Battling Boy. By Paul Pope. Color by Hilary Sycamore; type designed by John Martz. First Second, Oct. 2013. US $15.99. 208 pages.
Long teased, at last delivered, Paul Pope’s Battling Boy has about it the air of an event. I for one have been looking forward to it for a long time.
Complaints first, because that’s just how I am. Two things bothered me about it:
For one, the book’s pages aren’t big enough to let Pope’s artwork breathe. Clarity, pacing, punch—all could have been boosted by upping the size of the book. Pope’s elastic rhythms and often-explosive drawing simply need more room. He offers up some dense pages here, stuffed with characters and text, and again and again my eyes wanted these to be bigger. More elbow room, please!
This point was brought home to me when I looked again at the book’s first couple of dozen pages as they appear in The Death of Haggard West, the comic book-sized teaser for Battling Boy that First Second put out in July (how odd for First Second to publish a floppy comic book!). The teaser’s slighter larger format gives the art more breathing room, and, as I held the two different versions next to each other, I found myself wishing that all of Battling Boy had been at least as large as Haggard West. Pope’s ferocious, ink-happy cartooning would have benefited.
Secondly, I knew upon entry that Battling Boy was to be the first of a series, but, damn, the book just stops, as opposed to finishing. In essence, it’s a springboard—I can easily imagine book after book in this series, because Pope seems just to be getting started. Reading it is like zooming to a stop sign: all accelerator, then all brake, errt! Battling Boy, in other words, roars up to a cliff’s edge, but then doesn’t make the jump. How frustrating!
That’s my way of saying I want more and I want it yesterday.
Other that that, wow, Battling Boy is a joyous blast of heroic nonsense, full-hearted and fully committed, throttle wide open and devil take the hindmost. I’ve always enjoyed Pope’s cartooning (his series THB was one of my happier comic shop discoveries of the nineties), but haven’t always been on the side of Pope the writer, who has sometimes succumbed to dithering or affectation. Reading Pope has been a matter of seesawing between grateful wonder and head-scratching befuddlement. I confess I’ve often thought that his writing couldn’t keep up with his drawing: his habit of lovely, obsessive, kinetic mark-making, all swoops, flecks and spatters, whirling, febrile, alive. Often I’ve enjoyed the voluptuous style, the grotty worlds and gorgeous characters, without liking the ways the stories turned, or sputtered, or collapsed. I’ve dug his wild flights without thinking he had a solid book-length story in him. Battling Boy promises to prove me wrong. Yes, this first installment ends too quickly, but it is a story, a classical coming-of-age story at that, in which the titular “boy” comes down from the heavens to kick monster butt and learn something about himself in the process.
At least this first book gets the boy to a moment of confession, and realization: that he is going to need help to defeat the monsters; he cannot do it on his own. The prospect that he may team up with a battling girl—the splendidly no-nonsense Aurora West, who is the super-science counterpart to his heavenly, magical self—promises that the next volume will be a corker.
The Death of Haggard West set up Aurora as the daughter of Haggard, the flying hero of Arcopolis, an embattled city beset by child-stealing monsters. When Haggard cashes out, Aurora wastes no time; she, who knows his hideout, his gizmos, his hi-tech secrets, quickly moves to take his place. What the Haggard West one-shot did not prepare me for was how abruptly the plot would switch from Aurora to “the hidden gilded realm,” an Asgard or New Genesis-like god-world lifted straight from the cosmic comics of Jack Kirby. From there Battling Boy is dispatched by his hilariously overwrought, thumpingly Kirbyesque god-hero father to undergo the inevitable trial of adolescence—his “rambling” or walkabout, that is, the supreme test for young gods-in-training. Sent to Arcopolis with a handful of gear, most notably twelve magical t-shirts, Battling Boy finds himself up against the same thing Aurora is up against: a humongous city terrorized by a diverse bunch of nasties, from the giant, car-munching Humbaba, to the hooded kidnapper Sadisto, to a mysterious, Satanic “Big Boss” glimpsed in the last few pages (and quite a few other critters too, ugly, funny, and strange—a gift to a cartoonist who clearly loves to make stuff up). Thus the stage is set for further volumes, and an epic dust-up.
Obviously Battling Boy draws quite a few things from the stock baskets of genre: children’s and young adult fantasy, myth, folklore. It’s a superhero comic too: Battling Boy, his origin, his parents, their realm, all of that, screams Kirby. Some of us nurse fond dreams of Pope reviving Kirby’s 1970s classic Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, and sure enough Battling Boy reminds me of Kamandi, crossbred with Kirby’s Thor and Pope’s own THB.
The beauty of this is that, though Pope shows a winking knowingness when it comes to genre, there’s very little in-joking involved, and little of that arch cleverness which makes superhero comics today generally such a drag. Yes, Pope makes some tongue-in-cheek jabs at the high-flown pompousness of the post-Marvel myth-hero, but Battling Boy’s dialogue with genre is not insular or besotted with its own cleverness. Readers need have no prior investment in superheroes to delight in Pope’s ricocheting plot, nonstop inventiveness, gut-busting action, and slatherings of weird humor.
The only bits here that are truly acrid, as is typical of Pope, are the broadsides against corrupt authority, in this case Arcopolis’s mayor and his toadies, who seek to market and exploit “Arco-Lad” (as they insist on calling Battling Boy) in order to bolster their own falling stock. The climactic scene, in which our hero is feted in an absurd parade, finds Battling Boy momentarily tempted away from his best self, as the scheming of the mayor, a transparent huckster, pulls us away from the story’s brightest, best parts into a cynical satire. This recalls the mistrust of institutions and the ribbing of bureaucrats, button-pushers, and intellectuals seen in other Pope comics, from The Ballad of Doctor Richardson to THB to Batman: Year 100. In short, Pope’s libertarian streak reveals itself, again. But in the context of Battling Boy, this riff on the temptations of power, and on the crassness of politics, works. It fits the bildungsroman Pope has set out to tell, one that by its nature stresses (as Roberta Trites has argued of adolescent fiction generally) the confrontation between youth and sclerotic institutions, between the searching young protagonist and entrenched social power. Pope has found a vehicle for his ideas that also works as a thrilling adventure and an affecting coming-of age tale.
Battling Boy is a paean to the world-building powers and reckless energy of cartooning. Dynamic, brash, stuffed with surprises, yet also knowingly crafted, tightly braided, even subtle, it is Pope’s best balancing act yet between the joys of rampant mark-making and the responsibilities of story. I laughed again and again at the book’s sudden absurd lunges, grace notes of weirdness, and sense of texture: in sum, its odd world. I marveled at its bobsledding, hell-for-level eagerness. Finally, I liked, genuinely liked, Battling Boy and Aurora. I look forward to seeing them again.