At New York Comic-Con this past weekend, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Paul Pope, who has just released his newest book Battling Boy though publisher First Second. We discussed his new book, his inspirations, and his greater role in the world of comics.
In Battling Boy, monsters roam through Arcopolis, swallowing children into the horrors of their shadowy underworld. Only one man is a match for them – the genius vigilante Haggard West. Unfortunately, Haggard West is dead. Arcopolis is desperate, but when its salvation comes in the form of a twelve-year-old demigod, nobody is more surprised than Battling Boy himself.
Zachary Clemente for Amazing Stories: Congratulations, the first book [of Battling Boy] is out as of Tuesday [10/08/13], it looks like the property is taking off.
Paul Pope: It’s already in second printing. It topped 500 on Amazon in all book sales.
ASM: I’m not surprised.
PP: I mean, I’m a little surprised myself. We’ve [Pope and editor Mark Siegel] been doing a lot of media; it’s been…[I’m] not sleeping much right now.
ASM: I’ve been trying to follow the news as it comes up the past couple days, there’s going to a spin-off for Aurora West.
ASM: It’s very exciting, I’m very drawn to her [Aurora West] and her caretaker, we want to know what’s going on with her.
PP: Oh, Ms. Grately you mean? Yeah, that’s the first sidekick of Haggard – there’s a whole story there. We’re seeding both series with lots of different, I don’t to say “clues or easter eggs,” but they make one massive story. Haggard is an archeologist – so there were cities before Arcopolis and there were possibly monster problems before this one. So that’s the little teaser.
ASM: Was it Brad Pitt’s production company [Plan B Entertainment] that optioned it [Battling Boy]?
PP: The film’s been at Paramount, they optioned it in 2008, I worked on the film and the book simultaneously, which is one reason it took so long. At the moment, we sort of took the film off the table in good faith, because it needs, like, Jack Kirby budget. I mean, everybody kind of got that too. Like, I was showing everybody…”Take a look at this, this is Fourth World, this is Jack Kirby, I want it to look like this…” We’d watch old [films], I love the Mike Hodges Flash Gordon film.
I want these massive, crazy costumes…you know for Flash Gordon, they had the costume designer that Fellini used for Satyricon and for some of his later films? And they all kind of got it, they [costumes] have to be super over the top, grandiose. Just on the other side of corny, like it’s almost corny, but not corny?
Which is kind of what Jack Kirby’s Fourth World would look like if it were film, as it is, it would be corny, but maybe not. So we’re waiting until the book’s done and we have, like, sales figures.
ASM: And you have one more volume coming out?
PP: Yeah, for this series [Battling Boy].
ASM: Is this growing into a world, sort of as a property? It seems there are a lot more offshoots and other aspects coming out.
PP: Yeah, in that sense, I sort of compare it to, uh, Hellboy. Like how [Mike] Mignola has created a universe with B.P.R.D., Lobster Johnson, Abe Sapien, etc. There’s lots of stories that could be told in this world.
ASM: Is your choice director Guillermo del Toro, then?
PP: He’s seen Battling Boy, he likes it. I mean, the truth is, with the films stuff is that all the A-listers are like, you know, we showed it to Pixar, they’re like: “This is great, but we have 15 years of properties already lined up.” And we showed it to J.J. Abrams who I worked with briefly on the Star Trek film.
ASM: I didn’t know about that.
PP: I did a prequel for Wired Magazine that sort of explained what Spock was doing on Delta-7, or whatever that planet was. So he was the first person we showed Battling Boy to, asking: “Do you want to do this?” The truth is: all these A-list guys already have ideas for either their fantasy film or kid superhero film.
ASM: I would say that when it comes to comics, a lot of people have tried to pigeon-hole comics in one area of another. Is it kid-friendly? Is it not kid-friendly? I think what you’ve done very well here is an All Ages book, which is something that’s been coming back with Adventure Time, and all those BOOM! comics.
PP: We’ve done all these school talks and kids go nuts when they find out I’ve worked on Adventure Time. Well it’s cool, too. Like kind of the stuff we read – I would consider Dune to be pretty much all ages, sort of like Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. And they’re not stupid stories, they’re not written down to kids, I feel that a lot of times when stuff’s made deliberately for a child audience or a young reader audiences, it’s kind of like pandering to them.
ASM: Another good creator in the same vein as yourself is Kazu Kibuishi (Flight, Amulet, Explorer) with Nucleus [Gallery].
PP: Oh yeah sure, and he’s doing those covers for the Harry Potter books. They’re beautiful.
ASM: While at the San Diego [Comic-Con] panel this year with Gene Yang (Boxers & Saints), he mentioned that you approach writing and art for your comics differently. How does your day-to-day work style differ between your art and your writing?
PP: Oh yeah, that’s a good question. The writing stuff […] I don’t mind walking – I do a lot of my mental writing while I’m walking around the city. I mean, I like how anonymous New York is, how kind of, cacophonous it is. I don’t mind that sort of ambient noise and confusion. When it comes to writing, I do sort of want to wake up in the morning and whatever I dreamt the night before, I tend to try to program my brain to come up with ideas, like a lot of Battling Boy came in my sleep, believe it or not. I listen to Beethoven, you know, I listen to Brian Eno or something very quiet and I’m able to write.
When it comes to penciling, it’s such a frenetic activity, that I listen to like loud stuff, like…I’m into rock n’ roll so I listen to The Cult or Motörhead, or anything like that. Something super-noisy and raucous.
ASM: That flows perfectly. Your art is jagged and fantastic and otherworldly in my mind.
PP: I think also for Battling Boy, I wanted to feel like…you remember those old Heavy Metal videos from the 80’s? Where it’s Ronnie Dio with his sword and he’s fighting goblins in a castle, and it’s really corny. So I wanted something that felt like a Heavy Metal video, very mythical. All those spices your throw in, you know.
ASM: Have you ever stepped back and realized that your work is considered important? Important in the industry, important academically?
PP: I’m hearing that, but…there’s a line that Frank Herbert has in Dune about when Paul Atreides sort of becomes the leader of the Fremen, where he has a meditation where he basically says that all roles and stations in life are temporary and in order to survive them, you must have a sense of the sardonic where you realize it’s the role, it’s not you. Otherwise it will consume you, and I tell Mark, my editor, when I wake up in the morning, especially since we’ve been traveling so much and being the face of Battling Boy. It’s like I’m the vehicle. This [gesturing at a copy of Battling Boy on the table] is what matters, I’m the vehicle. That’s how I really feel.
ASM: I love that. I’ve done nothing on the same scale, but whenever I’ve worked on my art, it feels like it’s flowing “through” me.
PP: Yeah it is. There’s an old Roman notion of the Muse, and it’s that you don’t have genius. Genius sits on your shoulder, the Muse is like a bird, and if you’re quiet and you let it sit there, it’ll stay, and if you listen to it, it’ll speak. And when it wants to fly away, it flies away. So that’s why I listen to quiet music when I’m trying to write, just so I can keep my brain trained, so then I can open up the channels for The Muses, and not just the noise, the chaos, and corruption of life.
ASM: Something you mentioned earlier, drawing on Kirby Fourth World stuff. Are there any specific older comic stories that influence Battling Boy? One of which, The Hidden Gilded Realm, where Battling Boy’s people live reminds me of Asgard/Midgard of the Marvel Universe.
PP: Oh it’s totally that. That’s why I’m very open about it, because…to take comic books away for a second and to go back to Carl Jung and go to a comparative mythological understanding of what Story is. We have these stories of what heroes and villains and bad guys and lower realms and higher realms, and in that sense Battling Boy is very pagan because it […] Battling Boy is not the son of Thor. His dad is named “Dad.” And he looks like Thor, he looks a little something like Genghis Khan – he’s sort of a war god. But I wanted to do that deliberately so that it was not attached to any specific tradition. I mean, Battling Boy is sort of Nordic kid, he’s got the blonde hair and the white clothes, he goes to sort of a Mediterranean, dusty, beat-up old city. The god realm has it’s colors, and the monster world has their own colors. I’m trying to create this “pan-mythology” as opposed to [gestures] “This is the son of Thor.” or “This is the son of Hercules.”
ASM: It’s about the archetypes.
PP: Yeah, exactly. In the broadest sense.
ASM: I think it makes the book so much stronger because it allows you to build a mythology in your head, and it’s all you need.
PP: You know, it’s funny. It frustrates […] meeting all these kids, they ask “What is Battling Boy’s dad’s name?” And I say “His name’s ‘Dad’.” “What’s his Mom’s name?” I say “Her name is ‘Mom’.”
ASM: It seems like people who have “names” are mostly side characters. Such as the cook, Pantros.
PP: There are gods […] Pirithous was the one who walks in circles, like “periphery” or “perimeter”. Humbaba is a character from Sumerian mythologies, from Gilgamesh. So there’s a bunch of stuff that the librarians salivate over, because it’s actually the [gods]. Though, I have to say, meeting all these kids, a lot of them are schooling me. We did a talk the other day and sort of saying that Battling Boy’s Mom is an Amazon, like Wonder Woman. This little kid is like “Excuse me, but in classical mythology, isn’t it true that Amazons don’t marry?” I got totally schooled! They [Boy’s Dad and Mom] totally hooked up. I don’t want to read Demeter, like the Goddess of the Hearth, and all that “woman’s place” stuff – all barefoot and pregnant and all that.
ASM: Actually on that note, another current book out there that is entrenched in mythology, and especially Greek mythology is Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. Have you been reading that?
PP: No I’m not, but I love both those guys, I’m big fans. I’m waiting […] right now, I’m not really reading anything outside of Kirby, Moebius, Alex Toth, and Miyazaki – it’s all I’m looking at. Until this is done, I need to stay in my [gestures around head] fortress of inspiration. But I’m accruing a giant stack of comics, including Wonder Woman. In fact, when Cliff got married, he invited Azzarello and myself. We were at the reception, I’ve known both of them for a long time – Azz was telling me his ideas for Wonder Woman and it was pretty clear Cliff was going to draw it. It sounded in some ways similar to Battling Boy, kind of like gods on Earth.
Everything he’s [Azzarello] written, for the most part, has been interesting and worthwhile. And Cliff’s one of the best.
ASM: Hands down, he released a new book with Vertigo called Beware The Creeper.
PP: Yeah, I saw that. He just did a new short story for for some other Vertigo book.
ASM: Yeah, The Witching Hour. It was an alone on Mars horror story.
PP: Oh, cool. I think Amy Reeder’s really good – there’s a lot of talent. Brandon Montclare is writing [Rocket Girl]. This has been a great week, I mean Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy came out, Brandon Graham’s new Multiple Warheads. Battling Boy came out, Rocket Girl came out. And there’s a couple of other ones that were like wow, this is the week that when you’re a kid, it’s like you walk out of the comic shop with all these big bags of comic books.
ASM: Sort of on that note, I know you’ve done some things for DC here and there.
PP: Actually most of my professional career has been with DC. Three graphic novels, Vertigo and DC, including Batman [Year 100], numerous short stories in Solo and Wednesday Comics and now I do covers randomly. I’m doing a page for the new Harley Quinn book.
ASM: I saw your covers for Catalyst Comix which I’ve quite enjoyed.
PP: Oh yeah, those are a lot of fun. I just did my last one.
ASM: And there’s Batman: Year 100, which is criminally under-read.
PP: No, I mean, they keep it in print. You know, it sells. I think it’s alright. It’s not going to be Frank Miller, you know, I aimed for the Pantheon and did the best I could. The motorcycle may not be the Bat-pod (Dark Knight Rises), but it’s clearly an inspiration.
ASM: Is there a story you’re dying to tell at either Marvel or DC, using their properties?
PP: I’ve tried to get Kamandi, I got OMAC. They offered me Demon at one point, this was before Mark [Siegel] and I were working on Battling Boy. Machine Man at Marvel was one offered to me, a lot of times the timing’s not right. It’s such an undertaking to do a series.
ASM: Is there one property that you really enjoy?
PP: I would say being able to re-imagine the origin of OMAC, then be given free reign on Adam Strange, and that won awards. That was super fun and I fell like when the door’s open I would love to come back. I think people have a mistaken thought that Dan DiDio and I don’t get along, we actually do. We talk about projects and ideas and stuff and it’s just that so much of it is timing and whatever the editorial winds are. But really, my call and response to Moebius, to Kirby and classic comic, to Disney and things, is Battling Boy. So I’d rather be here now.
ASM: What’s next? Now that the Battling Boy property is getting a lot of steam, second volume’s coming out, the option, and [The Rise of] Aurora West.
PP: I mean, we’ve been working on it [Aurora West] for almost a year, I would say. The writer J.T. Petty and I have been crafting the script and really kind of “seed-bedding” both series together. So when you read them, they do make one large series. I’m really, really happy that the Spanish artist Dave Rubin has been getting platform in the States. He’s a great artist, but a lot of people don’t really know him here though.
ASM: I saw some early stuff this morning on Boing Boing, and it’s very cool, he emulates your style well.
PP: [To editor] Boing Boing showed some interiors? That’s news to me…we’ve been all over the place. His style and my style are similar and we’ve known each other probably for about six or seven years, so when the chance came […] I knew for sure I wanted a European artist and I specifically wanted a Spanish artist because I love Spain and there’s a lot of great talent there.
ASM: One question I like to ask creators, especially when they’re at the point in their life where they can just create and that’s all they need to do, earlier in life, what kind of part-time jobs did you work?
PP: I’ve had all kinds of jobs. When I was in college, I worked at a print shop, so I was working in the camera department learning how to do a lot of stuff which is now sadly obsolete, you know, leaning how to cut ruby lith, how to prep stuff for the press. And partly because I was self-publishing, I was very interested in learning as much about the mechanics and the chemistry of ink and paper as I possibly could. I wasn’t union so I wasn’t able to work on the big press, though I since have. I did a lot of landscaping, I had a friend who had a company […] you know, you’d go and your job is to mulch this thing or weed all day and I would like that because they left you alone and you able to have your own times. Those were pretty much the jobs I did. I did work in construction for a little bit, believe it or not. I mean, I’m skinny […] the worst job I’ve ever had was one time I had to […] we were refinishing a restaurant and I had a little doweling tool and we had we re-wax this floor that hadn’t been cleaned in probably 20 years. So it was 20 years of wax and I had to go through all the grooves and take up all the pennies and old french fries, and wax and shit, that was horrible. That was when I knew “there’s got to be a better way to make money.”
ASM: Defining moment right there for Paul Pope?
PP: Well, it was one of them for sure.
ASM: There’s been a lot of critical attention on the mainstream comics industry now. Various editorial problems, issues between creators in general and publishers when it comes to company-controlled properties. Do you have any “words of wisdom” to making the climate a little better for creators and readers alike?
PP: I appreciate that, because I feel like kind of getting to a point where people care about my opinion. So I appreciate the question. I tend to think that, when we think of the “Comics Industry”, there really isn’t a comics industry, there’s a series of creative rhizomes that sometimes comes together and sometimes fall apart and I think everybody has different intentions, different goals. It’s no longer the case that you’re going to be in the Robert Crumb/Fantagraphics mode or the bullpen type guy at Marvel or DC – I feel there are so many new options, the main this is try to listen to your inner voice and be true to that, if that makes sense.
Paul Pope lives in New York City and creates comics. His notable releases are: 100%, Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid, and Battling Boy.