“Paul Pope is the Comics Destroyer.”
By Jeffrey Wendt.
For a working cartoonist to call himself a “destroyer” of comics, when what he primarily does is create comics, it must be understood as a form of the Greek double negative. It is to say, “I do not not create”. It is a kind of linguistic pranksterism— a verbal-visual joke, even more so because the metaphor is continued through the symbol of the cartoonist as a soulless, mechanical machine-man– the “Popemek“. This image itself is intended as an ironic one– since a machine cannot create anything, it can only perform a task it was designed to accomplish. When I first started thinking along these lines, I was doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and making comics. I felt like a machine of comics. I wondered if perhaps the artist, like the machine, is only capable of doing what it was created to do. A cartoonist makes comics. The “Comics Destroyer” became a kind of personal symbol, a self-assigned mandala, magic, a new-name. It was secret initiate’s knowledge, and it helped push a tired brush through many long nights.
Paul Pope, pulphope blog, 2006
Paul Pope is a multi-talented artist of the 21st Century. American Manga-ka, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, clothing designer, DJ, essayist and all-around rock star, Pope’s talent and drive has branched out in many directions. The root of his efforts is that he is a man of culture and ideas who practices the craft of writing and drawing as a ‘comic book artist’. A noble calling with an inadequate title.
Pope began his career in 1995, self-publishing what looks to be a life-long magnum opus, THB, and working for Japanese manga publisher Kodansha. His time with Kodansha trained him in character-driven storytelling and in rapid productivity, drawing up to 40xxx pages per day. Pope self-published the well-regarded graphic novels Sin Titulo, One-Trick Rip-Off and The Ballad of Dr. Richardson while contributing short pieces for the publishers Dark Horse and Caliber. The closing of the 20th Century saw Pope’s work reach a new high with Heavy Liquid, published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.
Heavy Liquid marked the major-market debut of Pope’s mature style, both in terms of illustration and writing. Originally serialized in 5 comic books and immediately collected in a graphic novel of the same name, Heavy Liquid heralded the arrival of a singular, mature talent. Whilst superficial elements of science fiction/cyberpunk, detective and Beat literature seem to define the book’s style a closer examination reveals greater strengths and themes. At its heart Heavy Liquid, like all of Pope’s work, is about freedom and loss.
The story of a former agent for an unnamed security agency, ‘S’ dropped out of his career and former life for unknown reasons. He is now addicted to a rare substance with hallucinatory effects known as “Heavy Liquid”. His stash of Heavy Liquid is stolen and he is pursued by criminals wearing cubist-style masks and an Intelligence Agent who is wired to electrocute a body merely by pointing his finger at them. Meanwhile ‘S’ is on the hunt for an ex-girlfriend who disappeared when he refused to end his use of Heavy Liquid. The setting of the book is largely the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Paris ca. the mid-21st century. New York is especially recognizable, a landscape of crowded streets, pre-war buildings with fire escapes, stylish sushi joints and trendy nightclubs.
Immunity. I know this script. I’ve said it before myself.*
>> * *
>> *Trade in on the kid and the Collector. Fork over Luna’s name and
>> address. *
>> * *
>> *And Rodan. They’d bust in her door, force her to talk—pry up every
>> un-wanted, unasked for secret… *
>> * *
>> *…who told us we gotta grind ourselves down ‘til there’s nothing left? *
>> * *
>> *Don’t we deserve our lives?*
Pope’s other major comics works, THB, Escapo, 100%, and Batman Year 100 all deal with the conflict between freedom and control. Many of the great works of post-Romantic art post the protagonist as an anti-hero, the noble soul who struggles against conformity and oppression and seeks to smash the status quo. Pope’s protagonist are anti-heroes in the sense that they fight the established order but are revolutionary in the sense that they strive for individual freedom against the smothering bureaucracy of a seemingly benevolent nanny culture. They seek not to destroy society but for the freedom to live and create without being subject to the petty tyrannies of the large forces of modern life be they government, corporate or religious. .
100% is a tale of human relationships set in the world of mid-21st century Manhattan- a culture not unlike our own, except that the police use flying squad cars and strip clubs use holographic projections of dancers’ internal organs to entice paying customers business. The Lower East Side still has fire escapes, railroad apartments and garbage on the streets. Human hearts are still susceptible to pain and loss. Kissing a stranger is still fraught with risk and potential. Pope’s talent as a writer rises to his skill and daring as an illustrator. His work is now the equal of any artist in any medium.
“I would say it’s a graphic movie. It’s pretty much about relationships, it takes place over a short amount of time and it’s set in a pretty specific place, which is a future New York. It’s the story of six people, primarily, who comprise three couples. Their lives all revolve around this, sort of, strange strip club in the future. So, it’s the story of their interactions over like a two-week period.”
(Paul Pope interview, Comic Book Resource, 2002.)
“BatMan Year 100”
Pope’s drawing style draws from a number of creative precedents but breaks free of the curse of derivation and homage. Characterized by a use of heavy, brushy blacks and a bold use of line and negative space, Pope’s style can be seen as the culmination of many artistic movements. The bold use of shadow and light ultimately derive from the Sickles-Caniff school of cartooning, a style that arose in the mid-1930s and was aped by a generation of cartoonists until the mid-1960s. The early acolytes of the Sickles-Caniff school also heavily influenced Pope, most noticeably in the American artist Alex Toth and Italian artist Hugo Pratt.
Milton + Caniff
These graphic pioneers were not solely indebted to comic strip art- they studied the works of artists such as Manet and Tolouse-Lautrec who themselves were influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e masters. Heavy lines, fine details and the bold use of negative space all served to draw the reader into a world of the artists’ own making. Pope’s use of flat, rich colors is also ultimately derived from the master Japanese print-makers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Pope’s layouts owe as much to modern manga as they do the masters of western comic art. He frequently uses large, almost abstract panels and splash pages to draw the reader into the motion and texture of his world. The immediate effect is one of mood followed by an understanding of what one is seeing. Narrative clarity is momentarily halted, demanding greater engagement on the reader’s part. The graphic puzzles serves to further enrich the sense of another world unfolding before one’s eyes, panel by panel.
The texture of his work is primarily an inky chiaroscuro, bold holding lines inhabited by fine lines of textured detail. Close examination of the background reveals mostly abstract patterns which resolve into semi-recognizable forms when the page is viewed as a whole. A trick of the eye designed to further the illusion of a complete world on paper.
Pope’s writing- his plotting and dialogue are also worth noting. His stories are largely set in a not-too-distant future and his characters use a slang that is unfamiliar and yet comprehensible. Long stretches of narrative exposition will be broken by lyrical asides, meditations by the protagonist that draw us into the experience of the fictional made real. This renders the protagonist an ‘unreliable narrator” which adds an element of uncertainty and perhaps versimmilitude to the reader’s experience. They also add heart to the otherwise drab stories of normal people faced with issues ranging from the supernatural to the mundane. Like any long-term couple, only with extra gamma rays.
Having scaled the heights of comic book narrative Pope has branched out in other media, most notably design and illustration. Seemingly a natural progression for a talented artist but revolutionary for a comic book artist. Designing graphics for DKNY’s 1089 clothing line and screen-prints for an installation in Diesel’s flagship store windows in New York City,Pope has truly transcended the ghetto of ‘comic book artist’. As his career progresses to include illustrating concert posters and acting as DJ for parties in the US and Europe, Pope may be well on his way to being the first genuine Rock Star cartoonist.
Saks Fifth Ave.
Poster for Diesel.
Jeffrey Wendt is a contributing writer for by such and such.