Duet On ‘Solo’, Part Three: Paul Pope
Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC's head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC's library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.
Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this third installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the third issue of Solo, created by Paul Pope.
Sean Witzke: Paul Pope is a guy who has almost nothing in common with the two artists whose Solo issues preceded his -- which is a good way to describe Pope, but it also shows the commitment to breadth that Solo editor Mark Chiarello made at recruiting 12 creators whose only thing in common is that they've all worked on Solo. Pope is in the position that neither Richard Corben nor Tim Sale were in comics, he's a guy who has a '90s self-publishing/indie reputation, but also worked for Kodansha in Japan and created a big-deal prestige Batman comic. Pope's neither fish nor fowl, and his Solo issue is the first of the series that feels like a personal statement about working for DC, instead of an anthology book. His model is what dominates the rest of the series.
Matt Seneca: I see this issue as a really interesting tipping point in Pope's career. Before this, even though he'd gotten a ton of ink as the Next Big Thing (a lot of it self-generated -- he's always known how to play to his audience), he'd barely been visible on the stage this issue gave him, that of mainstream Marvel/DC superhero comics. He'd done three Batman shorts that lacked the luster of his independent work in books that didn't sell much, and a puzzlingly twee issue of Spider-Man's Tangled Web for Marvel, but long after anyone really cared about that book. And after this issue of Solo, it's Batman Year 100, which won the mainstream over in high style.
I see Solo #3 as Pope trying to assemble a successful formula for making hero comics his way. And typically for a cartoonist who's gained so much from studying past masters, every story here owes a clear debt to one of Pope's influences. We've got a straight-laced cover version of one of Jack Kirby's wildest and most disturbing comics ever, a re-packaged Greek myth straight out of Eddie Campbell's Bacchus, a slice-of-life homage to Will Eisner, and a Batman and Robin story in the swashbuckling Dick Sprang/Carmine Infantino Silver Age mode. Weirdly, the most lightweight story is the one that acts as the book's conceptual glue: a short in which Pope describes being so taken in by the magic of the comics he read as a kid that he even bought the obvious phony baloney of the ads in an old issue of OMAC.
SW: Pope is the guy who initiates a lot of the hallmarks of the series: cover versions of old comics, comics-specific autobiographies, second-person storytelling. Every story here is placed somewhere on the tenuous line of adolescence, and Pope seems to want to focus what was his most expansive mainstream work with the time period he spent most involved in the form. Each part has a foot on either side of sexual awakening: "A Problem in Knossos" is about violence as a release of familial tension; the OMAC remix explodes the neuroses of the Kirby version into a full on technicolor nightmare of untethered adolescent rage and fear of women/identity/adulthood, quickly followed by an illustration of Pope's own naivety as he was reading it; the "On the Corner" piece shows a section of people well entrenched on either side of this time in their lives; and the Robin story highlights the fact that this is a teenager ready to show off everything, turning the tensions in the previous stories into a benefit rather than an endemic problem. The whole thing seems to be working towards that Robin story, which says that the weirdness and naivety is what makes these thing special because they use those things together instead of feed them.
MS: I think highlighting adolescence in relation to Pope's work is really important, because that's really where everything he's ever done takes place. He approaches his material with the same level of seriousness and craft-based commitment as the artists we think of as the "adult cartoonists," but stays in genre, going back again and again to these same familiar tropes -- actually, call them what they are, these same clichés. It's something that turns some of his potential audience off, I think. Somebody whose opinion on comics I respect more than almost anyone else's told me he sees Pope's comics as an endless series of poses that never become naturalistic, which I have to admit is true -- and yet I don't really see that as a negative thing. If you're going to do action comics of any kind, you've got to confront the fact that they're an adolescent thing, basically a matrix of story possibilities that correspond to an agreed-upon set of male power fantasies; but that matrix has given us Kirby and Crane and Tezuka and yeah, it's given us Paul Pope. Adolescence is the most exciting time of most people's lives, I think, and even if Pope's comics can't really read as serious or "important" -- if they lack a certain weight -- they move faster and more gracefully in its absence.
SW: I don't really see it as a negative, either, but I'd say that it's not necessarily male adolescent power fantasies. Sure, Pope's stuff is extra-male, but his best comic is a straight-up romance comic. Adolescence is the base of drama, and the most compelling stories are always kind of immature, no matter how smart they are.
The poses, the problem with leveling that at Pope is that you can level that against so many great comics creators but with Pope it fits so well because he's the "cool" comics artist. But all Jason comics are entirely poses. And same with Tezuka. It's fiction, phrasing it that way is a great way to say that Pope is a poser without saying he's a poser, y'know?
MS: I completely disagree with that characterization of Tezuka, but who cares? You're right: the cartoon is itself a pose. I think the best evocation of what Pope's up to as an artist in general -- and the best story of his career, actually, until the most recent issue of THB -- is, weirdly enough, his cover version of Kirby's OMAC #1. It's the point where adolescence breaks and adulthood begins (which is probably the reason that the Kirby version of that comic is so unsettling; Kirby is fundamentally a children's storyteller, and seeing him address adult themes in any way but allegory feels really... the only word is "gross"... but in a good way). And typically for Kirby, it's all pretty close to the surface indeed. Wimpy Buddy Blank's physicality suddenly engorges with rippling muscles when he sees something that makes him go "I never knew girls could do that with their bodies!" And then (in Pope's version) the world explodes. Kirby couldn't make it that pure because he had to do something in the next issue, but Pope isolates the fracture point and just destroys everything there. Kirby provided the ultimate superhero comics metaphor for sexual awakening: a woman in a box, legs wrapped around her own head. But Pope recognizes that this is the place that hero comics have to end, and does it in an appropriately grand fashion, with a neon-green-and-orange nuclear cataclysm that easily beats everything else in the issue for sheer volume.
SW: Gross is exactly it. And Pope's version just oozes being a 13-year-old and wanting to kill and screw people, turns all the Cold War anxieties of the Kirby version inward to just illustrate unhinged want of the id is at once provided for and obliterated, where he doesn't need women or to fit in anymore, he's been chosen by space god of technology to kill everyone with his body. Which is perfect.
The colors are amazing, even though I heard an interview where Pope said he hates the colors (which is insane). The skin tones are so gorgeous, they're like T.Rex album cover skin tone. The lines here are nervier than Pope would normally do, and Stewart's colors explode that into something so lush.
MS: Dave Stewart might be the creator whose contributions to Solo do the most to make the book a success, all told. And you're right on about the boldness of Pope's line here, though it especially stands out in comparison to the rest of the issue, which contains some of his subtlest and most nuanced inking. It's not so much in the lines as what surrounds them -- especially in "On This Corner," which is my second favorite story, there's this light haze of tiny little marks, just flecks of expression that cluster on the bits of the pictures that hold the most emotional resonance: faces, hands, buildings. It's almost like Pope was able to direct the splatter from his brush, Jackson Pollock-style, into something that held as much value as the brush line itself. And it's especially fitting for that story, though it shows up in the rest of the issue as well, because it's here that Pope really gets as subtle and "felt" as he ever does. It might still be a little contrived as storytelling, but no more contrived than the lives of people who want to be something better than they are right now have ever been. Which, of course, is what the story's all about. Brooklyn hipsters: gotta love 'em.
SW: It is more gestural and detail-based, where 100% and Heavy Liquid and Batman Year 100 all focus on motion -- how bodies move, how light travels. The new THB has some of that instinct too, to focus on subtlety. "On the Corner," story-wise, feels too literary for me, and "literary" -- not really literary, the kind of slice-of-life short that doesn't illustrate more than a mood, and Pope's art really does that, but it doesn't have much teeth does it? Brooklyn Hipsters are great (I guess? I only know college hipsters not from Brooklyn) but he did those better other places.
MS: I agree, this isn't Clowes or anything, but it really benefits from its surroundings. After all the insane, bordering-on-saccharine pop of the first two-thirds of the issue, that story cools everything down and makes you focus on the craft elements that are so present in all of it, but that you miss on the first frenetic read through.
SW: It is really good to focus on these things as albums -- jazz albums are probably best -- because they're all about rhythm and story/song placement, how things fit together.
MS: And this is the slow song after the blazing first side, something precise and measured, maybe not virtuosic, but really tonal and considered, the palate cleanser that helps you consider the rest of what's being put on display in the proper context but also has a lot to recommend it on its own terms. I also just love the Eisner rip at the end of it: Pope isn't shy about jacking from his influences, but Eisner is about as far into non-genre comics he's gone with that impulse, and he pulls it off really well.
SW: Well, he did do Crepax. Does he sign it as "Pope after Eisner?"
MS: Nah, not in a DC book, they might get in trouble for the copyright. I think this was before DC owned the Eisner comics for a second. And even that Crepax page is full-on action.
SW: He normally does that, there's a "Pope after Neal Adams" in 100% somewhere, I think. What did you think of the childhood Pope piece? I think it's less successful than a later, very similar, story he did in the last THB, but it's charming. Maybe too sweet.
MS: It's nothing on that THB story, which I think might be the best thing he's ever done. I thought it was charming when I was 14. Now... it grates as content, but like I said, it's really important because it provides the creator's point of entry into this material. It explains why the comic is what it is, which is a really awesome thing to do in a DC superhero book. It earns its place.
SW: I really like the eight-page historiography of Mars in the issue before that, with the CC Beck planets? That's maybe not his best but it's my favorite, it's brilliant science fiction. The problem is maybe there's a lot of stories by people Pope's age talking about toys from fake comics-only ads, and not only in comics.
MS: I think alternative comics have generally provided a more interesting take on trash culture than Pope does. Peter Bagge gets more intellectual mileage out of it than we see here.
MS: Do you want to talk about how this issue doesn't have any sci-fi to it? I mean, I don't care at all but I know you've gone on record as being a huge fan of the way Pope approaches that genre. Dish for the ComicsAlliance faithful, son!
SW: Well, Pope is really interesting as a science fictional thinker because he actually has a position on the thing, which is that he wants to tell frontier stories -- not just in science fiction -- but that clashes with how he likes to tell urban stories, and the result is always compelling because that tension exists in the work. Sure, there's Pope's politics which is always a huge factor in how sci-fi is made, but that's more of a color than a driving force with him (as opposed to say, Heinlein). The only really sci-fi thing here is OMAC and that's not really fitting in with Pope's specific brand of sci-fi. It's a Kirby world, with Kirby approach to everything. It's maybe what makes that so cool is that Pope's not concerned with the world of it, just the feeling. It is strange that there's personal sci-fi here, though. Maybe he didn't think it would work with the other pieces.
MS: I think the reason for its absence -- which you're right, is definitely conspicuous, even Batman 100 has more sci-fi to it than this Solo issues does -- is Pope's awareness of what he was doing. I mean, Solo didn't sell like DC wanted it to but I don't think anyone was aware of that reality yet when these pages were being drawn. This issue was supposed to be (and kind of half-was) Pope's big coming-out party as a mainstream superhero artist, and I think he's making a concerted effort here to pursue that for 48 pages and leave all other genres on the sidelines. Even the Theseus story is set up pretty clearly as a proto-superhero thing, a kind of acknowledgement of the post-Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns idea of superheroes as our modern-day pantheon of gods combined with a light poking of fun at the excessive grittiness of post-Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns hero comics themselves. It's a weird story, a real deep-level comment on the superhero genre and its concerns that doesn't feature anything even resembling a pair of spandex panties.
SW: It's also a story that has been retold for superheroes. There's a really famous Batman: The Animated Series episode ["If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?"] that is the minotaur story without all the horrific violence or familial guilt. Pope makes the material more Pope (especially with how he draws Theseus, not just in appearance but in emotion), but he also restores all the violence and uncomfortable inter-relationships of the original.
MS: Theseus in a black t-shirt and jeans! The second you see that you know what Pope's all about as an artist, even if you've never read a comic of his before. I love that panel, it's really fantastic. That story, though -- I mean, if I'm feeling kind I see it as a true evocation of those Greek myths, which don't really begin or end but just continue in and out of one another along familial bloodlines. But if I'm not feeling kind it's pretty unsatisfying as narrative. It's a rewarding intellectual exercise, and boy are there some great pictures, but when I get to the final page of Knossos bursting into flames with a puckish comment from the narrator I always go, "Really, that's it?"
SW: They are some fantastic pictures. Were you a greek myths kid? I know this story so well that to me it was all about the flourishes and stylistic moves. It's like when someone illustrates a religious story or a rap anecdote as a comic to me.
MS: I was a total Greek myths kid. I think that's why it disappoints me, I know there's so much more there. If I didn't I think it would just seem like a cool EC Comics-style "burn it down" ending.
SW: It is kind of the EC/Aesop and Son version of the thing, isn't it? I dig it, though.
MS: Maybe it's a limitation of format. because, oh man, can you imagine the 56-page Paul Pope Theseus graphic novel? But no, he's grinding it out for the deadline. This might just be the spot in Solo's run where the prevalence of apocalyptic -- let's be honest, lazy -- EC endings starts to rankle with me. Readers! Look for this as a continuing narrative in my interactions with these comics!
SW: Like his King David, it'd be amazing. And yeah, you'll get sick of creator talking to camera pretty soon, too, I bet.
MS: Hell yeah.
MS: Okay, the Robin story? I love the read on it you gave earlier -- this explosion of the violence that's so much a part of being a teenager (most people, I guess, never get into a fight after their age starts with a 2), but maybe it's just the Batman story sameness of it all. If it was a story about any kid who wasn't Robin beating up grown men because he's really angry about his parents dying -- the f***ing Odd Future Paul Pope comic -- I think I would be a lot more into it. The genre tropes just overwhelm the emotional and ideological content for me here, really.
SW: Paul Pope's Street Angel. There's a lot of things going on here that are weird to this story specifically. It's a Robin story where not much happens. But there's the James Jean coloring, the weird way Pope draws the Joker as Cesar Romero, the strange narration where Pope is talking to the reader, and the way that the final page of the story is split for an advertisement like the old early '60s issues of Showcase, even if it's just a promo for Pope himself.
MS: The most concrete crystallization of a moment when Modern Art Baller James Jean was just hackin' it out on freelance jobs in the DC offices. It happened in Solo, folks! And it's got the Joker in a mustache, which is super disturbing -- even more so than Cesar Romero doing it in real life -- and some great narration, industrial plastic shredders and purple silk suits that really cut to the core of Pope's obsession with seeing how textured surface can get. It's all about the bits with this one, not the actual story. Which I suppose is appropriate for a Batman story: the narrative itself is always gonna get subsumed into the larger spiderweb of things that come under that property's six-letter heading, but the bits remain the things that are "from that one Paul Pope Batman comic."
SW: The overpass on the first page is so pretty, man.
MS: It's the panel you see before you know it's Batman! The potential there is limitless, especially given what comes after. Pope's art is more powerful than what's in it -- not just in this story, I think, but throughout the comic. The OMAC riff is really the one thing where the content rivals the visuals, and that's Kirby's content. This is still eye candy comics, I guess, but it's getting really engaging too.
MS: This is the first issue of Solo where we see DC's library of characters being approached by an outsider: an artist who sees these properties as the massive icons they are, not just toys to play with. This is really the story of Solo after issue #3: a story about artists whose iconoclasm fails in the face of icons too big for them to break. Just ask Alan Moore, DC Comics is bigger than anyone who works for them, and Pope's issue is the beginning of Solo's run as a comic about how individual vision is mitigated, enhanced... warped... by its interactions with stone-etched corporate trademarks. If you say that's only interesting to people who are already interested in superheroes, well, yeah, you're right. But the artists who took their kamikaze dives at the DC pantheon in Pope's wake produce some pretty fascinating arguments.
SW: The toys can't be broken. As the series goes on, we see that they're indestructible.
MS: God help us all.