Real Talk: ''From Here… Adventure's Unleashed'': Paul Pope's Battling BoyA comic review article by: Keith Silva, Justin Giampaoli, Daniel Elkin, Jason Sacks
Keith Silva: ''Bump Ba Bump.'' From the very first frame, Paul Pope's Battling Boy taps into some semiconductor of memory and invites the reader to follow the bouncing ball.
When we wrote about The Invincible Haggard West #101, I admit to being too anxious and too caught up in my own expectations to appreciate the elegance and playfulness of this simple image. Hell, given the context, it might as well be an apple 'Ba-Bumping' its way off of the tree of knowledge, for there is great intelligence and greater temptation of all kinds within this story.
On a recent reread of Batman: Year 100, I was struck with the idea of Pope as a conduit of anti-continuity, a Lord of Misrule for comics -- the difference between comic book history and the history of comic books. Pope is old master of the latter and, I think, cares a fuck-all for the former. Creators like Pope are why the Frenchies of Cahiers du Cinéma had to invent the auteur theory. Like Melville with Le Samouraï or Army of Shadows, Pope is the kind of iconoclast who takes the bits that most interest him and uses these elements in a way most creators have never considered.
There is such a strong strain of subversiveness in his work, a Pope-ish prestidigitation, to take the familiar, say a culture icon -- Batman or in the case of Battling Boy, the superhero -- strip it down to its very engine, its essence, the spark of its creation and build out from there. Pope don't reboot.
So what. Why Battling Boy and why now?
Battling Boy is a familiar story. In fact, it is the most well-known, most mass-produced and most mass-marketed of all superhero stories: the origin story; and yet, it feels fresh. Pope plumbs the collective unconscious about heroes and our current cultural obsession with superheroes and hands it over … to children. Imagine that. What better way to attract new (read: young) readers than with a reluctant boy and an untested girl for them to relate to. How novel.
Many (not all) all-ages comics exist in a banana republic where pre-fab properties go to loll in surf, fat and happy -- a Neverland where nothing changes except every so often the shelves get restocked, new little ponies for old. Battling Boy subverts the assembly line of licensed entertainment for kids (and adults) and provides a path for a new generation of comic book readers. Perhaps Battling Boy will turn out to be 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' of all ages comic books, except, you know, with better sales.
Like those heroes of yesteryear, Siegel and Schuster, Kirby and Lee, Pope wants to make the myths and Battling Boy is myth-making of the highest order. Do you follow me, Giampaoli? ''Bump Ba Bump.''
Justin Giampaoli: I follow, Silva, and away we go, as King Lion, King Leopard, Great Toro, and Sly Silent Fox (you decide ''Who's Who?'' among us), anthropomorphized totems ready to discuss Shamanic Misrule. Did we just co-invent a term, Silva?! Shamanic Misrule. Yes! ''Barkeep, a Uranium Gumball toast for my compatriots!'' Like the cantina'd conglomeration of Mos Eisley style baddies in the bar, let us not take ourselves too seriously, because I don't really think Paul Pope does either. The elegant simplicity and playfulness you speak of is indeed the thing, Silva. It's the connective tissue that Pope uses to weave together those ''bits that most interest him.''
I had fun with the bits, and readers can follow the parabolic arc of the bouncing ball, as they peak and valley from familiar archetypes to more specific references. In ''The Hidden Gilded Realm,'' Mount Olympus re-imagined as a fortified floating space city, we see a partial pantheon viewing the multiverse in all its clockwork magic via the Room of Celestial Charts. In polytheistic religious tradition, these pagan figures are prototypical sketches we know from our collective old world literature and current pop culture diets (in this way, Pope is not unlike Janus, the Roman God with one face continually looking back to mine history, one face looking forward to create for the future). We see The Warrior, The Builder, The Maiden… seeding Earth with a young, literally threshold-crossing, hero, the architects of fate, the designers of adventure.
Take Haggard West's house as another example, now inhabited by plucky daughter Aurora, which bears a discernibly Southwestern motif (Southwest, Haggard West, even the specific word choices are rhythmically playful). This loose juxtaposition of Native American ''Old Gods'' and the (Kirby! Ahem!) ''New Gods'' mirrors something we talked about in The Invincible Haggard West review, because it bridges the liminal state between old and new, between science/pulp heroes and godlike superheroes, between Golden Age and Silver Age. West's own ''Batcave'' within a ''Batcave'' structure has this continuum of transformation receding into the depths, from medical and science, to mechanics, and finally weaponry. As for weapons, Battling Boy's shirts themselves are reminiscent of a more animalistic Shazam!, magic being little more than sufficiently advanced tech we just don't yet understand.
Not specific enough references, you say? Well, no need to wait for the river card to see who's taken down the pot (pun probably intended), Pope definitively flips his pocket aces face-up on the table for all to behold his professed love for Silver Age Marvel Comics. In this
pulp Pope alternate reality, the Captain of the 145th is referred to as ''Cap'' (-tain America), while he nods to ''Rick'' (Jones) and ''Dugan'' (Dum-Dum), not to mention the Stan Lee style alliteration in some of the dialogue: ''battering buttresses under abusive burden. ''
Say that five times really fast, Elkin!
Daniel Elkin: I won't be party to your parlor games, Giampaoli. Besides I need to keep my tongue safe for eating cars, or sandwiches.
Let us be clear, fellows. We have on our hands yet another bildungsroman carefully sewn into the weave of the monomyth which, when we wear it, atavistically empowers us. It is a youth revolution. Tear down this wall.
By the Blood of the Ancients!... 'Tis Good to be HOME.
Both Pope's characters of Battling Boy and Aurora West are stepping forth from under the heavy shadow of their respective paterfamilias and suiting up for their own rambles. From here... adventure's unleashed. Donning their gear for war, these youth must journey into the belly of the beast in order to take the road back to themselves, wiser, stronger, more assured -- saving, as they do, the larger society, a monstrous city – overrun with monsters, which, up until now, has relegated them to the lesser, a city which rests on its own laurels and still calls that progress. As Pope himself writes, ''It is an old story.''
In the hands of a less creative creator than Pope, the ruts in this road would catch the tires of our taxi and speed us on the predetermined path, like an amusement ride in a small town carny in which the smell of decay would fill our nostrils and the ricketiness of the whole operation would distract us entirely from whatever Small World they were trying to create. But Pope gives us hope for the building of big worlds, in which the inner monsters that create a staid society become the outer threats that destroy.
We get in those ruts as we age. The status quo sweats before the microphone and tells us, "St-steady your resolve! Never give in, never retreat!!!" Change is the auspice of the young. Truly, is it not, the purpose of The Turning, The Ramble, The Matter at Hand, to confront the demons of the comfortable life, point the Blaster into the face of what we take for granted to be true, and break the siege of conformity to the old ways that are no longer valid?
As you both have alluded to, it is time to acknowledge the past and take on the future, look back from whence we came and stride forth into the possibility of tomorrow.
Follow the bouncing ball? So it has been from time immemorial, and so it shall ever be, right Sacks?
Jason Sacks: As it was before, so it shall be again.
But it shall be so wonderfully, wonderfully different in its similarity.
Battling Boy is a generational saga in so many senses of the term. There are of course father-son and father-daughter relationships that are at the heart of this story and which give this book its considerable emotional power. They're undeniably important themes that I hope we'll discuss some more in this article.
This book is also a generational saga in another sense of the term: Pope is working in a playground that all of us comic readers know well, a world that feels like it comes from a very slightly altered Marvel Comics than we all know and love as older fans. But Pope is returning that world to his readers in a very different way than we're used to. Everything feels obscure and weird, yet familiar and wonderful. It's a world that can excite and thrill younger readers who may have strayed to manga. Pope is introducing a younger generation to the abundant joys of a complex heroic universe.
There's also a third way that Pope is exploring generations, and maybe it's the most important: he's creating work that parents and kids can enjoy together, a multifaceted work that targets all generations and works well for everybody. Silva invoked Jean-Pierre Melville and Lou Reed in his section; I'll invoke the equally great Chuck Jones and his adage that parents and kids alike should be able to enjoy his animated cartoons even with their own perceptions.
And there's another way that this book struck me as generational, but that may just be a reflection of the oddball way that I look at the world: I had the sense throughout this book that Paul Pope was taking tropes that were familiar and comfortable for me but was delivering them back to me in ways that feel thoroughly fresh and almost euphoric. There's such a fresh and genuine joy in Pope's artwork, such a thrilling sense of the auteur Pope delivering great new insights inside his genre trappings, that I felt I was reintroduced to tropes that I love with a panache that feels fresh, original and thrilling.
Keith, are you allowing your inner child to follow the bouncing soccer ball?
Keith Silva: Humbaba. Kinda' rolls off the tongue doesn't it? Hum. Ba. Ba. How's that for an inner child, Sacks?
In all my hat tips to French directors -- Elkin could so pull off a fedora à la Alain Delon and look spiffy doing so -- and indirect Eno references, I see I've 'dropped the ball' (so to speak) in expressing the most important thing: Battling Boy is pure joy, arm candy like Miss Teen Acropolis in saddle shoes.
Yes, Jason, there is a contemporary classicism to this story that makes these characters both familiar and forward-thinking. Take the scene in mayor's office when Battling Boy pancakes the antique horse knick-knack and then with a ''Greekt'' a ''Grink,'' a ''Poinkt'' pulls it back together again. Pope goes and does likewise with the superhero mythos -- still the same, but different.
Agreed Giampaoli, Pope isn't taking himself too seriously here; again, the all-ages thing. Comedy-wise, Pope has had his moments: Batman's teeth in Year 100 (which Pope passes on to the Humbaba here), the rascally three loaves from Heavy Liquid and when Kim takes her 'best shot' in 100%. A little leavening is welcome and good Humbaba mudpie joke always kills. You're right, my friend, with names like Sadisto, Coil and Nails -- all of which sound like villains from a classic upright arcade cabinet video game -- how can they be taken seriously except by themselves which makes it all the more humorous.
And Elkin, you elegant, eloquent ''Lord of Wandering Duration'' you: 'Change is the auspice of the young.' And how. The last image Pope gives the reader of Battling Boy and Aurora is one of great import. Covered in tar, Battling Boy comes clean: ''I can't face them on my own.'' Growing up is dangerous. Leaving home requires ostentatious capes, too-cool-for-school t-shirts, ''Nektar and Ambroja.'' For others this journey means the birthright inside ''an ornate locked wooden box.'' Rambles may be solo affairs, but the effort is not without familiars. Besides, whoever said ''Adventure perilous'' and monomyth-making couldn't be a tandem effort?
I won't rob Battling Boy of its riches, there is much ''through the[s]e kitchen doors'' for which to feast upon. And yet … is it wrong to want more? If Battling Boy has an Achilles heel it's in its incompleteness. Perhaps it's time for me to ramble on, on my own, before someone finds ''terrible purpose'' for me here.
If the ''corridor of speech'' in my battle grieves is open for one more call, it's this: ''send the next thunderbolt, Pope … as soon as possible, after all, ours ''is a world built for heroes.''
Justin Giampaoli: Silva, my friend, let me allay your desire. It is not wrong to want more. As I wrap up this meandering missive, I'm inclined to assign a score of to Battling Boy and attribute the "ding" to a creative cognitive dissonance. I sense competing considerations for the audience from Paul Pope.
I'm fascinated by the structure Pope uses in the front of the book. He intercuts scenes from The Invincible Haggard West with new material offered here in Battling Boy. This was a fairly brilliant decision that rewards diehard fans who picked up the single. Those "old" readers get a "new" experience via the overlapping Haggard West and Battling Boy contents in this consolidated format. Simultaneously, first time readers experience the debut of an "all new" story sequence. Pope is showing care and creative aforethought for his audience.
This method of balanced consideration extends to the thematic death and rebirth motifs. Haggard West's death occurs in all its beautiful mundane tragedy, is then linked to Battling Boy's trial-by-combat "birth" into the world, which runs parallel with Aurora's own "birth," as she inherits the mantle of the West Family.
Silva cited this, and not coincidentally, it's one of the most memorable scenes for me in this digest-sized manga format. Battling Boy in the Mayor's Office. His self-appointed handlers attempt to control him, to brand and package him, to rename him "Arco-Lad" and pair him with Miss Teen Acropolis for maximum PR effect. Battling Boy's reaction to his is a sharp "no," in the form of destroying and remaking a random object. He's effectively put on a preemptive show of force, of his godlike ability to deform and reform reality, right before their eyes.
There's a balanced approach to these ideas we've been discussing, point and counterpoint, Golden Age and Silver Age, Old Gods and New Gods, death and birth, destruction and creation. These are very tidy concessions that Pope makes for his audience.
If you're waiting for the "but," there were about 20 pages left when I grew concerned. "Hurm. No way he can wrap this up in time," I Rorschach'd to myself. I felt as if the book suddenly ended right when it was in full swing, beyond the set-up, and finally tackling the hard issues with joyous visuals. It feels truncated and lacks a sense of completion, which was something we cited as an obvious placeholder in the Haggard West prologue.
There are many intriguing plot threads left twisting in the wind, which feels decidedly untidy and audience-inconsiderate for a master like Pope. Who is Sadisto's boss, hastily introduced in the final pages? How will Battling Boy resolve the misrepresentation of his powers, his lie, his burgeoning identity quest? Did he pass the Terran Test laid out by his Elysian Elders? Will he return to his "Mt. Olympolis" or stay on the Earthly plane, facing threats with comically clever abandon? Will our young heroes Battling Boy and Aurora West inevitably team-up?
Perhaps this was a gross assumption, but I was always under the impression that Battling Boy was intended as a self-contained graphic novel. I know that creators contending with audience expectations is a nightmarish proposition – follow your vision, damn to hell what the audience thinks they want, critics should review the book they get, not the book they want – but I can't help feeling a little cheated by this. I waited six years for this book to arrive. I invested emotionally in the faux final issue. Yet here I am, at the purported end, with what feels like an incomplete story.
Perhaps I'm being a petulant child, stomping my feet with a sickening BUT. I. WANT. IT. NOW! Is King Leopard missing something? Help me, King Lion, Great Toro, and Sly Silent Fox. Is this it? Are we done? Are we meant to extrapolate from the final images Silva cited? Are we to assume that: OF COURSE Battling Boy and Aurora team up! OF COURSE Battling Boy has learned his lesson and goes on to greatness! OF COURSE Sadisto's boss is as obvious as his own devilish sobriquet! Or, is there one or more volume(s) planned? At the current rate of production, it would be a ludicrous 2019 before a possible additional volume arrived. Could they already be in the can? Will release dates be quickly announced on the heels of this shipping? Is there any SIGINT available from Paul Pope or First Second?
When we left the Invincible Haggard West, we gave Pope the benefit of the doubt with the prologue single. We said we'd wait for Battling Boy to see if the resolution added context. We said we'd wait for the full story. I said I feared that unless Battling Boy was a transcendent sensory experience that felt akin to transportation atop the Empire State Building with Cindy Crawford naked eating at Eskimo Pie, that I might be left wanting.
Well, I've been successfully whisked away to New York City. I'm in Midtown, and it's great, you guys. I'm walking down 34th Street, taking it all in. I've made my way up to the ESB Observation Deck. I've spotted Cindy. Our eyes meet. She moves through the crowd with a sense of purpose. She fingers a wisp of hair away from her face. We flirt. It's finally happening. I sigh. She smiles. I'm different around her, yet more myself than I've been in years. I adore her. She doesn't need anyone, but she says she needs me. She tugs on the belt of her trench coat, as if to insinuate something. Her clothes are still on. There's no Eskimo Pie in sight. I'm still hungry.
Elkin: May I suggest a sandwich, perhaps? I hate to see you hungry.
But I understand your position. Everything in this book rushes to an ending that only opens more doors. While Pope has served up this platter for us to feast from, the indications are there that more is being cooked up in the kitchen. After all, they've covered the rent for Battling Boy's apartment for two years, and, as you pointed out, there are so many questions left unanswered, the most important of which may turn out to be "what good is a mouse?"
It seems, seemingly, that this seamy world has a few more turns to it – somewhere. All in good time, perhaps. Trust Pope. Your petulance, Giampaoli, may be rewarded in the end. Remember The Hyena's words, "Even if we don't work FOR you --- doesn't mean we can't work WITH you!"
Hmmmm.... Whoever said Humbaba was the toughest of the monsters? … He's just the tip of the iceberg.
What sort of dreams does a God Boy dream?
Still, there is room to talk more about what we actually hold in our hands, but I have neither the fortitude or the wits to croon another verse to this song. Do I put on the King Elephant t-shirt, or don The Sly, Silent Fox? Is it more important to be wise or clever? This is, perhaps, the question beating at the heart of Battling Boy. Do we turn to others to help us with our problems (through whatever means necessary), or do we take on our troubles by finding our own lightning bolts to shoot from our fingers?
Hmmmm.... more unanswered questions, I guess, Sacks. I'm going to err on the side of wisdom and leave the final words to you.
Sacks: I'm going to don my King Elephant t-shirt and try to channel some of my fellow writers' collective wisdom in order to wrap this Brobdingnagian bunch of babbling. Way up at the beginning of our exploration into our communal wisdom, the insightful Mr. Keith Silva stated, "I was struck with the idea of Pope as a conduit of anti-continuity, a Lord of Misrule for comics -- the difference between comic book history and the history of comic books."
I adore the idea of the brilliant Mr. Paul Pope, the very same "Pulp Hope" whose comics are all about rechanneling and redelivering our fantasies to us in changed, transformed format, being the virtual embodiment of the way that all of us perceive comics. All of Pulp Hope's comics work on oh so many levels all at the same time – first, direct on the page; second, as a postmodern wink at the expectations and perceptions of the reader; third, as a dialogue between the past and present of comics – and we see all of those levels on display here in Battling Boy .
This is true not least because of the fact that Battling Boy is in some ways the new modern incarnation of the continuity comics we loved as kids, as the manga series that our kids love, of the ongoing patter that brings us back to the comic shop every Wednesday, panting at the opportunity to pick up the latest puzzle piece of continuity porn that we adore.
No, we also see all those levels here because this book is so much about taking on all the existing tropes and standing them on their heads, making them fresh, reminding all of us – young, old, inbetween, passionate and bored, fans and intellectuals – that there is still gas in the tank of those well known, staid, pulpy clichés. Paul Pope/Pulp Hope is reintroducing readers to the elements that we care about by bringing us worlds that are both familiar and dauntingly different.
So while I'm sympathetic to my deeply-esteemed partner Justin and his passionate wish that Pulp Hope gave us a full story rather than a very rewarding debut chapter (and while I'd love to kiss Cindy Crawford on the Empire State Building as well), I also love the fact that this first chapter stands as a first chapter. The best heroic legends are open-ended, and there's seldom been a great pulp hero whose existence is based on a single story (in fact the only example of that I can think of, the brilliant world of Watchmen, isn't pulpy as much as it is antiheroic).
The best creators give us ideas that we can dream about, heroes that we can adore and take us to places that we dream of visiting.
Bump pop bump goes the soccer ball that opens this book, and Humbaba goes Keith Silva's heart, completely in sync with Pope's astonishing monster. Giampaoli yearns for the smak of a kiss from a beautiful woman, and Elkin wants the satisfying crunch of a delicious Pope sandwich. As for me, I sputter a wvorpt! Bwhoom! Kkhsssst – kFOOM! at the daydream of spending more time with Battling Boy and Aurora as soon as I possibly can. Are you listening, Pulp Hope? We just closed the cover to Battling Boy but all of us already yearning for a generous sequel.
Justin Giampaoli has met Al Gore, Henry Kissinger, King Abdullah & Queen Rania of Jordan. He's met Anne Hathaway, Malin Ackerman, and Jennifer Lopez. Sadly, he's yet to meet Cindy Crawford. As a Californian, he actually prefers It's-It to Eskimo Pie. Follow him on Twitter @ThirteenMinutes
Daniel Elkin lives in cloud cuckoo land from which he holds forth on nothing of any substance. You can bear witness to this yourself by following him on Twitter: @DanielElkin or staring open mouthed at his blog, Your Chicken Enemy.
Jason Sacks rates meeting and interviewing Paul Pope as one of the coolest experiences of his adult life because Pulp Hope was such an interesting and thoughtful creator. We'll share that interview here on Comics Bulletin as soon as it's available. Follow @jasonsacks or @comicsbulletin for all kinds of pulpy goodness.