PAUL POPE’S BATTLING BOY: SUPERHEROISM WILL PUNCH YOUR FACE
“Battling Boy” was announced about seven years ago; now it’s here. Okay, now that I’ve addressed the anticipation and long delay that seems inextricable from the context of this project, let’s move on to talk about the actual comic. This is Paul Pope. He’s pretty good. And so is “Battling Boy.”
I think it’s his best work so far — tighter than “THB,” more energized than either “Heavy Liquid” or “100%,” and less insular than “Batman: Year 100” — and though Pope’s expansive artwork is not particularly served by the book’s 8 Â½ by 6 inch format, the closer-to-digest-sized look of “Battling Boy” does reinforce its purpose: it’s designed to be consumed, enjoyed. It’s not presented as an artifact of visual splendor but as a book-meant-for-readin’.
The lettering is a little smaller than his other books, which makes me think Pope had created it with a larger printed size in mind, but as a finished product it feels like a book meant to sit on shelves at your local bookstore, ready to be picked up by readers of all ages who are bouncing between the manga shelves and the superhero section. “Battling Boy” is a bit of both. It’s not a transitional work between the two but kind of a statement encompassing each. It’s Paul Pope doing a fight comic that recasts manga tropes inside the look of a ragged superhero universe, only it’s an alternate history of a superhero universe, where ancient gods and video games and fashion designers crafted the world instead of a bunch of young anxious Jewish guys living in the shadow of a coming war.
Maybe it’s the context from which I’m approaching the book — okay, it’s probably totally the context from which I’m approaching the book — but “Battling Boy” seems to me to be a definitive answer to the question: Why are so many superhero comics so consistently dull? And Paul Pope’s implicit answer is something like this: because they try too hard to follow rules that don’t really exist and they look too much like things that already exist. “Battling Boy” reclaims the superhero genre by way of Greek and Norse mythology and giant monsters and jet pack pulp heroes and boy warriors with super-charged t-shirts.
It could be read as “Scott Pilgrim” meets “Pacific Rim” meets “Adventure Time” meets “God of War” meets the Rocketeer meets “Sym-Bionic Titan,” but it feels far fresher than any medley of those influences, and many of those things didn’t even exist when Pope began work on this book, so it’s more of a heroic-culture-by-way-of-Paul-Pope approach than it is a genre-blend that’s easily identifiable. Pope’s distinctive vision and singular storytelling keeps “Battling Boy” from feeling like a mix-tape of cool.
At its core, the book is the origin story of the title character. Its existence implies that more volumes are yet to come.
But even as a stand-alone volume (for now), it’s packed with vivid scenes, a nice balance of moving-the-story-forward-clearly narrative moments and weird interludes. I mean, on the one hand, it’s not a particularly sophisticated book. It’s a young-hero-going-on-his-first-mission story, with one event leading into the next, and a prologue that provides a bit of backstory to the world in which the story exists. It’s a straight-ahead action comic, with characters who say what they mean (unless they obviously don’t, because we know they are lying) and characters who physically interact with their environments. This isn’t one of those 21st century superhero comics where characters stand around and talk. This is flying and punching and lightning-bolt tossing insanity, one jam-packed page at a time.
Let me pause here just to say that, yes, I keep referring to “Battling Boy” as a superhero comic, and that’s not really what it is — nor what publisher First Second likely considers it to be — but, for me, it’s everything implicit in the promise of superhero comics that we so rarely ever see. Visual spectacle. Oversized characters. Grand themes. Connection to a legacy. Excitement. Pathos. It connects the circuit back to mythology better than most superhero comics have ever done. It’s reminiscent of Jack Kirby in that way. But not third-generation Kirby twice removed. It’s Paul Pope’s electro-charged distillation of a Kirbyesque take on comic book storytelling. He learned his lesson well.
So “Battling Boy” gives us the tragic tale of rugged rocket-man Haggard West and the daughter that he left behind. And a look at the cosmic Olympus from which the great gods and heroes spring into action. And a boy playing with his friends and recruited by his father into the family business of being a great hero. And a ridiculous but also kind of terrifying gaggle of villainous creatures and a giant demon dog chomping its way through the city. And the birth of a would-be hero. But all of it is imbued with life, with personality. I mentioned that on the one hand, it’s not particularly sophisticated, but here’s the other hand: Paul Pope works his craft so well, the sophistication does exist but it’s inside each panel, at the level of each note, rather than in the song as a whole.
It may be a straightforward punch-em-up young-hero-coming-of-age story, but that’s just the superstructure. The understructure is where Pope gets to play, and where he gets to work his unique magic. It’s not even fair to say that it’s the little things that add up to something special in “Battling Boy.” It’s the consistent surprises. The idiosyncratic visual decisions — like Battling Boy’s too-ornate family cape, or the bomber-jackets-and-goggles of the armed anti-monster resistance with their impractical roving cannon, or the rubbery teeth and feral-but-goofy charm of the giant beast, or the chainsaw inside a guitar case — that create a sense of unreal reality, that provide a sense that this is a world we are visiting and Paul Pope is our guide, and it’s a world we don’t want to leave by the final pages.
The follow-up volume can’t come soon enough. “Battling Boy” is a thrilling, wonderfully alive version of what a superhero comic can be. Even if it isn’t a superhero comic at all.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.