Paul Pope has long been one of the most idiosyncratic comic book artists in North America. Through self-published work like THB, independent titles like One-Trick Rip-Off, Vertigo books like 100% and Heavy Liquid, and mainstream superhero fare like Batman: Year 100, Pope has fused his love of American artists such as Jack Kirby and Alex Toth to a passion for European graphic albums like those of Herge and Hugo Pratt, adding a heaping helping of manga-fueled energy along the way. His most recent work, published by First Second Books, has been a series of graphic novels for young people, starting with the New York Times Bestseller Battling Boy and continuing with The Rise of Aurora West. Due out on September 30th, and serving as a prequel to Battling Boy, Aurora marks the first occasion on which Pope has written a comic series (with horror filmmaker J.T. Petty) for another artist to illustrate — Spanish cartoonist David Rubin. We caught up with Pope recently and he told us about the joys of collaboration and his plans for the Battling Boy universe.
Nerdist: To what extent did you pull from your own childhood in creating the Battling Boy universe?
Paul Pope: Well, I was a latchkey kid. We moved around a lot. I had a little sister I had to take care of. So I was alone a lot, and I had to be pretty independent fast. So Battling Boy is based a little bit on my own memories of being a kid. He’s also based on my older nephew. So it was kind of easy to get Battling Boy’s personality, because when Ben was a little kid I was with him a lot. I lived with him for a little while. He grew up without a dad. So I really wanted to make something that would appear to that kind of a kid. Then as it developed my rule was… outside of keeping it all ages so there was nothing subversive really in the book, I made the monsters kidnap children. Kids can handle that if it’s done right. Then I went back into my inner twelve-year-old, and whatever I thought was cool then or whatever my two nephews would think is cool now is what I’m allowing in the book. So there’s a lot of Silver Age Jack Kirby, a lot of French comics and Italian comics from the ’70s, which I loved as a kid, and the visceral energy of manga. That was my agenda going into it.
N: Your work always appears instinctive. Your thoughts seem to move from your mind to your pen in a way few artists’ do. But even with that spontaneity, have you found yourself planning ahead with this series?
PP: Yeah, there’s a story bible I wrote, and now that we have two series – the artist on this is David Rubon — I co-wrote the script with J.T. Petty based on the story bible. I’m hearing from some people in Hollywood that Petty is considered one step away from being an A-list screenwriter. It was fun to work with him because we got along really well right away. I would imagine we’re gonna collaborate again at some point. But I knew I specifically wanted a Spanish artist. I wanted a European, but specifically a Spanish artist, just because there are so many great Spanish artists. I feel like they’re not as well-known in the States. They’re under-appreciated. But I love David’s art, and I’ve wanted to work with him for a while. So it’s just amazing. This is the first time that I’ve written a series for another artist. I’ve collaborated before, but…
N: Since you’re so used to working on your own, was it especially important to have someone with whom you were completely in sync?
PP:: I’ve known David for years, but I didn’t [meet] him until Angouleme this January. We took about three months writing the scripts, J.T. and I. I had him watch a whole bunch of old movies and look at specific things. He got it right away. Because he does come from horror, he has a good sense of what’s scary. In fact we had to tone him down a little bit. There was a little too much violence at first and we had to pull that back a little bit. Then as David was drawing… He’s fast, I think he took about eight months. I would be art directing with him. Anything from what would be in their living room in their house to what’s the specific reference point for their flight suits.
N: Having now written for another artist, are you looking at other collaborations?
PP: Aurora is two books. It’s a complete story. And Battling Boy is two books, it’s a complete story. They’re interconnected. So the Aurora series tells the story of Haggard West and her family, what happened to the mom, how Haggard became a hero, his experiments into the monster mystery. And it ends right about where Battling Boy begins.
N: And as far as your other work goes?
PP: I have a series that’s about half-finished now that I’m working on called THB, which is science fiction. First Second is publishing that as five books. The cool thing is the young people now reading Battling Boy moving onto Aurora will find it’s a little bit darker…
N: So one would expect them to eventually grow into THB readers?
PP: Yeah. I’m just really glad people are into it. Because after I did Batman: Year 100 I had a lot of opportunities to do all kinds of things, and I’m just really glad I found a good partnership with these guys. They publish so much young adult fiction, and Tor does science fiction. It made sense to do something like this. And I think they’re really smart about publishing. They don’t publish too many books. Two seasons, twelve books a year – something like that.
N: Will the new editions of THB reprint the entire series from the beginning?
PP: It’s kind of hard to say. The original THB stuff is really a separate series if you think of it, because all the Martian stuff is kind of based on H.G. Wells. It’s not rooted in science. So, to complete the story, I’ve been redrawing the whole thing. Because I don’t think I found the voice for that until around 2000.
N: Your art has grown enormously.
PP: It’s changed a lot. I don’t feel it was until the late ’90s when my style gelled, because I assimilated manga. I cut my teeth on indie comics and worked on mainstream comics. I had a lot of time to do research on terra-forming a planet and exploration and these kinds of things. So it’s much more rooted in real science or hard science now. It’s cool, because Battling Boy and the Aurora series are the superhero fantasy ones, and THB is more science fiction. They both have a lot of manga influence though.
N: Do you have any other projects on the back burner?
PP: I’m talking to my editor about what to work on when I’m done with these. I might want to do some historical fiction when I’m done with these, or adapt a book. Take a new direction. I had a chance to work on an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, which was tempting.
N: One could easily see your style mesh with that tale.
PP: Yeah. Although it seems kind of redundant. That’s why I’m not certain if I want to do… I’m really into Native American history, and there’s a couple of stories of not-so-well-known events. Growing up in Ohio, there was a lot of Native American history there. So I kind of grew up with it.
N: Your next convention appearance will be at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco on October 4th and 5th?
PP: Yeah, I don’t have my full schedule. But touring has become part of the job now – school events, signings. What’s cool about Battling Boy is it’s in school libraries and I go to schools and give talks at schools now.
N: Is it inspiring to encounter so many young minds that are into comic art?
PP: Yeah. What’s great is the experiment. When I went into Battling Boy, the challenge was “Can I do this? Can I pull it off? Will people want to read this?” It seems like it. I’ve never had kid fans before. Little kid cosplayers, that kind of stuff.
N: There’s so much energy in your work it seems natural that young people would glom onto it.
PP: Yeah. I guess I had to get through a phase where I got rid of some darkness and some preoccupations. The kind of boy-meets-girls stuff that kids can’t read. [Laughs.]
Paul Pope’s The Rise of Aurora West from First Second Books is available today.