Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #69: Battling Boy by Paul Pope

Paul Pope is the author I've had the hardest time searching for -- particularly on my local library's computer system. (One may remember that there was a Pope Paul within human memory -- the sixth of that name -- not to mention the one with a John shoved in his name, too.) I suspect part of the reason is that Pope hasn't been well-represented in libraries to begin with, with his odd looping career mostly to date taking place in comics-only markets. (I haven't seen his work much lately -- the only things of his I've read and reviewed over the past decade are Batman: Year 100 and Heavy Liquid.)

But his inky, organic, muscularly detailed style should work at least as well with a wider audience as it has with the Wednesday Crowd -- though Pope's been doing this long enough that it was the Thursday Crowd, and even Fridays, far enough back -- so it's wonderful to see that his latest story, Battling Boy, is from a big New York publisher (the Macmillan octopus, by way of the Roaring Brook and First Second tributaries) and, by now, firmly ensconced in a thousand libraries across the country.

First Second generally does books suitable for teen readers -- sometimes deliberately aimed at them, sometimes just not inappropriate for them -- and Battling Boy is in that vein, with a very Pope-ian young hero, laughing and energetic and leaping about at the same time that he's not sure what he's doing. And the often mythic undertones of Pope's work grow into text here: that Boy, whose original name we don't learn, comes from one mythic place to another almost as much so, with a great mission to save a city.

The city in danger is Arcopolis: gigantic, possibly continent-spanning, and infested with monsters of all kinds, from huge behemoths that eat cars to lithe cunning manlike figures that kidnap children and wreak havoc. It had a science hero, one man who battled those monsters more or less to a standstill, with his ray gun and flying suit and pure grit and determination. But Haggard West dies in the opening pages of this book, killed by a cunning plan wrought by Sadisto, one of the most fiendish and cruel of the monsters. His daughter Aurora is training hard to succeed him, but the job's a daunting one.

And then elsewhere: a fortress or city or castle or starship, hanging in a void and home to a race of gods or near-gods. The children of that place must go "rambling" at age thirteen -- as far as we can see, that means being thrown into a dangerous world, such as Arcopolis, to bring justice and peace to it. It's a big job, but the Boy has the belief of his parents -- two of the most powerful and successful gods of that place, especially his Thor-like father -- and a few tools and aids to strengthen his own demi-godly powers.

Battling Boy is only the first of a projected series; the Boy battles a few monsters here, but there are many more to come. And he comes to learn that neither his headlong enthusiasm or his timid doubts are quite what he needs to defeat the monsters and save Arcopolis. But he is just thirteen; he has plenty of time to learn and grow and get better...assuming he can survive being Arcopolis's champion, unlike his predecessor.

This book has all of the strengths of Pope's best work: the twisted, grubby lines defining monsters and city, the joy in physical action, the crackling dialogue, the big stakes, the raw energy and enthusiasm of his main characters, and the design sense that ranges from that Kirby-esque otherworldly citadel to the most twisted and horrific monsters. It's fantastic and amazing and uncanny and all of those other traditional comics adjectives: wonderful in all of the best ways.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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