Thursday, March 31, 2011

FYC Replay: Paul Pope's Escapo

Another one for the archives. When Paul Pope agreed to be interviewed, it was a big thrill. And he did not disappoint. This was one of the best-received columns I did for the Pulse. Many people, including a lot of comic artists, were interested in what Pope had to say.


The 411:
Written and Drawn by Paul Pope
112 pages, b/w with some color
HC: $19.95, SC: $9.95
Horse Press, 1999

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Paul Pope is a creative genius, melding manga with contemporary sensibilities and a smooth, lush brushstroke reminiscent of Will Eisner. Pope is one of those critically-acclaimed comic artists whose short works would pop up in Negative Burn and other places, while fans awaited his longer works from Horse Press, his own publishing imprint. Through his self-publishing venture, Pope has released such classic works as THB, and The Ballad of Dr. Richardson, while recently, he has made his mark with works like Batman Year 100 for DC Comics and Pulphope, his artistic manifesto, from AdHouse. But one of my favorites is his classic tale of a lovelorn escape artist, Escapo.

Escapo relates the story of the book’s eponymous hero, a disfigured escape artist who is the star of the center ring. In three tales, readers are able to get a feeling of what this man, Vic, goes through in his life with the circus. The first tale shows us the inner workings of the Pinceur™, one of the death machines Vic and his partner have built for his alter-ego to cheat death in front of crowds of awestruck spectators.

Hanging upside down above the Pinceur™ – a complex contraption that includes razorz™, long teethy spinning mouths™, an intestinannilation™, and a final water trap all set in a series of oblong containers one atop the other – Escapo must divest himself of a strait jacket before making his way through the six stages that will ultimately find him standing in the center ring again. Requiring agility, quick reflexes, acute timing, and a calm manner, it would be impossible for anyone but Escapo to make their way down through the many traps to the exit below, and usually it goes smoothly for the escape artist. But this time, Escapo finds himself lost when he reaches the water trap and cannot unlock the escape hatch as roaring water overpowers the minute sounds of the tumblers.

There’s no other way out, and Escapo is certain to perish when an apparition, a skeleton, comes up to him and announces that it is finally time for Escapo to meet his maker, a fate to which the escape artist objects. Vic first pleads with Death to let him go – a letter for his sister sits in his coat pocket back in the trailer, sealed and with a stamp but lacking an address, and he needs to get out so that it will get to her – and offers to make a wager with the specter before chancing upon the apparition’s Achilles heel, its pride. Escapo dares Death to let him live, and in return offers Death the opportunity to ride his back during the next performance. Death accepts and gives Escapo a coin to keep until its return before sharing the combination of the lock just as Escapo is completely submerged.

And Escapo escapes yet again. But this incident puts a scare into Escapo and he begs off his act for days, claiming illness. His partner finally convinces him to get back on his horse, pointing out that if he does not do at least five shows a month the circus has the right to throw him to the curb. Choosing to do an escape other than the Pinceur, Vic finds himself back in the center ring, repossessing a bit of his confidence.

This renewed confidence also allows Vic to approach the tight rope girl, Aerobella, with whom he has become infatuated. Writing her love poems, Escapo goes to her trailer late one night to find out if she feels the same way about him. Aerobella tells him that she needs more time and will have an answer for him in the morning. His romanticism getting in the way, Escapo tells her that when he does his act the following day, he will look for her on the sidelines. If she is wearing a white scarf it will mean yes, but a black scarf will be no. Aerobella agrees, but the confusion is obvious on her face as she tells Escapo to go to bed, and one can imagine that she has no clue as to how she will respond. And if that response is in the negative, how will Escapo handle it?

Pope’s characters in Escapo are genuine and react in a very human manner. Vic is not the bigger than life hero so casually paraded about in the Barnum and Bailey Circus of the early twentieth century, and Aerobella is a girl like any other with feelings and desires to which anyone can relate. The brilliance of this book is how Pope allows us into their minds, most especially into Escapo’s, and lets us see the human frailty lying just beneath the surface, a frailty with which most of us are all too familiar.

We know what it is like to be afraid, and we understand Escapo’s heartache when he confesses how he feels about Aerobella. We also hurt for him when the clowns ridicule his longing for such a beautiful young girl. “Why’d a girl like that shower attentions on an ugly mug like you?” “Why, a girl like that wants a boy who’s clean, an’ who looks the same on both sides!” Readers don’t need to be told how Vic feels at these insults; it is evident on his face. Pope masterfully allows the expressions on his characters to tell the story, and refuses to beat his audience over the head with the details. It’s these unstated sentiments, produced through his evocative brushwork, that make Pope’s works worth seeking out. He is a cutting edge cartoonist who is looking to create the comics of the future, and he is doing it right now.

An Interview with Paul Pope

CHRIS BECKETT: Why comics?

I've always loved them, since before I can remember.

BECKETT: What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

The ability to apply one's imagination without restrictions or constraints, outside of your abilities. Practically speaking, it is also very craft-oriented, and when I was looking to apply my talents professionally, that appealed to me a lot.

BECKETT: Your comics are not only entertaining stories, but also beautifully designed books as well. What influences have led to your unique design sense and how do you go about developing the design of each book?

I've been influenced by Milton Glaser and the Push-Pin, by Tadanori Yokoo, by the British design team Hypgnosis (now defunct, they worked in the 70s)...I love the ideals of the Werner-Werkstatte, the Austrian Secession movement of the turn of last century. I also look to music for inspiration-- I approach a story as if it were a song, a book as if it were an album. I think a lot about package design.

BECKETT: I know that manga has influenced you greatly as a creator. What is it, for you, that is so appealing about manga and how have you incorporated it into your work?

I think manga-- the best of it-- tries to really describe and elucidate psychological states rather than merely tell a story. And as with old newspaper cartoons, I think there are many fertile suggestions and hints in the best of manga, it is a universe of its own.

BECKETT: Many newer artists are also trying to incorporate aspects of manga into their own work, but only seem able to apply the surface elements of this style.

The difference is that I worked for Japan's largest manga publisher for 5 years even though little of the material saw print, and I have read and looked at manga seriously for years and years, looking at the floor plan and trying to build my own buildings from the ground up using their architecture.

BECKETT: What underlying aspects of manga are they overlooking that could help to push their artwork, and the medium, forward?

That's a big question, it'd take awhile to unfold it. And I'm not one who likes to give critiques or instruction, really talented and passionate artists figure it all out for themselves eventually. In general though, I guess I'd say to the young ones, try to look past the big eyes and the speedlines. Look for the ghosts in the machine of manga, don't just try to copy the shiny chrome and painted patinas. Look at how the stories are structured and paced, don't think that if you do a 200 page book with big eyes and speedlines, that’s somehow manga.

BECKETT: One thing about your work that I enjoy is the fact that you choose atypical settings for your stories.

I think that comes from looking around and seeing nothing but bitter contrasts and confusion in the world. I tend to notice the atypical and I celebrate the rare. I have great sympathy for freaks and outcasts and the weak.

BECKETT: As a reader, having an escape artist in a circus eluding death while trapped by the love of the aerialist seems obvious, but what was the genesis of this story and how did you know it would work?

When I approached Escapo, I told myself it was time to do a great story. I was 26 years old, I had published a few things that were OK and a few that were so-so and a few that were not so good. By the time Nick Cave was 26, he'd already penned masterworks, and I felt my own body of work was a bit thin, a bit flat. I searched for the best story I could come up with and I tried to do it the best I could. I love the circus and I see it as a metaphor or a microcosm of the world. I probably also knew some girls who were like tightrope walkers-- not deciding one way or the other. Post-adolescent romances gone awry, being sincere and hopeful in matters of love. I thought it was something other people could relate to if told well in the form of a story.

BECKETT: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

I am doing more work in fashion and more silkscreen prints in 2008, stuff which will be announced when the time comes. But THB and Battling Boy are my main concerns in comics now. I think I have about 2 years of work to finish both. Everything I'm doing in my life now is in service of that goal. I've gone through a very visible season of touring and events. It is like being in a band after all, waking up in a hotel and not remembering right off where you are. Room service at 3 in the morning, different airports, all that. I'm very grateful for the awards and the reviews. I'm at a point like when I was 26 and starting Escapo. I knew that was a good story and I thought I could tell a good short story in comics at that time. Now it is time to tell a good long story in comics.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

FYC replay: Garth Ennis's 303

Another one of my Pulse columns for the archives, in which I had the chance to interview Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows about their brilliant collaboration on 303 from Avatar Press. Other than Preacher, this may be my favorite Garth Ennis book. I regularly re-read it, and if you haven't checked it out, go and remedy that right now.

For Your Consideration: Garth Ennis’s 303
By Chris Beckett

The 411:
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Jacen Burrows
144 pages, full color
Avatar Press

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

A Russian Colonel, carrying the weight of history in his wake, leads a band of kids into the Afghan desert. They walk this godforsaken wasteland in search of the same objective as the British S.A.S. – who are in front of them – and the Americans – who are not far behind. A United States transport plane went down somewhere in the area and the American Government has clamped down on all communications regarding the aircraft. The Russians aren’t surprised at being left out of the loop, but the fact that the Americans rebuffed offers of assistance from their allies, the British, is a puzzle. And the subsequent dispatching of an S.A.S. squad adds yet another layer to the mystery of this downed plane.

An anachronism, the Russian Colonel is out of place in this new world, having been trained in a time when soldiers understood their mission and acted accordingly, exhibiting discipline and focused resolve. The children making up the military today, which includes those with stars on their shoulders, know nothing of what it means to be a soldier or to have honor. They think it’s all a game. In the Colonel’s opinion, the bulk of those enlisted in the Russian army wouldn’t pass muster with the memories of fallen comrades and fallen enemies that haunt him nightly. Unwilling to indulge his men’s sense of entitlement, he snaps off difficult decisions with no hesitation, demanding the respect of his men despite their unmerited bravado that elicits snide remarks behind his back. But none of them can hold a candle to the man he is, and more likely than not, none of them will survive the desert unless they first listen to him.

A career soldier able to think like his enemy and react in an unconventional manner, he exudes a sense of the heroic walking among the barren rocks of Afghanistan with his short magazine Lee-Enfield Three-Oh-Three caliber rifle, which says as much about the man as anything else. Having no time for fools, the Colonel does what he can to keep his men alive, quickly upbraiding the brash youths unable to keep their spacing while also taking time to discuss strategy with the only one among them exhibiting officer qualities. Fair and uncompromising, the Colonel is a man capable of doing things with an ancient rifle that others find difficult to achieve using the latest technological advancements in military equipment. Living by a code of honor he has carved out through conflicts over the years, the Colonel is one that can lead men out of places into which they would not typically dare to tread.

The cat and mouse game in the Afghan desert is an intricate chess match, and the Russian Colonel plays it as well as any. Having studied his foes for decades, he brings his ragtag group to the downed plane, but the confrontation they stumble into ends in a bloody horror with soldiers from three of the most powerful countries in the world fighting for some scraps of paper. Despite the carnage, this is not an ending for the Colonel but the beginning of one final quest that will take him thousands of miles to the west where he will confront his destiny, a destiny that has been awaiting him for years.

Garth Ennis is best-known for his ground-breaking VertigoPreacher, which he created with the able assistance of artist Steve Dillon. Since then, Ennis has created a number of new comics, including his work at Marvel Comics revamping the Punisher for a new generation. Though this has been his most high-profile work since Preacher, Ennis has also been creating a number of other comics outside of the mainstream, including The Boys, John Woo’s Seven Brothers, and 303. This latter book is easily one of the most powerful stories I have read in the past year.

Ennis is known for his over-the-top characters and premises (Arseface? The Pro?), and fans who have come to expect the brutal honesty exhibited within his writing will not be disappointed with 303. Ennis writes a scalding tale that is at once a history lesson and a statement on where the world stands today thanks to the proactive military action taken by the United States. With this work, Ennis lays open the wounds of the twenty-first century and does so in a manner that is not only provocative and entertaining but also forces readers to think.

Even with the brutality and penchant for grotesquely black humor that have become Ennis trademarks, he never forgets to inject his stories with humanity, nimbly achieving a precarious balance between making his audience care and leaving them properly disgusted, while making it all look effortless. It would be a simple thing to allow this Russian Colonel, and all the prejudiced baggage within the western market that entails, to be a simple two-dimensional character. The Colonel’s choice to leave a wounded member of his squad behind so the rest of them are not hampered or the cold manner with which he discharges his rifle are actions beyond the scope of most readers picking up this book and could easily distance Ennis’s audience. But within the conversations and inner dialogues of this character, as well as an unexpected detour in the middle of the narrative, Ennis manages to create a three-dimensional person with feelings – though they may be buried deep – to whom people can relate. It is a masterful bit of writing, and this humanity of a soulless creature of war elevates 303 above a vast majority of books on the shelves today.

Ably facilitating Ennis’s vision is artist Jacen Burrows who adds to his impressive body of work at Avatar with 303. His art continues to improve with each project, which is saying quite a bit since he entered the medium a number of years ago with a clean style and storytelling sense far beyond many of his peers. His is an amazingly refined style that is as appealing to the eye as the art in any comic today, but he is also able to fling gore with the best of them, and it is obvious Burrows revels in letting loose when Ennis asks him to portray a body atomized by a claymore while also evoking the vast desolation of the Afghan desert wonderfully with his clean, artful linework. It is easy to see why Burrows is afforded the opportunity to work with such noted authors as Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis. He is one of the top artists working in the medium today.

When I first read 303 months ago, I was completely blown away by it. I am an avid reader of both comics and prose and was profoundly affected by this book in a manner I had not been for quite some time. In re-reading it for this column, I found it lost none of its power, and in fact, I picked up more than I had in that initial reading. In 303, one is able to experience that rare opportunity of writer and artist meshing so well that the final result is something that will stand the test of time. A book that will entertain you, shock you, tug at your emotions, and – most importantly – make you think, 303 gets my highest recommendation.

An Interview with Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows:

CHRIS BECKETT: What was it that initially attracted you to comics as a storytelling medium, and what is it that has sustained you as a creator through the years?

Garth Ennis: I was losing interest in comics in the late 80s; all I was reading was British anthology 2000AD, which at that point had started a steady decline. Then I discovered Alan Moore's work for DC, which led me to people like Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick, Peter Bagge etc. I saw these guys doing work that adults could enjoy, and that convinced me that comics could tackle any subject- that they were, in effect, the equal of any other medium. I've never had any cause to doubt that conclusion.

BECKETT: How was the look of the Russian Colonel developed? Did it come to you complete from Garth or was it more collaborative?

Jacen Burrows: He was pretty well described in the script. We did a few rounds of sketches but I could see him in my head pretty early on. Still, he kind of evolved through the book along with my own style. I learned a lot during that project about how I wanted my stuff to look and he became more realistic as the series went on. Before I started the book I did a lot of research about the Spetsnaz and I kept coming across pictures of these tough-as-iron Soviet soldiers. It wasn't hard to get a mental picture of the kind of man Garth described after seeing those guys.

BECKETT: I’m intrigued by the process of creating comics, and it’s interesting to note that with the old 4-color process, shading to achieve a 3-dimensionsal look for the images was achieved with cross-hatching, but with 303, and most books today, that same effect is often achieved through the digital coloring process. I am curious how much input you have with this aspect of the books you work on?

Burrows: I tend to write up notes for the colorist as I draw. Sometimes I'll have suggestions for palettes or lighting. Sometimes I'll suggest effects. I try to give a lot of thought to how color might play a role in certain scenes but ultimately I just let them do their thing. I do think an artist in today's industry needs to be involved in all aspects of how the image will ultimately look if you are going to push your work further. It is like a Director having a good relationship with his Director of Photography (cinematographer). They are going to be able to create a stronger, unified style if they are on the same page and the end result will be far more effective.

BECKETT: The best-known comic scripts would most likely be those of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who are both famous for their intricate detail. How does Garth’s writing compare with these examples?

Burrows: I haven't seen a Gaiman script but I know Alan's work. Alan seems to have an exact visual in mind as he's working, down to the camera angles and composition. It really is like he's describing an already finished page to you while Garth's scripts have more of a succinct nature. Garth focuses on the most important element of a panel and lets you figure out the best way to sell it unless he has something specific in mind. It is easy to pick up the flow of a scene the way he paces it with the dialog and everything else is in service to that.

BECKETT: In 303, the section where the Russian Colonel is holed up in the desert really humanizes this character and elevates the entire story for me. I was curious as to the genesis of this section and the thought process that went into its development within the greater context of the story.

Ennis: I'm assuming you mean the sequence towards the start of part two, where he's stuck in the shack with a busted leg. That was part of a general change of direction for the story, a strong contrast to the first half which- set in Afghanistan- was a pretty straightforward war narrative. Moving the location and focusing on different characters gave me a chance to stop for a moment- to look at the Russian in greater detail, fill in some character background.

BECKETT: Garth Ennis would never be considered a “safe” writer and has certainly provoked criticism from conservative camps, which can sometimes be problematic for creators. I’m wondering to what you might attribute Ennis’s success in this field while, from all signs, refusing to compromise his unique vision?

Burrows: The bottom line is that there are enough cool readers out there that share or at least enjoy Garth's perspective to allow these projects to be successful. I think comic readers for the most part are open minded, intelligent and, thankfully, imbued with a sense of humor. With so much mainstream success, the big guys have to be very careful about not offending anyone in order to protect their trademarks and I think readers like having something a bit more extreme for variety and contrast. Stuff like 303, the Boys and Wormwood help keep a balance because we don't care if someone is offended. We have a story to tell.

BECKETT: With the anti-Bush stance that one can read into 303, have you experienced any backlash, and how have you handled that?

Ennis: None that I'm aware of.

BECKETT: Following up on that, do you, as a noteworthy creator, feel any obligation to include some sort of moral within your works, or should any lessons taken from the books you write be considered coincidental?

Ennis: I generally like what I write to be about something, although any obligation I feel would be to myself. That's not to say I don't still enjoy writing the occasional outright farce. As for lessons, that's a matter for the reader to decide on; I can't write stories and then explain their meaning separately.

BECKETT: What other projects, whether current publications or ones in the planning stages, can your fans look forward to seeing from you?

Ennis: More Punisher and Boys, monthly. A Hitman/JLA two-parter, featuring the "lost" Hitman story that I never had room for in the original book. Dan Dare for Virgin Comics, a revival of the classic British sci-fi character. The Phantom Eagle, a WW1 aviator story from Marvel, coming next year. And from Avatar, Streets Of Glory, a western with gorgeous art by Mike Wolfer.

Burrows: I am working on a new miniseries with Alan Moore [despite this interview being more than two years old, this miniseries is actually the recently published Neonomicon from Avatar, available at your LCS right now] that we're keeping a lid on for now. No sense getting people excited when it is still so far off, right? I would expect to start seeing promotion for it this Fall. All I'll say is that it is going to be big.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Comic Talk ™: FLASHPOINT part II

So, yesterday I discussed the upcoming DC event, Flashpoint, and my less than ecstatic feelings toward it. This, despite the fact that I am a diehard Flash fan, paricularly the Barry Allen version, and I appreciate Geoff Johns's writing. But, it all feels forced. Like DC is going for another money grab.

Anyway. I posted my feelings - more a rant than anything - on the CGS boards (my rant having been sparked by their discussion of Flashpoint in one of the episodes last week) and David D., one of the moderators, called me on my diatribe. And he was right. So, it got me thinking a bit more about why I'm so irritated with Flashpoint, when I would expect to be excited. This is what came of that:

First, I responded to David's analysis of my post - which can be seen in yesterday's post.

Definitely a fair reading of my rant. And, ultimately, not what I hoped to get across.

I guess the problem I've had is the cavalier manner in which DC has been announcing all these mini-series (And, if DC did this same announcing of title with Blackest Night, my lack of vitriol against that event would be because Green Lantern was so far off my radar, I didn't even pick up Blackest Night until issue 5, after hearing the CGS guys talking about it). I do have a problem with the manner in which DC and Marvel deluge the market with titles, which seems to me a tactic they use to push out smaller publishers' books from the shelves. I understand it as a business tactic, but I am a person who takes issue with the corporate mindset in any endeavor.

I also understand I don't need to pick up any of these ancillary titles. I read Siege without any of the crossovers and did the same with Infinite Crisis. And the deluge of crossover titles does not mean they will be crap (I enjoyed a number of the BN minis, as stated above). That was a poor choice of words. I've read nothing about what this event or these books will entail, and have only read a list of creators in various threads, which leads me to believe that many of the books have a good chance of being better than average. So, no, crap isn't a fair descriptor.

A major reason I expect I will pass on Flashpoint will be my budgetary constraints. But, ultimately, I seriously expect not to buy any of the Flashpoint books (the Perez book excepted, but my plan is to seek it out in cheap bins or ebay) because I don't want to support these sprawling crossover events.

He replied:

Fair enough.

I do wonder- and this is a real question, not just a rhetorical challenge- what specifically has struck you as cavalier about the way that these titles have been announced (and now solicited)?

Which got me thinking more deeply about the topic.

Probably just a personal bias coupled with the fact that I really have not read anything about them, just that 15 mini-series are going to be published for Flashpoint. It feels like overkill. Combine that with DC canceling titles while announcing these 15 series, and it feels like they're just eating their own tail.

To be fair, Blackest Night really was no different. They only had 7 mini-series, plus the month of resurrected titles, but they also crossed into at least 8 regular titles for two or more issues.

(Are there plans for Flashpoint to cross into regular titles, or are these minis taking the place of those?)

I guess it's just the vantage point from where I'm standing. With BN, it wasn't even on my radar until halfway through the main book. So I wasn't paying attention to any of the lead-in to Blackest Night. And I did pick up some of the ancillary titles, including some GL books, which helped because the story did seem to weave in and out of the main book. If I am remembering correctly, some plot points were made outside the main mini-series, correct?

With Flashpoint, I was very excited for the announcement. Flash, particularly Barry Allen, is my go-to superhero. I want to see what's happening with him. But, if I'm going to need to read some other books besides the main series (and it is very possible I don't need to, but I can't count on that after Final Crisis and BN -
again, correct me if I'm wrong in thinking major plot points were shared outside the main BN book), I don't want to be forced to do that, and my budget won't allow for that.

I don't know if that answers your question. Basically, it's the different vantage point from which I am approaching this event, and probably the reality that I have an emotional investment with this character that goes back to when I first started reading comics (
we're closing in on three decades now) that has really gotten my panties in a bunch.

And, ultimately, Brian Hibbs – owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco - in a later episode in the week, put it more succinctly than I did. The problem with Flashpoint is that it looks very, very much like Blackest Night, with all the tie-ins. But Blackest Night evolved naturally from the very beginning of Geoff Johns’s run on Green Lantern, while this Flash event feels very forced, as if they are trying to recreate the success of Blackest Night (a character who’s just below the first tier heroes, written by Geoff Johns, with numerous tie-ins to the main mini-series, crossing through the DC universe).

Flashpoint feels cynical, while Blackest Night felt story-driven. And that’s what really has me irritated and disappointed with this event. An event that includes my favorite character. And one I will probably not pick up.