Literary Things: The One Trick Rip-Off and Visual Poetry

Well hello again, all. It’s been a while since I’ve flexed the review muscles here at Tellurian Things, so apologies for the long absence! Over the past few months, I’ve been devouring a lot of books– mostly graphic novels– and I thought of one in particular that might just appeal to all of you prose-heads out there. I talked about it a little bit over at my Tumblr, but I’m expanding and clarifying my thoughts here.

Allow me to introduce you to the mad brushwork of Mr. Paul Pope. Part fashion-designer, part Dark Prince of Comics, this is a guy who fuses poetry, literature, and world cultures into a heady package. And this book should be your gateway:

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The One Trick Rip-Off (+ Deep Cuts) arrived in the mail about a month ago and it was a fairly quick read, even at over 200 pages. But I liked it. My previous encounters with Paul Pope taught me that, if anything, he has this carefully cultivated vibe that reads like a less anti-heroic Lord Byron. He’s the cosmopolitan romantic of the comics world.

His C.V. is pretty impressive. Besides doing design work with Diesel and DKNY, he’s known for his time at Japanese manga giant, Kodansha, as well as his independently produced (and frustratingly hard to find) Mars comic, THB. He also counts comic grandmasters like Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Frank Miller as personal friends and mentors. Back in the early ’00’s, he caught the eye of DC Comics, who invited him to do some original graphic novels for their Vertigo line, then play in their licensed characters’ sandbox with works like Batman: Year 100 and a gorgeous Adam Strange serial in Wednesday Comics. He’s also got a new monster fight comic called Battling Boy coming out from First Second later this year.

Part of what makes Pope a super comics-god is his sinewy and sensuous brush line. His pages are a mess of black splatters and angular anatomy, but they decode quickly into environments where pretty people pose, converse, and fall in love with endless cool. It’s something like if Jack Kirby turned to fashion illustration and lived in Tokyo. There’s a lot of power, but also a lot of ache in Pope’s ink– it’s visual poetry, essentially– and it’s a big part of his appeal.

Of course, style isn’t much if you don’t have substance to back it up, and Pope’s reputation makes you anticipate an angle or two. I think one thing that refreshed me here was that this book is his “early work” collection, culled from his first decade in comics. As a result, these stories are all old enough to show a more loose, experimental version of the artist, and it’s fun to watch him figure out what he had to say.

The titular story, which takes up the first half of the book, was pretty darned great.  It concerns two young lovers who aspire to get the heck out of their dead-end city. The only problem is, they’re associated with a street gang called the One Tricks, and they think the best way to bring their dreams to life is to betray and rob their cohorts. Naturally, conflict ensues– and since the “One Trick” is essentially a low-level form of hypnotism that allows you to manipulate your enemies, it plays out in a delightfully unusual fashion. It’s a solid model of mood-building, it has a romance you can believe in, and the climax has high emotional stakes. (It’s the first time I winced in anxiety at a comic, I think). Its also an examination of the tension between pride and love, which I found intriguing. Some spotty character rationale crops up in the middle, but overall, this is the strongest solo work I think I’ve read by Pope. I’ll take messy-but-sincere over polished and distant any day of the week.

The other stories that round out the book are also engaging, though not as meaty. If anything, the rest can be categorized as experiments in adapting poems, making a go at manga (“Supertrouble” is a fun example that can be enjoyed at face value), and doing some autobiography. The personal bits are some of my favorites in the second half, especially “Four Cats,” where Pope lowers his guard enough to let us relieve a memorable rebuke. It’s a different take on the pride vs. love scenario, but on the level enough to sting a little more.

The book is bound in a glossy hard cover, and it feels and smells like a brand-new high school textbook. Considering the lessons you can learn from looking at a master cartoonist’s formative work, I’d say it’s an apt format. If you’re interested in comics that have some literary ambition and tons of style, it’s definitely worth picking up.

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About Ben Humeniuk
Married to Christin, dad of two, follower of Christ. I'm an educator and a cartoonist. And I'm going to encourage us to understand.

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