Review: Paul Pope's 'The Invincible Haggard West #101' Is a Precursor to 'Batting Boy'A comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli, Jason Sacks, Keith Silva, Daniel Elkin
Justin Giampaoli: Jim Morrison is The Lizard King.
David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust.
Beyonce Knowles is Sasha Fierce.
Paul Pope is Pulp Hope.
Pope's alter ego is known only to the true believers in his religion of comics. You need only whisper it to the comic book cognoscenti and await a look of comprehension. He's an elusive creator to casual fans of the medium, serving as a basic litmus test for "who's in" and "who's out" of my personal circle in the industry. God, I've become an elitist snob. You'll find the "Pulp Hope" persona adorning Pope's fiery red studio stamp he uses to personally christen original art. PulpHope is also the name of his gorgeous coffee table art book, published by AdHouse Books. For anyone who managed to grab Pope's Oni Double Feature story in the late 90's, he also acquired a double-entendre name provided by an accented South American lover, "Pole Pop." Altar Alter egos are a basic conceit in the world of comic books. In the oeuvre of artist Paul Pope, they step further and build toward the primal power of myth. It doesn't matter if he's dealing with the enduring urban legend in Batman: Year 100, Hope Sandoval-cum-HR Watson in the Martian adventure THB, or the pulpy sci-fi origins of the superhero genre itself in his Wednesday Comics strip Strange Adventures, the myth is the thing.
Presidential speechwriter William Safire wrote about manned space travel: "In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood." Pope shares the belief expressed by fellow shamanic creator Grant Morrison, that of the superhero paradigm as modern myth. Listen to him discuss Batman: Year 100:
"I wanted to present a new take on Batman, who is without a doubt a mythic figure in our pop-psyche. My Batman is not only totally science fiction, he's also a very physical superhero: he bleeds, he sweats, he eats. He's someone born into an overarching police state; someone with the body of David Beckham, the brain of Tesla, and the wealth of Howard Hughes... pretending to be Nosferatu."
The distillation of these archetypes into a singular sequential elixir is about reliance on myth as fuel for storytelling.
This foundational literary topos surrounding myth is essential to discussing the works of Paul Pope, and The Invincible Haggard West is no exception. Before the main feature concerning Herculean demi-god or god-like superhero Battling Boy may commence (original graphic novel debut on 10/8/13), there must first be a story establishing lineage with the proto Titans who serve as forebears. In myth, there must be death before there can be rebirth. Billed as a "limited edition sneak peek of Battling Boy" in the indicia, The Invincible Haggard West is a faux final issue functioning as a prequel, as a teaser, as a call-it-what-you-will one-shot. Final Issue! #101 prominently features "The Death of Haggard West." It's publishing slight-of-hand used to cue the end of that fiction-within-a-fiction period, which never actually existed, yet we're meant to believe it did ("thanks to all the fans for following his exploits all these many years"). It's a glance at things past. It sets the stage as prelude. It contains hints of what's to come. It's a method for establishing that foundational mythic belief system.
I've always wanted to see Pope's riff on Mister Miracle, so it's impossible for me not to look at this Haggard West cover and see Orion from Kirby's New Gods. Pope never denies the Kirby connection. In fact, he openly cites influence from Caniff, Toth, Pratt, Herge, and Kirby. This myriad of styles is evident in Haggard West. Amid the Art Deco street lamps in Acropolis (an overt clue re: Greek Mythology), West swoops down from the sky to save kids in peril like a god damn steampunk dragonfly. This adventurer is equal parts The Rocketeer, Indiana Jones, Flash Gordon, Adam Strange, James Doolittle, Nikola Tesla, and Ernest Hemingway. He's there not only to save the kids, but to save the future, to save his own legacy. Haggard West exists in the liminal state between generations and genres. He bridges the gap as pulp and sci-fi roots transitioned to superhero dominance; he's there as the Golden Age gives way to the Silver Age. There's a tight zoom panel of West's bullet ridden scarf signaling the end, one that deliberately lingers for a beat, the symbolic death of an entire generation of adventurers. The somber two-page spread of his monument follows, punctuating the loss. The Titan has fallen. The nightmares have won. But it's merely a platform to launch from. Our god, our hero, Battling Boy, is on the way.
Jason Sacks: The absolute unadulterated genius of Paul Pope -- I don't use the word genius lightly, being a bit of a snob myself as well as the kind of person who creates lists of the greats and near-greats, strictly policing that line to make sure that no second-raters trick their ways into the prime time list -- is that Pope always wears his influences on his sleeves. You can notice Kirby and Hergé and the exquisitely brilliant mad virtuoso Alex Toth in Pope's art. Pope's idols are all there in his art for anybody to observe. But like the greatest artists, Pope takes all of those influences and renders them completely his own.
For all his American idiomatic inspirations, all his Ohio roots and love of Carmine Infantino and Jack Kirby, Pope's work belongs to the entire planet. I can't help but feel that there's some sort of intriguing significance to the fact that the very first image we see in this comic is something thoroughly universal: a soccer ball. Our tale could be taking place anywhere, from São Paulo to Tokyo to Brooklyn, though the story looks to me like it happens in America (of course it does; I'm an American and I think everything revolves around me). That idea that The Invincible Haggard West could take place in a universal everywhere is immensely resonant.
Which means that those crazy hissing monsters, with their frightening long hoods (did any of you think of Kirby's Hate-Monger when you saw those masks?), ragged bandages with raw bones sticking through, and birdlike clawed feet, could be in any city, terrorizing random kids in some intensely terrifying scenes. The panel on the bottom right of Page 5 is as purely frightening a page as we ever see in comics.
I know that on some level Pope is playing around with his story here, creating a silly little prologue to a much longer book, but it's striking how well he sells his scenes, how gorgeous his storytelling is and how clever the choices are that the great Pope makes. Look at Panel 1 on Page 7 for the wonderful combination of terror and relief on a boy's face as Pope uses shadow and movement and that oh so beautiful busy line style of his to cause it to absolutely vibrate with energy. When Haggard soars into the sky on the middle panel of that page, the sense of liberation and freedom and pure joy is infectious.
Compare that to the fear and desolation that Haggard's daughter shows on the top tier of Page 27 -- she knows that things have changed for her forever, that Pope's amazing fictional world will never be the same without Haggard West. She will be the one to help create the future. The Titans have fallen, as you say, Justin. Now comes the new god. It will be amazing to watch what that ends up meaning.
Keith Silva: Paul Pope makes me think of Stanley Kubrick. Check that, Pope makes me think of how Martin Scorsese thinks about Stanley Kubrick. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: Life in Pictures, Scorsese says
"By that time I knew, Kubrick was the one … after you saw Lolita and Dr. Strangelove … we had to wait for a Kubrick film and we knew when we went to see it that it was extremely special … we expected a lot from it, quite honestly."
For me, Pope is a creator and cartoonist of similar (and greatest) expectations. So, when I took up the 'final issue' of The Invincible Haggard West, anything short of a transcendental experience was going to be a letdown, this is Paul Pope, after all.
With Pope, I anticipate the need to unpack, to search for greater meanings, larger themes… The Invincible Haggard West has nothing of the sort. It is as direct as any bit of mythmaking or "Hero's Journey," which is to say The Invincible Haggard West: The Death of Haggard West is Paul Pope's Star Wars, better yet, this is Pope's The Straight Story, Pope at his most accessible, a Pope for all ages and not the particular punk genius god I've come to love. And so I've been struggling with questions like: Is this is for me? When is it O.K. to love the sinner (artist) and be lukewarm on the sin (art)?
As Justin and Jason point out, The Invincible Haggard West wears all its influences, honors and inspirations on the perfectly appointed sleeve of its hero's leather jacket. In terms of look and sensibilities, the Pope-ishness it is all on the page, it's the tone that's different. Still sly, yes and suffuse with hope, but missing something… swagger, that Paul Pope strut, maybe (?). On the other hand, this is a Paul Pope comic I can share with my nine-year-old daughter, can't say the same about Heavy Liquid or 100%, not yet anyway.
The name, "Haggard West," should have been a clue -- it's kind of like naming a hero Dudley Do-Right or Captain America or calling your villain Snidely Whiplash or Coil, West's bête noir -- paging Captain Obvious. West is Haggard and haggard, it's a bit of micro-compressed (smart) storytelling on Pope's part, everything the reader needs to know about our hero is contained in his Christian name; like the ad on the back cover says: 'Who will save Arcopolis now? The King is dead, long live the King.
The Pope promulgator in me wants to say The Invincible Haggard West: The Death of Haggard West #101 marks Pope's attempt to rewrite the superhero mythos, a rawboned reimagining of the psychological role superheroes play in modern culture; piss on that. Pope's slippery, a true auteur and artist and if he's decided to play it straight, so be it.
Daniel Elkin: Not that there's anything wrong with that, right Silva?
I'm with you here, though. As I opened these pages I expected to do more unpacking than, apparently, was necessary -- although there are plenty of clasps to unbuckle in this book if push comes to shove. But when auteurs play in the cultural sandbox, we bring our expectations along with our shovels and pails.
It is set-up, boys -- as you've all already pointed out -- Pope's just testing the grains for consistence and adherence. We must assume he's drawn up plans for intricate castles and Roman aqueducts a'plenty. Because it's Pope -- A Flight Ring -- "How could he know it is anything more than that?"
This is comics, after all -- and when you place the medium at the disposal of the artist, they tend to build on what we know and take us to places we've never been (while, of course, reminding us of the potential of our own understandings).
Will Battling Boy resonate without Haggard West? Probably, but its vibrations might be slightly discordant. Haggard West is what came before -- we need our context -- tired though it may be. Pope has succeeded, I think, in providing it masterfully.
But I'm only adding to our barbershop quartet with my own basso profondo (or am I the fourth Musketeer?). I'll leave any last words to you fellas.
Justin: It feels like we're all hitting on the same thing, that Pope might be playing it relatively straight. I mean, the villain was named "Sadisto," certainly a throwback to 1960's style villains who were, and did, exactly what their names implied. Pope is also deliberately playing with the obvious binary forces of light and dark. At one point, West says "the dark can't hide you forever" before his energy gun lights up the criminals to vanquish them. He functions in broad daylight. The evil nightmares are in shadow. There's not much "there" there as Silva and I joked over email; it is what it is as far as the ostensible narrative in The Invincible Haggard West is concerned. The story real estate does feel limited. It's a truncated prelude that only serves as introduction, lacking a sense of completion for the context Elkin mentioned. It's but one tile in a mosaic, and so Pope has merely gotten us to his world, we've yet to cross Joseph Campbell's monomythic threshold for any further discovery. Hell, have we even met the principle protagonist yet? I've not read Battling Boy. Is it his plucky female sidekick/daughter Aurora? Is it another kid, one of those he saved? Is Battling Boy actually Haggard West's grandson, daughter of Aurora, who picks up the heroic tradition?
As I anticipate the remainder of Pope's trademark "world comics" offering in his inky but effervescent line weight reverberating with kinetic energy across the page, I guess we have to reserve final judgment until this thing is actually complete. If what is past is merely prologue, then maybe the pertinent question to ask is: does this unique offering work as a teaser? Aside from any inherent artistic value, does it achieve its stated objective? Speaking on behalf of the consumer, would you now be willing to plunk down $24.99 for a 208 page hardcover after investing in this $3 floppy? I'll say "yes," but caveat and say I'm not overly enthusiastic about it. I'm cautiously optimistic about a book that I remember being first announced at SDCC in 2007 or 2008. I mean, it was years ago, and at this point there's so much expectation built up that it'd better be a truly transcendent experience. I mean, isn't this something we learned working in high tech, Sacks? Don't market a product that hasn't been developed yet? I say this as a Paul Pope devotee who wants to be celebratory, but I fear that if this book doesn't cure cancer or instantly transport me atop the Empire State Building with Cindy Crawford naked eating an Eskimo Pie, then I'll feel unavoidably let down.
One final random question and then I'm tapped out, but did anyone notice the license plate "W:01:19" on the back of the Westmobile? It feels like a code I want to crack. I'm guessing the "W" is for West, the "01" might be a little nod to the First Second logo, but what is the "19? " Am I looking too desperately for hidden meaning?
Jason: Yes, Justin, I know the old philosophy of "under promise and over deliver"; this comic might suffer a bit due to where it fits in that continuum. I can't help but to feel that we were looking for a mindblowing and transcendent experience with Haggard West, a work of comics art that would blow out our collective mental doors while pushing us to do cartwheels in our front yards in celebration of the breathtaking brilliance of the Pulp Hope.
But what Pope delivers for us in this issue, with this screaming thirty-two pages of headfast excitement, spectacularly kinetic linework and a story that's so straightforward that it's beguiling, is a perfect first chapter. We're all scratching our heads singing a Leiber & Stoller song "Is That All There Is" that's drawn in a descendent of the approach that Stanley Lieber helped to pioneer. Like the best Stan Lee comics, Pulp Hope's Haggard West is exactly what it appears to be on the page. Everything beyond what we see on the page is our own specific takes on the material flowing through.
This is a comic that lives in the moment that we read it. The implications of this comic -- the larger world that Pope hints at in the surprising complexity of his characters and events and weirdly powerful moments -- will resolve themselves in time. I noticed on my latest reread of this book (maybe my fifth or sixth read at this point) how interesting story elements appear in the margins and how much subtle world building there is in this book, from the dirty streets in which the kids play soccer to the nicknames the henchmen have, to the astonishingly designed low-tech devices that everyone uses. Haggard is a bit reminiscent of The Rocketeer, and Pope's art is as gorgeously resonant as Dave Stevens's art -- albeit in a very different way. I think you're totally correct to ponder the license plate on Aurora's car, just as you are right to be curious about the flag behind Haggard in the burial scene, or to wonder about the identity of his pallbearers, or the hidden question of Aurora's mother. Some of that stuff will probably be vitally important to Battling Boy; some will be completely insignificant, but all of it intriguing and points to the wonder of Paul Pope's world-building.
"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." And perhaps persons trying to find deeper meaning in this first chapter of a very long narrative will be forced to three months of intense angst as they wait for the real truth of Pulp Hope's master plan to be revealed.
Keith: The best Stan Lee (and Jack Kirby) story you've never read, Jason? Oh, god I hope so. The cancer cure, or like Eskimo pie eats on the Empire State building with a naked Cindy Crawford, Giampaoli? I'm your Huckleberry. Elkin, this next part is for you:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about comic books; whenever it is a damp, drizzly Wednesday in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before a display of New 52 hardcover trades; and buying more Marvel NOW! titles and especially whenever my hypos about mainstream comics get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking off people's Larfleeze trucker hats -- then, I account it high time to go see my LCS guru as soon as I can -- Or something like that.
When I shared The Invincible Haggard West: The Death of Haggard West with my LCS guru he put my mind at ease with three words: "I love this!" My eyes close, my head dips and I let out a snort of relief. The guru went on: "This is the best cover to a comic I've seen in months. I have no idea what it's about, but I have to read it, now."
There's no better endorsement than when a trusted voice (a friend) comes at a work pure and makes you drop your own pretense and reconsider your opinions. Haggard West is 'new Paul Pope,' a rare and fine thing indeed. It is not the story I expected and so Pope is out in front of me again, the slippery S.O.B. The completeness of this tale is a promise (a rumor) of more to come, a lot more it appears and more is always the best thing when it comes to one of one's favorite creators. Haggard West is dead which means more Paul Pope is on the way, and at $2.99, who can say better than that?
Daniel: A Silva "snort of relief" may be the highest praise anyone can give one of these here funnybooks.
Still, as one who constantly tries to drop my own pretense and reconsider my own opinions, Haggard West may just be the kick in the frontal lobe I've been looking for. Freud's "A cigar is sometimes just a cigar" is just as resonant as Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" -- alas, such is the treachery of images, I guess.
Sometimes we just stand in our own way or end up stumbling over our own sense making. So while our heroes tend to reveal a lot about our own cultural values and ethical suppositions, there are also times where they just provide a spring board for what is to come.
I say bring on Battling Boy, fellas. Let's see what Pope really has in store for us.
Justin Giampaoli sold all of his original art, save one piece. It's a page from Paul Pope's Eisner Award-Winning SOLO story "Teenage Sidekick." Award-Winning Writer @ Thirteen Minutes, Senior Reviewer @ Poopsheet Foundation, Host @ Live From The DMZ, Freelance Contributor @ Dark Horse and DC Comics. Follow @thirteenminutes.
Jason Sacks is both haggard and lives in the west but he's definitely not invincible. He dreams of meeting Paul Pope while working as the Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He occasionally tweets @jasonsacks so you could do worse things than follow him there.