While swinging through Boston’s New England Comics location in Harvard Square to help promote the new edition of Escapo, Paul Pope, joined by Josh Frankel of Z2 Comics and Pope’s friend and illustrator Chris Hunt, and I sat down to chat revisiting previous work, the affect of influences past and present, and his future endeavors.
Like a feverish mash-up of Fellini films, Heavy Metal magazine, and classic Jack Kirby comics, Escapo tells the tale of a circus escape artist extraordinaire, who can escape from any situation – even from Death himself! However, there is one force even more powerful than the Reaper which Escapo must face. A meditation on life, love, and mortality, Escapo is not to be missed! Originally published in 1999 and long out of print, the new Z2 edition of Escapo is fully colored and redesigned in the French BD format, featuring 50+ pages of bonus content. Included here is the rare two-page alternate ending, only seen in the French edition, as well as a new ten-page story and added pin-ups and sketchbook content by Paul.
Zachary Clemente for Amazing Stories Magazine: From what I’ve seen, a lot of creators have trouble looking back or returning to older work – they can even feel haunted by it. What do you feel about returning to something so early in your comics career?
Paul Pope: Well I stand by it. When I made that book (Escapo) I felt like I was really in solidarity with Nick Cave when he did Murder Ballads. It’s a solid piece of work and it’s very inspiring…and it holds up. I think Escapo holds up, it’s a solid piece of work. It’s the first thing I did that really felt like […] there are parts of THB that were strong, but this was the first one that felt complete. I’m happy to sign copies of it because I think it’s strong. It’s a young man’s work but still strong.
ASM: I recently found out that you had intended to originally do it in color, but weren’t able to do it in time.
PP: Yeah, I was okay with black and white. I believe in black and white comics, coming from the Italian school of cartooning. It seems right to do it in color now and I think Shay Plummer did a great job with the colors and we got great work out of him.
ASM: Would you say this is the start of looking back at older work, like THB, and bringing it back or finishing it off?
PP: Yeah, for a long time people have been asking about my catalog or my “back-matter” and it’s just been out of print. Yeah, when Josh came around we decided that we can do this. There’s a lot of stuff involved with Escapo that’s never seen print. There’s even more that we weren’t able to put in this book. Even now there’s still more stuff. “Holy shit, there’s a lot here!”
Josh Frankel: We actually have sketch content we couldn’t fit in the book, at least 20 pages we still have.
PP: It’s kind of weird because, the designer Jim Pascoe […] I gave him everything we could find. Got all the art shot and scanned all kind of stuff and said he could do whatever he wants. And Jim made some choices that were surprising to me. There’s just a lot of content he wasn’t putting in the book. Maybe we’ll come back and do another edition some time. But yeah, I’m happy with it – it’s a really good-looking book. It’s challenging.
ASM: In a video CBR posted of you talking about the book you mention that this is a “new book” – could you expand on this?
PP: Well, for the English audience, it has the ending that was published in French and it has all the extra material including the extra essay I wrote about the transition from analog pre-productions to digital pre-production, which in a way is kind of archival. It’s an interested way to describe the time period. The book looks great, the colors look great, and it reads well. Also it’s been long enough now. Like with the earlier Nick Cave stuff, knowing Grinderman and his later work, you can go back and listen to early Nick Cave and understand where he’s coming from. This was him 20 years ago. And so to me this has been interesting for comparison.
ASM: In the video you mentioned how Escapo is a celebration of living life, even with death as a constant. Is this a rebirth period for you? It’s kind of like this character of yours is able to escape death through a new printing.
PP: I think the dramatic anxiety of Escapo is the anxiety of the 26 year-old version of myself. I was really morbid and concerned with death and concerned with not living enough. “I want more life, fucker!” kind of thing.
I see it as a young man’s statement; it’s not like a grown man’s statement. I think Battling Boy is, in a sense, more mature, but Escapo is a self-contained, strong statement in comics. It’s a meditation of a 26 year-old on life and death and love and all those things.
ASM: This was sort of thrown in just for you because of the last time we talked. Would you say that you returning to this meditative moment is somehow relatable to the role of the Kwisatz Haderach from Dune?
PP: I’ve never thought about it like that. No, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know if Escapo really has any premonition of a future – it just has the urgency of life. At the time, that was what I was all about.
ASM: What about you now looking back?
PP: What I am now is the custodian for the past me. I’m the time traveler; I went back in time and grabbed him and brought him forward.
[Gestures to Josh]
We found a way to do it and it’s a good book. That’s the way I think of it. I know it sounds super egocentric and kind of “asshole-ish” but you gotta take care of your younger self, especially if you have a catalog. Whether it’s music or art of whatever.
ASM: I see it as a sense of ownership and acknowledgement, it’s important.
ASM: How do you feel now about the themes and inspirations that went into Escapo like Fellini, Kirby, and Nick Cave’s album? How do those affect you now that you’re returning?
PP: I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it too much. The thing that’s cool is that there’s so much new work that’s going on, I want to let Escapo have a new life and let it live. It’s like if you’re Nick Cave and record “Stagger Lee”, it’s like you record it and you won’t have to do “Stagger Lee pt. 7”, you might play it onstage or rehearse it.
I just want to make sure I can take care of this thing and treat it like a child. “Alright, here’s where you’re safe. Here’s where you gonna live.” If that makes sense.
Chris Hunt: Yeah, you talk about that all the time.
JF: There was this Orson Wells quote from a movie made about him when he made Citizen Kane and they wanted him to do the intro. It was like “I am not Orson Wells – the Orson Wells from Citizen Kane is no longer around. I am the man who has memories of that Orson Wells and has mannerisms like him, but I have changed completely.” If you think about it, the 10 year-old Josh isn’t me, but he’s inside me somewhere.
PP: It’s a crazy thought. Every single cell in your body has changed by now. Your brain chemistry has changed – everything is changed.
CH: But you’re still informed by that. We were talking about this earlier in the car when we brought up [Do Androids Dream of] Electric Sheep, the Phillip K. Dick book, and you said, “Memory is identity.”
PP: “Memory is identity.” Yeah, I believe that.
JF: I’m not my 10 year-old self anymore but the memories build who I am now. Who you are is the sum of your memories – the Paul and Josh from 10 years ago are, for all intents and purposes, kind of dead. But we kind of get reborn in ourselves.
PP: I like that; it’s an interesting thought, thinking about rebirth. It’s funny you mention that because Escapo is all about rebirth, it was unconscious. I didn’t mean for the birth and rebirth. The death I was trying for, but it was more of a morbid, young man’s vision of a tragic future. “I gotta embrace life now.”
There’s a lot of rebirth symbolism in Escapo and now as I’m older I’m seeing it. I wasn’t really aware of doing that. Like his t-shirt has a butterfly on it, so it’s like goes from the larva […] he comes from the womb. All these traps are water traps, too.
ASM: There’s even one called “The Waterwomb”.
PP: Yeah, and it starts with his birth scene. There’s a lot going on in that book.
ASM: Getting back a bit to your influences, in the video you mentioned that your only suggestion to Shay Plummer, the colorist, was to be reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods. Do you see a connection between those periods and the other influences that formed into Escapo?
PP: I do. I consider myself a Modernist, to tell you the truth, and I identity with the Parisian 1910s – everything Picasso and Dalí and Duchamp. Everything these artists were trying to do […] I think the Moderns had it rights in a lot of ways. It was very aggressive, positive, very organic, very sexy time for intellectuals. I want to see that.
I don’t feel a connection with a lot of the younger indie, for the lack of a better term, cartoonists that I meet. We’re not trying to do the same thing anymore. When I was getting into it, I was trying to make money, trying to support myself. I was trying to live up to the masters, Moebius, Kirby, let’s say Frank Miller, and Hugo Pratt. I wasn’t trying to revolutionize anything; I was trying to build on something. I wasn’t trying to tear anything down. “The Comics Destroyer.” I wanted to break archetypes and I wanted to break orthodoxy, but not try to reinvent a wheel when it’s already a wheel.
This sounds really “douchebaggy” but of all my stuff, I think Escapo’s the most Modernist work I’ve done. It was very consciously informed by Dalí and Picasso, and Fellini, and the 20th century masters.
ASM: Does that mindset or internal philosophy remain very prevalent in your current works or is it less of the driving intent?
PP: I think I’ve gotten it a little more subconscious now. I’m really into Carl Jung so, Battling Boy is all about child abandonment and child abuse. That’s the secret thing about Battling Boy – the monsters, in my mind, are real and there were real monsters in my childhood. That’s what I’m doing; I’m exorcizing them so I can put them down and then move onto the next phase of my future, which is probably going to be more erotica. I think I’m going to move back into sex again.
Right now I’m making a new thing for children and it’s awesome. Like with the signing today, there were kids coming around. Kids have never been interested in my comics before! Except weird kids [indicating to Chris]. Deliberately making something for children, right now that’s what I’m all about. You can be cynical and say, “Young Adult is where it’s at.” But actually I have something to say to 12 year-olds and 10 year-olds. I’ve got something to say to them, so that’s what I’m doing.
ASM: Probably more people need to. There seems to be a disparity for good content for that age group.
PP: Well, they did tell me when Battling Boy came out; one of the stores in New York told me that if the book was a hit, it was going to change comics because it’s comics for kids again. It’s not like stupid Scooby-Doo bullshit, this is actually for kids. This is written to kids, in the same way The Hobbit is written to kids. It’s for a wide audience; let’s put it that way.
ASM: You mentioned at the “curatorial” aspect. With the production of the book, what was your day-to-day involvement?
PP: It was a lot; I’m pretty perfectionistic. I know in a lot of ways I look like a shambling mess, but when it comes to my art I’m dead fucking serious. Jim Pascoe, the design, and I worked day-to-day on it; it was a lot of work to hone it. We had to whittle this thing down into the perfect shape – there’s no sloppiness in this at all, the whole thing is intentional. Even if it looks effortless; it’s still designed; it’s still made.
ASM: I think that’s when you know you have good design. Even though so much work goes into it; it becomes almost invisible.
JF: We were very insistent, on our end, on getting whomever Paul wanted.
PP: Take the cover for example. Jim and I are really into this German band Einstürzende Neubauten; one of the original Industrial bands. They would literally go find junk and make instruments out of junk; they’re amazing. Jim had a design for me that he said I’d flip out over. When I saw it I thought, “There’s no way Josh is gonna go for this. This is so far out.” We sometimes get people who ask about the cover, saying it looks really fucked up. “No! That’s the entire purpose, dummy! That’s the whole purpose!”
JF: I had the exact opposite experience, we’ve had people come up looking at it, never even have heard of you [Paul] and being really into it.
PP: It’s challenging and that’s why it’s cool. I was so happy when Josh loved it, because I was afraid he wouldn’t dig it and it would have to become the poster or something.
ASM: It’s very evocative.
PP: Well, yeah. It’s like living with a circus performer and memories of circus experiences, the whole wheat-paste thing. Living in New York there’s wheat-paste everywhere and it all deteriorates. You get posters on top of posters and there’s kind of a glamour to that. There’s something really interesting about that. Also, with circus; it’s spectacle. When the show leaves town, the show poster’s done and it falls apart until you put a new one up. Then the next one comes down and the next one goes up and eventually you get this tapestry of former events, life-affirming events.
ASM: There’s a sense of rebirth in that as well.
PP: This is a bit of a scoop, but we’re talking about doing another Escapo. I feel like I need to finish Escapo. It has to resolve all this shit he’s got.
ASM: You sort of left him in this strange limbo of having cheated death again.
PP: That’s what it’s like to be 26; you’re not young, you’re not old. I’m old enough now, though luckily death’s not around the corner.
ASM: You’re gonna live forever, Paul.
JF: No, you will! In your art.
PP: That’s the whole reason, man. So that’s the gamble, especially when you’re young. It’s the Modernist gamble, too. Infuse all of your energy, all your mojo, all your sex-power, all of your youth into your art. Invent Cubism! Split the atom! That kind of thing.
ASM: That reminds me of Picasso in his late 60’s at the end of his career. He went to this local gallery showcasing kids’ art. He said like, “All my life, this is what I was trying to do and only the young could capture it.”
PP: Yeah, you’re right.
ASM: You’ve mentioned this idea of giving something back to the greats of your life, such as [Mike] Allred. How does it feel working on the Little Nemo [in Slumberland] anthology alongside him? What’s it like working in that world?
PP: It’s like a cover song. It’s like being invited to do a cover of your favorite Beatles song, your favorite Stones, your favorite Zeppelin. It’s just a chance to go back and revisit something that was humongous for you when you were younger. The book looks good; they’ve got a lot of really solid talent. Luckily, [Winsor] McKay was a big deal so it wasn’t hard to get a lot of badasses to get in on that.
ASM: The list is astounding.
PP: Have you seen [John] Cassaday’s yet? It’s incredible. It’s like, spine tingling. I love Cassaday and he knocked this out of the park. It’s so good.
I’m kind of mad they’re doing a Kickstarter because I’ve been really diligent about not doing them. They tried to drag me in to do a video and I won’t do it unless they pay me. I’m serious; I’m not going to do any favors. If they want me to be in the commercial, pay me. I get endorsed for stuff like this; I won’t do that kind of stuff for free. This isn’t charity; this is a job.
It makes me mad – you wouldn’t ask a carpenter to do something for free and you wouldn’t ask a mechanic to do something for free. People act like drawing is effortless, but it’s actually hard to make art – it takes time and effort.
JF: One of the big differences is with fine art, people are looking at the work for minutes or hours – but people will read a comic page in 5 seconds.
PP: “It took me 5 seconds to read this, it must’ve taken you 5 seconds to make this.”
CH: “Oh, can you do me a logo?”
PP: “Oh yeah, and in the 11th hour I’ll come back with changes.” It’s bullshit.
ASM: In the first printing of Escapo, you had a line of quoted dialogue: “that skintight ambition / some seek it through the point of a pen / some through the eye of a needle / some on shoes, some in dreams” which I find intensely evocative, especially of a 26 year-old trying to find life and living beyond the fullest. You designed the entirety of the first printing?
PP: I did. I did all of it. I did everything
ASM: Why was it left out of the new edition?
PP: “Skintight ambition” […] I gave it to Pascoe because I had to give him room to do what he wanted to do and for some reason he decided not to put it in.
To me, that summed up everything about the frantic desperation of being a performer. The “skintight ambition” is Escapo and all the crazy Dylan Thomas Rimbaud shit – the drugs and the poetry and all that is all about trying to capture an authentic experience through your artistry. That’s what I was going for and that’s why I had the alligators chasing each other. “This is it, man. Just get in line, this is just marching ants”. That’s all it is.
That’s why it’s not in it; Jim said no.
ASM: Thank you very much Paul.
PP: Thank you.
Paul Pope lives in New York City and creates comics. His notable releases are: 100%, Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid, Battling Boy, and Escapo. The second volume of Battling Boy is currently in production and his offshoot story with writer J.T. Petty and artist David Rubín The Rise of Aurora West will be released this September.