Saturday, 2 November 2013

Battling Boy by Paul Pope review

According to interviews, Paul Pope’s Battling Boy originated as Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth pitch for DC Comics. Pope has described what was going to be his Kamandi as “a violent adventure story for young readers with a boy lead character”. DC Comics passed on the idea because apparently they do not publish comics for kids. They publish comics for 45-year-olds. It’s a ludicrous idea and Paul Pope turned around and reworked his pitch into Battling Boy which ends up being a pretty strong argument against the idea that comics for young readers are exclusively for kids. I tremendously enjoyed the first volume of Battling Boy and I’m glad that Pope, a creator of certain renown, used his influence to create something that’s worthwhile and feels fresh in a medium that can regularly make readers feel like they’ve eaten too much candy before bed.

There is so much to enjoy in Battling Boy, the story of a young boy god who is sent to a planet that resembles a post-apocalyptic earth. Every god who reaches the age of third teen is sent on a Rambling, a solitary quest that will help them grow from a child to an adult. His quest is simple, he has to find a way to protect Arcopolis and become the city’s hero. It’s a simply story, and one that’s been told for ages, but it’s the unique influences that Pope brings to the story that make it a worthwhile read.

The origin of Battling Boy. Kamandi is a great
character created by Jack Kirby and starring in his
own series in the 1970s.
As always, Pope’s art is excellent. He draws brutish and ugly monster while somehow given them a sense of whimsy that I’ve never noticed in his art before. He seamlessly meshes together the fantastic elements of Boy’s homework and the super-science elements of Aurora. I’ve never noticed such a strong manga influence in Pope’s work before. It’s always been there on some level (heck, just look at his weird yet wonderful euro-comic/manga mash up of his art style). In Battling Boy, however, the manga influence is also in the extended action sequences and the story. What’s been labelled as a Young Adult comic by First Second is essentially a North American shonen manga.

Despite being steeped in manga influence, you can clearly see the influence of Silver Age comics in Battling Boy. The artistic influence of Jack Kirby, the construct of the science hero whose life mission is to protect the inhabitants of his city are also present in this story. The first volume of Battling Boy also focused on the daughter of the city’s superhero, Haggard West. Aurora’s story is equally important to Battling Boy as Boy’s story. They both have an initial character arc that begins and ends in 200 pages. She witness and grieves the death of her father but she also makes the first steps towards taking over his mantle. Boy, whose story arc is different but follows a similar path, learns what is required of him to become a true hero, like his father. Both characters have a legacy to uphold and are determined to follow it through. I’ve barely finished reading the first volume of Pope’s fantastic new series and already I cannot wait for the next installment.

Item likes Boy’s totem animal t-shirts are a power-ups taken straight from video games and fighting manga. For Boy, though, they’re not just for fighting. Pope gives it a more serious and interesting twist by having Boy use them as totem animal consultants. When he discovers that he can’t just punch himself out of his problems, Boy decides to talk to the cleverest and the wisest of his totem animals. It’s a pivotal scene and it adds a great amount of depth to the work. Battling Boy is also similar to manga because of the lessons the characters learn. You also know that in the second volume Aurora and Boy will become friends and Boy’s greatest strength will be his resolve to never give up and his determination to protect those that need protection.

Pope does an excellent job conveying the sense that Battling Boy’s parents sent him on his Rambling to learn those very lessons. Boy’s father is a monster killer not because he like sports or because he’s doing I to show off. You feel as though he fights monsters to protect others. When Battling Boy calls his dad for help during his first battle, one of the things his dad asks about is whether or not Boy tried to reason with the monster, Humbaba. In this world, monsters are not, by definition, evil beings. They’re misguided and confused and angry. Their destructive behaviour is symptomatic of their situation. In that same conversation Boy’s dad asks if the monster is hungry. It would be such a simple reason for a monster to be angry. The mayor of Arcopolis told Battling Boy that they do not know where the monsters come from. They simply appear. Maybe the monsters are being taken from their homes and dropped, unceremoniously, onto the city of Arcopolis. I’d be pretty upset if that happened to me.

Pope’s story follows the well-established formula of a mythical coming of age tale. He does it with such bravado and energy that it still feels fresh. There’s also a lot of heart. Boy struggles with the difficulties of his task. It’s somewhat hard to believe that he’s the son of the famed monster slaying Thor-like god. It’s a Greek myth using gods of the Norse pantheon to tell a superhero and manga influence action and adventure story. What’s kept me interested in Paul Pope as a comic creator ever since I’ve read my first comic of his (Batman 100) is the multiple influences his brings to his craft Whether it’s the foodie culture or fashion or his attention to detail and practicality in his design or the comics-of-the-world influences in his art, there’s a smorgasbord of things to enjoy.

My only disappointment in the comic is the colouring. Hilary Sycamore coloured Battling Boy and although she does a pretty good job, the whole thing is too bright when it needs to be darker and too dark and muddy when it needs to be brighter. I would have preferred to see José Villarrubia on colouring duties. He’s done an excellent job with previous works by Pope and his contribution would have elevated Battling Boy to a whole new level.

I enjoyed Battling Boy like I enjoyed Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and Corey Lewis’s Sharknife. It’s better than Sharknife and it’s equally good to Scott Pilgrim though both works have their different strengths. Despite the different influences, the works all have pretty strong similarities while maintaining distinct authorial voices and tone. It’s impressive that more than 20 years in the business, Pope still manages to create comics that are emotionally resonant and entertaining. Battling Boy is a fun comic but it also has depth. In some ways, his Young Adult comic is better than some of his more adult oriented works. I easily could have read another 200 pages of this comic and that’s a good thing because a second volume is on the way. It can’t get here soon enough.

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