One of the most thoughtful and iconoclastic artists working in comics today, Paul Pope began his career in comics as a literary-oriented self-publisher whose works were broadly informed by literature, politics and world culture. Known for combining the adventure and action of American comics with the philosophical concerns and nuanced characterization of European comics, Pope has also been profoundly influenced by the visual storytelling techniques of manga after working for years for one of the biggest manga publishers in Japan.
Pope's comics embrace everything from contemporary design and fashion to rock 'n' roll, science fiction and libertarian philosophy. He manages to straddle the world of big and small publishing—releasing works from Marvel, DC and the French house Darguad, as well as from book publishers like Henry Holt—while continuing to self-publish through his own Horse Press and through other small publishers. His self-published work THB, an ongoing science fiction epic about the colonization of Mars, has attained cult status.
His most recent works include 100% and Heavy Liquid from DC/Vertigo. Vertigo is currently publishing Batman Year 100, Pope's reinvention of the Batman character, as a miniseries that will be released in trade paperback later this year. Among other new works coming in 2006 are La Chica Bionica from French publisher Darguad, Pulphope: The Art of Paul Pope, an art book from AdHouse Books in June and in 2007, Battling Boy, kid's fiction coming from Holt's graphic novel imprint First Second.
PWCW sat down to talk with Pope in his downtown Manhattan apartment/studio.
PWCW: Rethinking Batman for a new generation seems to mark the careers of major comics artists—Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli come to mind. You've worked for Marvel and DC in the past, but you're best known as a literary art comics guy and a self-publisher.
Paul Pope: I cut my teeth with self-publishing but I also spent five years working for Japan's largest manga publisher, learning my craft. There's no reason a guy with an idiosyncratic style shouldn't do Batman. There seems to be two mutually exclusive models for a cartoonist to follow, either you're R. Crumb or you're in the comics mainstream where you only care about the Fantastic Four.
PWCW: Is there some deeper significance to doing Batman or is it just another gig?
PP: Like every other kid, I loved Batman. I've got a stack of drawings of Batman and Robin I drew when I was four years old that my grandmother saved. Page after page of the Batmobile and explosions. This stuff stays in your brain. It's a threshold for a cartoonist. It's like climbing a sheer rock edifice. It's not commercialism on my part, either. I've really thought about the character and I think I have a pretty good idea for a story.
PWCW: But why Batman? Will you move on to Superman now?
PP: It's because Batman's a normal man. He didn't come from outer space. He's just an excellent human being. He represents the best within us. He resonates with people. It's the same reason we love Michael Jordan or Bruce Lee—they represent excellence.
The relationship between Batman and Superman is like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. Donald is more the personality of Batman, because Mickey is so big and so powerful as a trademark, Disney can't afford to give him any distinguishing personality characteristics at all. I've been out with [writer] Grant Morrison, with Frank [Miller] and top comics editors and Miller will say let's come up with a way to redo Superman. We hammer out an idea for a script, but we can't do it. It's always just too far out. Anything that we would come up with is too distinguishing. But Batman can do whatever he wants.
PWCW: How radical is your reinterpretation of the character?
PP: It's a post-Miller Batman, consistent with what we know and love about Batman. But I have a theory about comics. An art style is a world window through which we can see the artist's psychological view of the world. This is one of the secret strengths of comics. In my case, I'm a hybrid of European, American and Japanese comics. And I structure my comics like manga. My Batman is extremely fast paced and while it doesn't look anything like manga, it's got all the underpinnings of manga. The book is really an art argument, a visual argument in my style about how to make comics.
PWCW: Tells us the story of Batman Year 100.
PP: Frank [Miller] says Batman is like a diamond, you can't break him. We've had the campy Batman and the gothic Batman, all these Batmans. I like the notion of the quasi-criminal Batman but I want to bring in contemporary world events—without the didactics. I've always wanted to do something with an Orwellian police state. How would a superhero function in such a state? I've created a kind of American future police state. In this world, the superhero's masked identity is a metaphor for privacy and the question is, does a superhero have a right to a secret identity in a society where no one is allowed to have secrets. So in a police state, Batman would essentially be a terrorist. My tagline is a man with the money of Hughes, the brains of Tesla and the body of Beckham, pretending to be Nosferatu.
The premise of my story is that if the original Batman issue, Detective Comics #27, came out in 1939, flash forward ahead 100 years to 2039. It's far enough ahead to have a new global playing field. Nuclear war and the terrorist with a suitcase bomb have created a crisis for the superhero notion. How do you fight crime in a back alley with this huge international problem? I consider myself a science fiction writer, and I've always wanted to do a future Batman. I've read as much as I can going back to Frankenstein and up to Neil Stephenson, Robert Heinlein, Philip Dick and all those guys. It's a vital form that allows me to do what sci-fi does so well—write about contemporary anxieties using the future as a stage.
I wanted the grand gesture, the Byronic outlook that man acts out of virtue. One of the joys of the book is coming up with ways to depict a bright, wealthy, athletic, motivated man using superstition, persuasion and sleight of hand to create an image of his power. He's like a magician. So I've come up with a scenario where Batman is really a group—like a theater production crew mixed with a terrorist cell. In the theater there's the crew, the guys in black who move the set around. Back in1950s, in the The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein wrote down what would be required in a terror cell. I used his notion to boil the Batman idea down to a team of about five people. So we need a guy to put the escape vehicle together, one guy to set up the aerial harness—all the logistics of being Batman.
I've also always wanted to do something that connects Batman to the other future fictional worlds that I've already created in my other books—works like 100% and Heavy Liquid.
PWCW: You worked for years in Japan for Kodansha, producing a lot of pages of manga that were never published. How important has manga been to your development as a comics artist?
PP: I've become a lot more aggressive about claiming the manga influence. Manga has become surprisingly big in the States and I am the one comics guy that worked for five years for the biggest Japanese comics publisher. I know the structure of manga. I consider it my graduate school. The whole time there, I was being groomed for a top spot. And even though my time working there was like being in a Kafka novel, I came back to the States with a unique skill set.
Most of what I did during the years working for Kodansha wasn't published. That was frustrating, but my time there was also illuminating and enlightening and I worked for a lot of wonderful people at Kodansha. They paid me well and returned all the art—some of which will go into Pulphope, an art book that will be published by AdHouse Books.
PWCW: Talk about THB, your self-published science-fiction comic. It is essentially about the colonization of Mars....
PP: It's my Dune. It's an epic, an attempt to show a future society on another planet. It's a coming-of-age story of about girl who lives in a world she finds mundane but she's on the verge of a life-changing experience. It's got a coded reference to manifest destiny in the American West and the conflicts between Indians and European settlers. I'm interested in exploring how we would go about terraforming, actually populating a planet.
PWCW: It's certainly one of your signature works. Can you talk about the revisions it's gone through and about the importance of manga to it?
PP:THB was my first break-through project, mid-1990s. A steam-punk take influenced by Jules Verne. A fun, Star Wars type project. When I began working for the Japanese, I used THB as a canvas to understand the mechanics of manga. After working at Kodansha, I completely redid THB as manga.
Early on in my career I was much more conscious of the story structure learned from Western comics guys like Hugo Pratt or the work of the classic American cartoonists like Milton Caniff. But those are not emotionally engaged visual storytelling styles. One of the key elements of manga is the emphasis on the character's reactions and the psychology expressed visually in the story. Bob Shreck, my editor at DC Comics, says that American comics are focused on a destination, while manga is interested in the journey. I redrew the entire story because I wanted to have much more of a journey in THB. I've devoted 15 years of my life to this thing. As I've gotten better as a cartoonist, I've infused THB with what I've learned. So in a way it's become a laboratory, an experiment in comics.
PWCW: You seem to function in a very different way than most indie comics artists. Your early comics were like cultural manifestos, idiosyncratic publications with comics as well as prose broadsides on fashion, contemporary art, design, science fiction and pop culture in general.
PP: I don't see myself as indie because I'm interested in making money [laughing]. But part of what you're taking about is because of Tadanori Yokoo, one of my heroes. He's as big an influence on me as Jack Kirby. He's a Japanese designer, the Andy Warhol of Japan, but he's not very well known outside of graphic design. He was the first guy in Japan to incorporate Japanese kitsch imagery into pop design. His book The Complete Tadanori Yokoo 1970-1973 is an endless orgy of every kind of graphic material. He also worked with a group called Laboratory of Play, a Japanese avant-garde theater group in the 1960s that did all kinds of far-out stuff. They had a lot of energy, and it was an interesting way to approach theater, which can seem kind of moldy. Like comics before manga hit.
My dad plays guitar and was obsessed with Jim Morrison. So I grew up with the rhetoric of rock 'n' roll, really a duality—rock 'n' roll and comics. I've always loved that frontman idea of the rock singer. There's no performance in comics but there's something really gregarious, good-natured and persuasive about comics. There's got to be room in comics for other ideas. If we take the theory of pop art seriously, it should be possible to borrow techniques that work in other media and apply them to ours.
PWCW: Tell us about some of your recent and upcoming books.
PP: My next book, La Chica Bionica [coming from the French publisher Darguad in 2007], is a kind of Barbarella, 1960s version of the future. What happens when a killing machine becomes self-conscious? If you read some of the great speeches in Frankenstein, the monster says, "I curse you. Why have you put me here, where everyone despises me." Imagine that same speech given by the atom bomb, our Frankenstein. That's the crisis in Bianica. Battling Boy is aimed at kids and it's coming out from First Second in 2007. It's a kind of a fairytale kid Beowulf, or a Peter Pan with teeth. It's set in a mythical city called Monstropolis, a city the size of a continent that's overrun with monsters.
100% was published by Vertigo in 2004. It's Tarantino's Pulp Fiction set in the future. It's my take on a romance comic and it's called 100% because I tried to use 100% true source events, masking them with science fiction. Thoreau said, "If I knew anything else as well my own life, I would write about that," so I drew on my own experiences for 100%. Heavy Liquid was published in 2003. On one level it's a love letter to rock 'n' roll because it's got a lot of flash and glam. But it's also a paranoid science fiction future world. It's a visceral response to seeing manga. I tried to create something as visually preposterous as possible. It turned into Heavy Liquid.
PWCW: Tell us about Pulphope, the art book that's coming from Chris Pitzker at AdHouse Books. You were also a contributor to Project: Superior, a comics anthology also published by AdHouse.
PP: I've always been interested in doing a monograph and I've definitely got the material for it. I've wound up with a body of erotica—some very detailed pornographic drawings from working to build a personal vocabulary of erotic, fetishized symbolic images. In my case, they're fruit, butterflies and certain patterns on lace in addition to the standard hot chicks, asses and titties. I've also done comics for magazine illustrations for the White Stripes and Nick Cave and album and poster design for other bands. But I also really feel the need to write prose. There's an essay on how erotica is different from pornography, another about science fiction, a short section of autobiographical illustrated prose sketches about Ohio, personality-driven pieces, some funny stuff.
I've also discovered that I have something to say to young artists. I've become a kind of art-school hero. A lot of 17-, 18- and 20-year-old art-school kids come to me looking for some sort of reflection of themselves. A lot of interesting things have been happening. This past fall I was invited to do a talk at Semi-permanent, a very impressive design conference held at Lincoln Center. In conjunction I had a huge show, an exhibition of drawings and original art at the Diesel store in SoHo. I'm doing all kinds of press, Wired magazine, fashion magazine layouts.
So it's like I'm on a new level of awareness with civilians, normal people that seem to "get" comics even without knowing anything about Jack Kirby. So now everyone is saying to me, "Where's your art book? " There's a new world for comics out there now. I'm in a position where I can be a spokesperson for the medium.