Mike Russell Delivers A Must-Read Interview With Paul Pope! BATTLING BOY, BATMAN: YEAR 100 And Much More Discussed!
Published at: April 19, 2010, 11:06 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
THE AICN Q&A: PAUL POPE
Paul Pope didn't wait for anyone to discover him. The Ohio native kicked his way into comics during the mid-'90s self-publishing boom with work that included "THB" -- his as-yet-unfinished sci-fi adventure about a 13-year-old girl running from robots and bureaucrats on Mars.
He's since followed that up with hit books that include "The One-Trick Rip-Off,""Escapo,""Heavy Liquid,""100%," the Adam Strange story in "Wednesday Comics" and most famously "Batman: Year 100."
Pope stood out in the mid-'90s for a number of reasons. He was one of the few Americans at the time to work in-house at Japanese megapublisher Kodansha -- and his crazy-fluid style and mammoth page counts merged European, Japanese and American comics styles in a way that proved prophetic. (I'd argue "Scott Pilgrim" and its ilk owe a lot to Pope's groundwork, consciously or un-.) Pope also had fun playing with personas and the notions of what a comics artist can be: He put cheeky rock-star photos of himself in his comics, gave himself Ziggy Stardust-style names like "Pulphope" and "Comics Destroyer," and took his illustration into the realms of rock and fashion in New York, where he now resides.
Pope is currently working on three big projects. For First Second, he's writing and drawing "Battling Boy" -- his young-adult graphic novel about a kid superhero fighting monsters for hundreds of pages -- and "Total THB," a partial redraw of "THB" that will finally conclude that series. He's also working on "Psychenaut," a dream-analysis project for French publisher Dargaud.
Pope is making a rare guest appearance this weekend at the Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland, Oregon -- with two-hour signings on Saturday and Sunday, April 24-25. (I'm told he'll be selling his limited-edition vinyl toy, "The Masked Karimbah.") On Sunday, he'll also give a talk with a Q&A. Then, on Sunday night, Pope will DJ and show his experimental sci-fi mashup film "Psychenaut" (a different project than the French comic) on the main floor of the Bossanova Ballroom during the "Stumptown Volunteer Appreciation and After Fest Party." Pope's girlfriend, the New York burlesque and circus performer Harvest Moon, is coming to Portland with him; she's performing at the Bossanova at "The Royal Tease" (April 24) and "Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School" (April 25).
When we spoke last week, Pope had just wrapped a deadline for a French magazine. We talked for an hour-and-a-half while he walked around New York. ("I'm like The Fonz," he joked. "The street's like my office.") Topics of conversation: "Battling Boy," "Psychenaut," burlesque, manga, sex in comics, the ultimate Bat-Cycle, how to draw 70 pages in a month, "THB," Moebius, "Close Encounters," Jeff Smith, what makes a good superhero movie, and how to make toys, camouflage and a rock-star comics persona. An edited transcript follows.
Oh, and we also talked about Pope's surprising connection with AICN's own Mr. Beaks....
-- Mike Russell, www.CulturePulp.com
BEAKS and the BAT-CYCLE
MIKE RUSSELL: AICN editor Jeremy Smith [a.k.a. "Mr. Beaks"] has surprising connection to you: Your grandfather is a friend and former colleague of Jeremy's father. His dad used to assist your grandfather in surgery.
PAUL POPE: Oh, yeah. I totally remember Jeremy from the old days.
RUSSELL: When I pitched this interview, Beaks wrote back: "I remember seeing a press release Paul wrote and illustrated for his grandfather's sod-laying machine in the early '90s."
POPE: Well, you know, my granddad was an inventor. I think my work ethic comes from him -- and probably an understanding of mechanics.
POPE: Oh, yeah. The car I used for that story was designed by Chip Foose, who did all the design work for Pixar for "Cars." Very cool.
RUSSELL: I'm reminded of your "Batman: Year 100" motorcycle. I'm guessing Christopher Nolan reached for that when they were designing the Bat-Pod for "The Dark Knight."
POPE: My cousin Sterling works at Ford -- and at the time I was working on "Batman," he was designing suspension systems. So we sat down together, and I said, "Sterling, imagine I've got a billion dollars. I'm going to hire you to make the most badass bike. Money is not an issue. Just design the ultimate concept bike."
He said, "Well, we're going to start with titanium as the base."
I was like, "Cool."
And so we designed it. He has a credit in the book.
And the coroner in "Batman: Year 100" is based on my granddad. He was a forensic coroner. Kind of a multitasker. It was possible for him to also be an engineer and a farmer at the same time.
'PSYCHENAUT' (the EXPERIMENTAL SCI-FI MASHUP MOVIE)
RUSSELL: You're coming to Portland for Stumptown, and you're showing "Psychenaut." And that's not something you've shown much, correct?
POPE: No, I haven't. "Psychenaut" is sort of an interesting toe into -- oh, God, I don't know -- the 21st century? It's a mash-up. It's a proper film. It's an abstract film. It's a light show. But the rule that editor Andrew Foster and I have is that we're never gonna put it online. I guess people could take screen-caps or whatever, but it doesn't really capture it. It will only exist in live performance.
RUSSELL: Do you only show it when you DJ?
POPE: Yeah. For the sci-fi film clips edited into "Psychenaut," we didn't go for the obvious stuff like "Blade Runner" or "Star Wars." We went for some pretty obscure stuff.
RUSSELL: So this is, to some degree, a collection of clips from obscure sci-fi films.
POPE: And it's more than that. What we did is, we took specific isolated shots, which are very short -- between three and six seconds, usually -- and we slowed them way down, so it becomes this beautiful montage of very slowly moving images. For the most part, it's not slow enough that you can actually see the flicker rate on the film itself. And we reassembled the imagery according to visual theme, so it does tell a story -- but it's truly experimental.
RUSSELL: So you're screwing around with juxtapositions as much as you're telling that story.
POPE: Yeah. We worked on this for quite a while, and as of now we have two versions of it -- a 30-minute cut and a one-hour cut. It's an organic piece we just work on.
Now that I'm working a bit in film, I need to understand editing as a process and as a technique -- so it's good for me to work with a guy who's a straight-up pro. I'm learning a lot, and we're having a lot of fun.
RUSSELL: When did you hatch the idea for "Psychenaut"?
POPE: I've thought about this concept of what I call "slow-life painting" for a long time. And this was the first time I had a chance to actualize it. We sat down and compiled probably 50 films to isolate probably 30 seconds of each one. It's an interesting experience when you watch it.
RUSSELL: What are some of the films you included?
POPE: Naw, that's Halloween, man. I'm not gonna give it away.
A CARTOONIST in NEW YORK
RUSSELL: Now, I know Harvest Moon is coming out to Stumptown with you. What has your association with Harvest Moon -- and working with her on stuff like "Shakedown" -- brought to your art? What has New York City brought to your art?
POPE: It's funny, living in New York, because I meet so many students from FIT and all these different art schools. I'm involved in a world of other art-school trained cartoonists. Where I came from was such a different vibe. Growing up in Ohio, I felt like I was pretty much the only guy from my background who was really into comics. It was a little bit isolating, you know?
I always look for artists with one toe in what I call "heroic realism" or figure-based draftsmanship, and I always loved Toulouse-Lautrec. And now that I'm involved not only with a performer, but in a world of performers, I'm able to actually see the kinds of things that Lautrec might have seen. I want to make this contemporary, and I want to add a bit of graphics flair to the live performance, which doesn't really have a document. I mean, people can photograph it, but....
I have friends who are sideshow performers out at Coney Island -- and, you know, they're professional freaks. It's cool. And because I'm not a performer, I always wonder what I can give back to this world that I'm living in. There's a sort of warmth to having an artist there, documenting it -- not just photographing it, but eliciting a feeling of what it's like to be here via pictures.
RUSSELL: I was covering a community-theater production for a small newspaper I used to work for, and I found out Val Mayerik was in the cast -- the cartoonist who first drew Howard the Duck. He was a supporting player in what I recall was this little chamber murder mystery. I asked him why he was doing it, and he said, "Drawing gets really lonely. This is a nice release."
POPE: Yeah. I can see that.
RUSSELL: I'm reminded of an interview you gave where you talked about how Harvest Moon gets applause for her burlesque work as she does it, but you have to sort of carry the applause around in your head.
POPE: Yeah. And I haven't fully assimilated the digital-immersion factor, either. You have to fight more to have peace of mind than you used to. I'm not totally comfortable with that, but it's necessary. That's the next decade's worth of trouble -- cracking that code.
CHASING THE 'WORLD COMIC'
RUSSELL: You were an early evangelist in the '90s for bringing European and Japanese influences into American comics-making. In the post-Internet era, this cross-pollination is widespread. You personally had to travel to find that stuff -- and now someone can look up Hugo Pratt, Guido Crepax and "Rocco Vargas" [all influences on Pope's work] from anywhere in the world. You've written about wanting a "world comic" drawing in every global influence. Has that dream come to fruition?
POPE: I'd say no. To me, the concept of a "world comic" is there to be a starting point, not an endpoint. The best thing comics can be is a launching point -- it's the point where we let the arrow from the bow, but it can never be the bull's eye. Art is not nihilistic -- we're never going to see the end of it.
I reject this stupid postmodern notion that art is dead and all we can do is recombine things. I hate that because it shows a lack of creativity on the part of the people saying it. Gosh -- I feel very benevolent and gregarious toward the big question-mark of the future when it comes to art.
I tend to think I'm fairly modern in the capital-M sense. A lot of my concerns are fairly critical of technology and the changes that it's bringing without giving society time to process what those changes mean. So I do feel a sort of black bird of warning on my shoulder all the time. But at the same time, I have to feel generous toward the future. I haven't figured out the game yet, but a lot of good, smart people are getting into it.
HOW TO MAKE 70 COMIC PAGES in a MONTH
RUSSELL: I want to talk about your work process. What's your record for monthly page output? Because you've said it was 70 pages.
POPE: [laughs] Something like that.
RUSSELL: Seventy pages in one month. How the fuck did you do that?
POPE: You pretty much just put the seat-belt on. It's like having a one-month plane-ride. But that was what was needed -- it was a serious testing ground. This was in 1999, 2000.
RUSSELL: This happened during your years working with Kodansha?
POPE: Yeah, toward the end of it. A lot of those guys [working for Kodansha] approached making manga more like a TV studio -- where you had maybe 15 employees. But in the case of myself and Masashi Tanaka. the guy who did the book "Gon" -- remember that? With the dinosaur? --
RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah.
POPE: -- We were the only guys working for Kodansha who were working solo at the time. So Tanaka was pretty much my only role model. Him and Jack Kirby. I thought, "Jack Kirby did it while raising four kids; it shouldn't be that tough for me" -- I was only 28 or 29 -- "I can do this."
I mean, it didn't look very good -- it wasn't pristine. It wasn't Barry Windsor-Smith having six months to do a page. But that's not what's necessary in manga. Culturally, it's totally different, the way they perceive comics. To me, manga's a different thing, totally -- it's a cousin of comics.
RUSSELL: You've written quite a bit about your years on contract with Kodansha, starting in 1995. You created hundreds of pages of work for them over a period of years and only saw -- what? 14 pages of "Supertrouble" published? [NOTE: "Supertrouble" was a sort of alternate-universe, sillier version of "THB" that Pope wrote and drew for Kodansha. -- Ed.] I can imagine that was incredibly frustrating, but you still speak of it as a major formative period for your work.
POPE: Oh, yeah. I mean, it can't be bad -- I came back, and I'd learned a bunch of stuff that no one else knew. Seriously. I mean, not many guys in the West can say they spent time over there and worked inside the mainstream Japanese publishing system for manga, and had a table, translators and editors. You've got to make something of that.
RUSSELL: And you see the change immediately in your work -- watching the way "THB" changes in the way it looks and reads. I know for me, it was looking at "The One Trick Rip-Off" and saying, "Oh -- something different is happening here."
POPE: Yeah. Something clicked there. It's true.
RUSSELL: Any chance of the unpublished Kodansha stuff ever being collected, or have you moved beyond that? As a "THB" fan, I'd be pretty fascinated to see "Supertrouble."
POPE: Some of it will. [He told me a bit more off-the-record. It might be good news. I'll leave it at that.]
RUSSELL: As you develop a back catalog and Hollywood comes calling and licensing and other business-management issues become a bigger part of your career -- not to mention personal relationships -- how you do find time for your ideal "three days in a row of dawn-to-dusk cartooning" as described in your art book PULPHOPE? How do you find that purity of time?
POPE: It's tough. Now I feel like it's more of a battle to stay calm and find the peace of mind. It's not as easy as it used to be. But you have to sort of ride the tide if you can.
RUSSELL: I interviewed Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack back when they were founding Oni Press, and they complimented the energy in your work by saying, "He spends a lot of time thinking about the work, and then he makes the work very quickly."
POPE: That has not changed -- there's just more business management than there used to be. I think the majority of the job now is thinking: Know what's come before, know your predecessors, know their language, and try and find a way to bring something new.
RUSSELL: Are you still capable of cranking out four pages in a day if you have to?
POPE: Oh, sure, yeah. On "Battling Boy," I can routinely get two out in a day -- that's "THB"-level output. But the problem is getting the days where I don't have anything else to do.
POPE: Oh, I've severely cut back on that stuff. I've kind of dropped off. It's fun, but it's myopic and it's not really helping anything. I put up news items that might be helpful or observations that might be useful -- but if I have to talk to a friend, I'll just call him.
THE SAGA of 'BATTLING BOY' (Also: BOB BALABAN)
RUSSELL: You're still working on "Battling Boy," correct?
POPE: Oh, yeah. I've got a ways to go on "Battling Boy." At least a year.
RUSSELL: Are you still planning on doing that as two volumes, about 400 pages total?
POPE: Yeah, two books -- Part 1 and Part 2. It's different from how the film breaks down; the film has a three-act structure.
RUSSELL: The project is sort of your first foray into what might be called a young-adult graphic novel.
POPE: Well, I think "THB" is young-adult. I call "Battling Boy" the brother project of "THB." "THB" and "Battling Boy" are brother/sister.
RUSSELL: Are you varying your approach at all for a younger audience?
POPE: Well, I do have a certain attitude toward the readership for "Battling Boy." First Second very wisely said, "Why don't you get pretty far in, and then we'll rate it." Because First Second does publish stuff for adults. Mark Siegel's an amazing editor, and the parent company's great, so that's very liberating -- I don't have to worry too much about having a taskmaster looking over my shoulder telling me, "That's too subversive." There's one human death in the book -- but I don't think there's anything in there that's beyond what a 12-year-old could handle.
RUSSELL: Well, if early Walt Disney is any indication, 12-year-olds can handle quite a bit.
POPE: Yeah. So I feel fairly aggressive about that. To me it's an important story, and it's an adolescent story. Battling Boy is a child protector -- that's pretty much what the story's about. There's a lot of depth to it, a lot of nuance, humor. And lots of fighting.
RUSSELL: You've said you're throwing three-act structure out the window on this and drawing 40-page fight scenes.
POPE: Yeah. There are a few of them. They go on forever. That's from manga. One of my favorite books is Egawa Tatsuya's "Tokyo University Story" -- and he would have long sequences where basically nothing would be happening except a guy in a bicycle riding along, or two guys playing Ping-Pong. And that's just so cool to me -- not because it's jerking off on paper, but because it feels real. It's that fugue state you get into when you're doing something -- when you're playing chess or drinking coffee in the morning trying to wake up.... To me, the magic of comics -- and art -- is trying to say something real about life in an artificial medium. To re-create life, or to sub-create it, to use Tolkien's term.
I don't think much of Egawa's stuff has appeared in English, really. He's like the Frank Miller of Japan. He's huge. You'd be over there watching some game show and he'd be a guest contestant. But the subject matter is a bit Japanese-centric -- young people falling in and out of love at Tokyo University might not be the most mainstream story for the West. [laughs]
RUSSELL: "Battling Boy" was optioned by Plan B, Brad Pitt's production company. How was the collaboration with screenwriter Alex Tse on that adaptation? Was it weird to be working with him on the adaptation of your comic when you aren't actually finished drawing the book?
POPE: It was pretty neat. He was able to come and stay here last summer. We'd meet up and have dinner and he'd come over to my place and work for a while.
I feel very excited for Millar and Romita Jr. on "Kick-Ass." I'm really happy for them. There aren't many models we can look at for "Battling Boy." There was a moment working with Alex last summer where we'd gone through numerous scripts -- and we've got more to go -- and I felt weird. I wrote this big treatment for the story, which is the basis for both the graphic novel and the film. And it's like a novella -- 50 pages, and it's got dialogue, but it's not a script; it's an extremely detailed story breakdown. And Alex said, "I'm adapting your story for film. I'm not doing anything new to this -- I'm making sense of it for Hollywood." And that made me feel much better.
But the thing's so protean -- we're not exactly sure what the final version's gonna look like at this point. But we're movin' along. Did you ever read Bob Balaban's book about the making of "Close Encounters"?
RUSSELL: No, I haven't.
POPE: I would recommend it. You can read it in a day or two -- it's pretty breezy. But it's one of the only documents of early Spielberg working. Balaban kept this diary that he fleshed out into a portrait of Truffaut and early Spielberg in the '70s, working together. It's very inspiring. If Balaban hadn't kept this diary, no one would know this stuff.
RUSSELL: Balaban's quite funny on the "Close Encounters" DVD extras. He has this bemused quality as he talks about all the things they tried during the mothership-landing sequence that didn't work.
POPE: I just bought the two-disc DVD set. Just rewatched the film. It's one of my favorites.
RUSSELL: In a way, it's a very odd movie for Spielberg, because it's about a guy who abandons his family to follow his muse. It's sort of the opposite of the kind of story he'd tell now.
POPE: That's true. It's an interesting young man's take -- a man without a full family and all the accoutrements that go along with it. But in a way, I think it's a proto-"Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- because to me, the real character, who's a bit oblique, is Truffaut's character. He's an "X-Files" character who uncovers hidden mysteries. He's basically Indiana Jones.
RUSSELL: And Truffaut looks a bit like Belloq, now that you mention it.
'PSYCHENAUT' (THE FRENCH-PUBLISHED DREAM-ANALYSIS COMIC)
RUSSELL: One thing I enjoy in your work -- I want to put this correctly -- is that you have a more positive, non-neurotic approach to sex than many comics artists, who often deal in self-loathing and power dynamics. Whereas you deal pretty honestly with a wide range of romantic issues in 100% -- or in ONI DOUBLE FEATURE, as I recall, you did an autobio comic in which you straight-up seduce a girl right out from under the guy she's with.
POPE: Or the other way around, maybe. She might've switched horses halfway through the stream.
RUSSELL: Right. [laughs]
POPE: Well, if you'll excuse the pun, if you look at the seminal autobiographical stories by Joe Matt or Chester Brown doing their masturbation comics, to me that just doesn't seem like a very good story.
The thing I'm working on for the French, my project "Psychenaut," gets into some pretty personal shit. It's been taking a while to get that out, because it's a bit of a confessional in the same way -- but it's a bit more of a psychological confessional.
RUSSELL: So "Psychenaut" is the title of this comic you're doing for the French in addition to the title of your experimental sci-fi mash-up film and light show.
POPE: Yeah. You know how I have "Pulphope"? I think "Psychenaut" is going to be my next ... manifestation. It's much bigger than just one project. It might be a number of projects. It's more of a mindset. A "psychenaut" is a person who is willing to travel the psyche. And I feel like I'm willing to do that. If I were a band, it would be my band name.
RUSSELL: Is this an autobiographical story, "Psychenaut"? Are you telling stories from your own life in this?
POPE: It's a three-phase project. It all has to do with studying Carl Jung and dream analysis. Partly, it's a Rarebit Fiend -- unanalyzed dream material. And then there's a second phase that's analyzed dream material. The first phase is unconscious dreaming data, and the second phase is analyzed, or conscious, dreaming data. And then the third phase is fictional dream data. Hopefully it might be an oblique way to talk about the importance of paying attention to your dreams, and how to use them on a creative level.
I've been working on it for quite a while. They're very generous, generous taskmasters. [laughs] I have to get it done fast, though. But again, it's a lot of thinking, you know? The drawing isn't the hard part -- it's putting all this experimental shit together. And they're really encouraging me to do that.
RUSSELL: Looking through my copy of PULPHOPE, I see there's a whole section of dream-journal comics stuff bumped up against the erotic section of that book. Is that from "Psychenaut"?
POPE: Yeah. That's the start of it.
RUSSELL: Particularly in your early stuff, you tended to include essays and manifestos to go along with the comics -- you'd lay your philosophies out there, talking about the notion of becoming a "comics destroyer" or referring to comics as "design containers," for example. They're interesting to read now because they're like a time capsule of a young creator's evolving enthusiasms.
POPE: Absolutely. I think the risk you take when you wear that stuff on your sleeve is that you embarrass yourself. There's plenty of stuff that's come out that I was like, "Oh, man -- why did I ever do that?"
RUSSELL: But you're not in your twenties if you don't do that.
POPE: Yeah. You have to go through that phase.
I think the obvious thing right now would be to jump straight into webcomics. But I feel like I'm at a point right now where I've stepped back a bit and I'm trying to survey the landscape now -- and not just leap at the next open door.
SELF-PUBLISHING MEMORIES, plus JEFF SMITH and FRANK MILLER
RUSSELL: How much do you regard your career as a result of the self-publishing boom? If it hadn't been for the opportunities presented by that moment in comics publishing, would you be doing what you're doing today?
POPE: That's hard to say. Back in the day, when I looked at my career opportunities -- from academia to whatever was possible in the art-gallery situation -- I realized, "You know, it doesn't really take that much money to start up a publishing company." Especially with the way the direct market was structured -- you get guaranteed sales from the distributors, and at the time there were 13 distributors. So that stuff racked up, and it was a viable business option. It was actually more logical to me than thinking about how in the world I was go and meet editors from Marvel and DC.
I've recently been revisiting some the stuff I read in my early 20s -- Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara, Heavy Metal magazine. My sensibility was more European. I loved European comics art because I love looking at and thinking about forceful drawings. Living in Columbus, Ohio was very myopic -- literally nobody was into what I was into, except for maybe one or two store owners who pretty much just wanted to sell me shit. They weren't making comics; they were enthusiasts and old head-shop guys, so they were more into Gilbert Shelton and Crumb. So I had to find my own path.
[Above: Pope's study of a Jeff Smith page from "Bone."]
RUSSELL: How much of a friend during that time was fellow Ohio resident Jeff Smith to you?
POPE: I didn't meet Jeff until, I think, spring of 1994 -- the first Alternative Press Expo in San Jose. So I didn't have close contact with him until a little bit later.
Ohio has such a strange tradition for cartoonists -- you know, Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell, Milton Caniff.... Within a year, I knew Jeff Smith, and it was very important. It's really wonderful to have a friend that you can approach not as a mentor, but as an older brother and also as a friend. Someone you can call with a personal problem, not just with, "Is this a good business model? Do you know a guy in Hollywood?" Both Jeff and Frank Miller are friends like that.
You know, I was thinking today about "RASL," and I remember in November 2001 going down to lower Manhattan, and Jeff was talking about his initial ideas for what became "RASL." He didn't quite have his story together, but he was bouncing ideas off of me and Frank Miller. And Frank was talking his, for lack of a better term, Batman/Al Qaeda comic ["Batman: Holy Terror"].
I almost feel like I'm grandfathered. I've sat with Jeff in his studio and watched him draw. I own his drawings. He owns drawings of mine. It's harmonious.
RUSSELL: I occasionally do non-fiction comic strips, and I somehow talked Jeff Smith into doing a comics interview with me where I drew my questions and he drew his answers. No pressure. So I drew my little cartoon character asking questions, FedExed the art to him, and he FedExed back the completed originals. And his inks were the tightest fucking inks I have ever seen in my life.
POPE: The thing that people don't realize about Jeff -- and I will never stop saying this.... He did his college comic strip, but he started as an entrepreneur animator, and comics were his second career -- so he has ten years on everybody. He's already a heavyweight.
SCI-FI and SUPERHEROES
RUSSELL: You've said you want to challenge notions of what a cartoonist can be -- more than a guy in a basement or a bullpen. And you've done that by expanding your comics career in offbeat-for-America directions, including fashion. How did America arrive at this limiting definition of what a cartoonist is allowed to do?
POPE: Probably because the money component wasn't there. I remember maybe ten years ago, I hated talking about what I do for a living. Once they whittled the answer out of you -- "I'm a cartoonist" -- they would go, "How are you supposed to make a living at that?" It's such an insult. People just don't have any conception of what that really means. It doesn't sound like it's a real job. "Oh, like children's drawings on paper with crayons -- is that kind of what you do?"
RUSSELL: The joke I always tell is that comics is the easiest form of reading and the hardest form of writing -- and because of that, people will never understand how difficult it is.
POPE: [laughs] That's a good one. Yeah, try writing a Beatles track. You've got to live a long time to write those three chords.
RUSSELL: Yeah, it's a very deliberate process to arrive at the three chords. That's what people don't understand.
POPE: Yeah. But right now, comics are really enjoying a socially respectable level of acceptance. And that's probably because of our relationship with Hollywood. Once you put Robert Downey Jr. in the role of Iron Man.... I mean, Iron Man's a B-level comics character, but he's a great movie character. My theory with the films is that they work when they're science fiction. "X-Men" is science fiction. "Iron Man" is science fiction. "Batman" is science fiction.
RUSSELL: Yeah, that's the revelation of Bryan Singer's "X-Men" -- he treats it as sci-fi and not camp. That's when it all changes.
POPE: Hm. What do you think about Donner's "Superman" film -- the first one?
RUSSELL: I love Donner's Superman, but he basically treats it as mythology. I think that's the greatest mythological treatment of a superhero.
POPE: Yeah. I agree.
RUSSELL: "100%" is set in a future New York City, even though strictly speaking, its romantic subject matter doesn't necessarily require it. You could roll back most of the high technology in that book and set it in the modern day, no problem. So why add sci-fi to that world?
POPE: I like the displacement of science fiction. Obviously, I like ideas a lot. I like to entertain an idea like a Rubik's Cube and approach it like an algorithmic problem and try to solve it, you know? But I thought the best way to do the classic boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl thing -- an almost mundane story -- was to put it in an environment that's going to be weird.
I mean, the real inspiration for "100%" was "Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick. That book is actually about guys who make forgeries of priceless antiques -- but it just happens to be set in a world where the Japanese and the Nazis won World War II and carved up the U.S. That's just a really interesting backdrop for that story, and there's a lot of cool stuff in that story. But that's just idea material -- that's not about the story itself.
RUSSELL: You've talked about wanting to do another story set in the "100%" universe. Are you still interested in that?
POPE: Maybe. Maybe once I have a new perspective on what romance is or the way to talk about it. Maybe "Psychenaut" is the follow-up -- because it's very personal and it's intimate, but in a different direction. There is sex and death in "Psychenaut," but it's all psychological.
THIS SECTION IS FOR THE 'THB' NERDS
RUSSELL: Okay, so I found your work through "THB" in the mid-'90s, and I'm a pretty big nerd for that series. Please forgive me as I now ask you several arcane questions.
POPE: [laughs] Okay.
RUSSELL: It's probably safe at this point to estimate that you'll have spent two decades on "THB" by the time the main storyline is wrapped up with "Total THB." Did you have any idea it was going to become this evolving, learning-in-public sort of comics experiment instead of the six-issue self-published miniseries you intially planned?
POPE: No. [laughs] But then again, maybe it's one of those things where it's the not the destination, it's the road. I try to approach it from a calm Zen point of view; this is what it is because this is what it had to be.
RUSSELL: "THB" started out somewhat whimsical -- with a story-within-a-story conceit, strange creatures, odd, almost musical interludes. There's an "Alice in Wonderland" vibe to some of it. By issue five, you're stopping the story cold for musical numbers and to tour a sugar plant. But you seem more concerned in the newer "THB" stories with building a more concrete sci-fi world.
RUSSELL: How are you approaching that as you re-draw the first part of the series for "Total THB"?
POPE: Around Issue 5 of "THB," I got into a book called "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon -- which was an autobiographical book about traveling around the United States on the two-lane highways. It was a really beautiful series of eddies and flows -- and I've always been interested in that kind of story.
And so a lot of the really nice little subtle, incidental stuff in "THB" is continuing to be in the book. As with "100%," I'm continuing to try and tell a series of very personable small stories in a much bigger framework.
But looking at a lot of the early "THB," it's kind of what you might call "steampunk" -- and it really wasn't well thought-out on a scientific level, and I really didn't do much research at the time. The more interesting questions for me at this point are artificial intelligence, emerging machine consciousness, what happens if we're able to isolate a genetic population on a separate planet, eminent domain as it applies to space, copyright.... These questions to me are very interesting. So now I'm trying to approach "THB"'s science fiction in a much more intelligent way -- like how (for lack of a better example) Asimov might have approached it.
RUSSELL: In the last issue of "THB" that you released at Comic-Con a few years back, I loved how you described the civil war between Earth and Mars as two planets with faces starting at each other. It was probably the most whimsical way you could possibly have done that bit of exposition.
POPE: And if you take a look at it, HR [the narrator of that sequence] is a C-plus student -- and she gets things out of order. What you're reading there is an incorrect history of what happens, because she doesn't really know her history. I think she has the Mars Lander before she has the walk on the Moon -- she gets it all wrong. But it's just important to give a sense that there was a period that was a sort of intergalactic dark age where the genetic traits were separated between humans on each world.
RUSSELL: Which is a big break from what you originally wrote, where the Martians were actually a separate species.
POPE: Yep. This whole notion that there was a second race of living Martians that were green -- that was just more of a science-fiction trope for me. Back then, I was reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and loving it, and I was like, "Let me approach it from this point of view." It was cool, but it wasn't contemporary. We don't need it.
RUSSELL: The first iteration of "THB" almost has this "Martian Chronicles" tone.
POPE: It's funny, because I don't like Bradbury's work that much. Somehow people think Bradbury's work is a big influence on me. I only started getting into his work after people said, "Oh, I see Bradbury's 'Martian Chronicles' in there." But frankly, I find his work a bit sentimental -- I'm not crazy about it. I like his book "Dandelion Wine" quite a bit, but that's not really straight science fiction. I listen to a lot of radio plays -- AICN readers should check out RelicRadio.com -- and Bradbury's written some really interesting things for the old radio shows "Dimension X" and "2000 X." He's done some cool stuff like that. In terms of classic sci-fi, I'm much more into Ted Sturgeon, Asimov, Frank Herbert and Alfred Bester.
RUSSELL: Jeff Smith has said you have hundreds of pages of unpublished "THB" material lying around your apartment. True?
POPE: Oh, yeah. [laughs] I've been working on it pretty steadily. Once it all comes out.... The whole plan is that once the juggernaut starts rolling, it's gonna roll.
RUSSELL: Is the plan to still do "Total THB" in two editions -- a color edition and an oversized black-and-white edition?
POPE: No, no -- it's a series of books. It's contracted as four or five, depending on where the story goes. We wrote up this big super-schedule and broke the 1,000-page story down into 200-, 250-page books. But half of it's finished right now.
RUSSELL: You've said in interviews that you're a few minutes into the RETURN OF THE JEDI part of the main "THB" story, and that you were re-drawing the STAR WARS section of the story, and that the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK section was fairly well cooked at this point. Correct?
POPE: Yeah. That's pretty solid. I'm willing to let it go without making Han shoot second. [laughs]
RUSSELL: Super-arcane question: will the "THB"-universe short story you made with Jeff Smith, "Pan-Fried Girl," find its way into "Total THB"? [This story appeared in "Dark Horse Presents 100" #5 in 1995.]
POPE: It'll have a home somewhere, but I'm not sure where. The First Second deal is strictly for the main "THB" storyline, not for all the ancillary short-story stuff. Out of respect for the publisher, I'm holding off on what to do with all the rest of it.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I love all the "THB" short-story stuff, because it creates this sense of a larger, heavily footnoted universe. It fleshes out things like the pop-culture elements.
POPE: Yeah, "THB"'s kind of a platform. I've got a big story there, but it's also a catchphrase, like "Zap Comics" or "Action Comics," where it's also a world. When I have flights of fancy, they tend to go in that direction -- sometimes it's stuff that works as a short story.
RUSSELL: Also super-arcane: You were working on a "THB" story with Jay "Sin" Stephens called "The Wing-Tip Caper," which Stephens was going to ink. [Pope laughs, at the total nerd arcanity of this question, I suspect] I've even seen a couple of pages of this online. Did that ever get finished?
POPE: It's half-finished, and I recently just pulled it out, because Jay's birthday was not too long ago and I was re-reading it. And it still stands -- it's still interesting. It's a little wordy. But it'll definitely wind up in print. Jay and I have discussed the project. It's a two-part story. The first half was a collaboration between the two of us, and the second half.... But it's a cutie-pie story, it's sort of silly, and it's got a few really good moments in it.
[Above: A page from "The Wing-Tip Caper."]
RUSSELL: Well, and it's always a pleasure to see more of [badass "THB" bodyguard character] Mr. McHaine.
POPE: Yeah. McHaine has a big role in the third act of the main "THB" story. There will be no sense that he doesn't get his fair share of screen time.
RUSSELL: Marvelous. There's a real strain of libertarianism in your work, and it's never more explicit than in "THB" -- where the heroine's father is quite literally moving his business into the desert so he doesn't have to pay taxes to the local authoritarian regime of guys who wear bug masks to work. Have your political views evolved along with the work?
POPE: Oh, sure. This is one of my major gripes -- every once in a while, someone tried to pin some comment on me that I said like 15 years ago. I'm a human being here, you know?
My roots are pretty strongly libertarian, for lack of a better term -- I don't know what else to say. I think at the heart of it, it's just suspicion of power: I'm not that keen on people having power over other people. I'm not sure why that's such a strange thing. But I am interested in eminent domain and the idea of property rights as they apply to space. That's a big part of "THB."
RUSSELL: You've certainly had some fun in "THB" with the bureaucratic treachery among the Bugfaces.
POPE: Well, I think bureaucratic systems tend to create this sort of cover-your-ass mentality. That doesn't apply simply to governmental structures, but also to corporate structures and probably to religious structures. I think there's a lot of stagnation and waste that happens.
Basically, I'm in favor of competition -- shorting the distance between ineffective ideas and new ideas that will work better. That benefits everything.
One of my political role models is Machiavelli -- because he made a point of explaining what makes a principality work, and he divorced political ethics from moral ethics. And I tend to see the world like that. You might call it realpolitik or something, but I would consider myself pretty aware of current events, and my perspective is sort of post-Machiavellian-slash-libertarian.
MAKING TOYS AND CAMOUFLAGE
RUSSELL: Any truth to rumors of a "THB" action-figure line?
POPE: Uh, yeah. That comes and goes. It's so expensive to start. I've been working with Kid Robot -- we've put a couple of things out that are pretty cool. They're more concerned with movies and apparel at this point; they're not necessarily going to invest $60,000 for molds that make a giant Super-Mek. [laughs]
RUSSELL: You're going to have those with you for sale at Stumptown, aren't you?
POPE: I think so. I still have them. It's a pretty cool toy. I'm looking forward to doing more vinyl and bronze down the road. I'm a very hands-on artist -- I'm inspired by materials.
RUSSELL: What's the hardest thing about designing a custom camouflage pattern [a fashion project Pope undertook for DKNY a few years back]?
POPE: Trying to find a new way to do it. Trying to isolate the essence of what is necessary in camouflage versus what is sufficient.
I went back and read this huge book that DKNY gave me on the history of camouflage, put out by this company called Maharishi from L.A. -- they do a lot of cool, basically camo patterns. And my big revelation was that it's displacement patterns in nature as genetic selection on the part of animals or living things in order to disguise themselves in their environment. And so I approached it from a very scientific point of view, a very anthropological point of view. And I started thinking about hip-hop and military camo -- and this is fulfilling, on a social level, the same function: it's disguise and concealment. And so I tried to think about a new way.
RUSSELL: And you ended up setting on a sort of insect-wing pattern, correct?
POPE: Yeah. Because if you look at leaf pattern that's in hunter's camo and military stuff, it's creating a pattern from no pattern. And I find insect wings to be very beautiful but also very random.
RUSSELL: Are your relationships with DKNY and Diesel continuing?
POPE: Yeah. The door is open. With Diesel, I haven't done much with them. I mean, fashion is topical, and we've done two or three fairly big projects, and I don't blame them for not calling me again for that. And with DKNY, we did two seasons. If they want more, they know where to find me. Certainly there's not a loss of things to do in the meantime.
ROCK STAR PERSONAS. HANGING with MOEBIUS. KING KIRBY. RECOMMENDED COMICS. And the IMPORTANCE of CASTING A WIDE NET
RUSSELL: You've created a sort of rock-star persona for yourself -- putting rock-style photos of yourself in your early comics, for example. It was got me thinking at the time: Why shouldn't cartoonists get to create personas for themselves? Rock stars, painters, actors, directors, dancers, and in fact pretty much every artist in every other medium does it? Why not comics creators?
POPE: At the beginning, I was thinking, "What would be an advantage I could pull into this?" Yeah, maybe it was a little hammy, and it embarrassed some people. But it seemed like something that was applicable to the condition of being a cartoonist. And also, at the time, I was really revolting against this sort of implied rule -- this edict where you had to be Robert Crumb or some weird nerd. I was so fucking sick of it. [laughs] I didn't feel like that.
I mean, it was a persona. But to me, it was benevolent -- it wasn't something I was trying to put over on somebody or hold over them. It was more, "Let me find a way to enhance the value of this reading experience"... It might have been a product of its time period.
RUSSELL: You were raised by women. How did that inform your comics-making?
POPE: A lot of talking. A lot of analyzing. A lot of emotion.... What's that whole Vulcan notion -- "Infinite variety in infinite combinations"?
RUSSELL: Have you gone to your grandmother's house and dug out the box of original "THB"-universe stories you were writing and drawing in your mid-teens?
POPE: I found some of them. I don't know where they all are. There's a few I want to find, actually -- there's a few gems there. There's a lot of swipes in the early stuff I'm drawing when I'm 18 and 19 years old, and I'm trying to piece together my voice in comics. I have noticed that a few things that I think are pretty cool actually came from Moebius.
RUSSELL: Well, if you're going to swipe somebody, swipe Moebius.
POPE: Yeah. [laughs] Of course, you know, imitation is not really flattery. [laughs]
RUSSELL: You actually know Moebius socially now, don't you?
RUSSELL: The first time you're hanging out with him, are you keeping it together?
POPE: Yes, because I had published him back in the '90s [in Pope's self-published "Buzz Buzz Comics Magazine"], and we had corresponded. So by the time we met, it wasn't on equal ground -- because he's, you know, a living legend -- but I didn't lose my shit the way a lot of people do, because we were doing things like meeting for dinner with editors. The story I just finished [for the French magazine] is going to be published alongside Moebius; we've been in print together now a number of times. That's cool, because we're able to talk as people.
RUSSELL: I was just watching the promotional trailer last night for a never-made movie that Jodorowsky and Moebius tried to finance -- based on their comic "L'Incal" but apparently incorporating a lot of their abandoned ideas for a "Dune" movie.
POPE: Oh, man, shoot me a link to that. I love Jodorowsky. He's amazing.
RUSSELL: When you talk about superhero comics in interviews, you tend to talk about Kirby-era superheroes, and that Kirby energy tends to suffuse your own work for superhero publishers. What makes him so special for you personally?
POPE: To me, he wrote the blueprint. He discovered the square. [laughs] If you're going to approach superheroes.... I'm not going to say he wrote the book, but he defined so much of the landscape, so much of the territory, he's almost where it begins and ends.
I'm not saying I want to stay in 1964 and do what he did again and again -- but he had a lot of mysteries in his work.
RUSSELL: You've said you want to focus on "optimistic work" now, including "Battling Boy." Why?
POPE: Well, you have to keep living, and I think sometimes it's necessary to find a reason or be reminded of the reason. It's something I really appreciate in Kirby's work -- a sense of life.
RUSSELL: You're 39 now. How will you be planning your transition into elder-statesman cartoonist? Any role models in that regard?
POPE: Ask me later, once I'm there. [laughs] I don't know. The future, to me.... You make an earnest attempt to go in a certain direction and life oftentimes moves you off your path. I'm trying to move toward things that seem like they're about life and away from things that seem like they're anti-life.
RUSSELL: If you were to recommend cartoonists that should be fundamental parts of a comics education, but maybe aren't, who would you recommend?
POPE: That's a great question. If they haven't read "Little Nemo," they should. Maybe "Herbie." I love "Herbie" -- I think "Herbie" is incredible. Jim Woodring's "Frank" comics are really incredible. "All-Star Superman," but I'm assuming people have already seen that. Maybe Harvey Kurtzman's work, or Robert Crumb's.
RUSSELL: Last question: One thing that sets you apart from many American comic artists is this: A lot of comic artists draw their inspiration mostly from other comics artists. You've very aggressive about casting a wider net -- to fine art, graphic design, European and Japanese influences including, say, Hugo Pratt and Tadanori Yokoo, fashion, and the performing arts. How crucial is it for the working cartoonist to spread his or her net like that? How crucial is it for you?
POPE: Well, I tend to see it from a sort of humanistic point of view, where I think that it's important for a well-educated, enlightened human being to have multiple interests. It's a real benefit to study physics and astronomy -- stuff that has nothing to do with comics, per se, but that makes you into a well-rounded individual. I would wish that for anybody, regardless of career choice.
In my case, it's a benefit having gone to art school, because I was able to study Gothic architecture, the Renaissance.... That stuff kinds of sticks in you. Curiosity about life and history and culture benefits you as a human being -- and it allows you to approach your creative work from a more substantial point of view than if you're just trying to be the next John Byrne or something.
RUSSELL: I know you've described this in several places before -- but when you say, "To save comics, I had to destroy them," what do you mean by that?
POPE: Just challenging the concept of "What is a comic book?" or "What is a cartoonist?" -- broadening the sense of what that mission can be, so the artist can be liberated to find new territory.