PAUL POPE: With ‘Escapo’ and ‘Battling Boy,’ 2014 Eisner winner deftly blends the old with the new

"Escapo." (courtesy of Paul Pope/Z2 comics.)
“Escapo.” (courtesy of Paul Pope/Z2 comics.)

 

PAUL POPE is surveying The Washington Post newsroom, gauging the range of objects from colorful to gray as he strolls past the gleaming cameras and illuminated control-room knobs. There, near the electronic glow, sits a stack of yellowing newspapers, a resilient symbol of information delivery against the technical sheen.

Pope takes it all in during one recent Sunday, fascinated as he is by the blend of the old and the new.

The same can be said of how he approaches his comic page.

In July, Pope came out with a beautiful reissue of “Escapo,” his long out-of-print comic now presented in a brilliantly tinted hardcover edition from Z2 Comics (kudos are due, too, for inspired colorist Shay Plummer, so in sync with Pope’s vision). This BD redesign — which includes bonus pages of story and posters — might be of a 15-year-old black-and-white circus comic, but the story now shimmers with spectrums of blue and rose, as if Picasso had been given carte blanche to colorize the early films of Fellini.


“Escapo” by Paul Pope. (courtesy of Z2 Comics.)

 

Leaning back in a Post conference room, Pope — clad in a spectrum of denim blues himself — seems pleased with how the new reissuing of the old turned out.

“As we get older with our art, we need to be the custodians of the early stuff,” says Pope, 43. “As I look at ‘Escapo,’ I feel like [we] must take care of it.”

The New York-based cartoonist sees the true value of “Escapo” not as some aesthetic pinnacle, but rather as a telling and requisite way-station along his artistic journey.

“It’s not perfect — it’s not a masterpiece — but there’s enough there that got you to the next level,” Pope tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “Sometimes it’s feast or famine [as an artist]. Sometimes you’re flat f—in’ broke, sometimes you’re making money. But if it wasn’t for this, you wouldn’t have gotten to the next [professional] stage, which got you to the next stage, et cetera.”

Pope appreciates, too, that Z2 was so committed to publishing such a large and lush hardcover. “It feels generous,” he says, “to put out such a praise-worthy new edition.”


“Battling Boy,” by Paul Pope (First Second).

 

The artist’s tour stop on behalf of “Escapo” — the tale of a death-defying escape artist who struggles to unshackle himself from mortal fear and  unrequited love — is like a respite from his new hit that draws from the old: the graphic-novel series “Battling Boy.”

“With ‘Battling Boy,’ I’m trying to use the rhetoric of the classic Silver Age hero’s story, and tell a genuine story about this kind of coming-of-age — through the metaphor of a superhero being a young person moving into their own,” Pope says of his dimension-traveling teen crimefighter taking on all matter of monsters. “But I’m doing it through the [comics] language of Jack Kirby, John Romita and Steve Ditko.”

The first “Battling Boy” book was a hit last fall, as Pope and his publisher, First Second, look to turn the series into a multimedia franchise. Book One resonated with readers, winning an Eisner Award last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego — Pope’s third such honor. (“I’m humbled and elated,” Pope says, “that people believe in my vision and child hero.”) Pope and “Battling Boy” are up for three Harvey Awards next month at Baltimore Comic-Con. And the “Battling Boy” sequel “The Rise of Aurora West,” by Pope and J.T. Petty — with artist David Rubin — is due out next month.

Pope has written and drawn everything from Batman to manga, but creating “Battling Boy” has opened him up to a whole new audience, he says: the YA market. At July’s Comic-Con, he was featured on a panel of creators whose works appeal to tween and teen readers.

“There are all these classic superheroes we know, but [Battling Boy] is not another Spider-Man or Batman,” Pope says. It’s a new character — we don’t even know his name — and I think [that's] appealing to kids.”

Pope created “Escapo” and “Battling Boy” from very different times and places and outlooks in his life.

Growing up as a self-described “skinny guy getting beat up” in Columbus, Ohio, Pope found a sanctuary of sorts — and within that, a form of pulpit — in comics.

“I would say that for myself, there was intent to express something that I was unable to say with my voice,” Pope says. “Drawing attracted me, and it was a way to make my voice larger.”

That artistic voice bloomed from the fertile ground of loneliness.

“I had a lot of time to myself — I was a latchkey kid,” Pope recalls. “You’re yearning. The great gift is, you’ve got the gift of yearning. I grew up with my grandparents, and they encouraged me to read; they realized it would keep me out of trouble. All my friends were like stoner-delinquents and the D&D comic-book kids. [My grandparents] were like: ‘We’re not quite sure where he’s going to fall [within] this. Maybe we should buy him comic books.

“And 20-sided dice.”

As he matured, Pope says he deliberately lived in a bit of a “monkish” state as he created “Escapo” in Columbus — while watching Fellini and listening to Nick Cave and Iggy Pop. He turned deeply inward to expel this tale of a tortured performer in circus Spandex “whose ambition is skintight.”

” ‘Escapo,’ ” Pope says, “is a 26-year-old’s vision. Escapo is 26. A lot of themes in my work are about escaping a situation that’s not right for you. That’s the wish fulfillment for that character.”

By contrast, “Battling Boy” is the assured midcareer work of a critically acclaimed and socially engaged artist (he says he feeds off the creative community in New York, from musician friends to fine artists to architects). And to him, a young, new superhero fills a need he perceives in the comics world.

“How did Batman get born? How did Superman get born? How did Captain America get born,” Pope says of superheroes that sprung out of the World War II era. “I tapped into this Jungian idea — that if you can find a superhero that people want and can codify it, it will [connect].

“I had heard one too many stories about a kid getting kidnapped or raped. Man, kids know they’re not safe,” Pope continues. “So as an avatar, I thought, let me create a character of the kid who can protect himself. That’s where that came from.”

The result is a superhero that has won over older and YA fans alike.

“Being a 43-year-old, the readership I come from, we’re versed in everything from Heavy Metal to Bronze Age to Silver Age to Carl Barks, so we understand that kind of visual rhetoric, of the super-man, the alter ego,” Pope says. “Older readers are tapping back into that magic of being a kid reader – which is how it was when we were kids, right? Reading Fantastic Four for the first time — ‘Oh my God, Doctor Doom!’

“But kids are getting it for the first time,” he continues. “They’re not aware of Kirby or Romita or Ditko. They might know the Red Skull from the movie, but they’re not going to know him from the comic.

“I’m trying to make a new story using these old tools, I guess.”


“Escapo” by Paul Pope. (courtesy of Z2 Comics.)
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