I'm not sure how, but I've made it into my 40s with barely any contact with the work of Paul Pope. I picked up the first issue of 100% on a whim back when it hit the stands in 2002, but the shop either didn't order any more or I just missed them. That was enough to put him on my radar, at least, but I still missed Heavy Liquid and Batman: Year 100. The only complete work of his that I'd read before now was his Adam Strange series in that DC weekly newsprint experiment from a few years ago — and that was freaking brilliant; easily my favorite work in that series.
So when the opportunity to review Image's new One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts Hardcover, I jumped on it. And I can honestly say it was a great decision.
The entire package is 288 pages of material broken up into the One Trick Rip-Off story, which was originally published 18 years ago in Dark Horse Presents, and the "Deep Cuts" section, which presents rare and never-before published work from Pope's career throughout the '90s.
One Trick Rip-Off is a criminal romance that tapped into the early 90s Tarantino-tinged zeitgeist that produced films like True Romance, Love and a .45 and Pulp Fiction. It follows young lovers Tubby and Vim as they plan to rip off Tub's partners in the One Trick Gang and flee a near-future Los Angeles, and, as these things are wont to do, things go horribly off the rails. Oh, and in a surprise twist that adds a very intriguing and satisfying element of sci-fi danger to the whole affair, the One Trick Gang can control people with their minds!
The script is more poetic than one might expect, given that summary, emphasizing Pope's more romantic leanings and serving as a focus for many of the themes and experiments that show up in his earlier work (included in the "Deep Cuts" section). And in a very satisfying zig (or zag) from most of the other romantic crime works released during the early '90s, One Trick Rip-Off plays more with the emotional consequences of betrayal instead of distancing and desensitizing the protagonists from the violent repercussions of their actions. Tubby and Vim vividly feel the devastation caused by their botched plan and Pope leaves us with a bleak and painful conclusion that resonates far more believably and effectively than the more pop sensibilities of '90s crime films.
This is beautiful work all around and the artwork is a damn-near perfect expression of the themes and emotions Pope is working with. Originally a black and white production, this printing is colored by Jamie Grant (All-Star Superman) and Dominic Regan, and it's a match made in heaven as their delicate touches add depth and subtlety that enhances the impact of the art. Pope's heavy shadows and fluid ink work is like no one else's, and even though One Trick Rip-Off is from early in his career, it is unmistakable with his European sense of pacing and character combined with a manga-influenced energy and page design.
The action is frenetic and violent, never hesitating or pulling back from the graphic results of Tub and Vim's actions, and is contrasted with the darkness and anxieties of the quieter moments. There's a tragic sense to these characters from the very first pages — echoes of Godard's A bout de soufflé — despite their hope and romantic naiveté, as at times they virtually disappear into the shadows and architecture of this near-future L.A. I can only imagine the effect in black and white being even more dramatic.
The "Deep Cuts" section is just as gorgeous from start to finish, tracing the development of Pope's skills over the decade that these short works cover. All of the works in this section feature new colors by Regan and Jared K. Fletcher, and as with One Trick Rip-Off, they only serve to enhance the storytelling, never distracting or undermining what Pope is doing with his inks and layouts. The dreamlike poetry of "The Triumph of Hunger," "The Zhuk," "The Armadillo," "The Island" and "The Scythe" provide fertile ground for Pope's developing distinctive visual approach, while later early works like "The Visible Man," "Portrait of a Girl with an Unpronounceable Name" and "Antigone" developed his narrative skills with more traditional approaches to storytelling — although each of these short stories also retain that surreal quality that recalls barely remembered dreams.
Most of Pope's post-One Trick Rip-Off stories are tightly constructed pieces that work to create emotional resonance with the reader rather than simply thrill with dazzling plot structures. "Four Cats," "The Scarf" and "Airplanes" are each brief glimpses into the minds and lives of couples — although "The Scarf" is kind of one-sided in that respect — that are touching, briefly horrifying, or simply beautiful. "Night Job" dips back into the crime genre with a brutal burst of violence and flame that I found to be just as satisfying in around 30 pages as One Trick Rip-Off was in just over 100.
Also included in this collection is "Super Trouble" — available for the first time ever — a tale of three schoolgirls, two of whom are Super Trouble! It's a heavily manga-influenced story, crafted while Pope was working for Japanese publisher, Kodansha. It wasn't what they were looking for at the time and it's their loss. "Super Trouble" is a cute, but slightly dangerous, near-future adventure involving bets, rivalry, and extraordinarily hot and spicy foods.
Without a doubt, One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts is a book that NEEDS to be on your bookshelf. It is not only packed to the gills with amazing art and innovative storytelling, it is a one-book Master Class on Paul Pope. According to Pope and Charles Brownstein (the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and author of the book's sterling introduction), the narrative themes and artistic experimentation on display here only continue to build through Pope's later works — many of which should be out in collector's editions later this year, if they aren't already.
Even if you're not in the market for the other books on the way, I can't recommend One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts highly enough. These stories broke with convention when they were originally produced and they still stand on their own as some of the medium's greatest work.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.