Last night I read the new Paul Pope book, Battling Boy, and a chapter of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, and realized that Battling Boy vaguely reminds of the Omega The Unknown comic Lethem wrote that Farel Dalrymple drew. Both are superhero comics that feel modern, and appropriate for kids, yet seem to inherit a 1970s style moreso than they draw on the superhero comics of the past thirty years and their holding pattern of attempting “superhero comics for adults.”
The two books are colored similarly, mostly in flat colors, (Battling Boy has a few gradients but eschews gross modeled color), but choosing from a broad palette of what is available to printing technology on glossy paper, but being tasteful about it, avoiding the sort of computer-powered dayglo colors that you might associate with Lynn Varley’s work on DK2. The color temperatures stay pretty consistent- The beginning scene of the book is the coming of dusk and electric streetlights turning on, which I was really conscious of in a way where I felt like the coloring should have changed to indicate this somehow- There is a panel of a drawing of a light turning on and I remember thinking that should have been more palpable, somehow. Granted, it’s one of the first scenes of the book, and maybe making that sort of move in the opening tone-setting pages wouldn’t have worked. It’s a question of expectations, really: I read the book thinking very consciously of the idea of “the new,” hoping for some sort of new superhero paradigm, from Paul Pope, whose black and white drawing has this visceral quality that’s one of my favorite things. One of the first American cartoonists to really embrace manga, he seems particularly poised to do a full-color superhero comic for an audience that is too young to have grown up on manga but nonetheless has it in their blood, their expectations for reading a comic.
If, for the generation that was in their teens and twenties when THB came out in the 1990s, Pope was a gateway to manga, this book seems like it might the youth’s introduction to Jack Kirby. Reading Battling Boy be the son of a classic hero with a stilted speech pattern made me think about Thor, The New Gods, and Kamandi, and this seems a like deliberate nod. Dash Shaw, talking about New School, wrote about how the faux-biblical overwrought style came about due to printing limitations, where all-capitals came through clearer than lowercase letters, and exclamation points were readable where periods might not be, and this ended up capturing the passions of how it felt to be a child. Lethem’s Omega The Unknown is, of course, a rewrite of a Steve Gerber comic. I feel like Lethem, or others of his age, have talked about how staid the 1970s Kirby material felt, in comparison to the works of Gerber, but with a few decades of hindsight perspective it is easier to view the comics of both of them as existing within the same era, even if the two men might have been from vastly different generations.
Farel Dalrymple and Paul Pope are from different generations as well, and if I were to guess, I think that Dalrymple might cite Pope as an influence, if he isn’t already on the record having done so. Both have a certain skillset of chops enough to receive work from Marvel and DC farily regularly, but with styles distinct enough to generally be relegated to “quirky,” indie-seeming books, or any venue, like DC’s Wednesday Comics, where it feels like the art is actually made to be LOOKED at, rather than existing just as a mechanism to deliver the product of copyright. Their drawings look like drawings, they’re not meant to covered up in the gunk of CGI modeled color. They’re not meant, even, to be viewed like Mike Allred’s work, or the work found illustrating Mark Waid’s Daredevil, as “style,” or design- they’re meant to be viewed as messy things of ink. It seems worth noting that Farel’s got a book deal with First Second as well, and while I know some people think of First Second as having no real taste, or point of view if you look at the books they’ve published that are good, it sort of seems like the thing that defines them is publishing art by people with a lively sense of line, printed a little too small, so that you can’t really make out how lively the drawings are, mostly in small panels, so that the narrative keeps moving forward.
Battling Boy feels broken up into chapters, scenes, set pieces. I am reminded, for the sake of straining the comparison, of how Omega The Unknown worked really well in single issues, how its tenth issue denouement was mostly wordless, how it built and played out before that. Battling Boy feels different, reminiscent of manga in how the scenes it plays out are action scenes that it wants to tell as well as it can, how it tells a large story by cutting back and forth, breathing, shifting its focus from one character to another depending on where the action is going to be.
I want to reread it. I should probably read every book I write about on here at least twice, just as a general critical measure, but, really, when I was a kid growing up reading comics, I reread things incessantly. I went over to my dad’s house on the weekends, as one does when one’s parents are divorced, and my dad lived with his parents, as one does when one does not really have it together, and my grandmother would take me to the comic book store, and I would get somewhere between two and four comic books, and then I wouldn’t really have anything to do all day, at my dad’s house that was also my grandparent’s house, but reread those comics multiple times in a single day, and again the following week. Battling Boy, despite things I say about it that make me feel like I’m writing a negative review even though they’re basically nitpicks, made me think about how it would reward that sort of attention, that kind of swimming. I can think about those scenes in the book and want to spend time there again.
Did you know that there’s a spin-off book for this book, listed on Amazon, co-written by Paul Pope and someone I’ve never heard of, and drawn by someone I’ve never heard of? Did you know that, also listed on Amazon as coming out early next year, is a book from Picturebox called “The Road To Battling Boy,” which will presumably be filled with sketches and developmental design work? In some ways these will be ways to spend more time in this world. In other ways, it’s frustrating in the way that I’ve been frustrated by Paul Pope pretty much since 100%, where I want things that feel like major works rather than side projects or one-offs. (Since then, besides Batman Year 100, which at the time I didn’t appreciate, owing to its work-for-hire nature, it’s mostly been short stories and retrospectives.) But in point of fact, both of these are stupid impulses, when I should just be satisfied with the work in front of me, that I get to dive into it again, that this is a thing I have been anticipating for ages, and here it is. One of my friends when I was a kid told me that the first thing he flipped to when he read a comic was the next-issue box blurb, and I think I did that too, and I understand that a big part of being alive is anticipating the future, but one of the things that’s best about rereading a comic the lack of that anticipation, that when-this-comic-is-done-I-will-read-the-next-comic-in-the-stack-that-I-am-excited-about-reading, that moment where you let it rest against your eyes and it burns its brand onto you.