Cult creator Paul Pope has gotten some attention lately for reasons having nothing to do with the release of his long-awaited graphic novel Battling Boy from First Second.
Last week, reports of a panel Pope did with fellow First Second creator Gene Luen Yang made the rounds online, with many people latching onto comments made about DC Comics. In the comments, Pope recounted how he had pitched a story involving Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic title Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth, only to be told that DC only made comics for “45-year-olds.”
The comments were picked up around the net, even going as far as such sites as Digital Spy and Boing Boing. Pope himself was overseas at this time, and once he got back, talked with us about these comments, which he said did not reflect his current relationship with DC Comics.
Here’s some highlights of our conversation, which includes some news of upcoming reprints of Pope’s older works, plans for the launch of Battling Boy, and more.
Newsarama: So Paul…it’s been an interesting week for you.
Paul Pope: Yeah. I went down to Rosario, Argentina for the CrackBangBoom comics festival with Scott Allie from Dark Horse, artists David Lloyd and Will Conrad, and a handful of other artists from South America, including of course Eduardo Risso.
It was a great festival. I wasn’t online for about a week, which was bliss, but I came back to see that the transcript of this panel from Comic-Con, this one comment, has sort of taken on a life of its own.
And it’s been a little annoying to not have the chance to clear up the context a bit, to go on the record, and elaborate a bit about what I was intending to say.
Nrama: Well, before we go any further – I do want to be clear that we’re not trying to trash the work of another reporter, that the statements you were reported as making at that panel were accurately reported.
Pope: Yes. Pretty much verbatim, it’s a transcript of a live talk. And the panel went really well, it was an excited audience, considering that it was Sunday afternoon, and everybody’s tired and running on fumes. Gene Luen Yang and I get along very well. We’ve been touring together lately, he for Boxers & Saints, me for Battling Boy.
Nrama: But what you contacted me about was, this incident you recounted with a person at DC Comics during the panel that’s been reblogged quite a bit, is an incident that you don’t feel you recounted accurately and does not reflect your current relationship with DC Comics. Could you get into that a little bit?
Pope: Well, yeah. First off, I get along well with DC Comics, no problems there. I’m currently doing a piece for the new Harley Quinn series, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor. I’ve been working with DC pretty steadily since the late ‘90s, and our projects together have won awards, they’re translated overseas, and they’ve kept my books in print.
So I don’t really have a problem with them. The statement about “breaking up” with DC Comics was not meant to sound like I was putting a hex on them.
Nrama: Well, some implications of your statements were that first, Battling Boy came about directly because DC rejected your Kamandi pitch, and second, that you had some ill feelings toward DC because of the BatPod motorcycle in the Christopher Nolan Batman films resembling the motorcycle from your Batman: Year 100, and you’re not being recognized or compensated for that.
Pope: Well, that’s a separate issue, the BatPod, for what it’s worth. But as I’ve said, that was work-for-hire, so you know what kind of deal you’re signing when you get into it.
As far as the genesis of Battling Boy goes -- Batman: Year 100’s debut was the first time since The Killing Joke came out that they had a Prestige Format book’s entire press run sell out on day one. I’m pretty sure the same thing happened for the second issue, too. They took a big risk on that book, and it seemed to be a hit. So pretty early on, we had a conversation about what I wanted to do as a follow-up.
At that point, I was reading a lot of Silver Age reprints, and I was seeking in my own work something building on the ideas or storytelling you might see in those 1960s books, fused with Heavy Metal magazine, but something also more all-ages. I started thinking about doing comics for kids. And I thought that as far as a franchise character goes, the easiest character to use for this kind of story was Kamandi.
At the time, Kamandi was sort of a guarded character. Pretty much everybody wanted to work on Kamandi. And they told me that the marketing structure, which I can now see from working with Macmillan and First Second, you know, you have to know your audience, and they basically said, “you know, the marketing’s not in place for the audience you’re thinking of aiming this project toward.”
They said, “For us, when we think of all-ages comics, we think of these licensed comics, we have Scooby-Doo and Space Ghost and Bugs Bunny.”
To me, it was sort of like this realization that it would be very difficult to have this kind of project unfold successfully– and this conversation goes back to 2005 or so, so this is before “New 52” and new editorial directions and all this other stuff.
The closest we came to doing the kind of project I was hoping to do was my Adam Strange story in Wednesday Comics. It has all the elements I wanted, the kind of weird verve of those old comics that I love and aspire toward. I consider that all-ages. And that book did really well.
So there’s no animosity there. And if you read the transcript, especially a line or two that’s taken out of context of the larger discussion, and just focus on a sarcastic, caustic comment…that comment wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited. It wasn’t me hammering my shoe on the table, “We will bury you!” kind of thing.
And I just wanted to say that, because I have friends at DC, and I don’t like ad hominem attacks. And I don’t want to get into a sparring match when there’s not going to be a winner, you know?
Nrama: Given what you said about the sarcasm – are you willing to say on the record that no one actually said, “We make comics for 45-year-olds?” Because that’s what’s really been latched onto in these comments.
Pope: Well, from my recollection, that was pretty much an accurate statement. It was an informal conversation, so there was some humor intended in the delivery, but the clear gist of the statement was, “We’re making comics for adults, we’re marketing comics for adults.”
I’m almost 45 myself, I read comics, I don’t have any problem with the grim and gritty direction of comics. It’s just that I would like to see a wider spectrum. So my artistic response is to go off and create something entirely new and different, which hopefully has a blend of Kirby and Moebius and all those things I loved as a kid, and which I want to see more of in American comics.
The reader in my head now is that little kid who loves superheroes and science fiction, 10 or 11, and I wouldn’t give that kid many of the comics that are being published today, outside of Adventure Time or something. So Battling Boy is for them.
Nrama: But did DC actually say that “We make comics for 45-year-olds?”
Pope: Pretty much. It might be a he-said/she-said kind of thing, but that’s my recollection. What that had to do with what would become Battling Boy was that from those discussions, I simply realized that book wasn’t going to happen there. And there were no ill feelings about it. It was just a rational discussion between adults, “What can we do together?”
And in my case, what I could do was work on the Adam Strange project, and I’ve done plenty of other work for them since Batman: Year 100, it’s just that I’ve been consumed with Battling Boy and haven’t had time to work on as many outside projects. There have been other job offers, thank God, I just haven’t been able to take on all of them.
But I wanted to clarify these remarks, because I didn’t want to cast aspersions on a publisher that has been very supportive toward me. It’s just that, for all intents and purposes, Battling Boy had to go somewhere else.
Nrama: So if you really wanted to break the comment down – and this is to make sure that I’m getting it as much as our readers – is that what it came down to was, if DC wanted to do something more all-ages oriented, they preferred to do so through books specifically marketed toward younger readers through their licensed, all-ages properties.
And that made it feel like something like Battling Boy, which you’ve explained is a bit more on a middle-grade level or so, would not be a good fit for this environment, and that’s why you’re doing it with First Second.
Pope: Yeah. And you also have to understand that the rhetoric, which is from DC’s point of view, is accurate, but it was also delivered with some humor. They had to let me know that what I wanted to do, was something they were not prepared to do.
There were some options to do more Batman. One of the things I put on the table was to do a “Joker: Year 100 book,” but having just come off of two pretty much R-rated Vertigo books and a pretty dark Batman book, it’d been almost 10 years summing around my imagined urban back alleyways, and I wanted to do something different.
It’s just…this was a conversation from seven or eight years ago, and I’ve been looking at some of the comments on this, and people think that this was a conversation that we had last week or something. On the panel with Gene, I was just trying to paint a picture of the genesis of Battling Boy – someone had asked about why I’d gone to First Second or something.
Nrama: Well, if Battling Boy does well, especially with that young audience –
Pope: “Problem Readers.” That’s what they call them. I hear that term a lot.
Nrama: --it could encourage the publication of more books for that age range.
Pope: That would make me totally happy. I love seeing things like Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle in Time winning an Eisner and staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks – that’s like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon charting again and again and again. Creating a classic.
I don’t speak to many editors in the comics industry these days, outside of my editor on Battling Boy, but I have talked to people in the biz who say they want to see more all-ages original graphic novels, and if this book is successful, I hope they put their money where their mouth is.
Nrama: There’s one more thing I want to get into with this before we discuss your upcoming work – you mentioned to me that it seemed like people had latched onto these comments because they felt they applied to the contemporary DC universe and some of the media they’re putting out, such as the reaction to some of the darker, more violent elements of Man of Steel.
Now, that’s a whole other can of worms, and I don’t want to come off as trashing things myself, but what is your reaction to the agreement to these comments that many people have publicly posted, which is arguably one of the reasons why they’ve been reposted so much?
Pope: Wow, I don’t know. I haven’t seen Man of Steel. I haven’t even seen that last Batman film. I think there might be some frustration with comics in general, because people might feel like they’re not getting what they want or something.
Some of the comics that I love the most would be something like 100 Bullets or The Dark Knight Returns, these perennials, and they’re pretty violent. Maybe people want more items on the menu, more flavors. Maybe they just want to bitch! (laughs)
Nrama: Well, an argument that’s been made a lot is that works such as The Dark Knight Returns, along with things like Watchmen and V for Vendetta, really helped reinvent the style of comics in the 1980s, but many took the wrong lessons from their depictions of vigilantes – emphasizing the darkness and cynicism of that style without including the satire, critique of society or visual language, and that we saw a lot of this in the 1990s and arguably in the years after 9/11.
Pope: I think you’re onto something with that. The barometer I had when I came up with Battling Boy was to invent a kid superhero who wasn’t childish, or goofy or kooky, or had a dog sidekick or whatever. It’s just a really kick-ass story about a kid being a superhero without a grown-up.
There was a moment where it could have gone a different way, in that violent, satirical mode you described, in an early scene with a monster tearing apart a tank, and I thought, “Well, I should show them being torn apart.” But I thought against it, because I realized that was the barometer for me – if I went in that direction, then this was an R-rated comic as opposed to a PG comic, something that a kid could read.
There is that dark material in superhero comics – even when we were kids, we understood Superman was an orphan, Batman was an orphan. We could handle that.
I was reading an early Spider-Man comic to my nephew when he was like five, and I got to the part where the cop tells Peter his Uncle Ben has died, and I didn’t know if my nephew even understood the concept of death yet, so I tried translating it like, “Your uncle is sick.” And he went, “Is this where Uncle Ben dies?” He already knew it from the movies or cartoons or something. And he got it.
When you write for kids, it’s not that you have to bowdlerize it, dumb it down so that it’s around the level of Teletubbies or something. But you can deal with the real issues in a way that’s real for kids.
Nrama: While I’ve got you here, I wanted to ask a bit about your upcoming work – it was also announced at this panel, and this got overshadowed a bit, that First Second will be reprinting THB.
Pope: Yeah, as soon as I finish Battling Boy. It’s going to be a huge project – more than a thousand pages, most of which is already done, and I’m going to finish the story. It got held up because Battling Boy got held up, because it can’t come out until Battling Boy comes out.
Nrama: I remember picking up THB in the 1990s when I saw it in Previews and it had blurbs from Will Eisner and such, and…I’m going to hurt you here (Pope laughs), but I was like a freshman or a sophomore in high school when that came out, and I’ve since graduated high school and college and been out of graduate school for almost a decade…
Pope: It’ll be almost 25 years by the time all is said and done. It’s ridiculous. I remember getting the idea for this in 1993 or so, and just committing to the idea and thinking it would be a one-shot or something, and if a genie from a bottle could have come out and said, “Keep in mind, it’s going to take you 25 years to finish it,” I might have thought twice. You’re 22, you can’t imagine what life after 30 is going to be like, let alone life after 40.
Nrama: But it’s like with this and Battling Boy – you are not what I would call a slow person, but you have made the point that you want to get these out because they’ve been promised for so long.
Pope: And I want to get them out myself...
Nrama:You’ve done a lot of comics, a lot of projects in film, fashion, all this media…it seems like you’re a productive person, but why do projects like THB and Battling Boy take longer for you to get done?
Pope: Well, working in other disciplines – fashion, film – part of that is just the financial realities of being freelance and needing to make money, trying to find interesting, cool projects. And sometimes that takes a lot of time, and a lot of that work, especially for film, hasn’t been seen publicly.
There was a period of about 10 years ago or so, maybe a little longer, where I was just so frustrated with the feeling of self-publishing, where I couldn’t break through like 8,000-10,000 in sales – not bad numbers, but I felt this could reach such a wider audience, I just didn’t know how to do it.
Living in Manhattan as a self-publisher, with all the cash flow issues, is a bitch. You basically can’t do it, not without a lot of hassles. Also, I didn’t have contacts with publishers overseas, didn’t know how to get those books out there, no money for marketing. So I had to step back and make a plan.
Nrama: And how has that affected the way you’ve made comics since?
Pope: I miss the monthly deadline. When I was doing Batman: Year 100 and my Vertigo books, I would go up to DC every week pretty much and drop off art. At the time, DC had these irregular get-togethers at this Irish spot near the DC offices in Midtown, and everyone from all the levels of DC would get together, from creative to editorial to production, and it was almost like a fraternity, where you’d meet the letterers of your book, the mailroon guys, other artists, put a face to everyone. That was really cool.
I have a great relationship with my editors at First Second, but I do miss that, that old-school bullpen feeling. And there’s no monthly paycheck without a monthly book, so that does force you to step outside your regular zone of creativity as a freelancer.
But again, those talks about Kamandi were a long time ago. I don’t know what’s going on at Marvel and DC right now; I don’t even know who the current Batman and Robin are! I’m up for doing like a short story or something, I do a lot of covers and posters, but that’s the typical freelancer position.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Pope: We’re setting up a series of pretty nice exhibits of the original art for Battling Boy, to correspond with the launch of the book. Image Comics is going to publish the touring catalog for the traveling exhibition that’s going to be going to debut this October at the Society of Illustrators in NYC.
We’ve got Jim Pascoe designing it, and it’s going to be in English, French and Italian, which is currently the three markets hosting the exhibitions of the art. We’ll be able to have some more details about it closer to New York Comic-Con and the book launch, but it’ll be great.
Pope’s new GN Battling Boy premieres from First Second this October; the prequel, The Death of Haggard West, is available now.