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Cue the “Paul Pope’s art is ugly” comments!
I’m not ashamed to admit when I’m wrong. I’m wrong a lot, so this is a fine quality to have, else I would be ranting out of my ass quite a bit. I’m not sure when I decided I didn’t like Paul Pope, but I always thought his art was, indeed, ugly. It certainly wasn’t terrible, but I just didn’t like it. Plus, from the few things I had read about Pope’s work, it sounded like his writing was full of the kinds of characters that annoy me – hipster doofuses, to steal a term from Seinfeld. Even after Our Dread Lord and Master showed samples of his work and I started to like more variety of art and I enjoyed his short story in Strange Tales, I still thought I didn’t like Paul Pope. Then DC, in its infinite wisdom of randomly collecting things in trade paperback, threw a dart at the wall and it landed on this seven-year-old mini-series. “Let’s collect this!” said the wise men and women of DC. And yea, I decided that if ever I was going to like Paul Pope, I must purchase this and let the Paul Pope-ness in its purest, undiluted form wash over me. And yea, the trade paperback arrived not too long ago, and yea, I did read it.
And not unlike a recent convert to, say, Republicanism, I come now to fervently preach the Gospel of Pope. Dang, this is a cool comic. Pope sets it in 2038, so technically it’s a science fiction story, but all that time does is allow him to draw flying cars and take exotic dancing to a new level. Basically, this is a story set in Manhattan, starring several characters you would expect to find in the village and in other trendy neighborhoods of the city (I don’t pay much attention to the hip Manhattan neighborhoods, so fill in your own here if you do). Pope doesn’t do much with the fact that this is set in the future, but that’s okay.
Pope follows six principal characters, all of whom know each other in some fashion and who are linked through the strip club that’s at the center of the book. Strel manages the dancers, and she’s good friends with Kim, who tends bar at the club. John, a busboy at the club, meets Daisy, a new dancer, and is instantly smitten with her. Strel’s ex, Haitous, is a fighter (of what looks like MMA), who returns to New York after a year away, trying to get back together with Strel and their son. Strel’s cousin, Eloy, wants funding for an art project he’s working on. Pope tracks these characters for a while as they interact and experience big things in their lives. Strel wants nothing to do with Haitous, because she thinks his career is terrible, but he wants her back so badly that he’s willing to give up fighting – after one more fight that promises a big payout (and no, Pope doesn’t go the clichéd route about “one last fight,” which is nice). Kim is freaked out by a murder in the back of the club at the beginning of the book and buys a gun for protection. She ends up taking a great deal of interest in Eloy, who struggles with the age-old conflict between having artistic integrity and compromising a bit in order to get some money to continue. Daisy has no interest in getting involved with John, but he eventually breaks down her barriers and the two have a torrid affair. Pope does a nice job telling three different love stories with different courses without making them too similar and therefore boring.
Not everything works out, of course. Strel keeps pushing Haitous away, even after he shows that he’s changed. Kim and Eloy argue over whether he should compromise his vision. For me, the best story is that of John and Daisy. He’s awkward around her, making silly mistakes (like keeping her bikini briefs after she forgets them one night and then leaving them where she can find them, which makes her think he’s kind of creepy) but still endearing himself to her. On their first date, he tells her the story of Tristan and Iseult, and then she twists the story so it’s much, much darker. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, but Pope cleverly undercuts it quickly – she refuses to admit if the story happened to her or not. Their affair is intense but doomed, and Pope does a wonderful job showing how it’s doomed not because they don’t love each other, but because it’s just not meant to be. The strip club where she works is the latest in pornographic technology – it allows patrons to see inside the dancer, to see her internal organs as she gyrates. This becomes a metaphor later in the book, as Daisy can’t understand why John can see her differently – she believes showing everything inside her on stage means there’s nothing left of her for anyone else. We keep hoping John can change her, but we know he won’t. Pope does a nice job paralleling the three stories – Daisy can’t change, but that doesn’t mean nobody else can. Haitous and Strel discover something new about their relationship, while Kim gives Eloy the strength he needs. This is why having three couples works so well for this book – we can get many facets of relationships without one couple bearing them all and stretching our credulity. Unlike many movie romantic comedies, Pope gives these characters real problems and therefore their triumphs and failures are all the more poignant. Yes, in some ways the relationships play out in broad strokes – it’s almost impossible to do everything Pope wants to do in five issues without some stereotyping – but where it counts, Pope gives us wonderful characters in difficult situations making hard choices. Pope’s writing isn’t perfect – he uses thought balloons at very weird times and they add very little to the narrative. Some of his narration boxes are strange, too – some he uses as thought balloons (making his use of actual thought balloons all the more unusual), but others he uses as an omniscient narrator, telling us what the characters are thinking when we don’t really need it. “It all sounds a little off to Kim, as though he’s cobbled it together from a bunch of old text books,” for instance. “New York’s not such a bad old place. Maybe this would be a good place to make a real home. She smiles to herself, and the little girl in her comes out, just for a moment, while no one can see.” Narration like that is better expressed through the art and maybe – maybe – a thought balloon or snippet of dialogue. That second quote is about Daisy, and we get most of it from her story of “Tristan” and “Iseult.” There’s no reason for it, and Pope’s insistence on these overly-written passages take us a bit out of the story. It’s a minor complaint, though, highlighted by the fact that so much of the book is well done.
Pope’s art is what makes the book so stunning, though. I’m not sure why I decided it was “ugly” except for thinking that it’s not something I’m used to. I look at the art in this book and can’t imagine that 8 years ago I thought it was ugly. Maybe 20 years ago, when I loved McFarlane’s art, but in this decade? Wow. It’s certainly sprawling and messy, but that only adds to its beauty. Pope’s characters aren’t classic beauties, but what he does is make them look like people, so that when they experience something like a flush of love, we see them transform into something beautiful. This works in reverse, too – when Daisy paints her face to go on stage, she transforms from an attractive young lady into a garish clown, which makes her transformation back all the more impressive. Toward the end of the book, when she’s angry about feeling the way she does about John, she’s definitely ugly, but that’s the point. She has been broken down, and her fear twists her face. Pope does a wonderful job alternating between her “ugly” face and her “scared” face (which isn’t ugly at all) – he’s showing how conflicted she is, and doing it not only through the slightly heavy-handed narration but through the art, which is much more effective. The fact that these people don’t look like fashion models makes their mood shifts even more amazing. Late in the book, when Kim realizes how she feels about Eloy, she’s a vulnerable young lady. A page later, she’s angry about Eloy having to compromise to get his money, and her face reflects that. It’s not ugly, it’s natural. Pope does this throughout the book, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Pope’s art might be considered “ugly” because of the settings he uses. His futuristic Manhattan is very similar to today’s big cities, in that it’s often dirty and messy, and Pope shows all of this. He places his story in a very specific place, so we don’t get the sanitized versions of many places that we see in comics. In more generic superhero books, the focus is on the action, so artists tend to skimp on the misc-en-scene. Pope takes his time creating this burgeoning world of people and places, and his eye for detail is incredible. He gives us the teeming masses of humanity in all its ugly/beautiful glory, and it’s breathtaking just looking at his panels, even if we ignore the stars of the comic. There are some haunting images in this comic – Daisy setting herself on fire (it’s all part of her act), Eloy’s “symphony” playing, the virtual reality that surrounds John and Daisy on their date, the brutal fight between Haitous and his opponent. It’s a gorgeous comic book that invites you to gaze at each panel, soaking in the wonder.
So. Yeah. I was wrong about Pope. I still don’t know why I thought I wouldn’t like his stuff. Okay, the characters in this book are what you might call hipster doofuses, living in lower Manhattan and talking about art all the time, but Pope makes us care about every single one of them. He takes his time with each story, drawing us into each character’s drama without giving too much away, letting their stories unfold naturally. 100% is a tremendous comic, a bit better looking than written, but the problems with the writing are so slight it doesn’t matter. It’s very cool that DC brought it out in a handy trade paperback. Go and seek it out. Become a convert!
(Oh, by the way: this is a Vertigo book and it comes with a sticker price of $29.99. It’s lettered very, very well by John Workman – no surprise there – and the gray tones are by Pope and Lee Loughridge. I wouldn’t want to skimp on the credits!)
Tomorrow: Groovy stuff, man!
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