked because it's not drawn by Pope and doesn't directly continue the story that was only just begun in the 2013 book. The fact that it, too, is incomplete, with further adventures teased with the title, The Fall of the House of West, may also hurt it just a bit. That'd be a shame, because this is a great story that really drives home what loss can do to a family, taking a Batman-style concept and making it something new, unique, and highly recommended.

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