Comics Works: Battling Boy—Execution and Expectations

Battling Boy, the most recent work by cartoonist Paul Pope, arrived from First Second Books last year, although I was late to the party, and what a strange party it is. Pope is one of comics’ most talented renderers-of-action, but on some pages, his talents actually undermine the story he’s trying to tell. Superficially simple–the combat-novice son of a godlike warrior arrives in a land besieged by monsters–the story invites all sorts of questions about the circumstances of its creation. Pope stages a series of fights with such fluidity–virtuosity, even–that even if his reader isn’t a comics nerd who had heard mention of Battling Boy for years, the book is still likely to read as the product of countless hours of labor. And even the immersed reader might be tempted to think, ‘All this work for a genre pastiche?’

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as shallow exhibitionism. There’s too much charm and levity throughout the story for that charge to stick. (If Pope’s drawing to impress, he’s obviously drawing to have fun, too.) For instance, collection of animal T-shirts endows Battling Boy with the power of their respective animals; when picking a shirt before a battle, the boy must choose carefully. Details like this display a lightness of touch not always present in Pope’s earlier work, even if they don’t register as particularly personal. (In fact, the concept is weirdly reminiscent of ’90s cartoon toy shill Mighty Max and his magic baseball cap.)

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Battling Boy shouldn’t be written off as devoid of ideas, either. Pope has no shortage of those, and readers can find them in his renderings of space and movement. Comics are a visual medium; Pope’s innovations are visual in nature. Even the argument that Pope’s style is his substance doesn’t quite do him justice. His lines are too functional, carry too much of the narrative burden, to be celebrated-slash-dismissed as stylistic flourishes. And yet Pope is such a superlative artist that his comics will always disappoint to some degree as long as the quality of his plotting fails to match the quality of his cartooning.

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In this way, there’s something sad about Battling Boy. Paul Pope delivered a work that is, in some respects, pretty great. Just not holistically great. And holistic greatness might still be what the greedy reader expects, based on what Pope’s able to provide.

“I think happiness is overrated.”

A nice, relatively brief interview with Chris Ware that is worth watching for two reasons—

(1) It spotlights Chris Ware, perhaps the single most important graphic novelist of, well…I think that’s it: the single most important graphic novelist (his epic masterwork, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, being the standard case for legitimizing comics as high art/literature).

And (2) it places him in an interview with an awkwardly bubbly and funnily tenacious interviewer; that in addition to the kitschy background music and editing.

Ware’s responses—both verbal and nonverbal—are priceless. Enjoyable on multiple levels.

Daybreak, Brian Ralph (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)

Republished late last year as a single-volume graphic novel, Daybreak was originally released in three parts between ’06 and ’08, and, in my mind, stands as one of the quintessential graphic (or “comic”) works of the past decade. Brian Ralph, the author and illustrator, is also notable for his graphic novels, Cave-In (1999) and Climbing Out (2002)—both highly recommended—but Daybreak ups the ante. So, having it picked up by Drawn & Quarterly and offered as a single book is an exciting event.

Daybreak is a zombie story.

It feels odd, saying that—like it’s a guilty admission or something. Continue reading

Reading Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, part 1

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

These days, Frank Miller is arguably best-known as a filmmaker. He co-directed Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of his long-running comic Sin City (1991–present), which he followed with his own peculiar 2008 adaptation of Will Eisner’s classic comic series The Spirit (1942–52). In between, he executive-produced Zack Snyder’s hugely successful adaptation of his 1998 graphic novel 300. Hollywood’s current infatuation with super-heroics has served him well.

Most of Miller’s work, however, has been in comics, a medium he has helped revolutionize over the past twenty years. Since comics sadly remain an understudied and under-analyzed literary medium, I thought I’d take advantage of John Madera’s generosity—and your patience—to sketch out some thoughts about the form and importance of Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

Continue reading