Paul Pope is a fantastic creator and this represents not only his first long-form work since “Batman: Year 100,” but also his first original project since “100%.” That’s far too long a wait between either of these projects and that’s the kind of thing that can lead one to foam at the mouth for new work such as this from the creator. Fortunately, I had the luck to get a preview of this title at Comic-Con and it allowed me to adjust my expectations accordingly. Had I gone into this expecting something on the level of his previous works, you’d be reading about my bitter, bitter disappointment right now. Since I wasn’t, I can tell you that this is a fun superhero action title that I can see younger readers being thoroughly entertained by and older readers such as myself finding suitably enjoyable.
I mention that last bit because unlike most of Pope’s previous works, this is an all-ages title. There’s violence to be sure, but it’s not of the bloody, bone-crunching variety that he’s engaged with in the past. A lot of the storytelling deals in familiar archetypes to. The story itself starts off with some of the kids in the city of Arcopolis being menaced by some monsters led by a creature named Sadisto. Their harvest of children is interrupted by the town’s resident science hero Haggard West (think Batman with more of a sci-fi bent). Though we get the impression that he’s been fighting these things for quite a while, and been generally very successful at it, things don’t go well well for him this time out. His teenage daughter, the precocious Aurora West, now has to figure out how best to uphold his legacy.
Before that happens, we’re introduced to the title character. Battling Boy lives in a floating city seated high above the multiverse and his father has just returned from his latest battle in time for his son’s thirteenth birthday. This is a special time for boys in this place as he now has to go on a “rambling” and prove his worth in battle. Where exactly will he be rambling to? Why Arcopolis of course.
So “Battling Boy” is essentially a coming-of-age story filled with monsters, energy weapons, and chainsaw guitars. There are moral lessons about telling the truth and accepting responsibility, but they’re not delivered with such a heavy hand as to become sanctimonious. In fact, the biggest of these issues is wrapped up before the end of this volume. All in all, it’s pretty familiar subject matter, and dealt with on a fairly even keel. What I mean by that is though Pope gives some thought as to how this character would fit into such a world, with the adults trying to manage the boy at first then trying to manipulate him when they realize that can’t be done, it’s not as smooth as you’d hope for. There’s lots of expository dialogue from the title character to convey information that is sometimes pretty obvious in the art, but it betrays the fact that the book is intended for a younger audience.
Pope does has fun with the trappings that surround this story, such as how Battling Boy’s father engages in life-or-death battles like they were nothing, Arcopolis’ monster bar, and the Boy’s special gear including the twelve t-shirts which grant him the powers of the animals on them. Those turn out to be a fairly key plot point here as the title character learns that there’s more to using them than employing their brute force or advice without due consideration.
In fact, it’s in the Boy’s contemplation of the Fox’s advice that makes him more interesting than his initial impression. At first he comes off as a very ordinary thirteen year old, save for the fact that he’s the offspring of a demigod. It’s a familiar setup, but by the end of the book I was vested in seeing how he’s going to deal with the monster threat now that he has acknowledged his shortcomings and has help. Aurora gets a more interesting arc thanks to Haggard’s fate since her desire to do good is limited by her training and knowledge of her father’s gear. I’m not surprised that she’s getting her own series next year. Pope also makes sure the supporting cast gets their moments to shine as well. Scenes where we see what Aurora’s tutor has lost in the fight against the monsters and when the mayor pours his heart out to Battling Boy outside add some welcome dimension to characters who would otherwise be ciphers.
However, it’s clear that Pope has the most fun with the monsters. Sadisto in particular. Not only does he have the aforementioned chainsaw guitar, had dedicated his life to kidnapping kids, and has a face that makes you understand why he’d make those kinds of life choices, he’s clearly committed to his role as a bad guy. I’m not sure how many people will agree with me, but I thought the funniest part in the book was when Sadisto visits the monster bar and when asked for a drink, he responds with, “PAINT THINNER!” Because he’s that bad of a guy. More interesting than that, however, is the fact that he’s also the kind of villain who struggles with his agenda. It’s not enough that he has to contend with Haggard and the Boy, Sadisto also has to deal with the fact that the most “honorable” members of his gang keep getting killed off and he now has to deal with the real creeps who have no sense of punctuality or loyalty. It’s always more interesting to see an antagonist deal with setbacks like this and not have his successes handed to him on a silver platter because the plot dictates it.
So while we’ve got an interesting cast, world and generally good execution, what’s left to consider? That’s right, the art. Pope is one of the best action artists in the industry and this volume only further cements his reputation. From Haggard’s battle with Sadisto’s crew to the Boy’s throwdown with Humbaba, and the parade fight which closes out the volume, “Battling Boy” doesn’t want for great action sequences. The characters move with the artist’s trademark kinetic intensity that really draws you in. Pope also demonstrates here that he can slow things down to draw your attention as scenes like the introduction of the floating city and the Boy’s arrival in Arcopolis with his dad. Scenes like this may have come off as indulgent in another artist’s hands, but Pope invests them with a real sense of anticipation and wonder that keeps you thinking about what’s going to come from these moments.
The only real issue that I have with the art is the book’s format. Unlike his other works, “Battling Boy” is published in a size that’s smaller than the standard comic trade paperback size. It’s larger than most manga, and consistent with other books from publisher First Second but still feels too small to appreciate the detail Pope crams into each page. Personally, I would have liked to have seen this title published in a format like DC’s “deluxe edition” titles to really give the art the breathing room it deserves. Then again, if it hadn’t been published in this format it’s questionable whether or not the book would’ve been able to be sold at a price point to make the mainstream success it deserves possible.
Even if it’s not on the level of his previous work, I still think it’s deserving of such success. “Battling Boy” is still an entertaining superhero adventure that anyone can pick up and enjoy. Kids will get a kick out of the action and characters while adults will be able to shrug off some of the more expository dialogue and appreciate the intricacies of Pope’s art, the small character details, and his twists on familiar tropes. Again, not only will Aurora West be getting her own two-volume series, but we’ll be getting the concluding volume to “Battling Boy” next year. After reading this, I can’t imagine not picking either of them up when they arrive.