Thursday, December 18, 2008

Propaganda Reviews: Paul Pope

(The artist flanked by self portraits. Not just incredibly talented, but also a bit of a hottie. It’s really not fair.)

I have loved paul Pope’s work from the moment I saw it and everything he does, as far as I’m concerned, is certainly worth buying. He was responsible for one of the most wonderful comics I’ve read in many years: THB.

Sadly out of print and never collected THB was a hugely ambitious project from a young writer and artist, but it soon became obvious to those of us reading it that Pope was one of the most talented and original creators we’d seen in many years. I tried to summarise it recently as I was writing this and the best I could come up with was Jules Verne writing retro sci-fi with today’s technological awareness whilst on speed and acid.

Pope started releasing THB in 1994 through his own Horse Press label. And even this wasn’t his first published work; at the tender age of 22 he already had Sin Titulo and Ballad of Doctor Richardson under his belt. But THB is practically his signature work and was the point where I first saw his art in it’s wonderfully frenetic and stunning glory.

(THB & H.R. Watson. From THB (c) Paul Pope)

To give you an idea of the book I fell in love with;

THB is set on Mars at some point in the future. And what a future it is; a massive retro sci-fi world of strange machines/meks and even stranger personalities. The THB of the title is the bodyguard for the series’ heroine; one H R Watson, schoolgirl daughter of the most famous mek-industrialist. But THB is no ordinary 6 foot tall black clad semi-literate bodyguard. He’s either a small ball of rubberised material on HR’s person or, when activated, is a 7ft tall purple super bodyguard prototype. (THB is named by HR after the chemical structure he’s made of: Tri-Hydro-Bioxygenate).

THB and HR’s adventures carried on through various iterations of the THB comic over the next few years. It all gets ridiculously complicated very quickly, but luckily people care enough to make bibliographies.

(THB issues 1-5, published Oct 1994- Mar 1995. (c) Paul Pope)

What started off as a fairly normal 5 issues of nice fat comic wonder in 94/95 quickly began to get a little strange. We had reprints of the first issues with extra stuff put in and other stuff left out and worryingly we had a year of nothing at all, which was strange since Pope had been so prolific initially. But it seems Pope had simply gone away and let himself get bogged down with more ideas and plans than he could ever realistically see to fruition.

Instead of coming back in 1996 with the THB conclusion, he came back with a different THB story in a large format (think Guardian sized) comic; THB Parade. In addition to THB strips we started to see the other parts of Pope’s artistic nature come to the fore; obsessions with flair, hype, design, style, advertising and much, much more.

After that we were still no nearer getting the ending to THB we so desired, instead we had what seemed to be Pope’s annual comics appearance; P-City (1997), THB Circus (1998), Escapo (1999), THB: Mars Mightiest Mek (1999). All very good in and of themselves, but we really, really wanted to read the end of THB.

(Just a few of the books Pope did while we all waited and waited for the conclusion to THB. From left: THB Parade 1996, P-City Parade 1997 & THB Circus 1998.)

Finally in 2000, plans for THB 6 were announced. But even then, it wasn’t simple anymore. For starters, it wasn’t the end of the series. It also came out not as one comic but 4; THB 61, 6b, 6c, 6d. Each one a THB issue in itself, each with at least 76 pages in. And after that? Nothing. Finally in 2003 we had Giant THB 1 v.2. But even then, the thing hadn’t finished. And sadly, to this day, the whole thing remains unfinished, unavailable and uncollected. Although quite how he plans to ever collect it altogether is a mystery. Primarily because of the number of different formats and sizes, but also because of the huge amount of extra material in each comic, all of it a small part of what made THB a wonderful and original reading experience.

(THB issue 6. All 4 of them)

Which bring us to the one real criticism you could easily level at him, and something he admits himself. He seems to have some difficulty coming up with stories with a well defined beginning, middle and end. And in THB he seems to have taken that to a higher level, producing something with a sort of beginning, several middles and no real end yet.

But even though he’s never given us the ending we wanted on THB it doesn’t mean he’s been goofing off and he certainly hasn’t given up on comics. And although his later work has never had the same visceral excitement of seeing something new and original leap from the page for me, he has been giving us consistently wonderful stories.

His comeback book in 2001 was Heavy Liquid, a sci fi tale that was hugely disappointing at the time of it’s release. It just felt too close to THB for me. Too many of the situations, the style, the characters seemed to be directly lifted from THB and dropped into Heavy Liquid. Almost as if Pope figured it was a new start and the audience for this DC Vertigo book wouldn’t be aware of his earlier work.

What doesn’t help the book either is that Pope’s art, usually a constant delight is overwhelmed somewhat by the production process of the book. His fine lines and frantic brushwork is muted and constrained by the garish colour palette. But coming back to it, without the anticipation I had the first time round I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it’s held up. Yes, the production still grates but Pope the artist is obviously working hard here at becoming Pope the artist writer. The story holds up fairly well. It lacks the naiveté and wonderfully free flowing joy of life we saw in THB but it has it’s own style and is an entertaining read. It’s being re-released later in 2008 as a deluxe recoloured hardcover.

(Preliminary cover art to the re-released Heavy Liquid hardcover,
due out from DC in September)

Pope’s latest major comics work was a really interesting foray into playing with the big characters of American superhero comics; Batman Year 100. This is Pope looking at an “Orwellian future Batman”. There were grumblings at the time that someone quite so left field shouldn’t be doing major Batman stories but as Pope himself points out:

“I cut my teeth with self-publishing but I also spent five years working for Japan’s largest manga publisher, learning my craft. There’s no reason a guy with an idiosyncratic style shouldn’t do Batman. There seems to be two mutually exclusive models for a cartoonist to follow, either you’re R. Crumb or you’re in the comics mainstream where you only care about the Fantastic Four”

And frankly after finally getting around to reading it in one huge, late night, rush I can only agree, it’s one of the best Batman stories I’ve ever read, right up there with killing Joke, Mad love, Dark Knight & Year One. With Batman Year 100 Pope does what every single great Batman writer has done before him; ignored all of the convoluted continuity tied to the character and simply decided to use the pure essence, the myth that is The Batman.

Back to Pope again for his summary of the book:

“The premise of my story is that if the original Batman issue, Detective Comics #27, came out in 1939, flash forward ahead 100 years to 2039. It’s far enough ahead to have a new global playing field. Nuclear war and the terrorist with a suitcase bomb have created a crisis for the superhero notion. How do you fight crime in a back alley with this huge international problem? I consider myself a science fiction writer, and I’ve always wanted to do a future Batman.”

The story itself is absolutely marvellous, a fantastical future Batman tale that owes a huge debt to Frank Miller’s work on Dark Knight (for concepts) and Year One (atmosphere and stylistic influence). But the pacing, the dynamic work on the book is a mix of Pope’s mash-up of Manga, European and US influences. It’s superhero meets pure Sci-Fi filtered through European and Japanese stylings. The story is breathlessly fast at times, it rattles along, plot points falling from the page. The art is a beautifully, stylish, scratchy mix of European expressionism and Manga action sequences. Possibly the best idea you can get about how good the book is would be to browse a copy in a shop and read the first 19 pages and just enjoy the beautifully paced sequence of Batman on the run. It’s a stunning start to a truly great book.

(Batman on the run from Batman: Year 100. Incredible action sequence to start a great book. Art by Paul Pope)

Pope’s artwork throughout his career is wondrously fluid, full of easy, vibrant strokes and packed with movement. You can just tell from the page he draws very fast, but not in a rushed, sloppy behind deadlines type of fast. This is a frenetic, too much to say and not enough time kind of fast. It makes his artwork some of the most frantic I’ve seen, almost bursting off the page with energy and ideas.

It’s obviously hugely influenced by Manga, but in a subtle way; no cutesy stylings, big eyes and obvious Manga trappings here, but the influence is obvious nonetheless. It’s in the pacing, the composition and the styling of his work. He studied in Japan, had work published by Kodansha and obviously has a huge love of all things Japanese, both comics and lifestyle. His characters and settings often have that ultra modern, yet retro futurist look of Tokyo about them, where hip young things wander neon doused streets with a few grand worth of cutting edge tech hanging from their clothes.

But his artwork is even more intriguing than just being Manga influenced. Because if Pope takes his pacing and composition from Manga he also takes a lot of his style and art cues from classical European cartoonists and greats of American comics. Indeed, he lists Herge, Jack Kirby, Hugo Pratt, Daniel Torres, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth as influences. And somewhere in his work you can see touches of greatness from each one of those true greats of comic art. But Pope isn’t a copyist. He takes his influences, learns from them and moves his artwork on. His look is stylised and frenetic, but always beautifully composed and flows across a page as good storytelling always will. He’s succeeded in taking aspects from all his many influences, absorbing them and producing something quite unique and fascinating.

(Some of Pope’s early artwork on THB. Inky, scratchy, frenetic and beautiful to me.
(c) Paul Pope)

His work is always intriguing, always interesting and frequently quite brilliant. It sits comfortably between all three main comics cultures, taking the action adventure base of American comics and the more fluid philosophical aspects of the best European comics.

And this hasn’t gone unnoticed: In the American press, Paul Pope has been called “an explosion” and “the great white hope”. In France, he’s been called “the Jim Morrison of comics” and “comics petit prince”.

In some ways, his recognition has only succeeded in taking him away from comics. Most noticeably in the recent Diesel campaign where Pope created quite stunning window displays for the New York store and advertising images for Diesel’s spring 2007 range. He’s also designing artwork concepts for DKNY clothes as well now.

(Paul Pope’s Diesel New York marketing display windows and a silkcreen from the store. Just part of the huge advertising campaign he designed. And one of his DKNY T-shirts)

Of course, as mentioned before whilst talking of THB, the one huge problem with Pope is that he’s a pure conceptual artist. So full of ideas that it sometimes seems his work is all about the idea, all about the style, the feel, the rush of getting the thing down and it sometimes seems the slower, more crafted things like consistent storytelling take a definite back seat. Not all the time of course. His shorter works – Ballad of Doctor Richardson, Sin Titulo & Escapo all have very satisfying stories to compliment the artistic vision. But sometimes, in his longer form work, there are moments when you begin to question Pope’s skills as a writer. The style, the art, the sheer rush of ideas seem to flow a little too freely from Pope’s brush and there’s sometimes a feeling that he would really benefit from slowing down a little and working a little harder on the writing side of things. But the writing is there. Just read some of his essays in the large form THB mags, or go and visit the blog. He shows an ability to write entertaining, thoughtful and concise work. Perhaps all he really needs is a damn good editor to push him a little more in the right direction?

As for his current and forthcoming work his mammoth PulpHope artbook and career retrospective has recently been published. He’s then going to be releasing a 2 volume set of Battling Boy, an all ages series from First Second in 2008 (maybe 2009?) and incredibly, miraculously we also received the news recently that so many of us had been waiting over a decade for. First Second have recently announced plans to release Total THB in 2009 as a 4 volume 1200 page plus deluxe full colour set and an oversized deluxe black and white trade paperback version containing the entire THB story – including, finally, the ending to the series.

It just goes to prove that sometimes great things do come to those who wait. And I’ll be waiting in the line to pick up my copy. In the meantime there’s always Pope’s blog and extensive Flickr pages for news and images.

(One last piece of gorgeous Paul pope artwork from THB before we go.)

I’ll leave the final words to Pope himself, talking as only he can, and frankly, only Paul Pope could really get away with this comparison, but he can and he will because he’s just the complete package:

“I’ve always called THB my Dune. THB is the American Akira. It’s big and shimmering and strange and new, and hopefully it will reach a wide audience of readers who really love comics.”

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