First Second: Gene Yang and Paul Pope in Conversation

Joshua Stone writes for Bleeding Cool:

PopeI first discovered Paul Pope’s work in late 1999, when I picked up his DC Vertigo miniseries Heavy Liquid. I remember being blown away by the drawings and his use of colors. When I attended the 2000 SDCC, when comics were still king, I remember wandering around the convention floor trying to get sketches from some of my favorite artists and I was very excited when I saw Paul sitting at his table alone. I approached him and asked for a sketch, which he was happy to do. Then something happened that has caused me to remember meeting Paul to this day. Once he finished the sketch, Paul kept the conversation going. As best my memory serves, we spoke for at least 20 minutes, talking about his artwork, his influences, and other things that my mind cannot remember 13 years later. But in the end, the thing I remembered most is that this artist, whose work I really liked, cared about creating comics and the fans he created them for.

Fast forward to the 2013 SDCC, and through covering SDCC for Bleeding Cool I receive a never-ending stream of PR emails in the month leading up to the event. Among the emails are opportunities to do press interviews with the various writers, artists, and celebrities promoting their products at the event. Among the endless stream of emails I received this year, was a press opportunity from First Second Books to do an interview with Paul Pope. Before this year, I had never conducted an interview as part of my con coverage for Bleeding Cool, but I always try to do one thing new at each SDCC I attend. So I decided this year it would be to conduct a one on one interview, and for me, even better than some tv or movie star, this was a chance to interview someone I had spoken to all those years before and whose work I continued to follow and respect. I have even purchased several Paul Pope art prints in recent years.

There was another part of the press interview opportunity; it was an opportunity that was available because Paul was part of a panel with Gene Yang, another author who writes for First Second Books. This meant I was going to have to interview both of them, and at first I did not recognize Gene Yang’s name. Then I saw he was the author of American Born Chinese, which had won the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New – in 2007. I was excited now, because I had actually read the book within the last year and I had related to story of a student who was different and his struggles to find his place.

Paul Pope

Paul was at SDCC to promote his upcoming release of Battling Boy, in stores October 8, 2013. Battling Boy targets the same market that the Scholastic Books releases of Jeff Smith’s Bone has done so well with. However, like Bone, Battling Boy can be enjoyed by comic book fans of all ages. (You can pick up the first chapter of Battling Boy in comic book stores now under the title The Invincible Haggard WestThe Death of Haggard WestFinal Issue #101)

I received a copy of the book to prepare for my interview with Paul, and I was able to enjoy it on two levels. First, as fan of Paul’s and of comics in general, I appreciated the book for the story it was telling. I was blown away by the art, the drawings and the amazing colors. I actually got a little angry reading Battling Boy because I wanted the pages to be so much bigger so I could dive into the artwork, especially some of the two page spreads that Paul created.

The second level of appreciation I had for the book was as I father of two boys who are in the age range that book was written for. I could not wait to get home, sit down with the older of my boys, and experience this story with him. The book deals with real life situations even though the things are happening to superheroes; it addresses the events in a real way. It doesn’t ignore the consequences of battles like so often happens in superhero comics and movies. I thought my son would enjoy the story and art as I did, but he would also be able to learn some things and find places to ask me important questions.

When I sat with Paul, I asked him about how he created his art. He said he uses traditional tools – pencils and brushes – and than the images are scanned after. He said that a Pope font has been creating for the lettering and that they are hoping to make use of it when Battling Boy is published outside of America.

I made mention to him how I got upset at the size of pages as I felt the art needed to be bigger, and he told me that the  French publication of the book will be larger, bigger than a comic book even, and will have a different cover. The French treat comic books different than the American audience, and much of what has influenced Paul’s work has come from French and European Artists and books. He mentioned (authors and books) Moebius, Tintin, Hugo Pratt, Blake and Mortimer, and Daniel Torres among others. Paul’s passion for these comics and authors came through.

Another artist that Paul said influenced him, and can be seen in Battling Boy, is Jack Kirby. Battling Boy is himself a god, and Kirby’s New Gods clearly influence the story as well as Pope’s art. Paul shared that after he finished Batman Year 100 for DC Comics he met to discuss future projects. He told them he wanted to do Kirby’s Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth. DC said they weren’t interested in the idea as they had plans for Kamandi.

Paul said he had suggested Kamandi to DC because he wanted to do a book for kids. He didn’t feel there were enough quality books for kids. A dark and twisted book is fine for adults, but he has young cousins and he can’t give them those books. He told me a story that while working on Batman Year 100, DC would send comics each week, and that when he was done reading them he would get rid of them. At the time he was keeping a short haircut and made frequent visits to his barber. He saw kids there waiting and remembered reading comics at the barbershop when he was a kid, so he offered the barber to drop the comics off for kids to read while waiting. The barber was excited and happily accepted. The next time Paul came in for a haircut the barber was very angry and was yelling him about the books. He asked Paul if he looked at what was in these books, and how he couldn’t have them out for kids to read. Paul felt awful.

Battling Boy was created out of this and is a book that kids can read. Paul sees Battling Boy as a new Superman. Paul also said he didn’t care for the way comics treat death nowadays, with the killing of Batman or Captain America and then their return 2-3 months later. It isn’t real, and it can be confusing to a child. When a hero dies in Battling Boy there is no coming back, and left behind is the hero’s daughter who must deal with the real life effects of death. She has to deal with the funeral and handle the estate once her dad is gone. She has to deal with the anger of being alone without her father; her mother already being gone. Then she sees a new hero, in Battling Boy, come into her city and see him replace her father in the hearts of the people. I saw this as very similar to a child dealing with a parent’s death, or even their parents divorcing, and a new person coming into their mom/dad’s life and the child seeing this person as replacing someone they love. It creates anger, and it is something that a child going through this who reads Battling Boy, especially with a parent’s help, will be able to relate to and maybe even use as a processing tool.

Battling Boy ends with a cliffhanger, and Paul is currently working on the second Battling Boy book, which will wrap up the first story. Paul sees Battling Boy as being part of a whole universe, and he can tell more stories in that universe in the future in a similar way that Jeff Smith has done with Bone.

Paul has been working on getting Battling Boy made into a movie, since 2009 when the idea for Battling Boy was first put out there. Paramount Pictures and Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company picked up the rights to Battling Boy as soon as they heard about it. Paul said that he has worked on nine screenplays for Battling Boy with Alex Tse, the screenwriter for the Watchmen movie. Even though it has been a long process, Paul said he has learned a lot working on the screenplay, even adding to the comic book story as he gave a much larger part in the book to Haggard West than was originally planned as a result of the screenwriting sessions.

To promote the book, there will be Battling Boy gallery exhibits simultaneously in New York and Paris. In New York, the exhibit will feature all aspects of Paul’s work on Battling Boy, from the first sketches to the completed pages. The exhibit will be at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and will be presented by the Society of Illustrators from October 8 to November 2, 2013. Paul expects thousands of children to see his work, as schools send busloads of their students to visit the museum. Paul said at the New York show that he would also have a wall of influences that will expose the children to great artist’s that they might not find out about otherwise.

Gene Yang

Gene Yang was at SDCC to promote his release of two books, on the same date. Gene will be releasing the book Boxers and the book Saints on September 10, 2013. The focus of both books is the Boxer Rebellion, which took place in China in 1900, and each book tells a different side.

Gene was inspired to do the books when Pope John Paul canonized 120 Chinese martyrs, 86 of whom had been killed during the Boxer Rebellion. As a Catholic Chinese American, Gene was very proud of this and wanted to make people more aware of the story of the Boxer Rebellion, and during the research he himself learned a lot more than he knew before.

Gene shared that during the 1800s, European countries had establish concessions over parts of China, essentially colonies, as the Chinese government was very weak at the time and could not stop them. Many of the poor teenage boys in China couldn’t stand this and were embarrassed. The boys looked to the pop culture of the time for inspiration, and for them it was Chinese Opera. Chinese Operas would travel the country telling stories, but not whole stories, only the most exciting parts, the parts with the heroes and battles. The boys were inspired to fight and felt that the Chinese gods could give them superpowers so they could get rid of the European colonizers.

Gene said that the books are aimed at high school students, and that while they are companion books, they do tell standalone stories. Boxer is a longer book than Saints, and uses full color. He wanted it to look like an epic Chinese film, such as Jet Li’s film Hero. Saints is shorter, and makes sparse use of color, to be more along the lines of what a Saint represents.

After the second Battling Boy book comes out, Paul will be rereleasing his THB series through First Second Books as a five book series. Gene will currently working on his next project, The Shadow Hero, with Sonny Liew. It will feature the Green Turtle, a hero from 1940s whose rights fell into public domain. The character has been referred to as the first Asian superhero.