‘Battling Boy’ Is The Hero’s Journey, Paul Pope Style [Review]
Paul Pope has cultivated a lot of street cred for his work outside of comics. He’s worked for Spin, Complex, Wired and GQ, designed clothing for DKNY and posters for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and he even deejays on the side. In Battling Boy, his first original graphic novel since 2007, he reminds everyone that when he’s not working in fashion design, magazine illustration, or dropping dope-ass beats, he’s one of the most gifted comics creators on the planet, whose every pen-stroke deserves our rapt attention. The first of a two-volume story from First Second, Battling Boy combines superhero comics with pulp sci-fi and kaiju manga in a coming-of-age adventure about the son of a god, the daughter of a dead hero, and a city full of monsters.
The city of Arcopolis is at war. Under siege by an army of immense monsters and plagued by a gang of child-nabbing terrorists led by a ghoul named Sadisto, the streets are no longer safe; curfews are in effect. The city’s greatest champion is Haggard West, a science hero in the mold of Buck Rogers and Adam Strange, who was introduced in July’s The Invincible Haggard West. When West is killed, it leaves Arcopolis without a protector, and his sidekick and daughter Aurora without a father. While the city mourns, Aurora aches with grief for her father, and burns with the desire to follow in his footsteps.
Meanwhile, an unnamed pantheon of gods watches down over all the worlds in the universe, able to travel between them using three-dimensional maps shaped like double-helixes. That city’s greatest hero, a bellicose, Thor-like warrior big on muscles and bravado, returns from his latest hunt on the eve of his son’s thirteenth birthday, or “turning day,” to inform Battling Boy that it’s time for him to go on a “ramble,” a coming-of-age journey that every god in the starry lofts must undertake. With little warning and absolutely no sentiment, Battling Boy is dropped in Arcopolis to walk his road of trials alone. Armed with an invisible credit card and twelve enchanted t-shirts that imbue him with the powers of animal totems, he must rid the city of the monsters terrorizing it, or die trying.
It’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, pulphope-style, and from the get-go it’s evident that the Comics Destroyer is cooking with gas. His previous comics have always had a loose, improvisational feel about them, but Battling Boy clearly relies on the strict structure of the monomyth (the first half, at least), complete with the call to adventure, supernatural aid, and passage through the threshold, all to tell an all-ages (well, maybe ten-and-up) story about growing up.
Though he’s flirted with young adult fare before in his ongoing classic THB, that series has not been without its share of adult moments. In Battling Boy, he explores adult moments of an entirely different nature, pitting his heroes against the monsters of Arcopolis while confronting them with the struggles of maturation. Aurora West and Battling Boy are each forced to grow up fast, each with an absent father who still manages to cast an imposing shadow, each with a powerful legacy to live up to. It’s as if, through Aurora West, he’s providing young readers with the tools to cope with loss, while with Battling Boy he’s preparing them for college (though Battling Boy is essentially shooed away from home, he’s got his own apartment, his parents’ credit card, and if he really, really needs help, he can always call his dad). With his plucky, Golden Age-flavored dialogue and typical exuberance, he manages to impart these lessons while maintaining a balance between innocence and malice, always sure to counter quiet character moments with bursts of over-the-top sci-fi combat.
The book is filled with the kind of action we haven’t seen since Batman: Year 100, but bigger, crazier, and with the colors of Hilary Sycamore, brighter. (Sycamore doesn’t have quite the same subtlety of Pope’s frequent collaborator José Villarrubia, but she gets the job done.) Huge, frantic, fast-moving battle scenes go on forever, the action zig-zagging across the pages like a ricocheting bullet.
Pope’s artwork has always been stylish and kinetic, but in Battling Boy, he reduces the slickness, tones down the sexiness, and pumps up the raw power. All of his influences bleed through the pages in surprising ways: you see Jack Kirby in his character designs, Hergé in his bizarre backgrounds and cityscapes, Katsuhiro Otomo in his energy, Hugo Pratt in his cartooning, and Tony Salmons in his rubbery dynamics. Pope is like a funnel, a conduit between the old masters and a new generation of young readers, who will soak up knowledge of comics history without realizing they’re learning something.
Twenty years into an iconic career, Paul Pope continues to push himself to find new areas, to take what has come before and synthesize it into what he calls “world comics, 21st-century comics,” and with the first volume of Battling Boy he has taken another giant step in that direction. Stuffed with action and suffused with an incorrigible energy, Pope’s most ambitious work to date takes off like a rocket and keeps going until it hits the stars. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait much longer for the rest of it.