Thursday, May 22, 2008

A papal visit

Paul Pope is not from Columbus, Ohio—he grew up in Bowling Green, near Toledo. And he doesn’t live in Columbus now—he’s based out of Manhattan. He did live he for a while, attending Ohio State University between 1988 and 1995, and on that basis I shortly after moving here that the local comics scene was always quick to try and claim him as at least partially theirs.

It’s really no wonder—Pope is easily one of the most amazing artists working in comics today, and one of the first name artists to have developed a truly global feeling style. His characters and scenery look like European than American, and his comics tend to work and read like manga; there’s slim to no chance a viewer would mistake Pope’s art for that of someone else, and no chance in hell one would mistake a Pope comic for the work of another.

Pope returned to Columbus Tuesday night to speak about his work, as part of Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts and Cartoon Research Library Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond exhibit and its accompanying programs.

“Wow, it’s weird to be on this side of the room,” Pope said from the small stage in the Wexner Center’s Film/Video theater, as when he was there, it was to sit in the audience to hear other artists talk or to see the films the space is usually dedicated to. “And now I know why everyone drinks bottled water on stage,” he added, taking a sip from one stashed on the podium at stage left.

The screen behind him was shrunk from its usual rectangle shape to a slightly smaller square, and had a huge version of his stylized signature over a field of murky off-white with stationary, dark, bubble-like blobs. The lights were dimmed a bit, and the stage and room were rather dark, save for the spotlight on the podium, which Pope stood next to.

He wore a denim jacket over a black shirt and black shirt, and kept his hands jammed into the pockets of his tight pants when he wasn’t gesturing to the screen behind him. His ears peeked out the sides of his longish, somewhat scraggly dark hair, and he looked an awful lot like one of his own characters, something somewhat uncommon in the field.

He had taken the stage after an introduction by Bone and Beyond co-curator and the Wexner’s regular film/video curator Dave Filipi, which consisted of a brief bio: Grew up in Bowling Green, attended OSU, published THB, worked for Japanese manga publisher Kodansha, is known for comics such as Heavy Liquid, 100% and his “most-widely read work” Batman: Year 100, recently featured in a “tongue-twister” of an art book entitled PulpHope: The Art of Paul Pope, and designed a clothing line for DKNY.

Pope emerged from the projection room at the back of the theater, and made his way down the long sloping aisle as the audience of about 150 people clapped for him. We skewed a lot older than those who came to see Smith and McCloud talk about the former’s work; college-aged kids and up, probably twice as many men as women, and lots of familiar faces (well, familiar backs of the heads) from the local comics and art scenes.

“Luckily for all of us, this isn’t my first time speaking,” Pope said, explaining he was going to be showing the presentation he had prepared for “civilians” about comics, how he got into them and what he does, a presentation he gives when attending conventions all around the world.

These are often design-related, but will have in attendance people from incredible diverse fields—like filmmakers and guys writing programs for artificial intelligence programs—which occasionally had Pope asking himself what he was doing there. At least until one of those AI programmer guys told him, “Oh, I get it. You’re the analogue guy.”

“Comics is an analogue art form,” Pope said, “And they’re acquiring a level of magic because they’re hard to do. In the 21st century, as film and computers are opening up new horizons for comics, it’s really important to keep a hold of the hand-made element of comics.”

A hand-held remote changed the screen, which was apparently a slideshow of images running through his laptop atop the podium (That’s the stuff that has a level of magic to me; drawing I understand, but changing the image on the movie screen via a tiny handheld object? It’s like witchcraft to me), and he fleshed out the details Filipi had sketched out.

Pope grew up with his grandparents, and had inherited his dad’s album collection and his uncle’s comics collection, both of which had a very profound effect on him. As a kid, he watched a lot silent films on PBS and, at a very young age, “before I was even ten years old,” he got a hold of a copy of Heavy Metal magazine, which introduced him to the world of European comics artists like Moebius and those Moebius inspired. These were the artists, Pope explained, who had taken what they had learned from the U.S. underground comics of the 1960s and ‘70s, and transformed them into these crazy fantasy stories.

At a young age then, Pope began to see similarities between album art, poster art, European comics art, American comics art, and the relationship between “the iconography of rock and the iconography of comics.” (The screen, meanwhile, presented a slideshow of album covers, a Moebius page, and so on; while talking about the impact of album covers, he said “I thought this guy was really from Mars,” when a Bowie album appeared).

He proceeded using the language of rock music, comparing some comics work to cover songs.

“You shouldn’t cover The Beatles,” he said, “But if you do, you have to add something to it…You can retell the classic stories, but you have to do it in a way to make it fresh, contemporary.”

At that point, the superhero comics equivalent of The Beatles appeared on the screen: A Jack Kirby image. Specifically, it was a page from Kirby’s late-seventies minor DC work O.M.A.C., specifically a page from the first issue, including this:

“I won’t even try to explain this story, because it doesn’t make any sense,” he said, noting that the girl in the box is “essentially a sex doll,” the kind of thing you can buy today, demonstrating Kirby’s “incredibly prescient knowledge of every possible subject.” (A while back, Pope had declared the iPhone a retarded Mother Box)

He then showed his own version of the page, which you may have seen in Solo #3, wherein Pope essentially re-told O.M.A.C. #1; “my cover of Jack Kirby’s O.M.A.C. as it were.”

This was one of his “big budget comics,” since it was done for DC, and thus he got to use color, something prohibitively expensive for self-publishing. When he does something for DC, he likes to think of it as “using their studio, their engineering board,” and thus go big with color and the characters and the like.

Pope talked fast, perhaps to keep up with the slideshow, perhaps because he was delivering a speech rather than talking completely extemporaneously, but interesting ideas about the media came out of his mouth regularly; if he were a comics character, the room would have been full of dialogue bubbles, some of which with thoughts worth exploring.

Like this: “Comics and silent film have no sound, and music has no visual—I think album art puts a face or a skeleton on the music.”


The talk of covers then turned to a pin-up he did for Smith’s Bone, in which he took the handful of panels he thought encapsulated the whole Bone story as he saw and liked it, and drew his own versions on them, reducing Smith’s entire epic into one page. “This is my tone poem on Bone,” he said, as it appeared on the screen.

The screen then turned back to the “Paul Pope” screen that began the show, and as he brought up the subject of his “cover of The White Album,” his name morphed into his logo for Batman: Year 100. He then called up a scowling image of a scowling, Sprang-ian Batman.

“What can you say about his guy?” Pope asked. He described Year 100 as “a nightmare project” and had really burned him out on comics for awhile, due in large part because how hard it is to essentially cover Batman, a character who so many people have covered so often over the decades.

He began by trying to figure out who Batman is, which was problematic because there wasn’t just a Batman, but Batmen. As he was reading through Batman comics, he really started paying attention to the logo, and the screen behind him began displaying close-up images of the Batman logo over the years, specifically the various ones in which Batman’s face was attached to a Bat-symbol behind the word “Batman,” or the bust of Batman drawing his cape around himself was part of the equation. Who is Batman?

“He’s a shadow behind his name, he’s an enigma. The bat symbol is Batman, he’s this,” Pope said, and a detail of a panel from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One appeared. In it, we see a long shot of Batman on a farway rooftop, his cape flaring around him like batwings, forming his own symbol.

(Two panels from Batman: Year One; Pope used the bottom one as a visual definition of Batman)

That’s how he began to “crack the code of Batman.” The cover of Detective Comics #27 then appeared on the screen, and Pope pointed out how Batman’s very first appearance was as that human bat-symbol shape. The screen then changed to just the image of Batman from that cover, and then a blacked-out, silhouette version of Batman from that cover, which wasn’t too far from the symbol on his chest or the logo on his comic.

(1939's Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman)

From there, Pope began exploring how to turn that shape into a logo for his comic, and a series of his sketches for a Batman-shaped word Batman appeared in rapid succession, until he arrived as his final one.

He then put up his cover for the first issue of the comic, and said the art director was confused by what he turned in, asking what’s wrong with his legs.

“He doesn’t have any legs,” Pope said. “Because Batman didn’t have any legs on the cover of Detective #27. He’s got no legs, a wire, and there are pipes on the side. That’s Batman.”

Pope showed a bit from Nosferatu, of Max Schreck’s vampire rising from his coffin, and again said, “This is Batman.” That’s what inspired one of (what I thought were) the two most ingenious bits of Batman: Year 100, Batman’s fake vampire teeth:

Pope thought of them as functional as both a scare tactic, and the kind of mouthguard a boxer or athlete might wear.

The other ingenious bit? The Bat-cycle folded up and hanging in an alley like a giant, monstrous bat. Pope didn’t get into the Bat-cycle-as-bat thing, but talked a bit about his thought process behind it. Batman driving a tank around a big city struck Pope as impractical (or, as Dave Campbell once put it, “a pain in the ass.”) Pope thought instead in terms of a motorcycle, like the ones in George Lucas THX 1138, and so he came up with this:

That’s what Batman will be driving in this summer’s movie, Pope noted, except that they took the big, huge pipes off the back, and remounted them on the front as guns.

(Pope's "cover" of Mazzucchelli's panel of Batman; Pope said living among the skyscrapers of New York helped give him the perspective of cities seen from this sort of angle)

Pope then spoke briefly about PulpHope, praising publisher Chris Pitzer of AdHouse for his high quality line and how well the art book turned out (they had originally wanted to go with a more album-like 12-by-12-inch size, but settled for a 10-by-9-inch, since the perfect square didn’t suit comics art very well), and his work for DKNY.

The idea was to have him come up with “an interesting way to reinterpret camouflage,” and they gave him a “very interesting” book on the history of camouflage for reference. He ended up studying displacement patterns in nature, the way a moth or other insect’s image can make them appear invisible in the right context, and followed through with that. He said he was very pleased with how they turned out, particularly that they look “aggressively drawn,” and referred to the project more than once as “a new canvas for comics.” (Noting that he’s not the first or only cartoonist to work on a line of comics, namedropping James Jean and a few others).

“And that’s about all I brought,” Pope said, opening the room up for questions. The audience seemed a bit reluctant, with long pauses between each question.

He was asked about THB and his upcoming First Second book Battling Boy, his experience with Kodanasha and the fate of his work for them.

He compared the manga market to American mainstream television, where the audience is huge, but the control is very tight. “That’s the only way I can think to explain Pikachu,” he said, to laughs from the audience. “I got it really bad, actually. I was in Japan when Pokemon was really big there, and then I cam back to the states just when it got really big here.”

Jeff Smith, who sat in the front row with Lucy Shelton Caswell, the other curator of Bone and Beyond, raised his hand, and noted that he’d been to Pope’s studio a few times, and there were drawings everywhere. “What are all these drawings?”

Pope explained he starts everyday doing “ramp-ups,” and segued talk of his own piles and piles of random drawings around the studio to Mazzucchelli, who he noted has been working a secret project since ’95 that’s filling his space with drawings. “He’s like J.D. Salinger; he doesn’t care if it ever comes out.”

One person asked what Pope’s most personally memorable book was, and he answered Escapo, which is about when his artwork really started to feel like his own; where he felt comfortable telling the stories he really wanted to tell.

Another asked for tip on breaking into comics, and Pope said to publish something, even things published at Kinko’s are useful, because it’s the only way to show people what you can do. Like Smith and McCloud did when they were asked the same question, Pope stressed the importance of community; of finding likeminded folks to share your work with and get input and feedback from.

Asked what comics or creators he likes today, he mentioned two European artists whose names were unfamiliar to me (and thus I can’t spell ‘em; sorry), Joann Sfar, John Cassaday, Jim Woodring and Carl Barks, while offering the caveat that “it’s difficult for me to engage in comics as fiction, I don’t care about the story as long as the art is good.”

When the crowd ran out of questions, he suggested they “retire to the boudoir;” a book signing was to occur after the talk was finished. I didn’t stick around for that. I had to get home and reread Batman: Year 100.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm pretty sure the two European artists Paul might have mentionned are Christophe Blain and Blutch.

Caleb said...

One of them was one syllable long and began with a B, so that sounds right to me...

Mike Rhode said...

This sounds very similar to the talk that he gave at the OSU tri-annual conference in 2007, which I thought was fascinating. I had much more of an appreciation of his work after hearing him. He's really a thoughtful artist.