Paul Pope thrilled by response to ‘Battling Boy’; introduces ‘Aurora West’

Oct. 03, 2014 | 11:16 a.m.
aurora west cover Paul Pope thrilled by response to Battling Boy; introduces Aurora West

The cover for the graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West," by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

aurora west page 1 Paul Pope thrilled by response to Battling Boy; introduces Aurora West

Page 1 of the graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West," by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

aurora west page 2 Paul Pope thrilled by response to Battling Boy; introduces Aurora West

Page 2 of the graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West," by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

Few new properties have landed with the immense impact of Paul Pope’s “Battling Boy,” the vibrant, exhilarating 2013 graphic novel that introduced readers to the son of a god, the daughter of a superhero, and the rich fantasy world they inhabit.

Combining the best elements of ancient mythology, pulp science fiction, Japanese manga and American superhero comics, Pope created a multifaceted narrative with true all-ages appeal, moving away from the gritty maturity of his earlier work and embracing a more youthful, fun-loving approach to comics storytelling. The transition proved to be a major success, earning Pope an Eisner Award this year for “Best Comic for Teens” and making “Battling Boy” the foundation for a larger line of titles from Pope and publisher First Second.

“I’m reactionary in the sense that I see voids,” Pope said. “I felt like, editorially, a book like ‘Battling Boy’ doesn’t exist right now. A really strong high adventure, science fiction fantasy book for young people that doesn’t pull any punches. It respects the age group, but it doesn’t pander to them. Luckily, when I was able to meet my editor Mark Siegel, the parent company MacMillan was already in a position where they were financing graphic novels, so they were able to perceive something like ‘Battling Boy’ in the same way that a publisher would approach ‘Harry Potter.’ It was just a really good match.”

Comic creator Paul Pope. (First Second)

Comic creator Paul Pope. (First Second)

Pope returns to his sprawling story with this month’s “The Rise of Aurora West,” a black-and-white graphic novel prequel to “Battling Boy” spotlighting Aurora West, the resourceful teen daughter of pulp-inspired hero Haggard West. Teaming with co-writer JT Petty and artist David Rubin, Pope considerably expands on the mythos of his fictional world in the new title, and firmly situates Aurora West as the central character of the “Battling Boy” epic.

Knowing that he would need assistance to manage both “The Rise of Aurora West” and the second volume of “Battling Boy,” Pope brought on Petty as co-writer and worked out a script over the course of three months. To maintain the European influence of “Battling Boy” in the prequel, Pope sought out the talents of David Rubin, a Spanish film director, animator and comics artist with the speed needed to get the two volumes of “Aurora West” out before the conclusion of “Battling Boy.”

“I was able to pick the artist I wanted, and I knew somehow I wanted a Spanish artist,” Pope said. “For all the different regional and national styles and stars, I feel like the Spanish haven’t really been represented as much in the States and in English-speaking comics as I would like. There are so many talents over there.” Those international influences on “Battling Boy” and “Aurora West” set them apart from typical American superhero stories, showing an admiration for different cultures that brings depth to the material.

“There are already plenty of comic books that have already established a vernacular for how superheroes work, and every kid knows Spider-Man,” Pope said. “Batman’s 75 years old now. And that’s all cool, but I wanted to make a new superhero. Something that uses a more mythological base rather than the tropes of the superhero that we all know. That was my interest, trying to find the most primal stuff I could think of for children’s needs. What do kids think about? What are they afraid of? What would they think is cool about being a superhero?”

In order to answer these questions, Pope looked into his own past.

Page 1 of the graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West," by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

Page 1 of the graphic novel “The Rise of Aurora West,” by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

“I have a little sister, and we were latchkey kids,” Pope said. “We had a lot of time to ourselves, and I just had this visceral memory of what it felt like to be kind of independent at a very young age. Having to make sure she and I got home safely, and a lot of times I’d make sure that she’s fed. It’s not like a sob story, it’s more just looking back and I think kids can pretty much take care of themselves, but they live in a world where adults don’t always have the best intentions for kids, and they’re physically bigger and stronger. I remember being scared a lot as a kid. Being aware of all kinds of bad stuff. Kidnapping and whatever. That memory is pretty universal. Kids everywhere have a sense.”

Thanks to First Second’s connections with schools and libraries, Pope has been visiting those kinds of locations to promote “Battling Boy” and “The Rise of Aurora” while hitting the usual comic shop stops along the way. Pope has a packed calendar, but he’s thrilled about the attention, particularly from younger readers.

“For a lot of people, ‘Battling Boy’ and the ‘Aurora’ series are pretty much the first time they’re reading comic books. And that’s really cool to see,” he said. He finds his new “quasi-educational” role deeply fulfilling, and hopes his work resonates with readers as more than just entertainment.

“The big thing with the ‘Aurora’ series is we’re going to see the training of this young superhero, the acolyte, because I’m really in favor of education and athletics for kids,” he said. “Kids are so protean, you can really push the kid. Don’t just put them in front of the television and give them Cheetos. Make them want to strive to be great. Strive to learn. Strive to have potential.”

Hero Complex readers can see previews of “Battling Boy” and “The Rise of Aurora West” in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

‘Aurora West’ cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | ‘Battling Boy’ cover | T-shirts | Explosion

In a recent telephone interview, Pope discussed the ways his past work influences his current projects, building the mythology of his fictional world, and what the future holds for the “Battling Boy” property.

Hero Complex: How has the work you’ve done in the years leading up to “Battling Boy” and “Rise of Aurora West” informed your process for these titles? 

Paul Pope: One of the great benefits of having worked and lived in Japan for pretty much the second half of my 20s up into my 30s is I got a really strong foundation in manga and manga storytelling techniques. Because manga does things that American comics and European comics don’t. So I grew up reading Heavy Metal magazine and classic American comics — Fantastic Four and that kind of stuff—and I almost feel like my grad school education was in manga.

A page from "Battling Boy," by Paul Pope. (First Second Books)

A page from “Battling Boy,” by Paul Pope. (First Second Books)

So after that tenure ended, I started working at Vertigo, I was working on pretty much R-rated comics material. When I would visit my little nephews, we would play games like “Tekken 3” and stuff and I was interested in what they were interested in and just talking to them about it. I saw a connection between gaming and manga; there’s something very similar in the way they work. You’re very immersed in the action when you’re in both games and manga, and so I knew whatever this kid superhero story was going to be, it had to have an element of that, where there’s a series of achievements and you unlock the powers. The story is told in such a way that you feel like you’re the character himself.

Technically speaking, that was where I was coming from, and then luckily with the way “Battling Boy” works in terms in of the publishing format, I get 200, 250 pages to just go. In “Battling Boy,” the core of the book is the fight with Humbaba that just escalates and goes on for like 70 pages, which is a lot of fun. That’s something you see in manga, but you don’t see it in American comics. If you’re lucky, you might pick up an issue of “Captain America” and you get one big fight scene for four pages, a lot of splash pages and advertisements and stuff like that. Luckily, this format’s different. It functions more like manga.

HC: There’s a lot time spent on the history of this world in “The Rise of Aurora West.” How do you approach world building and developing mythology?

PP: I’m pretty well schooled in mythology. I’m very interested in it and always have been. We always hear that American superheroes are the equivalent of mythological gods, and I think that’s interesting. Certainly Marvel and DC and Dark Horse are covering a lot of that territory and they own a lot of that territory, so I tried to reach back further into a pantheistic approach to the gods and the demigods. It’s really interesting to me how different cultures have something like a Hercules or something like a trickster or something like a bogeyman you might say. That kind of Joseph Campbell stuff. People always roll their eyes when you say Joseph Campbell, because it’s stemmed so heavily from “Star Wars,” but he did codify a lot of themes that run throughout mythic storytelling. Through Campbell, I got into Carl Jung and more of a studied approach to archetypes in the sense of your dreams and what we share in the collective unconscious.

For “Battling Boy,” it was almost like having a world-class steak, researching all this stuff before even starting the project. Reading some of the deeper stuff, whether it’s going to be Thomas Malory’s “Death of Arthur,” “Creative Mythology,” which is a book by Campbell that was really instrumental. Even though the vernacular of “Battling Boy” falls into something between fantasy fiction and superhero fiction, what I’m intending to do is more classical in terms of understanding how myth functions and why we need it. That sounds super pretentious, but from the academic point of view, that’s where I was coming into the story.

Page 2 of the graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West," by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

Page 2 of the graphic novel “The Rise of Aurora West,” by Paul Pope, JT Petty and David Rubin. (First Second)

HC: In “Battling Boy,” there is a primal aspect to it. He exists in this more elevated plain that makes his experience more spiritual in a way. “Aurora West” feels a little more gritty because her world is based in fact and things we know explicitly. 

PP: [Battling Boy’s] motivation is to do right by his family crest and please his mom and dad and basically get back to his cousins and his ambrosia and his hanging gardens and live like a little Siddhartha again, which he isn’t going to be able to do. That’s part of the story, having that Buddhist type of story line where you kick the prince out of the castle because he’s never seen suffering. And that transforms him. And then with Aurora, she’s more identifiably angry because she’s an orphan and it isn’t easy and she’s not getting all the accolades and [Battling Boy] is getting them easily. She’s motivated by the revenge. She really wants to kill these monsters because it’s her city. For [Battling Boy], he’s been sent to boarding school basically, or summer camp. He needs to learn how to identify with the mortals and get down on their level. I thought that was an interesting pairing, because their motivations are so different.

HC: Why the decision to have “The Rise of Aurora West” published in black-and-white?

PP: That was the publisher’s decision. I think probably because they’re taking a risk by building the franchise. They’re building an entire new wing on this “Battling Boy” mansion. That isn’t to say there won’t be a color edition of “Aurora West” later. We’ve got other projects in the works — can’t put anything in print yet — but [First Second] is treating this like a “Harry Potter,” so we are building it out. I’m pretty confident this isn’t going to be the last you see of Aurora and Haggard, and the nice thing too is it buys me time to finish the second “Battling Boy” book, because it has expanded into its own small industry. I’m going on the road again. I’m going to Europe in about a month.

It’s great, because kids literally around the world are into this. There’s a demand to have me meet these young people, and it’s just amazing. I remember being 10 or 12 years old and really loving comics, and at the time I didn’t really know anybody that was into comics so it was kind of a lonely thing. When we do these school talks, I usually do them with my editor Mark [Siegel], and he does the introduction and we do a Q&A afterward, and he’s always like, “How many of you young readers like graphic novels?” Pretty much everybody in the room, boys and girls, immediately, enthusiastically raise their hands and it’s just like, “God. This is amazing!” It’s the next generation of readers, and some of them are going to grow up to be creators, so it’s a really amazing place to be mid-career. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I never thought I’d be meeting 12-year-olds reading comic books. It’s pretty startling.

HC: One of the things I appreciate about the rise of comic books and graphic novels in the mainstream is that schools and libraries are now starting to stock those titles. They’re such great tools to help children learn to read because of the combination of text and visuals. 

The cover for Paul Pope's graphic novel "Battling Boy." (First Second)

The cover for Paul Pope’s graphic novel “Battling Boy.” (First Second)

PP: We’ve been planning on some sort of an “Art of Battling Boy” type book. A lot of it is depending on whether this movie is going to happen or when it’s going to happen. They want me to write some sort of codex to “Battling Boy” that explains — for example, Humbaba is a character in Gilgamesh. He’s not necessarily a bad guy. I knew who Gilgamesh was, you always have vague notions, but I read and listened to translations of Gilgamesh and got into analysis of the characters and these types of things. I think from the point of view of a study guide, the librarians and school teachers I’m meeting get really excited when they think about some kind of Cliffs Notes that points to the keys in “Battling Boy.” What is Humbaba? Why is this significant? What other young heroes left their realm and had to go perform a labor? There’s a lot of this stuff that I think is really cool, and it is suitable for an educational setting, so that’s something I’m hoping we’ll be able to do down the road, some sort of Cliffs Notes or director’s commentary kind of thing.

Two of my favorite books, and they’re actually both influences for the “Battling Boy” series, are “Dune” and “Lord of the Rings,” and they both have appendices at the end. You get more of the history and the background, and it’s a completely fictional world, but it’s really cool to get that. In “Lord of the Rings,” there’s a whole bit where Tolkien writes the courtship of Aragorn and Arwen, and it’s really neat and it’s its own little story. You don’t see much of their relationship in the book, but this appendix that he writes explains their relationship. And it’s cool because you only see the two of them once or twice in the book. I always thought that was such an interesting idea. And in this case, with “Battling Boy,” rather than getting into back story for the characters in the fictional world, the idea would be to present a guide for the young reader to point and say, “Beowulf is this character and he comes from this tradition, and then Gilgamesh is this character.”

HC: What do you think has attracted Hollywood to the “Battling Boy” property? 

PP: It’s still ongoing. I worked on the film at Paramount for about a year and a half. Brad Pitt was interested in it, so he optioned it. I haven’t met him personally, but everyone else on his staff I’ve met and worked with. I think as long as his kids are young, he’s going to want to do something that appeals to young audiences because they’re not going to see “Benjamin Button” or whatever. So whether he’s involved or not, I’m thinking they recognize that it is a film that can appeal to a wide audience, and it’s original. It’s probably easier to work with me; even though I’ve got my lawyer and agent and that type of thing, it’s not like trying to work with the Disney estate and buying up some humongous thing that everybody knows. There’s always a thirst for new stories. Look at the success of the Marvel films and Pixar, it’s pretty clear that people love interesting, surprising stories, and this stuff translates well to film. It’s dynamic, there’s lots of action and color and explosions and stuff.

HC: What would you like to see in a “Battling Boy” film? 

A page from Paul Pope's graphic novel "Battling Boy." (First Second)

A page from Paul Pope’s graphic novel “Battling Boy.” (First Second)

PP: I had some reticence about child actors, because it seems like there are so many that get into trouble, and I’d hate to be part of karmically ruining someone’s life by making them a huge person at 12 years old. I’m leaning toward animation at this point, to tell you the truth. But I don’t know if that’s the direction anybody’s going to want to go. You’re going to have to have a major star or major director attached to actually get the thing pushed through the door, and having worked in film, it’s really collaborative. Even though I’m the creator, I’m not the dictator. There’s a lot of room for the experts who make movies and have had box office successes to have a voice when it’s adapted for film.

For me, the place where “Battling Boy” is most pure is when I’m working here with my headphones on, listening to music, writing and drawing. That’s hopefully the guide that we’re going to be using for the film, so in that sense it’s better that we’re waiting, because the more of the “Battling Boy” world that gets into print, the more people receiving it, then there’s more of a responsibility to keeping a film version loyal to the book. And along the way it’s been a fascinating education. I never thought I would write a screenplay. I never thought I would direct a movie. I never thought I’d work on soundtracks. It’s pretty cool, so by the time we eventually get to a “Battling Boy” film — I started working in film almost 10 years ago, and I feel like my journeyman work has let me catch up to sitting down with producers or major directors. It’s not like being thrown in when you’re 21 years old and you’re like, “Oh, it would be cool to make movies. Let me push a button. There it is.” I realize and respect how much work it is.

HC: What is the plan for the second halves of “Aurora West” and “Battling Boy,” but in terms of narrative and publication?

PP: From a production standpoint, David and I are working hand-in-hand on our separate series to make sure that they—[First Second] asks me not to say when “Battling Boy 2” comes out, but there’s a definite date for it. There’s a season for the date, and the whole marketing machine and advertising works behind that. You can read between the lines of what I’m saying; we get two “Aurora” books this year, and then the second “Battling Boy.”

HC: I didn’t know the second “Aurora West” would be out this year.

The cover for Paul Pope's graphic novel "The Rise of Aurora West." (First Second)

The cover for Paul Pope’s graphic novel “The Rise of Aurora West.” (First Second)

PP: Yeah, David’s a monster. He’s just killing it, amazing. He also has a little kid coming. His life has fallen into a rubric that’s a little different than mine, so it’s really crucial for him that he hits the dates that he has to hit. In my case, even though my primary work is “Battling Boy,” this season, for example, I’m promoting “Aurora” so I’m out of studio maybe two weeks a month. And I sometimes don’t know where I’m going to be two months from now, so I’m almost like a field agent in that sense. “We need you to go do that thing, and then that thing.” And in a way, it’s cool. It’s promoting the entire series, and it’s meeting the young readers and the librarians and the teachers and stuff. The store owners.

It’s like any small industry. Even though I’m the front man for “Battling Boy,” there’s probably all told—not including people in advertising and marketing, which is an army in itself—there are dozens of people working on this series. Even though I’m writing and drawing the book, to make the thing happen it takes a team, and that’s pretty awesome. People I work with believe in this series, and that’s cool. People really like “Battling Boy” and they want to see more of it. That’s a cool feeling.

HC: What’s the status of your series “THB”? 

PP: “THB” is my—I don’t want to say follow-up—it’s my second series. I have a multiple book deal at MacMillan, First Second. The idea is the readers who are getting into “Battling Boy” and this is their first introduction to either my work or to comic books, they’re going to grow up as the series progresses. So in the same way that “Harry Potter” got darker as the story went along, the audience got older and then they were able to have more emotional maturity and more life experience to reflect on the story and its meaning. Not that this was premeditated, but what we’re doing with “Battling Boy” and “THB” is kind of the same thing, so as the new crop of readers are growing and reading, they’re getting more mature material.

So the second series I’m doing with First Second is “THB,” a book that I’ve been working on a long time. It has a cult following. It’s a bit more in tone with “Battling Boy” in that it’s a coming of age story, there’s a strong female protagonist, there are some fantastic elements, but in this case it’s science fiction. More of a futurist science fiction rather than the retro science fiction that “Battling Boy” has. That’s scheduled to be five books, and a mass of it is done already. I can’t wait to get back into it. I’m very excited.

– Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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