What if your mother and father were superheros created by Jack Kirby? That is, what if your dad was sort of a cross between Marvel Comic’s Thor—complete with lightning powers—and DC Comic’s New God, Orion? Your mom, she’s sort of a cross between Sif and Wonder Woman, and your family lives in a celestial city—half spaceship and half castle—that floats in the infinite void? That’d be a pretty great life, wouldn’t it? Sort of a shame to have to leave it, but then…it is your thirteenth birthday. Time for a Ramble, time for you to leave the technomagical paradise of your home and go down among the mortals to earn your stripes as a hero.
This is the story of Paul Pope’s Battling Boy; a godling, sent off to find his way with just his natural talents and a suitcase full of magical t-shirts.
Of course, our demigod protagonist isn’t alone on his quest—not entirely. Earth has a hero. Haggard West: part Silver Age Batman, part steampunk Tony Stark, part Mitchell Hundred as the Great Machine. Or rather, the operative word in that sentence should be “Earth had a hero…” because Haggard West is dead. The question that everyone asks: is his daughter Aurora ready to step into his shoes? Aurora was her father’s Robin, his Speedy, his sidekick in waiting—but she’s a bit young to move from understudy to a starring role. Then again, so is our eponymous hero Battling Boy…
I know I’m getting a little bit out of hand with constantly comparing everything here to six or seven other things, but you really get a sense of the scope of Pope’s influences. He’s drawing from a deep well; heck, he’s drawing from an ocean. Do I even detect a hint of Fletcher Hanks? There is a lot of a little bit of everything in here, but it isn’t a kitchen sink approach; Paul Pope might be an incredible interdisciplinary talent, but it isn’t a hodgepodge of seemingly contradictory ideas. Rather, Pope sifts down to find the core thread of these ideas and weaves them together towards a greater whole. (It sort of reminds me of the mythopoeia of Broxo but, if anything, even more so.)
Is it Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age? Well…yes? Yes to all those things. What are we calling the Modern Age at the moment? The Renaissance? Well, much the same way that Grant Morrison weaves Renaissance narratives by just accepting that a comic character’s backstory is entirely canon—Silver Age shenanigans especially, even if the modern incarnation is relentlessly banal and gritty—we get Pope doing a similar thing, both in terms of story and visually. The saturated colour panels really just are so…well, so Jack Kirby that I had to mention it in the first line of the review.
The richness of detail in Battling Boy allows Pope to be referential without needing to slow down. Actually, referential is the wrong word, as is homage or parody. Battling Boy isn’t a collection of tropes or clichés, or a stitched together Frankenstein’s monster of allusions to other works. I said Renaissance and I stick by it; this is influenced by a range of sources, and those influences are laid bare, because Paul Pope stands on the shoulders of giants—and he stands tall on those shoulders. He can evoke the Blackhawks or the Howling Commandos by having the science soldiers of the 145th go out to go kaiju hunting without that needing to be a 1:1 association with them. Nor is this Astro City, which is built on being a pastiche, on being meta-textual and says something about the comics it emulates. Battling Boy is its own thing, a world tree with roots that go deep into the history of the medium.
The one downside of Battling Boy is actually an upside in disguise: this is just volume one. On one hand, that keeps us away from the epic confrontations and narratively fulfilling conclusions that you can feel coming down the pike. On the other…well, it means more Battling Boy. I am really into Battling Boy—did I already mention that it is like Walt Simonson decided to do indie comics, or like Moebius decided to pick up the adrenaline of manga?—so I am anxious and eager for more. Getting to the end and seeing the big bad of the book meet a Bigger Bad just means that the scope of the story is going to be bigger, which means a larger canvas for Battling Boy. Which is good news, because I don’t doubt for a moment that he can fill it.