PAUL POPE on HEAVY LIQUID’s Return, Updates on BATTLING BOY 2 and More

Paul Pope
Credit: Paul Pope
Credit: Paul Pope (Image Comics)

New Paul Pope work has been hard to come by on comic book shelves in recent months, but that is changing with a remastered edition of Heavy Liquid out this week from Image Comics an an illustrated book collecting Algernon Blackwood's horror stories titled The Willows from Beehive Books.

Pope, who has largely withdrawn from doing interview in recent years, spoke with Newsarama about these two new projects, outside commercial art projects, his life as an artist, and an update on the next imstallment of his Battling Boy series from First Second

Newsarama: Paul, you mentioned to me just before the interview started that it’s been a while since you’ve had some work out, and that you’ve been highly involved in “remastering” Heavy Liquid for the reprint. So, I’m curious about what that involved, and how the new edition came about.

Paul Pope: Heavy Liquid is 20 years old, believe it or not! So, we got to go in and fine-tune the color palette a little bit, make it a little closer to what I wanted it to be at the beginning, and it’s pretty neat, because we have an extra 16 pages of material that’s in full color.

Credit: Paul Pope (Image Comics)

The story reprints in a color that’s a very specific blue and red - I wanted to create something that captured the feel of a poisonous urban environment. For the color section, those are the same colors that are used, so the whole full-color palette is tinted towards this very rich, sort of French-looking set of red and blue.

Nrama: Is that like some of those older French comics like the original Barbarella…?

Pope: It’s actually closer to what David Mazzucchelli was doing on Rubber Blanket, in terms of two colors, and also what Osamu Tezuka was doing with Astro Boy. When I wrote the story for Heavy Liquid, I was living in Tokyo and reading a lot of manga, and they do a lot of really cool stuff with limited palette. And I knew I wanted the book’s look to be something special, not just like a “regular” comic – something where the colors reflected an aesthetic choice.

And that kind of fits the theme of the book, which is this kind of pseudo drug addiction story, combined with this heist/noir story. So, I wanted to do something a little retro.

Nrama: What have been some of the challenges in getting the colors the way you want them in the different editions of the story?

Credit: Paul Pope (Image Comics)

Pope: Well, one of the problems with experimental coloring is that you don’t know how it’s going to look until you see it in print. So, with Heavy Liquid has now been through…I think three separate editions in the United States including the comic, and has five or so versions overseas.

The cool thing is at if this version sells well, we can some back and do an Absolute-type edition, but for now, this is an affordable softcover reprint with extra material, I’ve art-directed it, there’s a great team behind it, and I think it’s gonna be a cool-looking book.

Nrama: Have any of the innovations in coloring since the book was first published played a role in how you’ve updated it?

Pope: It’s funny you ask that, because when I was first breaking into comics, I was working in a commercial printing shop. So, I learned a lot about commercial pre-production for menus and clothing catalogs and of course THB, which I was doing at night.

The printing technology hasn’t changed so much as the software. So, in pre-production for this book – in the early days, everything was shot on camera, working from film negatives. All the coloring was done by myself, by hand, with Pantone markers. Lee Loughridge was the digital colorist, so he went in and interpreted the color palette I’d created with marker sketches.

Credit: Paul Pope (Image Comics)

So, there’s definitely been a lot of changes, in terms of technology – in this case, we wanted to put everything into the book, including pencils. The book’s been out of print for a while too, so I think it’s been time for a new edition.

Nrama: I understand it’s a wider format as well…

Pope: We did a little bit of tinkering, yeah, but this edition does follow the comic book format – that’s what retailers say they want right now. If we come back with the Absolute, we’ll be able to take it even further out, but this one follows the comic book format. We’ll see how it sells. The book’s currently out of print; there’s a whole generation who’s never read Heavy Liquid, so this is a chance to get it back into stores in an affordable format and introduce it to a new audience.

Nrama: That’s interesting, experimenting with the different sizes and formats, because that’s not done in the U.S. that much. For example, many European albums are shrunken down, and there’s a number of books that are written for being read on a phone.

Pope: Yeah. Really, for format, you talk about different delivery systems – really, what I was doing with THB and what the Absolute editions are doing, that’s my ideal format for comics. It’s what Marvel did with the Treasury editions in the 1970s. Comics just look better if they’re 13 inches tall, in my opinion.

Credit: Paul Pope (Image Comics)

With Battling Boy, that’s in a library format because the idea is to keep it as a perennial in libraries and bookstores. We’re finally talking about expanding the format into something larger, which is great. I’m working on the second Battling Boy book right now; the book should be finished by the end of this season.

At this stage in the game, with a number of books behind me and new ones coming out, I have a responsibility to be the custodian of the backlist – to make sure I partner with people who can get the books out, make sure they look good, make sure they’re affordable, that they’re accessible.

So, I’m working on different avenues. If I created something for comiXology or to be read on a phone, that would affect the way I’d format the page. It’s a different way to perceive the comics, and the flow of the story.

Credit: Paul Pope (:01 First Second)

Nrama: Some people write comic books that premiere online but will be reprinted in hard-copy to be arranged so that a single page is like two mini-pages.

Pope: If you look at the format that First Second uses, that size is perfectly fine if you’re doing a comic that’s two or three panels a page. In retrospect, I would probably have done Battling Boy differently if I’d thought about that. But I work in a very traditional format – I do things that are based in the tradition of Moebius and Tezuka and Jack Kirby.

I do very old-school comic books. But, I think with different formats, there’s different ways to approach page layout and storytelling format, and I think that’s a very exciting frontier for cartoonists.

And certainly, we could go through a list of cartoonists who are excellent examples – Ronald Wimberly’s done some great work with page layouts that work with the swipe of the screen, very innovative. From my side of the fence, Sam Hiti was doing something similar with Death-Day in posting it online.

Because of the nature of Battling Boy, I’m not reading a lot of new comics – I’m mainly looking backwards to Kirby, Moebius, Joseph Campbell for research. I’m amassing tons of new comics, I’m always discovering great new artists, and they’re very exciting, but I’m very behind because there’s a ton of things I’m working on in different levels – not just writing and drawing, but behind-the-scenes in film, and on the publishing side, that aren’t ready to be announced yet.

I feel like later this year, there’s going to be a lot more news coming out – I’m still involved in comics, and making them, and been on social media a bit, but a lot of work is still behind the scenes.

Credit: Paul Pope (Diesel)

Nrama: You’ve been doing more with art and commissions – Felix Comics Art just announced that the work of yours they put online earlier in the week had already sold out.

Pope: They’re a game changer. I write and draw, I do private commissions, I do art direction, I work in film and fashion, but when you’re freelance, you never have an idea where the money’s going to come from but you have to produce content. People wonder what keeps Battling Boy from coming out, but I’m working on many, many things beyond it.

Nrama: I hear that. Last couple years, was doing graduate school and getting into college teaching, and writing’s been very difficult to do when you get home…

Pope: You want to relax! When you’re in your twenties, it seemed reasonable to work 100 hours a week, sacrifice your social life, your home life…but as you get older, you learn you have to balance things.

Credit: Paul Pope (Beehive Books)

Nrama: It gets easier to stay with it once you start it, but you have to overcome that anxiety about it. I was just doing the cold shower challenge –

Pope: I keep hearing about that from people! I started doing a rowing class, so I’ve been going to the gym three times a week, and that helps your strength, it helps you sleep, it helps your focus, your stamina. When you get to 40, it becomes a bit of a war where you have to condition yourself to maintain the level of power you had when you were younger.

So, my diet’s a lot better – I made a lot of lifestyle changes. I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, that kind of thing. Just being able to remain focused, remain positive, that’s the really important thing.

Credit: Paul Pope (Beehive Books)

Nrama: You have a few other projects coming out, including the illustrated version of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows

Pope: I’ve been working with Beehive Books, who is a relatively new publisher, who does high-end, illustrated versions of classics – Bill Sienkiewicz is doing H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Yuko Shimizu is doing Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.

When they contacted me, they asked me if I wanted to do an H.P. Lovecraft book. Now, I love Lovecraft, but I feel like he’s been done so many times, so I said, “How about we do this other author, Algernon Blackwood, who’s relatively unknown but has been an influence on everyone from Neil Gaiman to Lovecraft himself?”

The kind of supernatural fiction Blackwood writes is more psychological – there’s no big boogeyman, it’s more of a sense of something terrifying, something wrong with the world or your soul. So, that made it a fun challenge to illustrate.

I always wanted to do an illustrated novel. Growing up, I always had illustrated copies of classic books, so when I read Moby-Dick, I had the version with all the Rockwell Kent illustrations, for example. That was always part of my culture growing up. So, when Beehive called me up, I was very excited they were willing to let me illustrate this relatively unknown horror writer.

I read up on the stories – I read a lot of the annotated stuff surrounding the stories, to help with the historical context, the settings, because Blackwood doesn’t have a lot of physical description in his stories. I just tried to, in the truest sense of the word, like N.C. Wyeth did with Treasure Island and other classics, focus the key moments of the story through one particular image.

I think there were a total of 15 or so pieces, not counting the great design Maëlle Doliveux did, that I did, including the cover. The color was done by this amazing colorist in Egypt, who’s from Kuwait, named Omar F. Abdullah, and he has a really good digital painting style that I thought was perfect for these stories. Hopefully, the book provokes an unsettling and abstract sense of nature.

Credit: Paul Pope (Beehive Books)

Nrama: I read “The Willows” short story a while back in an anthology, The Horror Hall of Fame

Pope: I have that book! I reread it for inspiration sometimes.

Nrama: It operates on this thing I’ve been reading about for a while, the Theory of the Sublime, the concept of something bigger that’s just outside your perception or understanding –

Credit: Paul Pope/Mike Spicer (Image Comics/Skybound Entertainment)

Pope: Exactly. I feel like the term “sublime” gets misused a lot, but that’s truly what the book’s about – this sense of seeing something larger than the human scale, and having a sense of awe, grandeur and terror when you see it. It’s like what I would imagine seeing a black hole would be like.

Blackwood was really a master of pastoral fiction – he’s up there on the level of Tolstoy or Jack London in his description of nature and animals. I love his writing. He has the same problem as Lovecraft with some of his work – it can be racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, there’s one called “The Wendigo” that’s amazing but we didn’t include because it’s basically unpublishable by today’s standards – and you don’t want things to be “canceled,” a term I hate. But I think it’s important for this work to be seen, and for it to be understood in context.

It’s fun to work on things outside of comics, and I was really happy to work on this project.

Nrama: And you have a few pieces in the Society of Illustrators' "Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture" exhibition…

Pope: It’s a great collection – Neal Adams and Frank Miller, and I’ve got three pieces in there – there’s the Joker cover for Dark Knight III, and a page from Batman: Year 100, along with an early character design for Batman 100, which belongs to Chip Kidd. It’s an amazing thing to be part of this history.

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