Paul Pope’s stylish, effervescent Battling Boy is one of the year’s best comics

Paul Pope’s stylish, effervescent Battling Boy is one of the year’s best comics

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Battling Boy. Written and drawn by Paul Pope (100%, Batman: Year 100) and colored by Hilary Sycamore, this all-ages fusion of Eastern and Western graphic storytelling is not only a captivating introduction to a new universe, but one of the best reads of the year. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

When a project is in development for as long as Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, originally announced by First Second Books in 2006 for a 2007 release, the expectations increase with each publication update. While evidence of its existence appeared online via Pope’s website, where sketches and page roughs were occasionally posted, the release date kept getting pushed back to the point where the title became a fabled passion-project that would maybe see the light of day if Pope ever got around to finishing it. Over the past seven years, the book has grown from a single graphic novel to a series (the second volume, The Rise Of Aurora West, will be released in 2014), and now that Battling Boy has finally been published, it’s clear why it took so much time for Pope to create it. Not only does the book meet the lofty expectations attached to any long-gestating, constantly delayed project, it surpasses them for an incredible start to a major new project. 

Pope is primarily known for his urban, sci-fi tinged dramas, but the past decade has seen the creator apply his dynamic, expressive style to superheroes with Fantastic Four and Inhumans short stories for Marvel Comics and two phenomenal releases at DC: a weekly “Strange Adventures” serial in Wednesday Comics and the Eisner Award-winning mini-series Batman: Year 100. Pope’s hip design sense and sleek linework brought new vigor to the superhero action, and he amplifies all those elements as he creates his own mythology in the pages of Battling Boy. With a range of influences from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Mighty Thor to Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer, Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, and Man Of Action’s Ben 10, this title has Pope letting his imagination run wild, and the results are simply spectacular.

Battling Boy is the story of two teens coming of age under very different circumstances, one the son of gods and the other the daughter of a high-flying hero who tragically dies in battle. Their paths cross in the city of Arcopolis, where monsters roam the streets and regularly rampage the skyline, making it the perfect location for Battling Boy’s Rambling Day, the day he becomes a man by proving his mettle in battle. Rather than introducing the title character, the opening sequence shows the final flight of Haggard West, father of Aurora, who is killed after he stops a kidnapping by Sadisto and his hooded goons. Those first pages provide a street-level perspective of the horrors that stalk Arcopolis when the sun goes down, depicting the fear and terror of a mother whose son is netted by Sadisto’s gang before West appears to save the day. 

With darkly colored, tattered robes, bandaged limbs, and sharp fangs, these initial monsters are a creepy hybrid of ghost, mummy, and vampire, living shadows that stand out against the blue sky. The villains’ smooth, minimalist design makes them a stark contrast to the elaborate, highly functional look of Haggard West, who is dressed like a World War II fighter pilot. Various design elements like the monsters’ flowing fabric, West’s scarf, and the smoke from his rockets amplify the sense of motion on the page, and the bright, hand-drawn sound effects flesh out the rest of the atmosphere. 

The grounded tone of the opening is immediately shattered by the epic scope of the pages that follow, showing Battling Boy’s Thor-like father return to his celestial kingdom after his most recent victory. The scope of those silent pages showing the father’s ascent through the heavens is breathtaking, beginning with a gorgeous two-page establishing shot of a massive city above a pastel-colored vortex in space. The next two pages zoom in to show the father traveling through the darkness, chronicling his flight from different angles to show the full splendor of the city’s Kirby-esque architecture. The parents in the opening scene are vulnerable, but that’s not the case with this godly father, who flies through the stars and has golden triangle pupils. 

The young boy in the opening is visually connected to Battling Boy through the recurring image of a bouncing ball, which both children are forced by their friends to retrieve. Later, that same angle will be used when the giant monster Humbaba hits Battling Boy, his head replacing the ball to show how easily he can be swatted away. Pope draws kids that actually look like kids, not just small adults, and his ability to capture the pre-growth spurt youth of Battling Boy makes the challenge of his Rambling Day even more daunting. 

The traveling cloak given to Battling Boy when he journeys to the new world is too big for his shoulders, emphasizing his lack of preparation for the next stage of his life. When his father leaves him on the outskirts of Arcopolis, he slings the cloak over one shoulder and stands with his luggage to take a look at what lies ahead, a moment captured in a two-page splash that highlights the loneliness of the boy’s new situation. He’s all by himself in a new setting that he has to protect single-handedly, and just a few hours ago he was tossing a ball with his friends. 

Puberty usually hits fast and hard, but Battling Boy’s adolescent experience sends him crashing through buildings as he faces off against Humbaba, a kaiju that is somewhere between a bulldog, a dragon, and a traditional Japanese Oni. The boy’s only weapons are the 12 T-shirts in his suitcase, each one imbued with the traits of a specific animal. By putting on his Tyrannosaurus rex shirt, Battling Boy gains a thunderous roar and mighty legs, but he also has to deal with weakened arms. Each shirt has strengths and weaknesses; the gryphon is the most powerful, but it’s also the most fragile and tears easily. Beyond physical attributes, the shirts also alter mental perception, with Battling Boy discovering the benefits of wisdom over cleverness when he convenes with an elephant and a fox. 

Kids love animals (especially dinosaurs), and a young hero that gets animal powers from his T-shirts is a concept simple enough for beginning readers to understand. This is a story that is definitely targeted toward a younger audience, but like most great children’s entertainment, the storytelling and artistic craft make it a worthwhile read for adults. With a heavy Mediterranean influence in the landscape and a very Scandinavian-looking lead character, Pope brings a taste of Europe to American superhero comics. When combined with the dynamic fight choreography and expressive character work of manga, the result is a book that creates an engrossing setting, while delivering awesome spectacle and a clear emotional through line. 

Battling is right there in the title, so it should come as no surprise that the action is the major selling point of this comic, but those beautiful fight sequences are given meaning by the emotional struggles of Battling Boy and Aurora West. The former is looking to prove himself—despite overwhelming odds—and is faced with potential shame if he fails to live up to the mighty example set by his father. His situation is further complicated when he takes credit for his father’s help in battle, forcing Battling Boy to learn a painful lesson about lying when his new fame and adoration brings Sadisto’s forces down on him. Nobody expects Aurora to walk in the shows of her fallen dad, and whereas fear of failure is what motivates Battling Boy, Aurora is fueled by pure vengeance. Including a female protagonist makes Battling Boy a great title for young readers of either sex, and while girls may be turned off by this first book’s male focus, hopefully The Rise Of Aurora West will bring in additional female readers.  

The first thing that immediately separates Battling Boy from Pope’s previous work is the lush coloring from Hilary Sycamore (with art direction by Pope), which Pope has compared to the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki. The coloring is vibrant, but not heavily textured, and the flat application combined with the high-contrast hues gives the book a retro look heavily reminiscent of Silver Age superhero comics. When Battling Boy puts on his T. rex shirt, the neon green image of the dinosaur cuts through the blue sky, the severe coloring highlighting the otherworldly power of the child’s magic clothes. When Battling Boy calls his father for help, the coloring changes from natural blue, green, and browns to a more ethereal blend of orange, pink, and purple as the action shifts to his dad fighting a giant minotaur-like creature on a barren alien planet. 

It takes time to create a book that looks this good, and the seven years Pope spent on Battling Boy shows in the artwork. There’s a staggering amount of detail put into the environments, whether its the stocked kitchen of the unnamed mother in the opening, Haggard West’s secret headquarters filled with weapons and tech, or the bare-bones home of Sadisto. The gritty urban environment of Arcopolis is the complete opposite of Battling Boy’s home, an opulent place where nature is in perfect balance with ancient Greek architecture. The gods live in a utopia where purple flowers grow on pink walls, a place of tranquility and growth that is nothing like the dry brown city of Arcopolis. Each location has a distinct personality (dig the Escher-esque staircase leading down to the lair of Sadisto’s boss), allowing Pope to quickly dictate the mood of a scene through the settings. 

Battling Boy’s greatest strength is the sense of discovery Pope cultivates over the course of the graphic novel’s 200-plus pages, introducing wondrous new elements with each scene. This first volume is a flood of ideas that gives Pope plenty of storytelling avenues to explore in forthcoming chapters, building so much momentum that it’s hard not to be disappointed by the abrupt cliffhanger ending. No matter the age, readers will be able to relate to the story about living up to expectations and paving your own path, told with a visual flair that provides astounding energy, while exhibiting a highly sophisticated artistic voice. Creators like Paul Pope are building the next generation of comic-book fans with projects that appeal to younger audiences without oversimplification or condescension, and moving into an all-ages direction makes Battling Boy a standout work in the canon of one of the medium’s modern masters.