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December 18, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #01 -- Paul Pope

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imageI've known Paul Pope for more than 18 years, and have read his work for two decades. He's one of my favorite people in comics. Pope's latest adventure is the Young Adult graphic novel series Battling Boy, the first volume of which arrived in October from First Second. Pope has since that project's inception signed a multiple-project deal with the Macmillan imprint, which should give us a same-universe project next summer, the sequel to the main title the year after hat, and a return to his reputation-making THB with five volumes, much of the material new, starting in 2016. It is an ambitious run of books whose exact make-up is likely to change as additional opportunities arise for the New York-based artist and illustrator. With Pope, it's always a tiny bit unclear which books stand at which stages of production, and which projects are more fanciful than fully loaded.

Battling Boy was delayed by Pope's recent, multiple-year, sideways sojourn into film-making, an avenue of expression he indicates will remain part of his overall artistic output moving forward. Now firmly focused on managing a slew of publishing projects, Pope seems determined not to have his announcements outpace his work rate. I caught Pope a few days before a holiday season through which he planned to labor. I was happy to continue an ongoing discussion about his life and current orientation towards making art, a sprawling chat that had predecessors in chance meetings in New York and Columbus earlier this year. Last Toronto, Paul Pope gave me his hat. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I have no idea how you work these days, Paul, or even how much time gets devoted to comics as opposed to one of your other gigs. What's going on right now? What's your schedule like for today?

POPE: I don't really have a schedule. I'm trying to get it sorted. Part of the problem is I'm wrapping three projects. I'm wrapping the Battling Boy art catalog, I have the deadline for Battling Boy 2, and I'm commuting back into the city again. So it's just a lot. I'm art directing the Aurora West books. I worked on the scripts with JT Petty on those, and now it's intermittent art directing with that project. There's a little bit of work to do on the Escapo project, too, basically scanning some art and corralling some guest artists that will be in the book. So it's non-stop.

SPURGEON: Why this busy? Is it something you brought on yourself? Is it a confluence of events? Do you prefer to work like this?

POPE: No. No, I don't. It's nerve wracking, to be honest. I'm hoping it will be over soon. Battling Boy is going to become a phenomenon, so it's taking on a life of its own. So there's a lot of interest there. With the gallery shows, they've just sort of blown up. Through Charles [Brownstein] at the CBLDF, I managed to forge a connection with MoCCA and the Society of Illustrators and an opportunity opened up to have a show there. That turned into six separate show internationally for Battling Boy, six exhibits. I'm going over to France in February after Angouleme for a one-man show at a gallery called Ninth Art, which is apparently the premiere Parisian illustration house. It's where Moebius and Frank Miller show art. That's going to be amazing. I realized when the Society Of Illustrators thing was coming together, you may recall that I was working with Dan Nadel at PictureBox to put a catalog together. It turns out now it's going to be at Image. Jim Pascoe is designing the book, and it looks awesome. But the details fell to me: to find the international translators, hire Charles to write an introduction, hired a guy to photograph all the art from the show. It's actually lightboxed -- what they call shadowboxed art, like an old-school art catalog.

I have a couple of assistants now working for me. It's really become a cottage industry.

SPURGEON: So you're at this dead-on sprint until... Spring, it sounds like.

POPE: Until June. My hard deadline for Battling Boy 2 is June. It's a lot of work. Because it's the end of quarter four everything needs to be wrapped for 2013. So there's more organizational stuff than usual.

SPURGEON: Based on a conversation we had earlier this year, it seems like you were super-busy before this latest period, but it was super-busy because you also had a run of movie-related opportunities. This, on the other hand, seems more like like a conscious decision to get back into publishing and make more out of the opportunities that come with having a published work out there.

POPE: True.

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SPURGEON: So are you happy with how that's progressed? Are you happy with the way Battling Boy has been received? Are you satisfied with the opportunities that may present themselves there?

POPE: Yeah. They tell me not to talk about the movie too much right now, but we're backshopping it to Paramount with the same team. Everyone involved still wants to make the film. That's good news. I've got a couple of other film options out there... this is all invisible stuff, stuff that people never know about. It's not even really in comics. It's more like the franchise, right?

I worked on Kavalier & Clay, that was a year or maybe 18 months. I worked briefly on the Dune film. And then I co-wrote and co-directed a film with an Indian director named Sridhar Reddy that was financed through Sony. It's a short film, not a long film. It's a festival film. It's for Tribeca. That's going to debut I think in January.

SPURGEON: This is the film you shot with a new camera, right?

POPE: Yes. It's called the F-65. There were only four of them in the world at the time. It was a little bit like having the president's football. [laughter] It was a little strange. They had a guy that flew out from Sony to be on the set with it the entire time. We had a prototype, so it broke down a lot. One day we were stuck for hours doing nothing while they tried to upload some software that was missing. I just played guitar sitting around Lancaster, California. [laughs] It was a little surreal.

SPURGEON: That seems like a lot of work for a sustained period of time. It also seems to me like it would be crazy to try to create in the midst of that. Is it hard to carve out space now? Will this have any impact on the next wave of comics from you, do you think? Is it more of a challenge now to find that creative time?

POPE: It's a challenge. I've talked to Mike Mignola and Frank Miller about how to manage a creative career where you are simultaneously running a business and getting pages done. My editor Mark Siegel gave me this really great book. I would recommend it to anybody in any creative field. It's called Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey. It's a study of 200 philosophers, composers, dancers, writers, film directors from the last 400 years about the mundane shit: how they worked. You asked a question about my work habits, and it's funny because I've been meditating on establishing very set work habits. Some days, particularly a day like a Monday, I'll wake up and I'll have four or five hours of e-mail -- they're all urgent. [Spurgeon laughs] So the rest of the day I will have text messages all of the time.

By now my personal assistant is handling a lot more of the things we need. For Escapo we have a bunch of guests artists. John Cassaday is on the list. He got his piece done. As much as I want to just go hang out with Cassaday tonight, I'm going to send my assistant over to pick up the art and I'll see John some other time. You know what I mean? It's just delegating. We had nine action points yesterday, nine action points of things that needed doing. I'm hoping after Christmas I can just lock myself in the studio and get back to work. I'm getting stuff done, but there's just a lot of stuff right now.

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SPURGEON: Do you feel like this is a transitional period for you? You're right at that age where you're no longer that young artist by any reasonable measure. You're fairly well established. People are going to start looking to you for guidance instead of the other way around.

POPE: Oh, that happens all the time already.

SPURGEON: Do you like that transition? Have you enjoyed that transition?

POPE: No... I know that with Battling Boy, this and Boxers and Saints have been their big releases. I've got full support from Macmillan -- not just First Second, but Macmillan in terms of publicity and even just right now we're planning a four-city UK tour before my French and Belgian tour. There's a lot more administration. I've been studying... everybody know I'm into music and musicians, but I've been looking at the model of how a recording artist will have time to go into the recording studio and record and still have time to tour.

imageSPURGEON: You're mentioned Mark Siegel and First Second... it seems like that's a fruitful partnership for you. What do you value about that relationship, Paul? The resources? The specific personalities? Do they simply know when to leave you alone? It seems like you're pretty solidly in bed with them at this point.

POPE: Yeah, we have contracts for multiple books. There will be a young adult novelization of Battling Boy. There will be an audio book of Battling Boy. We're working on an apparel line. There's like merchandise now, do you know what I mean? It all involves lawyers and contracts and time and negotiations and meetings and stuff. So there is that. It's all valuable. But at the end of the day, what I'm interested in doing with like the new THB and with the Battling Boy books. Even though it's graphic novels they were able to see and purpose my books as young adult stuff.

Macmillan publishes cookbooks, they publish books for little kids. They do have an institution, because they publish young adult novels. Right? So when I'm doing these events, I'll do panels with Young Adult fiction writers. The kind of people that write what JK Rowling would do, something like that. These are books I've never read, and people I don't know. They're interesting people. But it's cool because the audience a lot of the time is teenage girls. I'm at the point where I do signings and I'll be signing for hundreds of kids. It's crazy. For some of them this is their first graphic novel. Battling Boy. That's pretty cool. I remember when I was a kid, the stuff I remember seeing. My dad brought back this book on the origins of Marvel's super-villains called Bring On The Bad Guys. I was like six. That blew my mind because I'd never seen anything like that.

I don't make any secret that there's a ton of Moebius and [Jack] Kirby influence in Battling Boy. It's part of the purpose of the project: the way that it felt being a kid and discovering these epic-scale stories.

SPURGEON: At the same time, as you've been doing this project, you've been forthright about wanting to do a story that works in the context of what kids are reading now, how they're surrounded by these larger-than-life fantasy constructs. It seems there's a little bit of genre correction here.

POPE: True.

SPURGEON: So what in the work do you feel speaks directly to where these kids are? Those kids that respond, what are they responding to?

POPE: In Battling Boy?

SPURGEON: Yeah. Beyond the fact that it looks nice, or features elegant cartooning, what do you think kids might be responding to?

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POPE: Well, I think kids like dinosaurs and monsters. I remember thinking they're cool. They like goofy villains who are also scary...

When I started to come up with the idea for Battling Boy it occurred to me there aren't enough comics aimed at kids that are sophisticated, and that there weren't enough comics with kid characters -- at least not kid characters that felt like real kids. Battling Boy lies and he's lazy and he tries to get out of responsibilities... he's like a real kid. He just happens to be indestructible. [laughs] I just thought it was an interesting idea. I've said this before, but I really loved Peter Pan. Fantasia is my favorite Disney film, but Peter Pan is probably my second -- it's hard to say, Pinocchio and Dumbo are both great. A lot of that early Disney film stuff I just love; it's so heartwarming. A lot of people think Battling Boy is cynical because it has this fairytale notion to it. So I wanted to have this veneer, this sweetness of Disney, but also have it... not cynical, because I don't think Battling Boy is cynical, but have it where you don't win just by beating the villain. That was the inspiration.

imageSPURGEON: There's a definite critique of violence as a problem-solving tool here. And there are certainly consequences to violence in the story. You open with a death, and then Battling Boy fails when forced to sustain violence for more than a few seconds at a time. He has to call in the power of his parent at one point. Should we take these kinds of things as a critique of the easiness of violence in a lot of popular art?

POPE: Yeah. I think so. I have no problem with Iron Man. I did Batman... I have no problem working on the big characters at Marvel and DC. I think it's cheating kids not to give them new stories. My nephew is five years old, and he knew that Spider-Man's uncle is killed and that's why he becomes Spider-Man. But those stories were old when we were kids. I think it's no surprise that Adventure Time is a big hit, partly because Adventure Time is new. It's new and because of that it speaks to kids.

SPURGEON: It's theirs.

POPE: It's theirs. Right. When were kids, we had the muppets. I was just talking to a friend of mine, another artist, and we were talking about the muppets. I never thought much about [Jim] Henson. We were talking about how brilliant and original it was. It wasn't the puppets themselves that were original; it was the way it was done. It's the same with this. One of the critiques I've seen of Battling Boy is that it's too obvious. The bad guy's name is Sadisto. The good guy's name is Haggard West and he's tired. But that's the whole point. It's like Charles Dickens, where the teacher's name [in Hard Times] is Gradgrind.

SPURGEON: I don't know if this is an overly facile reading, but it seems like you're drawing a dichotomy between the two kids in terms of talent and discipline. I don't know if that may even been something that you related to in your memories of being a kid, as a developing artist perhaps. But certainly Battling Boy is gifted in a specific way, and is advantaged, and then you have Aurora, who relies on her training and the way that she engages what she's taught and applies that education to these things she really wants to do. That does seem to me the twin poles of an artist's development -- of any kid's development. Is there anything to that at all?

POPE: For those two, I wanted a contrast more about -- I guess the short answer is "No."

SPURGEON: [laughs]

POPE: I wanted a contrast to them, and I was thinking about a couple of different things. One was the notion of privilege, and not being aware of privilege. Battling Boy takes for granted the things he has; he doesn't know how his magical technology works. It's like a kid with an iPhone. Even a lightbulb -- you don't have to know how a combustion engine works to drive a car. That's the job of a [Nikola] Tesla or an Edison, that's for them to figure out. Aurora is more the offspring of a science-hero, as I call them in the book. Battling Boy is the heir of a god of war. They're the next generation. So I wanted a bit of that feeling. Aurora -- in some ways she's the hero of the series because she appears in all four books. She's in the Aurora West series and she's in Battling Boy. Whereas Battling Boy is only in Battling Boy. They both have their through-lines, their different stories.

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SPURGEON: When you have elements like you have here: there's a girl protagonist and a boy protagonist, there are parents and children, there are the t-shirts... I don't want to say they are cynical elements, but there's a crafting to it, it seems, where you might want to hit certain buttons or are at least very aware these genre signposts exist. Did you think in those terms, Paul? You talked about kids liking dinosaurs, and certain kinds of villains: is a lot of this work crafted from these things that you think the audience will appreciate or enjoy, and does this extend to story structure and broader narrative elements?

POPE: In this case, I really wanted to make a kick-ass comic for kids. So I did think in terms of what I thought was cool when I was 11 years old. I did. When I did Heavy Liquid, I thought in terms of the Nicolas Roeg film Performance and The French Connection and those '70s cliches. And then with Batman, I wanted to make a kick-ass Batman book [Batman: Year 100], so I thought through what I hadn't seen Batman do yet. I always liked that surveillance state notion with superheroes because of the secret identities.

With Battling Boy I saw something missing in the market. There aren't enough cool comics for kids. Also, I was tired of doing the adult stuff. I've said this a million times, but when coming up with this idea my nephews knew I did comics but I couldn't show them anything I'd done. That made me think about all the kids out there that aren't going to read Iron Man. They're not going to be able to understand this Crossover Of Crisis Infinity Sequel that people seem to be buying. What's cool is that what I was thinking was what I've come to learn since is Young Adult Fiction. It's more like Adventure Time or even Harry Potter without intending to.

SPURGEON: Do you feel common cause with any other work that's out there, any comics work specifically? If a kid comes up with their parents and they said how much they liked Battling Boy, are you confident with where to send them or are you like, "Well, hold on until the next Battling Boy!" [laughs]

POPE: The few times people ask that, I always tell them about classic comics. Like all the early Fantastic Fours, I think those are universally great. There's Adventure Time now, there's Bone, there's all the Carl Barks comics. I love the French comic Valérian, by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin. Stuff like that.

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SPURGEON: Where is Valerian in Battling Boy, Paul?

POPE: Battling Boy's dad is based on a character from one of the Valerian books, which in turn is based on Thor. This is going into the art catalog, because I'm pretty certain that Kirby got the idea for the look for Thor from the Fritz Lang film Die Nibelungen. This is a German silent film from the '20s. He would have seen this. He would have seen this as a young guy living in New York. He would also have seen [Sergei] Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible, which has this great scene in it with this Black Knight character. So in the art catalog, part of the purpose is to show young readers the influences, and the tradition of oral storytelling, the story of Theseus or whatever it might be -- these are everyone's stories. These are universal. When you re-tell them, you embellish them. You add a little more to it. In this case, the character Dad is not Thor, he's not Genghis Khan, he's not Darth Vader. He's secondary, though. The story is about this new kid.

This is all coming from Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Some people roll their eyes when they hear a cartoonist talking about Joseph Campbell again. He really locked in on a sense of Story in a capital-S sense that I find refreshing and kind of universal.

SPURGEON: Everyone gets to Campbell through Bill Moyers, which is kind of getting him at a slight remove.

POPE: I have about 80 hours of audio records of Joseph Campbell's lectures from Sarah Lawrence. Back before TED Talks. He had a series on the Upanishads. He had a series on the grail mythologies. Tibetan mythology. Native American mythology. A lot of stuff is the bedrock of getting into it. With Carl Jung, I've read a lot of his books. I have a copy of The Red Book, in fact, which is his personal mandala book. He has a book called Man And His Symbols. He lays out the theory of the collective unconscious. I'm not sure if I exactly subscribe to this, but he points out that there are universal symbols: the womb, the moon, blood, skulls, a rose. This type of stuff. He points out how throughout history different cultures have appropriated these images into their stories in order to make sense of the world. This is all mythological stuff, right? But to me this is a lot more interesting than going back and re-doing another version of Spider-Man.

SPURGEON: You have a body of work now, Paul. Do you make sense of the world through your art and your comics? We've talked about the problem-solving aspect of making art, but in terms of the wider meaning of things, is engaging that something art enables you to do?

POPE: The thing that makes the world make sense to me is the discipline of drawing. I'm a very neurotic, nervous, agoraphobic personality type. I find a great meditation in drawing. A sense of solace. I'm a sensitive type. I'm prone to brooding a lot, and lethargy. I feel like this is the saving grace. The reason I started drawing as a kid is because it was a way to live. Luckily, I got to the point where I was proficient enough to make a living at it. And now it's a daily discipline. We were saying earlier that right now it isn't always daily discipline because there's so much more business, but I am patiently thinking that one day... it's like starting up the engine -- someday I won't have to worry about five hours of e-mails.

SPURGEON: Even when something is absent but felt, it's still sort of there. You're not able to do it; it's not that you're not doing it. I think those are two different things in many senses.

POPE: As a self-publisher I did have a lot of experience in the '90s having employees. Cash flow issues, shipping things, but also the public side of it where you're out on the road and you eat and drink but don't get sick. All that type of thing.

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SPURGEON: You've talked about some of your influences already. One thing I've liked about our discussions over the years is that you seem kind of omnivoracious in terms of your reading -- even your comics influences. Do you still do that? Do you still engage with new art that way? When was the last time you saw something that turned your head, maybe something that you wanted to fold into your own work?

POPE: I'm reading a lot of biographies. Right now I'm reading the journals of the French painter Eugène Delacroix along with this book suggested by Mark Siegel, Daily Rituals. Actually, Rituals I read in about two days. It's one of those books you can't put it down. I didn't realize this, but in France Delacroix is equally known as a diarist as he is as a painter. He's an 18th Century French classical painter. He was a really brilliant, sensitive, hard-working artist. And he also was very articulate. So it's been really great getting a glimpse into his personality and his daily habits. His thoughts. Right now that's something that's really turning me on. Next I'll probably move onto reading Emerson. Mark Siegel gave me a copy of Stephen King's book, On Writing, which I'm told is a very good "life of a writer" book. And I keep a journal as well.

Sometimes people ask me if I'm ever going to do a technique book or if I'm going to publish more essays. It might be interesting to do that. I'm not sure we have a lot of cartoonist autobiographies.

SPURGEON: Paul, the last time I saw you was in Ohio, but I think of you as a New York City guy now; you've been there around 20 years. Battling Boy, like a lot of your work, is very much a city book. The city in Battling Boy... is it called Acropolis?

POPE: I inverted Acropolis. It's Arcopolis. The arc-light of lightning. Struck lightning, energy and electricity is a big part of this book, so I wanted the name to reflect, somehow, electricity and science fiction.

SPURGEON: Do you see yourself as an urban cartoonist? There are a lot of French comics with a city-centric orientation, books that seem to see themselves as existing, at least in part, for the sake of exploring a city or cityscape. Do you ever feel you're working out your feelings about cities working within these fictional constructs?

POPE: Yeah, maybe. I like the immersion and the randomness of living in the city, the anonymous quality of it. Every day you can go and see new people, experience new things. I grew up in a small town. It was very frustrating. Once you had an identity put upon you, you were that forever. When I was pretty young I knew I wanted to take off and go live in a big city.

For Battling Boy, I didn't want to set the story on Earth. It's like an Earth-2, an alternate earth -- mainly because the first thing I started thinking about is that if there was a problem here with monsters coming out of the woodwork and stealing children, the first thing you'd think of is blowing them up with a suitcase nuclear bomb or something. I wanted to make this a planet where they didn't have atomic technology. I wanted a feel of the 1930s serials, the old Flash Gordon serials. Haggard West is a Flash Gordon-type character.

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SPURGEON: When you work with First Second... this first Battling Boy volume is a book that works squarely within the parameters that First Second has established. One of the ways you made your reputation is as an extravagant designer, particularly within the context of the mid-1990s. I thought your work stood out that way; it was at the very least something quite noticeable about your work. I wondered if it was a shift for you to work with this disciplined, market-sensitive design constraint when so much of what you've done has been extravagant and over the top. Did that take some getting used to?

POPE: It's a real frustration, to be honest. But it's a model they know sells. Jack Kirby might have wanted to do all treasury editions of everything, but he was stuck in the pamphlet. In some ways I know that Battling Boy provides a foundation.

The art catalog we're doing is pretty far out. The designer is Jim Pascoe. He's a great friend of mine. He just sent in the PDFs of the guts of the book, and it's really sick. I'll send you the cover for Escapo that he designed. I asked him to do something like wheatpaste and he turned something in that's so far out. We're talking about doing an omnibus, over-sized Battling Boy book later. The catalog isn't The Art Of Battling Boy, it's the touring catalog in French, Italian and English to correspond with the shows.

We hope there's an opportunity to do some stuff with First Second that's a little out of their normal -- I hate to say "wheelhouse." That's such a cynical term. They did publish the [Emmanuel] Guibert book, The Photographer, and they're thinking of publishing more books at different sizes. If you look at what Macmillan publishes, it's all kinds of stuff from cookbooks to poetry books to non-graphic novels. That kind of stuff. They are able to do different kinds of things, but they're an established company with a business model that works. In my case, I didn't have a vote for the size of Battling Boy. The French edition is cool, it's a little larger. It's not quite the size of a normal bandes dessinees, but it's bigger. So if anybody gets a chance to see that, it's kind of cool.

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SPURGEON: Do you feel that you've had enough of a career to have had an influence on the course of comics? Do you see yourself or your past work in things that come out now? Do you feel like people have picked up on what you've been up to over the years?

POPE: When we last saw each other in Columbus, it did strike me that we were in a full auditorium at the Mershon, and I was on stage with Jeff Smith. Everyone knows him. He's a tremendous cartoonist. Multiple millions of copies of Bone. He's one of my favorite living cartoonists. I'm on stage with this guy. I realized this is my life. I've known this guy for 25 years. I'm now sitting on the stage where I saw Martha Graham. Where Jimi Hendrix performed. Where I saw Kabuki theater. Philip Glass. I'm on that same stage now and people are listening. They're responding. They like the stories we're telling. There are stories to tell. That was kind of cool, although I've never been a guy with a kingly attitude -- where I have to be the best or the greatest. I'm more like a long-distance runner where I have to give myself a challenge.

I don't like teaching. I cringe at the thought of portfolio reviews. [Spurgeon laughs] Telling people critical stuff about their work. I want to be invisible.

*****

* Battling Boy Vol. 1, Paul Pope, First Second, various formats, 9781596431454 (ISBN13), October 2013.

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* cover to the US edition
* photo of Paul Pope by me, 2010
* various images from Battling Boy, including the one below, save for the woman on the bicycycle, which is just an image I like, the Escapo cover Paul sent, and a photo I took of Paul doodling in a bar in Columbus in November

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