Battles, Ballads, And Comics As Music: A Conversation With Paul Pope [Interview]
Paul Pope is one of comics’ most respected and versatile talents. Over the past three decades, he’s produced an amazing body of work, from his breakthrough self-published THB series to a number of acclaimed projects for DC Comics and Vertigo, including contributions to Wednesday Comics and Solo. Last October, he unleashed his long-awaited Battling Boy graphic novel, which became a bestseller and won “Best Publication For Teens” at the Eisners last month. This coming September, First Second will publish the first of three tie-in volumes, The Rise Of Aurora West, written by Pope and J.T Petty, with art by David Rubin.
We sat down with Pope at the First Second booth at San Diego Comic-Con, the morning after the Eisners ceremony, and had a wide-ranging conversation about his creative inspirations, the changing face of the comics market, and his new and upcoming projects.
ComicsAlliance: So let’s start by talking about Battling Boy – you originally teased the release of the book with a stand-alone single-issue comic, The Invincible Haggard West #101, which was also the first chapter of the graphic novel. Was that something you planned for in advance, or…
Paul Pope: Yeah, it was. It was. Last year when we came to San Diego, we wanted something – so I designed that single “The Death Of Haggard West” as like the first five minutes of a James Bond movie where you get the theme.
I thought that it was cool because we put it out as the 101st issue and…people were actually like, “How come I’ve never heard of this comic book, you did one hundred issues of Haggard West?” And I’m like, “No, it was only one of them.” They were confused.
CA: I heard a bit of that myself, people seeing the single issue and asking, “What is this?”
PP: Yeah, “They did 100 issues of Haggard West“? Although it’s funny now, because [now we have] the new series, Aurora West, and the first one comes out in September. It’s great, because I was really unhappy to kill Haggard. It was necessary for the story, but he is a great hero unto himself. And now we have the chance to really tell his story, because as I was drawing him and thinking of him I came up with all kinds of backstory stuff.
CA: Well you do have another hundred issues of backstory to fill in…
PP: That is true!
CA: So how do you feel about focusing on this universe, and working in the “young adult” field? Battling Boy, like many great adventure stories, doesn’t pander or talk down to its audience in any way; you can give it to a kid and let them discover it for themselves. But before now, you’ve probably been best-known for your more adult material, Vertigo books like Heavy Liquid and 100%.
PP: Well, the series we’re doing after Battling Boy and Aurora is called THB, and it’s a series that I have been working on for a long time. I think of that as “young adult.” It is a little more mature, though. There is smoking in it and kissing and that type of stuff. The idea though, if everything works out, it will come out within the next two or three years, and it is going to be a book that will be perfectly suited for the kids who are now reading Battling Boy because then they are going to be three or four years older.
CA: Is that going to be simply collecting your older THB work, or reworking stories, or…
PP: It’s kind of both, because I’ve been reworking THB… It’s not like Lucas is going back in reshooting Star Wars so that Greedo shoots first – Han still shoots first, if you know what I mean. But I’ve had a lot of time to think about the story, and kind of get more serious about it, because the science is more serious now. Whereas before it was more of an H.G. Wells kind of gimmick: Mars and Martians and that type of thing.
CA: I assume, given all the THB stuff that’s come out over the years, that it’ll be a whole series of books…?
PP: It’s scheduled to be five books.
CA: And the original THB issues varied wildly in size and shape, so are these new editions going to be in a uniform format, or are they…
PP: Yes, there’s two formats. We’ve got a black and white oversized, like an Artist Edition, and then the regular trade edition. Probably hardcover and soft cover.
CA: Excellent! I have a lot of THB, but it’ll be nice to have the whole story in a format that I can shelve in one place, instead of having them piled in different boxes. Though there is an amazing vibe to those originals, and the way you took different approaches with each issue…
PP: In the ’90s there was a period where it seemed really important to push the format, and now it feels like it’s more important to push the form. You know, like Chris Ware, Alex Ross, all of these guys coming up, Jeff Smith… We were all really trying to change the shape and feeling of comics,and make them more design oriented and now I feel like it is so different from how it used to be. When I first came [to San Diego Comic-Con] it was 1995… This is a completely different world.
CA: Well, there was that movement of you guys, Jeff and yourself and the sort of… “post-indie” creators? Is that an appropriate term?
PP: Yeah, I’d say so.
CA: Because you can talk about, and I am going to use musical terms, there was underground and there was indie in the 80’s with the black and white boom and then there was that post indie movement of…
PP: Shoegaze post-punk.
CA: Yeah, shoegaze post-punk comics where… It’s not a genre, it’s a form that you guys are pushing off in all different directions.
PP: We were also able to bring in influences from Kirby to Robert Crumb to Hernandez Brothers to Carl Barks.
CA: And Toth and Bodé and… I was seeing people name-checked, and as a reader, it led me in a lot of interesting directions, led to people that I wasn’t always aware of. And all that really opened up the audience for comics again, in a whole different way.
I guess comics are now doing the same thing that happened in music after the technology explosions of the ’80s and ’90s. Once the form expanded, the distribution altered and the market shifted, so now you’re no longer experimenting as much as you are seeing what you can do to recombine these elements in an exciting way. The ’90s indie comic explosion attracted a book store market that’s willing to showcase all these creators, so now, to some degree, you need to put things in a format that the stores can shelve to get the word out.
PP: Yeah, with Battling Boy it’s designed to be for the ages, literally, so I’m not, right now, trying to make what I always called “design containers”. My new book Escapo, the reissue…we had a little more freedom with that because we didn’t have to be constrained by market decisions like that “the book has to be a certain size to fit on the bookshelf and to fit into the school libraries. We also think that people don’t realize that the reason why Battling Boy is in its format, and the same with Aurora, is that it means it gets shelved in schools. Schools and public libraries. It is the size that they like.
PP: Yeah, not all pop music is shit. I think Battling Boy is pop. If you think of it that way. There is great pop… It doesn’t just all have to be Justin Bieber or something.
CA: Yeah. And with this project, you released a single ahead of an album…
PP: That was actually how I sold them! I said that bands release a single, then they release the album and the single is on the album. So let’s give them the hit single, and then it’ll be on the album.
CA: And now, you’re readying the Aurora West books, which will be, what… Battling Boy sequels? Prequels? Accompaniments?
PP: It’s its own stand-alone series. It ties into the larger cosmology of Battling Boy…the first book of the series is designed to end exactly where Battling Boy begins. So the funny thing is that Aurora is getting two books, and Battling Boy is two books, but Aurora is in all four of them. Battling Boy is only in his two books.
And the secret that’s now kind of visible, is that the thing is really about her. Battling Boy has his own series and his own trajectory, but she’s the one that has her entire life story told – whereas with Battling Boy, we only get a glimpse of his adolescence. We don’t know about his childhood, his youth, his post-adolescence, I don’t want to give too much away, but we don’t see him as a little boy, as a baby. We see her as a baby.
CA: So will other releases in these series be structured similarly, with a lead single of some kind previewing the larger work? If not a comic, perhaps a video trailer or something to build anticipation…?
PP: Not [an advance comic], but something like that…there is a trailer for Aurora that’s coming out.
CA: You’ve also just released that new edition of Escapo. You pulled of a really difficult trick there, coloring material that was originally created for black and white, and actually making it work. The art still pops, and the pictures still read well…
PP: Some people are kind of unhappy with the coloring, like the black and white purists, but there’s always time to reprint it in black and white later. And the truth is that color sells. It is a way to make the book accessible and different. I didn’t want to exclude anyone, but I didn’t want to just reprint it. I wanted it to be different.
CA: Back on the topic of Battling Boy, Haggard and Aurora, this saga you’re spinning… What sort of influences or inspirations are you bringing to the table with these? There’s a classic sci-fi vibe to much of Battling Boy, flashes of old-school Buck Rogers design filtered through your sensibility…
PP: Yeah, I think it’s changing now, but there aren’t enough good comics with kid protagonists, so I wanted that. I wanted something kind of light hearted but also kind of sinister. I like science fiction, I like mythology. So basically, I just threw everything in there that I thought was cool. Whatever would have appealed to me as a twelve-year-old was what I tried to put in there.
CA: And are you working on anything else at the moment, in addition to all this?
PP: Right now, I’m really just hunkering down and finishing Battling Boy because we have a window now. I don’t want to say that I wasted a lot of time, but I got involved in the movie side of things with Battling Boy and that took a lot of time, a big emotional and financial toll. And once the dust settled it was like, “okay, I’ve got to get the book done”, and I just focused on that.
And the reaction has been amazing. It’s great to win the Eisner – I got in late last night, so Mark [Siegel, First Second editor] texted me and was like, “Do you want me to say anything if I have to accept the award for you?” And I said yeah, just…”To the people, thank you for believing in a child hero”.