Stumptown Comics Fest: Spotlight on Paul Pope

One of the most insightful talks I attended at Stumptown Comics Fest was given by Paul Pope.

Pope looked like a rock guitarist on his day off: shaggy hair, black jacket, faded blue jeans. His demeanor echoed the spirit of Jim Morrison, whom he cited as one of his early influences. Despite the bad boy aura, Pope was prepared with a professional PowerPoint presentation, and proceeded to deconstruct his art with the precision of a surgeon.

Pope claims that his overarching goals are to bring non-comic subjects into his body of work, and to take the tenets of pop art seriously. He was drawn to the medium because he loved the cheap, mass-produced quality of comics, but he also wants to stretch the art form, and talked about "covering" previous artists in the way musicians cover songs.

His original influences came from two men in his life: his father's rock 'n roll record collection, and his uncle's comic collection. From there he began to explore offshoots: Little Nemo, Heavy Metal Magazine, the work of Moebius especially his "Airtight Garage," and other "sinister" European art. He also mentioned the manga artist Tadanori Yokoo. Then to top it off he mentioned the Sunday comics of Milt Caniff and the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven. At one point said he had a desire to cover Omac "in the style of Andrei Rublev." I'm not sure if he meant the painter, or in the style of the film by Andrei Tarkovsky of the painter's life.

With each reference I became more intrigued by this artist, and I was still reeling when he began a dissection of his efforts on Batman Year 100. "Imagine Batman as a corporate brand," he suggested, "how does one face lift...tweak an icon?". Let me tell you, if you're Paul Pope it's a very thoughtful process.

Pope tried to distill the essence of Batman, and in his mind the bat silhouette is the brand. Throughout the world, even if people don't read comics, they recognize the bat shadow and oval for Batman. The other facet of the character is the city, which Pope called The Batman's "signature." As protector of the city, there's no reason for a Batman without the city. He also thought the flapping cape suggested a flying flag.

From that start Pope rambled through a jumble of impressions: German Kaiser era font, the art and design of Gustav Klimt, Batman as a heavy metal rock band. All of these ideas flowed into the Batman Year 100 cover. References to Batman as the mysterious stranger made him think of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, another "bat" influence. Also the strength and protection of the Golem.

Moving past the cover, Pope wanted the first scene in Batman Year 100 to encapsulate the story, just as the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are repeated throughout the music. He lifted the bike scene from George Lucas's THX 1138, because those motorcycles were so ominous and fast. Also he wanted to incorporate the "bat in the man," giving Batman an animal totem beyond the normal Batman in the comics. So, he came up with the custom mouth guard, looking like vampire teeth.

By the end of the presentation Pope had run through a litany of influences that seemed more dreamlike and expressionist than concrete. Although I hadn't paid much attention to Paul Pope, I liked his reinvention of Adam Strange for Wednesday Comics. His presentation at Stumpfest made me want to (re-)read all of his earlier work.

Some other points touched on during the Q&A session:
  • Sam Hiti's "Death Day"
  • act-i-vate comics web site
  • Luis Bunuel's autobiography "My Last Sigh"
  • The death (and dearth) of anthology publications like Heavy Metal, and how web comic sites like act-i-vate might replace them.
  • How pinball tables influenced the symmetrical layout of Adam Strange in Wednesday Comics
  • How his computer workspace is physically lower than his drawing space -- so the computer knows who's in charge.
  • His work with Michael Chabon on the film version of Kavalier & Klay, which is on permanent hiatus

Pope also briefly spoke about his newest work, Battling Boy, the son of a god who comes down from a mountain at his father’s behest to rid a giant city of monsters.  The work is his way to find some wish fulfillment and it looks like it has a lot of extended fight scenes.

You can get more insight into Paul Pope on his blog, or through his flickr stream.

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Reading Roundup May 2010

Since meeting Brian Michael Bendis at Emerald City Comic Con and seeing him talk at Stumptown Comics Fest I've been interested in checking out his story arcs on the Avengers. The problem I have with these hardcover volumes from Marvel is that while they're presented as a story, or a section of a story, they aren't comprehensive. The New Avengers Secrets and Lies is essentially the New Avengers issues 11 through 15, with a Giant-Size Spider-Woman #1 spliced into the middle. The New Avengers: Illuminati is so fragmented it feels like a comment on a story that's taking place in some other volume. Similarly, Mighty Avengers: Secret Invasion Book 2 is just a slice of Marvel's massive Secret Invasion "comic event" of 2008, but it would be nice for the reader if it were edited together chronologically rather than by comic title. As they stand, you buy a portion of the story, and I feel it does a disservice to Bendis' writing.

I was at a talk where they called "Oldboy" the best comic to film adaptation ever, so I decided to check out Tsuchiya and Minegishi's mystery thriller manga before watching the movie. I'm up to Old Boy Volume 3, and although the pace is pretty languorous, it's both tense and racy (it has a "parental advisory" warning on the cover, probably due to nudity & sex scenes). It tells the story of a man who was mysteriously held prisoner in a private prison for 10 years. The day of his release he vows to discover who did this to him. The main drawback so far is that the female characters seem to be awfully thin, but I'm hoping this is explained in the course of the story, and not just a failure of the writing.

Rick Veitch's Maximortal is both a parable and a moving pseudo-documentary. It's a twisted vision of the story of a "real" superman arriving on Earth, but it also includes references to Einstein, Oppenheimer & a faux Disney. It also deals with the injustices dealt to Shuster & Siegel regarding their creation and raises questions about popular culture, who owns ideas, and whether commerce and culture can word as bedfellows (Since one villain in the story is called El Guano you can see where Veitch stands on this issue.) The cover to Maximortal doesn't do it justice, inside the art is much stronger. I thought at times it suggested Kirby's style without trying to imitate.

Last, but far from the least is the lush story from Kim Deitch of Shadowland. On Amazon.com one reader called it Deitch's "DaVinci Code," but I don't see the comparison. Shadowland is an intricate history of carnival barkers, freaks, aliens and gnomes. It has everything anyone could want from a story: sex, heroism, intrigue, glamour and money; but not always in the way you expect. For example, the volume begins with the tale of Toby the Pig, who once was the darling of the Ledicker circus, but has unfortunately grown too large to leap through the flaming ring of fire. His last act is to escape from the butcher and perform a high-dive with Ledicker's son riding on his back. The ending to this story, as well as the rest of the Shadowlands, is pure Deitch.

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20 Reasons Superhero Comics Fail as Movies

1. Movies are novels or novellas with a definite story arc. Comics are really soap operas with multiple leads and plots.

2. In comics the action occurs between the panels, in your head. What's in your head is usually better than what's on screen.

3. Bad movies may stink, but great movies still lack the scent of comic book ink.

4. When movies were a quarter comics were a dime. Now movies are $9 and comics are only $3.95.

5. Producing a movie is so expensive that it's better to play safe. The relatively cheaper production cost of comics allows for greater risks and exploration.

6. Movie producers keep starting at the origin  -- get past that!

7. Comics don't have to pretend to be real.

8. Comics have visual sound effects

9. Comics can explore the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters... movies are purely visual

10. Comics can be non-linear: splash pages, inserts, maps, etc.  You are the director of your vision.

11. In a comic book an exclamation point is exciting, but in a movie it's just yelling.

12. Illustrated stories (comics) are the first, best portable viewer.

13. Jack Kirby never directed a movie

14. Comics move at the viewer's pace: savor the slow parts, speed along with the excitement, re-read the amazing.

15. Movies have too much ego. A recognizable actor's face can interrupt the movie...

16. Movies always want to change the game...(think "Dune")

17. ...but they forget these massive changes with the next movie. Comics keep to the canon.

19. Comics provide for graphic idioms. Have you ever seen successful "speed lines" in a movie?

20. Not everyone looks good in red underwear...unless they're drawn that way.

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