Making comics for teens cool again with Battling Boy
Having had his fill of the Dark Knight, Paul Pope tells Stephen Jewell why he’s launching ambitious new graphic novel series Battling Boy and working with Brad Pitt
After putting his unique stamp on the dystopian vista of Gotham City in
Batman: Year 100 and on New York in his creator-owned Vertigo series Heavy Liquid and 100%, Paul Pope was determined to explore a less familiar locale. Set in the archetypal city of Arcopolis,
Battling Boy has been described as “a new generation superhero” by Entertainment
Weekly and has been purposely designed by the Brooklyn-based cartoonist as a four-colour gateway drug – or super-soldier serum if you like – into the gloriously vibrant world of comic books.
“As I was finishing my last books for DC, I realised that I’d been doing so many books set in New York, which were more or less realistically done,” he recalls when Comic Heroes meets him at a bar just around the corner from his New York publisher First Second Books. “Especially as I’d been working on Batman and getting so engaged in the mythology of the hero and the story and superhero origins.
“Around the time I was finishing that, I started working with Michael Chabon on a big budget film adaptation of his novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, which was about two immigrant comic book writers in WW2 America. As I result, I spent most of 2006 basically waiting for decisions to get made. We ended up creating this kind of think-tank to decide things like where the story was going. What we were really doing was taking the hood off the car and trying to understand the mechanics of what makes a superhero story work. After that experience, when I met the people from First Second I was thinking of this germ of an idea for a superhero. I wanted to do a kid character because I’ve got teenage nephews, and it started from there.”
For Readers Of All Ages Released late last year, Battling Boy is essentially aimed at a younger audience,
although with its wry tribute to the canonical oeuvre of comic book pioneers like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko it also resonates with more seasoned readers.
“It just developed organically like that,” explains Pope. “The initial idea was to do a superhero story where he fights monsters from classic fairytales. But I also wanted to do a kid superhero, who wasn’t just another version of Batman or Iron Man because I’d identified that there aren’t really any new or fresh comics that are done for a kid readership.
“I’d done teenage sidekicks before with Batman and Robin – as most of my superhero work has been Batman-related. I wanted to approach Robin as a serious character and get into the psychology of what it really means to be a sidekick. There are different codified versions of that kind of character – Captain America has Bucky, Batman has Robin, or at this stage several Robins, and even Iron Man has protégés. Thinking about it more deeply, the thing that makes the kid superheroes cool is that they are kind of heroes of potentiality as they really haven’t achieved anything yet. I like that a lot and it appeals to children. I don’t have any kids myself but we were all kids once and I can remember how that felt.”
The tale begins with brash 12-year-old demigod Battling Boy falling spectacularly to
I also wanted to do a kid superhero, who wasn’t just another version of Batman or Iron Man
Earth, where he is soon embroiled in the fight against child-snatching villain Sadisto. He then encounters budding teenage vigilante Aurora West, who has taken up her family mantle after her superhero father Haggard West is killed in action.
“In my mind, the superhero story is always the origin story and once that’s established you can tell other stories within that spectrum,” reasons Pope. “But I wanted to do something different and that’s why Haggard West dies. It was important to identify this character as the classic American archetypal superhero – but who is then immediately killed. It’s almost like you taking the needle violently off the record
in order to clear some space to make a new superhero, who would traditionally be a sidekick but now has no one left to lead them.”
While Haggard West takes his name from She author H Rider Haggard, Battling Boy’s fantastical home realm is reminiscent of both Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Marvel’s sci-fi makeover of Asgard.
It was important to identify the character as the archetypal superhero – then kill him
“I didn’t realise that there was so much of the
Fourth World in there until the book was coming out,” admits Pope. “When I was formulating the idea, I wanted a very panmythological story told using all the classic superhero tropes, so it would require Haggard West, a sidekick and a pantheon of gods. I wanted them to be very generic; Battling Boy’s father is not Thor, he’s a war god but his name is ‘Dad’. I wanted to pull back as far as I could with those things. I’m also a fan of Fellini so there’s some Satyricon in there and Mike Hodges’s
Flash Gordon is another influence.”
Apart from the far-out escapades of Silver Age titles like Jack Kirby’s New Gods and famous pulp novels such as John Carter Of Mars and
Doc Savage, Pope also delved into his collection of ’70s Heavy Metal magazines.
“They had stories by Moebius and Richard Corben – some pretty over-the-top, ratcheted-up, strange, esoteric material,” he says. “I was thinking about it, remembering that I could read this stuff as a kid. Just to isolate Fantastic
Four, the Silver Age stories are really grim in a way, with Doctor Doom being this man encased in armour, whose pretty burned up because he blew himself up in a botched experiment. There were all these heavy ideas but they were done in such a way that when I first read those issues, at just six, seven or eight years old, they felt more like this huge operatic story as opposed to a personal tragedy about someone being disfigured. We hear about those kinds of atrocities all the time now in the news so we have to find a way to process them in a larger sense, where the atrocity is not the end of something but actually part of a bigger, more invisible narrative that we don’t see. That’s why people keep coming back to the hero story.”
With their convoluted continuities, though, most mainstream titles are now frustratingly inaccessible to new readers, who aren’t up to speed with the intricate details of the latest crossover event.
“I know myself that when Batman: Year 100 came out, it was being pushed at an adult audience,” says Pope. “I read adult comics – we
all do because we’re adults – but I knew from my nephews, from the time when they were adolescents or pre-adolescents, that they could read the old Silver Age comics and deal with the notion that Spider-Man’s uncle is murdered and understand that that’s what sets the story in motion. A lot of the stuff I was doing was too much for a kid to deal with, though, so I wanted to return to a more innocent – but still serious – approach to those kinds of stories.”
Si dekic k’s Si dekic k
While Pope is hard at work on the next
Battling Boy salvo, September will see the first of two spin-off graphic novels, focusing on his partner-in-crimefighting, Aurora West.
“Battling Boy needed a foil, someone to offset him, and I also felt like there needed to be more of a feminine presence in the books,” says Pope. “What’s interesting is that Aurora’s story is more about vengeance while his is about discovery but he’s also very aloof because he’s a god among humans, so he’s not that invested in the problem. He’s interested in fulfilling whatever mission it takes to get back to where the gods come from. I thought they would make for an interesting team because they have that kind of light/darkness to them – a classic pairing like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker or Batman and Superman.
“Then if you look at it more deeply, his power is magical and from a sort of demigod source. He can rely on his invulnerability and he can literally call down a lightning bolt from the gods. Aurora can’t do that: she’s left with this arsenal of weapons and a mansion but no guidance. They’re also like quasi-siblings, who are destined to be together, which I thought was an interesting challenge.”
Co-written by filmmaker JT Petty and drawn by Spanish artist David Rubin, The Rise
Of Aurora West represents the writer/artist’s first major foray into artistic collaboration. “As part of the larger five-year Battling Boy campaign, there’s a pretty big story and my editor Mark Siegel asked me if I wanted to do some more stories,” says Pope. “I regretted killing Haggard so fast. There was a story we could tell and that was his story. We knew that Aurora was going to become a pretty important character in Battling Boy’s story since she’s not quite a sidekick but more of an ally, an equal hero, even though no one knew about her until the book came out. Mark asked me if I wanted to explore that in a second series, using her and her father because there is clearly a problem in Arcopolis before Battling Boy arrives.”
Thi nking Big Sc reen
Battling Boy has been optioned for a film by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B, and Pope is optimistic that his teen hero will eventually hit the big screen. He’s been collaborating closely with Watchmen screenwriter Alex Tse.
“I’ve been working on the adaptation as I’ve been working on the graphic novel and there’s now a ninth draft of the script. I’ve also written a prose novella, which is the entire story, which we’re using as the basis of the graphic novel which will also become the film if it ever happens. Right now, we’ve taken it off the table because it’s just too time consuming for me to do both. It would be a big budget film if it happens in the way that we’re thinking, so the studio needs the security of knowing that there is a built-in audience for it. That’s really what we’re doing now, building an audience for the book and then we can think about the film because it’s ultimately an adaptation of the comic book rather than an original.”
“Jeez, what was in that hooch?!”
Separated at birth: Thor
and Battling Boy Snr.
Sidekick Aurora is getting her own book.
It’s Battling Boy
The T- Rex t-shirt is