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.

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