Announced back in 2006, Paul Pope’s Battling Boy has become the stuff of legend in graphic novel circles. The tale of a young superhero fighting monsters is the first longform project from the cult creator in years, and it was major news when it was finally announced as coming out from First Second earlier this year.
With First Second promoting the book at Book Expo America this weekend, Pope chatted with us about finishing this long-awaited work and the prologue comic, The Death of Haggard West, which comes out from First Second in July (a pre-order campaign for bookstores is on this site).
In a super-sized conversation, Pope talked about what he hopes to accomplish with Battling Boy, how he developed the character, plans for his other unfinished epic THB, and much more. He also shared some art and a BEA video related to the project.
Newsarama: Paul, it’s been a while since Battling Boy was announced, but there’s still a lot of excitement surrounding its release. How does it feel to have this book finally locked and ready to go?
Paul Pope: It is exciting, definitely. But now I’m shifting into a second phase where I’m looking at promoting Battling Boy and putting together Book 2 as well. But it’s better than having idle hands.
Nrama: Obviously, you have a lot going on in your life and career – this has hardly been a case where there’s been nothing from you for years. What’s kind of kept Battling Boy as something on the horizon, and what inspired you to make it come together?
Pope: Well, I’m contractually committed to do it – once I signed that contract, I had to do it! (laughs) But seriously, I’m excited about the project. Between that and THB, those are the projects I’m most excited about.
I think because of the way First Second is structured as a book publisher, we’re not publishing comic books outside of the Haggard West one-shot coming this July, so I’m basically working as a novelist now, not as a comic book artist with the traditional deadline of 24 pages a month, which is what I’m used to. That’s been hard, that working in a vacuum.
And of course there were the film projects – working on the short film 7x6x2 for Sony/TriBeCa, which I wrote and then co-directed with Sridhar Reddy, and which hasn’t been released yet. And then the Kavalier & Clay film project was something like a year and a half eaten up, maybe more. It was a sort of creative wilderness.
Nrama: Is the Kavalier & Clay film project going forward? Because there have been talks of a film version for years…
Pope: It’s kind of on hiatus right now, because there is so much money involved and so many people involved. I was on it for most of 2006, right after I finished Batman: Year 100, I pretty much got drafted right into it. And there’s too much going on with all of the principal film makers for anyone to be actively working on right now.
People are looking at book sales as well, because with all these elements in the book that have to be brought to life, it’s going to cost a ton of money to film Kavalier, and studio people don’t want to lose their jobs, you know what I mean? They don’t want another John Carter.
Nrama: Right, because John Carter and Kavalier & Clay are the exact same type of story.
Pope: Well, you know what I mean....a great film-to-book adaptation is marketed poorly, and so it tanks. I loved John Carter myself, but what demographic do I represent? (laughs) I’m a fan of those old books.
Nrama: You mentioned how First Second doesn’t usually do pamphlet-style comics...
Pope: They’ve actually never done one before.
Nrama: ...so when putting together the preview story, what were some of the challenges in putting together a book like this that wasn’t in their wheelhouse, and what made you want to do this story in the first place?
Pope: Well, in doing promotion for Battling Boy, it’s been a surprise how much people have latched onto this character, Haggard West. In comics, it’s normal to have a superhero die. The character type of Haggard West is an analogue for someone like Batman or Iron Man.
While developing the film version of Battling Boy, I noticed the film industry people really latched onto this as a symbol, an old superhero dying and being replaced by a new superhero.
So I proposed to First Second that if we were going to San Diego Comic-Con, why not do a comic? I’d done similar things with AdHouse and THB in the past, so we came up with this one-shot volume for SDCC.
Nrama: Tell us a little about the plans for this book at BEA, and what you hope to accomplish with the announcement there.
Pope: For BEA, we are introducing Battling Boy to the book community...we are presenting the book to the world of book buyers and sellers, the people who will make the book available to people outside of our world of comics. To further link comics to books and reading...
Nrama: Your past superhero stories, such as Batman: Year 100, your SOLO issue, etc. really play with the tropes of superhero stories, such as the violence, the physicality, etc.
You talk about Battling Boy the character representing a change over from the type of superhero Haggard West represents – what sort of transition do you envision between those characters, and what tropes of superhero stories are you playing with there?
Pope: Well, inherent in the name “Haggard West” is sort of a description of the character – he’s a sort of Western hero archetype, and he’s tired. In fact, I was kind of surprised – I thought revealing that he was going to die was a spoiler, that it was revealing the key engine to the story of Battling Boy. Other, wiser heads prevailed. It’s strange.
In the case of Battling Boy, I thought it would be really cool to do something about a kid superhero defending himself against killers. You know, kids know when they’re being pandered to, with happy endings and the wizard waving his wand and everything’s fine, flowers are growing out of the ground again. Kids know that that rings as a hollow solution to the problem of conflict in the world.
As a kid, I loved Peter Pan, but I always wondered why he didn’t just throw Captain Hook to the crocodile and take Tiger Lily and split, y’know? That’s what I would have done.
Nrama: So do you see Battling Boy as a new type of superhero?
Pope: It’s not so much that he’s a new type of superhero as he is a new superhero. He’s a kid, and he doesn’t know how to be a hero. You know, as a kid you understand that heroes know everything – they know what to do in a bad situation, they know how to fight, how to do martial arts, how to fly, they have impervious armor, that kind of thing.
So I thought it would be great to have a kid who could potentially be Superman, but he just doesn’t know how to unlock that. I thought that would be very appealing to a young audience.
It’s a marketing decision, to consider Battling Boy as a middle grade graphic novel. Re-reading it now, I’m thinking, “This is the kind of book I’d want to read as an adult – if I were looking at the shelf, this is the kind of book I’d want to find.”
But I’m also thinking hopefully it’s the kind of book a kid would want to read. If I were 10 years old, I would probably think it was super-cool, like the way you’d look at the Dune or Narnia books when you were a kid. The hero of the story is the same age as you.
Nrama: Teen heroes have had a big presence in comics since Spider-Man, with the idea of superpowers being a metaphor for adolescence – going through changes you can’t control, and having all this potential that you don’t know how to use.
Pope: Yeah. I feel like X-Men: First Class really got into that as well. That’s a really good teen superhero film to me. But yeah, the thing I’m hearing from First Second is that they want to get this book in schools and the library system. And that’s cool, because not every kid can go to a comic shop, or has $20 or parents who’ll buy it for them.
Young people are reading graphic novels. They might not be picking up Jane Eyre, but a graphic novel is a great gateway into literature. The roots of comics are always going to be the likes of comic shops and conventions, but having the book be available for young readers in libraries, in bookstores, is very cool.
Nrama: What would you say is the appropriate age, in your opinion, for someone to be reading Battling Boy?
Pope: It’s geared for ages 8 and older. I mean, this is a discussion we had early on – when I sat down with my editor Mark Siegel, and we looked at the story, I said, “Okay, this isn’t going to be subversive. I’m not going to suddenly become the narrator and write myself into the story, and there’s not going to be drugs and nudity.” In that sense, it’s PG-13.
Nrama: Well, it’s like South Park said: “Horrific, Deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words!”
Pope: Yeah, exactly, there’s no swearing. But I think the best thing my editor said to me was, “Let’s just make this book, and then figure out who it’s for.” I think if you go into a project thinking it’s going to be a kid’s book, there’s a danger of worrying that it’ll be too pedantic or too patronizing. Kids can tell that, when something’s pandering to them.
So I just tried to make Battling Boy really kickass. It’s all the things I want to read – alien worlds, and massive creatures, and spaceships and laser guns and all that kinds of stuff. And I threw in lots of buildings crumbling – it basically takes place in a war zone, so there’ll be these buildings half-destroyed and you can see into them, with the apartment rooms with the flowered wallpaper, a kitchen table with a tea pot on it.
Nrama: It sounds sort of like Akira, this massive devastation –
Pope: Yeah. You know, the manga, where they blow up Neo-Tokyo and there’s just page after page of buildings collapsing. That job would have driven me nuts. It’s not that obsessive, but about half the book is one fight scene.
It just goes on and on, and more beings get involve, and it switches perspectives, and it’s just like the one big giant fight scene that Jack Kirby never got to do. You know, like the fight with Orion and Terrible Turpin (in the original New Gods series), but here it just goes on, like, eight times as long.
Nrama: There’s still long fights in comics these days, but the brutality of it is often played in a sort of torture-porn style – there’s not a lot of classic fight scenes like you described.
Pope: When I read a lot of mainstream comics, it’s sort of like pop music, where you can hear the structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, coda – it’s like the same song formula again and again. But you get tired of pop music.
Battling Boy is like a 400-page story across two books – it might wind up being more than 400 pages – and I view it more like a concept album, there’s dynamic peaks and valleys. The fight scenes are orchestrated – the one in book one is like half the book.
Of course, it’s important for the story, but on a sensory level, it’s designed to be overwhelming.
That’s what I love about the manga I’m really into – it’s happening moment to moment. In one of my favorite manga — Egawa Tetsuya’s Tokyo University Story – you’ll have like a kid on a bicycle chasing some girl, and it goes on for like 50 pages. As you read it, you really feel like you’re the kid on the bicycle chasing the girl. Or a ping-pong sequence that goes on for like 200 pages – it feels like a real game of ping-pong, but it’s not boring, it’s thrilling.
Nrama: But I get the sense you have much more than ping-pong going on in this one.
Pope: Oh yeah, yeah.
Nrama: Have you started on the next book yet, or have you even had time?
Pope: Yeah, I’m working on Book 2 right now. The whole story is written. I’m back chained to the drawing table for book two.
It’s going to change as I’m working on it, I’m sure, but I’m working out story points and thumbnails scene to scene, which I’d stopped doing after Batman: Year 100. Working to make sure the story is tight and that it makes sense. The story’s written out already, now it’s just making it. You don’t want a giant amount of time to go by before the next book comes out, and I don’t want that either.
Nrama: But it sounds like overall you’re very inspired by working on so much at once.
Pope: Oh, definitely. Variety and challenges. The people that I have met in film – there’s the cliché of the oily producer, but the people I’ve met for the most part are extremely intelligent, creative, adaptive, and pretty cool.
They don’t come from the culture of comics like we do, so they tend to see comics more as needing to fit that Robert McKee three-act structure. They have a way of translating things into film that is very different from how we grew up reading those adventures.
Nrama: Did that affect how you structured the graphic novel?
Pope: The three-act thing is, again like that verse, chorus, verse, chorus thing I was talking about in pop structure that I don’t like, I feel it’s too obvious, and the book doesn’t really follow that. Defining formula can be pestilent. The book doesn’t have that constraint.
Nrama: And how do you relate personally to the character of Battling Boy?
Pope: He’s kind of an amalgamation of myself and my older nephew, who’s almost 18 now. So when I need Battling Boy to have a genuine reaction to something, or what kind of gesture he might make, I think of my nephew when he was 12 or 13. In that way, you have a three-dimensional model in your head, a character you can give three-dimensional form.
I was a more timid kid than Battling Boy. He becomes more aggressive and courageous throughout the story, but he’s a kid, he doesn’t know what he’s up against, while Haggard does, he’s at war. You know, I don’t know why Batman doesn’t kill the Joker instead of just putting him in jail again – it’s kind of a farce. And that’s the difference with the characters, one understands the struggle, and one doesn’t.
Nrama: How many books is this going to be in total, two or three…?
Pope: There are two books planned for Battling Boy.
Nrama: And I’m curious as to whether you’re working with a colorist on this book.
Pope: There’s a whole team that First Second has working on their books, Skyblue, run by Hilary Sycamore. She’s English but lives in Alabama, and has a whole studio, and they’ve been working with me on this.
Hilary and I will sit down and have a long conversation about art direction for a specific scene; she loves Moebius and Miyazaki, and other stuff like I do, and she’s actually gone back to earlier pages and recolored them based on the work we’ve done on later pages. It’s pretty interesting.
Nrama: How do you view Battling Boy in terms of your overall oeuvre? Of all the comics you’ve done, what does this mean to you personally?
Pope: Well, I always said when I published THB – I love Nick Cave, and when he was 24, he did an album called Junkyard, and when I did THB’s first issue I was 24, and I wanted it to be Junkyard, that kind of very heavy, caterwauling, disjointed rock’n’roll.
With Battling Boy, it’s a more mature work. So if you want to make an anthology in his career, though this isn’t a timeline match-up, it’s more of a powerful, mature album. It has an ebb and flow. It’s a mature work, a mid-career work maybe – knock on wood.
Nrama: You mentioned THB, and because you’ve got Battling Boy out, I have to ask – any plans for THB, such as a conclusion or comprehensive collection?
Pope: Yeah, we actually sat down and took a look at THB, and the exciting thing is that quite a lot of it is already finished. We hope that we’ll be able to jump from the serialization of Battling Boy straight to THB.
Nrama: So it sounds like it’s going to be a pretty big couple of years for fans of your work.
Pope: I’m pretty much married to First Second now. It’s taken a long time to set this all up. We’ve got multiple books in the works. The only unfortunate thing is that it’s not serialized in comics, which is something I really miss.
Craig Thompson came to visit me while he was about to begin Habibi, and he was telling me, “This is going to take me like four years to finish, it’s a huge project.” I realized Battling Boy would be the same thing.
I was recently thinking about what it would be like to put out Battling Boy monthly, and get feedback, and see how people respond to things, you know like with the X-Men and how the relationship between Kitty Pryde and Colossus is developing. It’s different from waiting for the next book from a novelist.
That’s the only drawback to this structure. The good part is that when the book’s out on October 8, it’s all out. It exists. And unlike the serialized comics, Battling Boy does have an ending.
Battling Boy: The Death of Haggard Westis out this July, with the full Battling Boy GN out from First Second on October 8. Keep reading Newsarama for a discussion with Pope on the story of Battling Boy when that book is out – along with a look at a Secret New Project that will be announced soon!