BY AARON BLOCK
Author: Paul Pope
2013 (reprinted), Image Comics
Filed under: Graphic Novel
Paul Pope has never been prolific. But in the past decade or so, as he’s moved away from serialized storytelling to stand-alone works like Batman: Year 100, Heavy Liquid, and 100%, Pope’s comics output has reached “event” status – even a five or six page story in an otherwise forgettable anthology is worth celebrating. So the nearly 300 pages of material collected in The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts, from Image Comics, is almost an embarrassment of riches.
A little less than half of the handsome hardcover volume is devoted to a reprint of The One Trick Rip-Off (digitally recolored by Jamie Grant of All-Star Superman fame) and Dominic Regan, which was originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents in 1995 and 1996. The other half is a kind of memoir-bibliography, gathering together short stories that originally appeared in iconic 90s anthologies like Negative Burn and Dark Horse Presents. They’re arranged roughly chronologically, and represent Pope’s work as he moved from Cleveland to Toronto to Tokyo, and finally to New York City, where he lives today. The most recent of the “Deep Cuts” dates back to 2001; this is a younger Pope, the art a bit looser and more overtly manga-influenced, but no less compelling than his contemporary work.
Thematically, there is little difference between the Popes of then and now. The misadventures of youth, cityscapes with accompanying grime, and the vacillation between beauty and violence remain prominent in his work, and dominate “The One Trick Rip-Off”. The story follows Tubby and Vim, young lovers who plan to rob Tubby’s gang, the One Tricks, and run away together. Naturally, their plan gets contorted, and they face a violent climax that ends in a quiet, poetic pull up to the stars. There’s also a sci-fi/magical realist flavor to the story in the One Trick gang’s ability to distort anyone’s perception of reality using language – their one trick. The plot draws together spaghetti westerns, Donald Westlake’s Parker novels, and manga. It’s operatic, particularly the scenes between Vim and Tubby, and the heightened emotion makes the quieter scenes of Tubby wandering the desert, after being betrayed by his gang, all the more stunning.
But the appeal of “The One Trick Rip-Off” is less the story than the telling. Pope’s art is heavy, full of thick black lines, hard outlines, and detail. The aforementioned desert scenes are sparse, but even the endless sandscapes are flecked with dashes and curlicues, the traffic of dust and avenues of cracked earth filling the panels. And the sound effects are just as striking, the words sometimes incomplete, included more for the visual impact and the suggestion of noise, like part of the backgrounds. When gang members use their trick, a scrawl of words appears around the action, and coupled with Jamie Grant and Dominic Regan’s psychedelic color it immediately puts the page off balance, disorienting the reader as the victim is disoriented.
As limber and romantic as it is, “The One Trick Rip-Off” isn’t even the best story included here. In the “Deep Cuts,” we find Pope in a more reflective mood. Most of these pieces are shorter and moodier. The first few are adaptations of poems, Rimbaud’s “The Triumph of Hunger,” Mussorgsky’s “The Beetle,” and Charles Francis Richardson’s “The Armadillo” and “The Island.” Some are quite literal visual translations of the text, others more interpretive: “The Triumph of Hunger” tells a parallel story of a young couple struggling to grow food, with ominous panels depicting abandoned machinery, a different take on the futility and despair of the poem.
Along with the more abstract pieces, the “Columbus 1993-1996” portion of “Deep Cuts” includes a few autobiographical pieces, the most effective of which is “Portrait of a Girl with an Unpronounceable Name,” in which Pope recalls a meeting with a friend who asks him to draw a portrait of a girl he once knew, and ends up telling her tragic story. The page composition is dense, creating an intimacy that’s missing from the broad panels of “The One Trick Rip-Off”. And because Pope is effectively telling someone else’s story it side-steps the navel gazing that makes the other autobiographical entries a bit off-putting.
By far the best story in the entire collection is “Super Trouble”, published for the first time after years in limbo. Pope developed the strip for manga publisher Kodansha, based on his manga-inspired work in THB, but was moved onto other material and the series never came to be. It’s difficult to see why; the story printed here is disarming and coy, and follows three schoolgirls who get involved in an eating contest at an Indian restaurant in New York. It’s ecstatic, but never frenzied, and full of odd sci-fi details like robot chefs and “flying plates” (basically hoverboards that are worn like shoes.) I read through it quickly, as is often my experience with manga, but kept turning back pages to study the visual gags, and particularly Pope’s acting work. And though manga is clearly a touchstone, “Super Trouble” is also certainly influenced by Jaime Hernandez, particularly in how the girls interact with one another. With any luck this collection also acts as a test balloon for a future “Super Trouble” volume (there is apparently much more waiting to be published).
To prepare for this review I pulled out my copy of 100% (“Night Job,” another of the “Deep Cuts,” seems to have been cannibalized into its second chapter) and read through it. Less than ten years after the publication much of the work in The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts, Pope’s work is messier, slightly harder edged. I prefer it to the kinetic gloss of “The One Trick Rip-Off,”and even “Super Trouble.” It isn’t a matter of black and white versus color, either; Pope’s Adam Strange strip in DC’s Wednesday Comics was fully colored, but retained that roughness. The more recent work feels more natural, even when it takes place on an alien world and involves jetpacks – the cityscapes are dirtier, expressions are harder to read. Still, it’s worthwhile to look back and experience that style in its nascent stages.
Similar Reads: 100%, Paul Pope; Love and Rockets, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez; Zot!, Scott McCloud