Catch Her in ihe Rye: Paul Pope's THB
With visual elements sampled from the recent past and a science fiction tomorrow, Pope presents a future as garish as it is plausible.
Paul Pope's THB is one girl's sprawling and surreal journey across planets as running from bug-faced monsters with the aid of her protector, THB, a molecule that transforms into a giant “super-mek” when activated with water. What's particularly perfect about the THB series, and Pope's work in general--which he has been self-releasing in creative blitzes since 1995--is how he manages to integrate aesthetic elements from Asian, European, and American graphic genres and end up with a wholly original style that, despite its English language narrative, is very cross-cultural.
As embarrassing as it is to say, I first encountered Pope in last year's Wednesday Comics which saw a number of high-profile artists in the graphic medium taking on their favorite DC heroes in 14” by 20” newsprint broadsheets week after week. Pope's working of Strange Adventures was also my first introduction to DC's Adam Strange, an archeologist transported through time and space by a “zeta-beam”. More than any other artist in the Wednesday Comics collection, Pope's dream-like portraits of alien planet Rann and gorilla-esque beasts had me sprawled out on the floor like a child, carefully pouring over each image with wide eyes.
Thankfully Thought Balloonists blogger and scholar Craig Fisher came to the rescue with a stack of oversized trade paperbacks of Pope's work, namely THB (writing this blog is a sad reminder that I need to return the last of this stack). “THB 6a”, released in 2000, is a continuation of young protagonist HR Watson's journey. By this issue, Pope has hit a comfortable stride. While all the issues are oddly compelling, 6a reins in the narrative tighter than the others, and with a humorous, fourth-wall breaking introduction, it can be read in isolation, as a stand-alone story.
This first panel actually comes from the introductory “recap” of the premise, in which HR's good friend Lollie explains that HR has left V-City, Mars on a Sprint-X Racer in attempt to escape the “bugfaces” out to steal her THB. The image of the bugface in this panel always elicits a smirk from me. From the top-hat with the white silk band to the bug eyes and the masked grill mouth, it's a great villain in that it's dark and unknowable in its inhumanness, but also humorously extravagant. It is also representative of Pope's characteristic mash-up of time and place. Both the bugface's style and the world they exist in are pastiches of the past, present, and our conception of the future. Nineteenth-century top hats are worn and the Sprint-X Racer looks like a chopped Harley Davidson, but Pope's black and white illustrations depict the barren surfaces of far away planets and galaxies. Not to mention the hyper-scientific jargon that is injected into 80s-style SoCal teenager speak (see Lollie's intro).
You also can't ignore this panel's wonderful text. “You don't know what bugfaces are, right?” Lollie says to the reader in the previous panel. Well, bugfaces are “Baby-sitters, blow-horns, tariff-sheriffs, big mouths, trip-ya-ups…doublestoppers, egg scramblers, braindrainers, etc. That sorta thing”. It's a playful exercise with language and in this panel it happens to beautifully capture a quirky young girl's conception of soulless authoritarians. Pope nails the cadence, rhythm, and rhyme. For me it is like rereading Holden's rants in The Catcher in the Rye as an adult, Pope understands the callow rejection of everything that obstructs again a young person's vision of a perfect world.
Because there are too many perfect panels in this issue, I want to end with a two-panel page a couple of pages later that shows the creepy, silent arrival of a bugface to HR's current location. The use of a thick brush pen allows for the bold lines that move from thick to thin with applied pressure. Aesthetically, the buildings show an Indian influenced architecture. The frantic brush work and chaotic marks on the walls and stairs are an eerie indication of age and dilapidation. But the inclusion of a strange four-fingered hand with an eye in the center is a surreal reminder that this is not the place you think it is.
Recommended for all comics readers, THB is a book overflowing with perfect panels that tangle old with new, mythic with scientific, and make for a truly pleasurable experience. Pope's ongoing capacity to transcend boundaries is not only limited to the work he delivers to audiences, but can also be seen in the way in which he produces that artwork. The YouTube video below, showing footage of Pope sketching for a fan at a convention, is pure poetry to watch.