“Battling Boy,” by alternative comics creator Paul Pope, follows the self-dubbed Battling Boy, the son of a warrior god sent to save a city under siege by deadly monsters.
The young hero arrives in Arcopolis with a magic credit card, a book called “The Encyclopedia Monstrosity,” and a dozen enchanted T-shirts, each bearing a different animal totem, which allow him to become clever as a fox, strong as a Tyrannosaurus rex, powerful as a gryphon, etc. Meanwhile in Arcopolis, a girl named Aurora mourns the death of her father, the city’s jetpack-wearing hero Haggard West, and makes plans to take up his quest.
“Battling Boy,” out this week from First Second Books, is filled with secret science laboratories, sci-fi ray-blasters, bandage-wrapped monsters and plenty of beast-bashing action. For Pope, the project is a mash-up of everything he loved as a child.
Pope, whose previous work includes “The One Trick Rip-Off,” “Heavy Liquid,” “100%” and the Eisner-winning “Batman Year 100,” is perhaps best known for his manga comics for the Japanese publisher Kodansha, which he created while living in Tokyo. His comics are heavily inspired by his mentor, French comics icon Moebius, and the work of Jack Kirby.
Hero Complex caught up with Pope to talk about the inspiration behind “Battling Boy.”
HC: How did “Battling Boy” get started? How did you dream up this project?
PP: After writing and drawing stories for Marvel and DC Comics using established, classic, familiar characters, and having worked and lived in Japan making manga before that, I started thinking about creating a new superhero who is still a kid, and to aim the book toward kids, while still keeping the story intense and cool enough for adults. I felt like there aren’t enough cool, new, intelligent superhero comics for kids, and I wanted to get into that ring and give it the feeling of a mash-up of classic superhero comics and manga. At the time I had adolescent nephews, and I knew most of the work I had done was too adult for them. I wanted to make something they could read and enjoy.
HC: Did you draw from Greek or Norse or any other existing mythology for Battling Boy’s godly origins?
PP: For sure the Norse and Greek myths are apparent, because they are pretty well-known to everybody, and therefore useful in terms of cues and symbols. But I also tried to draw upon other world mythological sources, as well as comics influences from Japan and Europe. I basically threw everything into the mix. At the time I was looking at a lot of old Heavy Metal magazines, which featured a lot of French and Italian adult-oriented comics, and old Marvel and DC Silver Age comics, which are quite fun and sort of innocent. And I was getting into Carl Jung, who writes a lot about dream interpretation and the mythic meaning of symbols in various world cultures, ancient to modern.
HC: What about the monsters? They seem to be part-kaiju, part-demon. How did you go about developing Sadisto and the other monsters in the book?
PP: Since I was trying to invent a kid superhero story with science fiction elements, I tried to go back in my memory and channel the feeling of excitement I had for all the stuff I loved as a kid. I loved “Godzilla” and “The Mummy” with Boris Karloff (an inspiration for Sadisto) and all these ’60s and ’70s comic books, as well as films like “Star Wars” and “Mad Max.” I just tried to throw into the story as much and whatever I could remember being into as a kid, whether film or comics or cartoons or fairy tales.
HC: Arcopolis is a fun blend of old and new. Can you talk a little about developing this retro/modern setting for the story?
PP: For Arcopolis (an obvious inversion of the word “Acropolis” — “high city” in Greek), I was trying to set the tale in a new metropolis, someplace where we haven’t seen Spider-Man or Batman or the Avengers battle bad guys. Also, I wanted to find a way to give the book some feeling of the old-school Disney films, where in those fairy-tale stories, everybody is aware monsters and talking animals exist. Like in the “Sleeping Beauty” film, everybody knows an evil Queen turns into a giant fire-breathing dragon, and we as readers or viewers can accept that as plausible. I wanted Arcopolis to seem like a city under a siege, and that made me think of Dresden or London during WW2.
HC: The T-shirts as personas/weapons is a really fun idea. What inspired it? How did you choose the animals for the T-shirts and their associated powers?
PP: Honestly, I dunno where that idea came from. I knew my nephews would think it was cool, since they really loved T-shirts with cool graphics, and I wanted to put a bunch of animals and monsters in the book. Battling Boy doesn’t fight supervillains, he fights monsters, who seem like supervillains, and I knew he needed some sort of “magic weapon.” I struggled over dozens of animal candidates, trying to find the right balance of powerful and less-than-powerful animals.
HC: You play with the idea of publicity and politics interfering with heroism. Is that a theme you wanted to explore?
PP: Yes, for sure. Kids know they are subject to manipulation and that sometimes adults lie or do things for ulterior motives. One rule I had for this book is I wouldn’t do anything to pander to a false sense that everything will be instantly OK if you just get rid of the giant fire-breathing dragon or you put the bad guy in jail. I tried to add a bit of commentary on the phenomenon and interest in our culture regarding child celebrity, which is often really damaging for the child.
HC: Both of your heroes, Battling Boy and Aurora, are more or less children. Why do children make such compelling warrior protagonists?
PP: Good question. I think it’s because they are young, and therefore these are characters going through big things for the first time, they have a sort of innocence and inventiveness and lack of guile. They represent potential, since they are untested.
HC: Aurora is a terrific heroine, with her dad’s secret science lair and her tough mentor. She and her dad remind me a bit of “The Rocketeer.” Will she play a larger role in the next book?
PP: For sure. I have been calling Aurora the “stealth” hero of the book, since we held off on revealing her for as long as possible. I wanted a strong girl hero in the book. She is the Battling Girl, in a sense. I don’t have a niece, but I know girls would like to see a strong girl hero to contrast with Battling Boy. Both are dealing with the absence of parents in the book, and both have huge burdens of responsibility which they are dealing with.
HC: Speaking of the next book, I’m assuming there’s going to be one?
PP: Yeah, I’m working on “BB2” now.
HC: How do you envision the story unfolding? Do you have an end in mind, or are you just seeing where the characters and the world take you?
PP: “Battling Boy” is two books, one huge 400-something page story, spread out over two books. It’s completely written out as a script, and now I’m just slogging away at finishing Book 2 as soon as I can.
HC: Can you tell us a little about your process? Do you write first, then draw?
PP: Yes, I wrote out a complete plot outline and it has a very clear story to tell. From there, I work out dialogue and action points, then do thumbnails and go to pencils and inks. I try to do a page a day in the studio, using a weekly thumbnail list of about seven pages at a time, which seems about right for this project (some projects or pages are faster or slower). I study classic Disney animation process, which was very efficient and effective, and since I work alone, I need to be disciplined.
HC: Anything else you’re working on? Anything else you’d like to add?
PP: I do a few comic book covers or silkscreen posters, but mostly all of my energy is going into finishing the second “Battling Boy” book so we can get it out there. Excited for the second book, which is darker and answers a lot of the questions the first book asks. Battling Boy doesn’t arrive until about 50 pages into the story, but Book 2 deals with a lot of his hero’s journey and his uneasy alliance with Aurora.
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