Paul Pope Talks ‘Battling Boy’, His Creative Process, His Influences, and Keeping it Fresh

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The first time I heard of Paul Pope, I was sitting on the floor of my first boyfriend’s apartment, surrounded by zines and Japanese comics that he was trying to impress me with. When I picked up an oversized comic called “THB”, I could tell something was different. The pages were filled with fluid, expressive brushwork of a young girl running around with robots in a post-apocalyptic world. Everything about it felt new: from the bold cover, to the design-heavy credits page, to the black-and-white photo of the Pope himself staring at you from behind shaggy hair. Then I quickly found out that these books were hard to find as they were all self-published. But the hunt of finding them in used bins at comic shops became an important journey.

What followed “THB” was a prolific career featuring hardboiled, pulpy, not-so-distant-future graphic novels released through Vertigo Comics. They didn’t feel like anything else on the market; part personal love stories, part espionage…with lots of gritty technology and drug-filled adventures for good measure.

And then came his run of “Catwoman” covers for comics giant DC. It’s a strange thrill to watch an alternative artist crossover into superhero comics. Especially once Pope’s “Batman: Year 100” came out. The artist’s unusual, dark, ink-splattered storytelling proved that even Batman wasn’t safe from his craft, and the caped crusader remained changed forever.

Whether you’ve followed his career since his ’90s self-published work, or discovered him during his take on Batman, you’ve probably heard about Pope’s latest, the graphic novel for First Second Books, “Battling Boy”. “Battling Boy” is a mythic action/adventure story geared toward children, and if there’s anyone you want to tell stories to your children (and your own inner-child), it’s this guy. Sure “Battling Boy” will be a little scary and intimidating, but on the flip side it’s equally mind-expanding, challenging, and most importantly, fun.

I had the chance to chat with Paul Pope about his creative process, storytelling, art supplies, comics, and working as a freelance artist.

"Battling Boy" Cover" First Second Books

Jamaica Dyer: “Battling Boy” is a fantastic book. It’s both a culmination of ideas from your past work and a strong evolution in style and storytelling. It feels like you allowed yourself to put everything you love into it. How did you come about the original concept for the book?

Paul Pope: I wanted to create a new superhero and I wanted the main character to be a kid. Further, I wanted to make the book for kids. The challenge was to come up with something really cool and not to talk down to the audience or dumb down the story, which some books or movies for young readers can do, but to make this something accessible to young readers while also keeping it as serious and kick-ass as I could manage, keep it accessible for adults as well. We just got back from a multi-city tour doing school visits and I met readers as young as 10 years old, and as old as Silver Age readers approaching their 60s. It’s really an all-ages book, which is exciting to see. That wasn’t intended, really. It just happened.

JD: Can we talk about the monsters? They’re fantastic designs, and look like they’re inspired from both Asian and European mythology, can you walk us through the process of designing the monsters?

PP: I tried to come up with designs which were at once terrifying and also ridiculous. One of the monsters–a tree-monster–is wearing a Broncos jersey, one is like a giant booger-monster encased in armor. One’s is like a huge, dirty kneaded eraser. There’s one I cribbed from the Hieronymous Bosch painting, “Garden Of Earthly Delights.” Sadisto’s gang kidnap children, which is a sinister idea. So they had to be scary, but I wanted to be sure they weren’t so disturbing that little kids would be having nightmares after reading the book. There’s also a lot of mythological imagery in their designs; that’s deliberate. I used many image reference books, such as Carl Jung’s book “Man And His Symbols,” which is a fantastic encyclopedia of mythic imagery from all of history and from around the world.

JD: What’s the production pipeline like for “Battling Boy”? Do you have assistants for inking/scanning?

PP: I have two assistants at the moment, mainly for scanning and production work, and for most digital coloring. I do all the lettering and pencils and inks. I need to re-think my approach for book 2, to get faster, so I may have some help filling in blacks and erasing and things like that. But the hand you see on the page remains all my own, that’s always been key to my approach to cartooning.

A page from Paul Pope's "Battling Boy" First Second Books

JD: I saw some of the original pages you drew for “Batman: Year 100”, and they’re HUGE! What size are you working at for “Battling Boy”?

PP: I have two sizes, since some of the pages are 2-page spreads. I normally work at 19×24 inches, which is large by American comic book standards. It just feels comfortable to me. For the spreads, I double that to 19×48. I have about 45 pages on display now at NYC’s Society Of Illustrators, and some of the huge two-page spreads are on display in the exhibit, for anybody in NYC and interested in seeing the art. We’ve lined up a series of future gallery exhibits, both in the States and in Europe, so these will be traveling to various cities.

JD: What’s your creative space look like when you’re working?

PP: A mess. I try to ignore everything when I work, so the space can get to be a real mess. Books and stacks of art and supplies all over. Eraser shaving and old ink pots and all that.

JD: What are your favorite brush and ink?

PP: My preferences these days are the Winsor-Newton University series #000 and various other white nylon sable brushes. I use a few larger brushes as well, a #1 and #6 for example. I use bamboo brushes and some archival markers for the straight, ruled or stenciled linework. I use Yasutomo sumi ink. I don’t use brush pens, I find them too coarse.

JD: Do you have a medium you haven’t gotten a chance to break into yet? (I personally want to design beer labels) What is your dream project?

PP: I’d like to do more toy design, or 3-D design in general. I really liked the Kid Robot projects. I still do silkscreens and have plans to do more of those in the near future. I’d like to try aqua-tint, it’s one process I haven’t explored. Right now, the promotion/touring for “BB” as well as the production for book 2 are keeping me totally pre-occupied.

JD: This may be a strange question: but when you were starting out with “THB,” were your punk flyer, rock and roll stylistic choices a conscious rebellion against the more nerdy, introverted indie artists at the time (Clowes, et al)? Or was it a natural extension of your own artistic inclinations?

PP: I did go to art school and studied art history, so I tend to see comics as a branch of Pop Art, in the capital “P” sense. I’m not sure you have much control over your style, it tends to emerge and develop overtime on it’s own. I did study a lot of anatomy and life drawing and color theory in school, so I have a relatively classical humanistic art education, although the cartooning and brushwork is all self-taught. Comic books were really looked down upon when I was in school. I didn’t start out trying to rebel against any traditions, I identified myself more along the tastes and intentions of European artists such as Moebius, Attilio Micheluzzi, Milo Manara, so those were the artists I was studying.

JD: You’ve managed an art career that spans from comics to fashion to advertising, do you ever, say, want to leap into fashion entirely? What keeps you returning to comics?

PP: I love comics the most out of the creative disciplines. You have a pretty wide range of creative control and freedom, and the results are really joyful and thrilling when everything works. Also, I like working alone. Fashion design was a bit over-editorialized and controlled, for my tastes. There were a lot of hoops to jump through. I designed 2 seasons for my own capsule line for DKNY Jeans, and some of the results were good, but I didn’t have final say on all the decisions, which was frustrating. It was really cool to learn about fabric printing and play within the confines of that as a medium. I can’t say it was a bad experience. I’ve done a number of projects with Italian label Diesel Industries, which have all been rewarding and fun and educational. But comics tops ’em all.

A page from Paul Pope's "Battling Boy" First Second Books

JD: What is next for comics? You’re taking a stand with “Battling Boy” to create a story directed towards younger audiences (but completely enjoyable for your adult fans), and it is something that’s sorely missing in the medium. What else do you think we need in comics?

PP: I dunno, really. I’ll speak for myself and say, looking back to my earlier works, especially “THB”–which is my next series for First Second, once “Battling Boy” is done– I’ve always wanted to make fun, sexy, science fiction comics with a bit of absurdism shock and and play at its heart. First Se cond is a good fit for that intention. I’ve done my fair share of adult-oriented comics, now I want to do something a bit brighter and wider, in terms of audience. I describe “BB” as something like a cross between Silver Age marvel comics and 1970s “Heavy Metal” magazine.

JD: Lastly, what do you think it takes to keep your career and portfolio fresh, to be accessible for new exciting projects?

PP: Living in NYC and, now, traveling is a good way to keep fresh. I’m not a very competitive type, I don’t really pay too much attention to which winds are blowing this way or that in the “comics industry”. I try to avoid controversies. I just try to stay focused and true to my own thing. I read art history and biographies, particularly biographies of musicians. I know a lot of creative people here in NYC who are hard working artists in various other fields. Many of them just know me as “Paul” and know I do something in the arts, and that’s cool. I think it’s a natural thing to remain curious when you’re an artist; curious and restless and a bit agitated and unsatisfied. Those are good qualities, I think.

“Battling Boy” is out now from First Second Books.

Learn about some more great indie comics artists from our Redbubble community here.

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