Paul Pope has created an inventive and joyful universe in the graphic novel “Battling Boy” that both children and adults can escape into, and one in which will keep the reader grinning from ear to ear for the entire duration of the book’s nonstop fun. “Battling Boy” is just the opening salvo of a potentially ongoing epic journey featuring a new and endearing hero. The reader will yearn for more Battling Boy adventures and this reviewer hopes Pope’s promise of more tales featuring this diminutive demigod comes to fruition. One can tell from the world building evident in this first adventure that Pope has many more stories percolating in his imagination for this thirteen-year-old superheroic demigod to embark upon for years to come. Imaginative and inspired writing, art, and lettering by Pope (as well as lush and gorgeous colors by Hilary Sycamore) breathe life into a story that is reminiscent of Golden and Silver Age comics, yet with a modern sensibility that will appeal to every reader of every age and background.
After Arcopolis’ courageous hero, Haggard West, falls to his death in battle against the monsters who overrun his city, a hero is needed to save a city in distress. Monsters have been snatching the city’s children for years and terrorizing a people who are beyond their breaking point. Luckily, the demigod child Battling Boy who lives in the “hidden gilded realm. The place which hangs suspended above the silver spinning lightning rod” must complete his “rambling” soon. Every child in this mythological land, when they reach the age of thirteen, must prove their mettle through their rambling and fight against tyranny on a world that is chosen for them.
Pope’s writing and ideas are so inventive that the reader will wonder how deep is Pope’s well of imagination. Examples of inventiveness abound. Battling Boy has been given a kit of sixteen items to aid him in battle that are selected by Perithalia, “the lord of wandering duration.” Included within this kit are twelve enchanted t-shirts with twelve animals upon each one. When he wears one of these shirts, Battling Boy gains the power of whatever animal is imprinted on the shirt. Something as simple as this can only be described with one word: awesome. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, being able to battle monsters simply by donning one of these shirts means that ostentatious outfits need not apply in order to be a superhero. Children will especially love this aspect of the book, giving them hours of inspiration for superhero playtime.
Humor is an integral element of “Battling Boy” and is especially evident in the language. Pope is playful with flowery scientific language when Aurora, after her father Haggard West has perished in battle, tells her “teacher and mentor” (possibly inspired by Batman’s Alfred?) Ms. Grately that she would like to study “light amplification by the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation…as it relates to dad’s gas-dynamic laser research.” She says it so nonchalantly as she dries off from a dip in the pool. Even though the science is beyond most people’s scope of understanding, this kind of language adds to the science fiction element of the book. It will bring a grin to anyone, sci-fi fan or not.
Battling Boy’s father has moments of humor where his language will make the reader giggle out loud. He’s big, brash, and larger than life: the way any god-like being from a realm beyond human understanding would act. When they arrive in Arcopolis, father and sun surveil the land. Battling Boy’s father says of the city, “…grim for now a plague of monstrosities pours down upon her, battering her buttresses under abusive burden.” Pope knows how to use alliteration effectively. He gives each character their own voice. Battling Boy’s father, clearly, has his own unique voice. Another gem from the father comes when he interacts with his son. Battling Boy is stammering, saying, “I- I-“, when his father bellows, “AYE!! I MEAN, AYE! AYE!” with eyes bulging and teeth clenched. Pope can expertly switch from intelligent humor to the always enjoyable ridiculous and over-the-top humor.
One must mention the battles in a book that contains the word in its name. Standing before the dreaded Humbaba, a newspaper which describes the monster in hand, Battling Boy catches the beast in mid-“Crunch”. After trying to reason with the Humbaba, action ensues. Hilary Sycamore’s colors and Pope’s inking contribute greatly to Pope’s art, with the monster flicking, dangling, wiggling, and (almost) eating Battling Boy. Pope puts the boy through so much in this scene and demonstrates his perseverance. Pope depicts the monster in an over-the-top, almost monster Muppet-like way that it contrasts greatly with his design of a realistic boy. The emotions emanating from Battling Boy’s face are so visceral that Pope places the reader into the story and makes him or her feel as if they’re inside the book battling the monster themselves. That’s why a cheer would not be inappropriate out of the mouth of a reader.
Hilary Sycamore’s colors are stunning and varied, whether she’s coloring bombastic battles or quiet moments. Before battling the monster called Humbaba (of Gilgamesh fame), Battling Boy gains the power of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the shading of the green appears real and layered. The Humbaba himself is scary, yet in a fun way. Shades of purple and orange, with shadowy black add to the memorable nature of this creature and imbue a sense of the otherworldly. Sycamore’s colors add nuance to other monsters, as when the creature that Battling Boy’s father fights has purple eyes and purple nails. Care and thought is put into the coloring when Battling Boy is alone in his apartment, attempting to, like his father, summon lightning from nothingness. Shadow falls on this scene as he strains to conjure that which will not come. The colors become muted and emotion, as demonstrated here and everywhere else in the book, comes through in Sycamore’s evocative colors.
Attention must be given to the fact that Pope letters this book himself. The non-homogeneity of the letters and word balloons add another dimension to the book, immersing the reader more into Pope’s world. He can decide how big the words are going to be when they come out of the mouth of the evil Sadisto. Word balloons can be different sizes, like when Sadisto listens to the radio and the speaker’s words are in jagged imperfect boxes. Sound effects in battle are drawn in fun ways and imply motion that he, as an artist, can perfect in ways suitable for the scene.
Pope has made the perfect graphic novel for children because adults can enjoy it as well. He doesn’t talk down to children or doubt their intelligence. He makes children, as well adults, think and, at the same time, amuses them throughout the book. Even if certain concepts (such as great scenes involving politics and public relations) go over the heads of some children, they will still get the general idea. Children, as well as adults, will greatly benefit from multiple reads.
“Battling Boy” is clearly a labor of love for Paul Pope. He has created a book that will inspire young and old (and in between) to care about and believe in heroes. Although Battling Boy is young, the reader will believe in him because Pope’s imagination is palpable, infectious, and endless. Anything is possible in this world because of Pope’s unlimited imagination and his love for the comic book art form and, especially, the superhero in everyone.
Written by: Paul Pope
Art: Paul Pope
Colors: Hilary Sycamore
Letters: Paul Pope
Publisher: First Second Books