“What is the Superman we need for today?” The question haunts Paul Pope, and the comic book artist’s long-awaited opus Battling Boy, which publisher First Second Books will release on October 8. The graphic novel — the first of two volumes which combined will exceed 400 pages — represents the first major work from this leading light of independent comics since his mainstream breakthrough in 2006, the Eisner winning Batman: Year 100, a future-punk take on the dark knight rendered in his distinctive Kirby-strong storytelling that mixes kinetic Manga energy with expressive lines often associated with European comics. Battling Boy will arrive about three years behind schedule, and following a creative journey as epic as the saga itself, involving such larger-than-life characters as Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin, acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon, and superstar Brad Pitt. Says Pope: “It’s been a strange couple years.”
More about Pope’s adventure through the Hollywood looking-glass in a bit. First: The book. Battling Boy is set on an alternate Earth – there are countless within this Lovecraftian multiverse — that’s having of a crisis moment: Monsters from another realm are terrorizing the dystopian sprawl of Arcopolis. When the ghouls assassinate the city’s high flying protector, a stern and gadgety Batman-meets-Iron Man type named Haggard West (he has a jet pack; drives a “Westmobile”), the suffering masses receive a new hero from the interdimensional mystical mothership from which all heroes come from: A haughty yet naïve superboy, the scrapping son of a war god. (You’ll meet both father and son in our exclusive excerpt from the book, which begins on page three.)
Battling Boy isn’t the only next gen hero in Battling Boy. There’s also a great female character in Aurora, the daughter of Haggard West, a wannabe hero fueled by vengeance (and a clever riff on the motherless orphan-hero archetype made popular by Disney). The learning curve for both budding do-gooders won’t be easy. “They are young people with great potential who don’t know what to do,” says Pope, who aspired to spin a yarn that worked as a viscerally entertaining fantasy and sly genre commentary. Pope feels the likes of Batman and Iron Man – while interesting and entertaining – have been “grandfathered in,” and might even be a little… well, haggard, if you will, despite recent efforts to make them relevant. “It just doesn’t feel like anyone has dipped the cup into the well and drawn a new hero for the 21st century,” says Pope. “That was my goal.” Expect a story steeped in Jungian archetypes, Campbellian mythological story structure, and takes seriously many things that many superhero comics don’t – including the role of violence in the superhero approach to solving the timeless problem of evil. And as you can see from our preview, it’s also ripping fun.
Pope’s earliest inspiration for Battling Boy came when he was working on Batman: Year 100 and found himself mulling the ironic relationship new century young people must have a pop culture super-saturated with Uber-people narratives, not to mention an alarming surplus of bleaker, scarier, painfully real tales. “I had heard one too many stories about some little kid who got abducted or murdered,” says Pope, 42, a native of Bowling Green, Ohio who currently lives in New York City. “At the time I was working on Batman: Year 100, and it felt like such a challenge to work on these hero fantasies knowing that children read them, and knowing that children know that they’re really not all that safe.”
Such cognitive dissonance could have derailed his bread-and-butter work. Instead, Pope recognized that the ideas and themes within that drama that could feed a provocative comic book about fantastic heroes and our relationship to them. But it would take him awhile to actually sit down and make that comic book. In 2006, movie director Stephen Daldry (The Hours; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) recruited to Pope to join the creative team that was developing an adaptation of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s celebrated 2000 novel about a pair of Jewish cousins wrestling with complex issues of identity – ethnic, immigrant, religious, artistic, cultural, sexual – as they participate in the heady and exploitative and volatile evolution of the American comic book industry. Pope contributed to various aspects of the production, including artwork that helped bring to visual life the history of comics. He recalls, with relish, the brainstorming sessions with Daldry, producer Scott Rudin, and especially Chabon, and how their big picture talk of superheroes, mythology, and storytelling inspired ideas that nourished the world of Battling Boy that was taking shape in his imagination. “I began thinking: What is the Superman we need for today?” says Pope. “ And I thought, ‘I think kids would love to see a kid who kills monsters.’”
NEXT: Enter Brad Pitt.
Alas, the veritable super-team behind Kavalier & Clay could not vanquish the dragons and obstacles that challenged their big screen questing: Paramount Pictures decided to table the project. According to Pope, the chief concern was budget. (Unconfirmed rumors have Daldry and Chabon now exploring the possibility of turning the book into an HBO mini-series, a la Mike Nichols’ acclaimed adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play Angels In America.) Moving on from Kavalier & Clay, Pope was ready to focus on his Battling Boy graphic novel, but soon became immersed in another Quixotic Hollywood endeavor: Battling Boy, The Movie.
The story goes like this: In 2008, Pope pitched the idea of Battling Boy to an exec at Paramount that he had gotten to know during the course of Kavalier & Clay-ing. The studio bought the property for Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, with hopes that the star would play a key role. Pope, as consulting producer, began helping screenwriter Alex Tse (Watchmen) on the script. They worked together for many months and through many drafts. In 2010, David Gordon Green was recruited to rewrite the screenplay and direct. In 2011, there were reports – quickly debunked — that Pitt wanted to cast his son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, in the lead role. Over this span of time and activity, Pope was supposed to be drafting Battling Boy: The Printed Object, which was originally scheduled for a 2010 release. But this wasn’t happening. Pope says his inability to find the time to draw was beginning to affect the movie team’s ability to find the right vision for the movie, as the film needed to be informed by the comic. “It was this terrible conundrum. The film can’t get made until the book is done, but the book can’t get done until I get off the film to finish it,” says Pope, who adds that his time management during this period was also challenged by a “once in a lifetime offer” to develop a Grand Theft Auto-like videogame for Animal Logic. “How could I say no to that?” he laughs.
Eventually, Pope had an epiphany: “I had to superglue my ass to a chair and finish the book.” He says he did so with the blessing of Paramount and Pitt, who was committed to other projects, anyway, including Moneyball, Killing Them Softly (now in theaters), and the forthcoming World War Z. In retrospect, Pope says, “Maybe if it was a Faustian mistake to sell the book so fast.” But he has no regrets, and in fact, Pope reports that he’s “getting back into the movie” beginning this week before embarking an aggressive promotional campaign for the graphic novel. He’ll then buckle down anew and draw the second volume of Battling Boy, which is expected in 2014.
Pope is also currently wrapping a short film that he wrote and co-directed called 7 x 6 x 2, a sci-fi/horror western financed by Sony (and shot with a new Sony camera coming to market) about seven monsters, six bullets, and two unlikely allies who must survive a dark and scary night together. Pope says he’s going to make time in his always-busy schedule to draw a comic book adaptation of the film in the next year. Citing fellow two other comic book stars who’ve split their time between mediums, Pope says, “Mark Millar and Frank Miller have successfully careers where they can be in comics and film. I see no reason why can’t I do both.”
Especially if he keeps himself well-stocked with super-glue.
Our sneak preview of Battling Boy follows. What you need to know: The death of Haggard West, Earth’s protector, has initiated a cosmic protocol. The world needs a new hero. A young man from a mystical place descends to Earth, accompanied by his father. (For a closer look at all the images, click on the pages or move your cursor across them for magnification.)