[TIM: For those new to the concept of the Comics Comics Cage Match, it’s basically a recurring feature that gives us a way to present no-holds-barred arguments about comics and comics-related issues about which we don’t quite see eye to eye. Rules: Dan puts up some thoughts, and sometime in the near future, Frank and I will respond. We’ll keep going back and forth until it feels like we’re done. Readers are welcome to throw tomatoes at us through the bars in the comments. (Oh, and if you haven’t read this series yet and don’t like spoilers, you may want to skip this.)]
DAN: Put on your masks and pull up your tights, because, as advertised, our second cage match is about Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope. (1999-2000, DC Comics).
I should note, before this gets bloody, that on most days I really admire Paul Pope’s sheer rendering skill. He makes exciting comic book pages. His Batman was incredibly fun. So, I like Paul Pope the action cartoonist. He gets the visceral pleasures of fight scenes and running and humping and going fast and etc. That’s not easy to do. I am not so much an admirer, however, of Paul Pope the artiste. I think his single image work is, at best, a goofy kitschy pastiche of good girl and pulp imagery. At worst, it’s just humorless advertising art, not so dissimilar to this guy. What bothers me about both of these guys, and Pope in particular, is that the work exudes “attitude”, like a model’s sneer. It signifies something, but has absolutely nothing else going for it. So, when I note that I like Paul Pope as an action cartoonist I mean I like him in a utilitarian way — like, I wish he’d drawn Batman for 20 years. I like him in a similar way as liking Gene Colan or even Alex Toth (though both are more interesting artists) — I just want to look at the comics and try not to read them. If you read them, for the most part, you’re sunk.
So that brings me to Heavy Liquid, which is about a disaffected male model’s (ok, maybe not, but basically) adventurous journey to find his disaffected artist ex-girlfriend and learn about the mysterious new substance, Heavy Liquid, which can be used as a drug or made into a weapon or even — gasp! — art! Sound familiar somehow? Well, it’s basically like P.K. Dick with a dash of D. Hammet thrown in and some liberal use of “downtown” art references like Rita Ackermann (misspelled once, but who’s counting, and an obvious influence on Pope’s rendering style and general artistic pose). The material is so slim that is just slips by. Everyone smokes. There’s coffee brewing all the time. And shit is always hazy. Oh yeah, and then there’s narration like this: “The artist’s city. More like hamburger city. Besides, they killed art years ago. They killed it, then replaced it with a simulation. Then life was replaced with a simulation.” I mean, are you kidding? This is the sort of thing I tried to pass off as “deep” at age 14, holding a bong in one hand and an issue of X-Men in another. It’s so dumb that I actually feel guilty pointing it out. I could look past all of this and just enjoy it if I bought into the attitude behind the work. Or rather, the attitude, period. Because besides the art, the whole thing is attitude: it’s one big trashy leer. It’s about being world weary, skinny, jaded, romantically paranoid, romantically tough and romantically romantic. It’s also completely humorless and un-selfconscious, which is surprising considering how brazenly it’s drawn from other sources (name your film noir or crime novel, your Fellini film, your late 80s/early 90s indie rock, etc etc.).
Which brings me to Nick Cave. The only comparable thing I can think of is Nick Cave. Like Pope, he makes competent, sometimes exciting genre material (though, unlike Pope, he did have a glory period with The Birthday Party). And like Pope, he depends a lot on buying into a kind of shaved-chest/copious hairdo/smokey/sexy/wounded/bad boy/asshole thing that I know someone finds interesting, but I’m still not sure why. I don’t like Nick Cave either. He’s boring, too. So maybe that’s just it: I don’t like this particular attitude. Other attitudes I suppose I like, or at least have more patience with. Just not this one. I need something more than pithy cliches about love lost and finding authenticity and smoking, and wearing little t-shirts and stuff. And, for me, Heavy Liquid pretty much ends at the attitude. I’m sure Frank and Tim will come up with something awesome, though, especially since Frank secretly loves Nick Cave. Just kidding, Frank.
TIM: Jeez, Dan. You were smoking out of a bong at 14? You matured faster than I did, I guess. I’ve got to do some scanning before I respond at greater length, but I do think that Dustin in the comments has a point. A lot of this seems more like an ad hominem argument (what does Nick Cave have to do with anything?) than it does a critique of the book per se. Outside of that bit you quote from the Paris scene in issue four, anyway. That monologue really is one of the worst parts of the book, though you cut it off before it got semi-interesting (in a revealing way) — when the protagonist starts musing about “the Romantics”:
People going to see the Mona Lisa, not to look at it, but because it’s the Mona Lisa. Then they quit going to see it all. They’d just stitch it on a screen. A picture of a picture on a screen. A knowing, tired nudge and wink saying, we’ve seen it all. It’s all been done. Don’t try anything new. We’ve used up “new.”
…the Romantics never believed that, though. They’d say, maybe you’ve heard it and said it all — but I haven’t. So art isn’t dead. It’s just holed up in some second-floor studio…
All the same, I say to Hell with the Romantics. They were never a sensible bunch to begin with.
Leaving aside the grammatical issues here, considering that there’s no real reason for “S” (the protag) to care much about art, it’s hard to see this is as anything other than a statement from Pope himself. But what that statement means is beyond me, at least for the moment.
FRANK: I don’t like Nick Cave, I’m more of a Reid Paley kind of guy.
Shit, I haven’t even had a chance to breathe, Dan’s been smashing my face against the turnbuckle and then the cage’s fence. The referee is calling for a break. Okay, here goes:
So everyone knows about THB, right? THB was a big free-wheelin’ indie hit in the mid ’90s. After that, if I remember correctly, Pope did stories for Dark Horse Presents (and famously worked for a Japanese publisher around then, too), and after that, Heavy Liquid was his first book for the majors. I think on his Dark Horse stories they had someone else lettering. The idea was to polish Pope up. You can imagine the meetings at DC: “So, we’ve got to get him to tighten up the way the balloons are placed — and don’t let him letter the book himself–” So Pope agrees (I’m imagining all this) and uses a circle template for the balloons. And DC gets workhouse John Workman to letter it in a “futuristic” style.
Well, it worked! I remember not liking this constraint put on Escapo himself (Pope) and maybe I shied away from the book at first because of this, mostly because I was a real THB fan and thought it looked “off” compared to his black-and-white work. I liked the color of Heavy Liquid and appreciated the way it created a different depth compared to the black-and-white, but I liked how I “immersed” myself in the B&W work and how the whole reading experience was about this connection to shapes, positive and negative, blah, blah, blah. So despite thinking it looked cool Heavy Liquid looked too busy for me, too complicated to follow. I just wanted HR Watson and THB jumping around the page, crazy easy-to-follow action scenes, and also a storyline that was like, oh I dunno Sub-Mariner vs Iron Man. Action! Then I could just skip the talking heads parts. So that’s why I didn’t read this when it came out. Now when I look at the color and the default circle word balloons and the non-Pope lettering, I kind of like it.
But this is going to be “tough love” because while I think this book is good, it’s not great. And forgive the “notes” like quality of my comments. I don’t have the patience to flesh out all my observations or arguments:
— Love the opening with the parade, the elephant, the lighting, the airiness of it all, reflecting the drug, the swirling steam from the kettle.
— It feels like a concentrated effort, a “try-out” for the majors. Symbols reinforced strongly — a little “stagey” — and that’s not helped by the clunky, noir-ish dialogue. As the story goes on, the lead character’s interior narration becomes annoying and I found myself only reading it for information when I didn’t understand a passage by action alone. The bath scene in issue 2 is particularly exhausting.
— NYC feels impenetrable. Downtown, Chinatown, pre-9/11 take on the “future.” We don’t know much about S’s life before they cook up the stuff (heavy liquid as drug) in #1. Inherently noir approach and narrative propulsion, but also familiar entry point in NYC: drug experience, shared experience, portal inside — as soon as heavy liquid arrives there is this access, this feels real, like NYC.
— Hard to identify with lead (classic cypher), yet he’s almost too defined, not “blank” enough for the reader to project upon. A Bogie/Mitchum type with none of the weaknesses that make them so likable. Yet the character is believable. You gotta have balls to navigate the part of NYC I feel he is depicting.
— Beautiful scenes of NYC life. The vibe, the “background”, really informs the action, but S doesn’t really engage the setting. (He’s in his own world understood, yes, but it feels like a missed opportunity.)
— Poor transition in issue one at key scene, with Guernica horse-head-mask-wearing Clown. This scene in number one is awesome where at one point a bad guy is gonna catch up with the good guy main character but when the action unfolds a very important transition is fumbled, I’d scan all three pages in here but it’ll take forever. Beginning with page 21 in issue one the Clown Gang sees S in a cab and chases him down, they get stuck in traffic so the clown wearing a horse-head mask that looks like the horse from Guernica walks between cars and approaches S’s cab. There is a striking image of the masked clown, half a page that sets up the page-turning action which … FALLS IMMEDIATELY APART when the page is turned because it is unclear if the car is speeding away from the clown or towards him, at first I thought the clown was getting run over and then I looked closely and the cab was simply pulling away. Hmmm. I mean, it’s beautifully drawn and when I examine it closely, I see that, okay, it’s not that muffed a transition, but really this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter and whatever momentum was building was thwarted by a simple transition. I appreciate his action sequences, but details like this are of paramount importance, I think. Like a beautiful thrilling, dazzling, stick-handling display by a hockey team on an offensive rush, a mighty slap shot is unleashed and OH! He MISSED the NET! Bummer.
— But then a few pages later, a moment like this one with the red curtain just overpowers me and I stare at it for awhile.
— Motivation beyond lost love and addiction?
— Issue 2 screeches to a halt — the beginning “explains” the first issue. A plodding, barely tolerable pace sets in. S takes a bath, reflects on the fix he’s in. While I enjoy the counterpoint of the action (bath) to the narration (long-winded explanation over 2 pages), it interrupts the flow considerably.
— For someone on the run — or at least in danger of being found, S is very languid. Besides the bath, he lounges around while “stitched in”, searching for Rodan. Then real world art star Rita Ackermann is introduced, except she’s old now, it’s the future. This all seems like a romantic sci-fi interpretation of Pope’s life.
— By the middle of issue 3 (there’s only 5 in the series), even though I know exactly what’s going on, nothing is going on; the dominoes that Pope sets up never seem to drop. There’s little in the way of real tension, or real motivation or empathy on my part for any of the characters. I have no emotional connection with them, or the narrative. It takes me along on the ride and I thoroughly enjoy looking at the faces and composition and everything, but it’s almost worse because I DO like the art and the storytelling so much. There are so many narrative side streets that Pope sets up (the Forked Tung gang) that feel very genuine and interesting, but add very little to the overall narrative thrust. I really like the bar scene with the handcuffs, but the whole set-up of the Forked Tung gang feels like Pope got bored with the non-story and began making a more exciting one within..
— Info not conveyed in the fight scene in issue 3. Does he have the briefcase in his hand on the previous page? Oh, so that’s what he whacks the guy with… It stops me. Have to go back..
— End of 3 is soooo bad. Builds tension then typical cliffhanger but feels ‘off’.
— Wait, did S “discover” using heavy liquid as a drug? If so, then why are the Clowns after him? He never explains what it’s for in issue one, and because he shows it being used as a drug twice in issue one, it’s assumed that it is valuable for that reason. When it is revealed that S invented the method, then it feels as though Pope had to add that the Clowns use it for explosives, and while I’m at it the Clowns feels like an Akira sample. Or The Warriors, your pick. Their role diminishes as the series goes on, and their threat feels canned when this info is revealed in the fourth issue. If the Clowns used it like S uses it, then I can see the motivation for finding him and it. If it’s just for explosives then big deal.
— End of 4 has no drama. The implied drama — Rodan saying she never wants to see “S” again — feels as though it’s supposed to be dramatic and instead comes off stale. That’s the cliffhanger for the penultimate chapter? These flourishes weren’t so common in THB and unhinged from serialization (most THB stories are modular but also self-contained — look THB is fighting someone, saving HR!) Pope’s emotional interpersonal dialogue in that series is a little more naively endearing.
— The “emotional” exchanges are really clunky, and while the body language, drawing, lighting, composition, etc., is impeccable, I feel nothing for the lead character and only a slight “something” for the mysterious Rodan who’s been getting the buildup for 100 pages. Sigh. Old lovers re-united. A dime-a-dozen type scene handled without any real originality.
— It’s really a shame. The art is so good, but the story is so muddy. Like some series of events in one’s life that are all connected and deeply intriguing to the person in question, but a story which to another person is like a confusing anecdote told in a loud bar that comes in snatches. Wait, what happened? Tell me that part about the Forked Tung Gang, I like that part. If S would have ditched everyone and made a left turn in the narrative with the girl he was handcuffed to, that would have been great. In the end it feels unnecessary to the overall story.
— Oh, he conveniently wraps it up in a nice little package, literally, at the beginning of issue 5. And then as the train rolls away into the sunset, makes a grocery list of loose ends that he needs to tie up.
Trust, drug addiction, the “other”, the secret sharer, NYC anonymity that leads to “After Hours-like” adventures. The drug sharing is the bond and the blade. It’s a smart story, and I enjoy the topic. It’s so much better than most comics, but I think Pope either tries to do too much or too little. It’s weird, for the first half of it, 100 pages in, I feel like I’m enjoying myself despite nothing really “gelling.”
— Action framework and trying to shoehorn “feelings” into it. Would have preferred it the other way around.
Okay, there’s my round. I might lose this one fans, I can’t defend this work so well, and I really like Paul’s comics.
DAN: I’ll have to respond to Frank later — that’s a lot of text! But first I’ll respond to Tim: I think the rest of that “romantics” passage is just as bad — the bit about Mona Lisa is the kinda thing you hear at midnight in a youth hostel from that guy you met during the day but now really want to get away from. Basically S/Pope is trying to find a way to re-engage with the world but at the same time won’t commit to any actual philosophy, thus maintaining the devil-may-care/disaffected stance. I mentioned Nick Cave because he seems, like Pope, to be creating proficient, pulp genre-based stuff that also substitutes a posture/attitude for real content. There’re no real characters here — just “feels” or moods. That’s a real problem. There’s no there, there.
TIM: Oh of course, Dan. I wasn’t trying to say that the rest of that passage was any better, just that it seemed to reveal a little bit more about Pope’s art philosophy. But you’re right.
We may have already scared a lot of readers a way with this kind of impenetrable commentary, so maybe we should explain the basic plot of Heavy Liquid for anyone who’s left.
It’s the year 2075. S seems to be a former cop/fed/private eye who lives in New York, and is now involved in hazily defined semi-criminal activities to support his addiction to “heavy liquid”, a substance that apparently fell to earth in an asteroid. He uses it as a drug that he pours into his ear, but (as Frank points out) no one besides his small circle of friends seems to be aware of this use for the substance. (We learn late in the series that it can also be used as an explosive.) A mysterious collector hires him to search for a missing sculptor named Rodan, who is also S’s ex-girlfriend. (The collector wants Rodan to make a sculpture using the strange heavy liquid.) S and a friend named Luis have recently stolen a bunch of heavy liquid from some gangsters (the mask-wearing “Clowns”), who kill Luis and come looking for S. A federal agent with strange electric powers is also looking for S and the heavy liquid, and after a series of fights and escapes, S meets the 103-year-old Rita Ackermann (!) who tells him that Rodan is in Paris. S meets her there, and hooks Rodan up with the collector. Then S takes a train, reminisces, meets the electric agent on the train, and escapes once more. Finally, he takes the heavy liquid one more time, and discovers that it is really a kind of alien life form, who he sort of wants to be friends with. The end.
I’ll be back later with some actual thoughts, but this kind of plot summary seemed like a good idea to put in somewhere.
FRANK: Wait, you met some guy at a youth hostel, Dan? When was this?
TIM: Unfortunately, it looks like (just like last time) we may be arguing about a comic that we don’t actually disagree about that much. But since we’ve already started, let’s see if we can’t draw out a few more points in detail.
First, I think we’re giving Pope a little bit of short shrift. As commenter Dustin points out, Pope occupies a fairly peculiar place in American comics: he’s got feet in both the indie and big-publisher worlds, he creates genre science fiction of a kind more often seen in Europe than here in the States, and he has a very idiosyncratic drawing style (which, partly because of his own influence, doesn’t seem nearly as idiosyncratic now as it did a decade ago). If Heavy Liquid is ultimately a failure, at least it’s an interesting one, and in 1999, most of Vertigo’s output was anything but interesting. Pope deserves credit for that.
Secondly, despite the book’s narrative flaws (I agree with both of you that there are many of them), the atmosphere of the book is really kind of incredible. Nearly all of the characters are stock genre types (world-weary anti-hero, criminal goon, female friend who doesn’t understand why men have to be such “cowboys”, wealthy and opaquely motivated client, etc.), but the world Pope creates is vivid and intense. In that way, Heavy Liquid isn’t all that dissimilar to Blade Runner, a film with revolutionary mise-en-scène but featuring a plot and cardboard characters that don’t stand up to much scrutiny.
But therein lies part of the problem, because in 1982, Blade Runner‘s weird meld of science fiction and noir, and its junky, ultra-cool, multicultural setting was excitingly fresh and new (at least in terms of film), whereas seventeen years later, Heavy Liquid feels like a bit of a retread.
Throughout the 1980s, “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and many others wrote dozens of novels and stories like this: Dashiell Hammett updated to the 21st century, with a drug-, crime-, and media-saturated milieu of street-level hustlers (and artists) navigating a corrupt near-future world of mysterious corporations and government agencies. At the time, cyberpunk felt new, and writers like Gibson and Sterling brought more than style to the table: the environments they depicted seemed more plausible than the default robots-and-spaceships future of science fiction past. And their fictional worlds were thought-out — the details mattered.
Heavy Liquid doesn’t look thought-through at all. In one issue, Pope includes a map of 2075 Manhattan, and every neighborhood (Chinatown, Tribeca, etc.) is exactly the same size and shape as in 1999. At first, the front-buckled “Colonial” boots that S wears seem like a brilliant note, just the kind of thing that people would be wearing when the United States nears its Tricentennial. But later on, we learn that S has been wearing the same boots for many years, and the note suddenly strikes false. Finally, in another issue, Pope describes one of the most popular entertainments of the day, a prime-time show called “The Goose” that features “51 minutes of rapid digi-splice images of exploding battleships interspersed with close-ups of engorged human genitalia, followed by 9 minutes of white noise accompanied by a blank, pink color field.” This is the kind of idea you might find in a J.G. Ballard story, and it’s kind of interesting (how would a society that found such things entertaining come about?), but nothing else in the comic really backs it up. From all indications, people in 2075 act exactly like people in 1999. It’s just a cool detail that doesn’t connect up with anything else in the story.
At other times, this kind of detailing works a lot better. Pope includes several pages featuring the clothing and products people wear (along with their prices and wear to buy them), and it effectively sets up the designer youth culture he depicts. When S steps out of the bathtub and wraps his long, wet hair (style: “The Jagger”) in a towel, it’s funny. You rarely see a male action protagonist so vain about his appearance. But aside from that vanity, S has no discernible personality traits at all. He’s just a standard-issue dime-store detective in designer leather pants.
the biggest problem one of the biggest disappointments for me: the second-hand nature of it all. When Moebius created sf comics, the planets and people he drew were strange and otherworldly, like nothing readers had seen before. Moebius was influenced (and adapted stories by) obscure cult writers like Robert Sheckley and Jack Vance. Heavy Liquid is just Blade Runner and Neuromancer all over again, the two most familiar sf settings of the day.
I also agree with Frank about some of the action staging; the two sequences he points out (the taxi chase and the fight in the elevator) were places I too had problems following the sequence of events. I’ll point out another once I do some scanning.
Oh, but on a more positive note: Pope’s drawings are beautiful, and that shouldn’t be understated. And the sequences where S does heavy liquid are among the best depictions of drug use I’ve ever seen in a comic. You have to give Pope that.
TIM: Okay. Man, scanning takes a long time. I guess I should’ve done this yesterday.
First, I want to highlight a passage that Frank already commented on, the section in the first issue when one of the Clowns, Kip, has just spotted S in a taxi, and gets out of his car to creep up on him.
Pope ran a contest asking readers to pick their favorite panel from the first issue, and the top panel from this page apparently got a lot of votes. It’s pretty easy to see why:
That’s a great page, evocative and thrilling. There’s some nice detail work, too. A reader who is paying attention will notice Kip creeping up in the rear-view mirror in the bottom-right panel.
Which pays off in the page that follows:
This one was a little more difficult for me to follow. I had to read the page a couple of times to get my bearings, and to understand why S was leaning forward and gasping, and basically, just how the POV works here in general. But in the end, it all makes sense, and I don’t mind the initial awkwardness at all. Others might disagree, but this seems like a pretty clever way to build tension.
But then, just as Frank claimed earlier, it all falls apart:
It’s certainly a striking series of images, but I must have read this page (and the ones preceding and following it) a dozen times, and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Is the taxi going forwards or backwards? It’s obvious from what follows that the taxi is simply pulling away, but you sure couldn’t tell it from this.
This and similar poorly-told action sequences are frustrating, because at other times, Pope does a great job with them. Blogger seems to have started giving me trouble uploading images, so I can’t show them right now, but some pages, such as Luna’s escape from the Clowns, or the part where S barges into the hotel room full of girl-gang members, are very compelling, and display a rare kinetic energy. It’s a shame that he doesn’t pull it off more often, because he’s definitely got the chops. And like Frank said, “this is one of the most dramatic and striking moments of the first chapter … details like this are of paramount importance.”
TIM: All right, Blogger helped me out on one more image.
This is from the fourth issue, after S sneaks onto Rodan’s Paris apartment roof.
Am I the only one who can’t figure out how he fell through that window?
Okay. Over to Frank and Dan.
FRANK: For me, the packaging of the book is totally what I wanted to do with Cold Heat and it’s really funny to me to see the issues of HL now like some long lost artifact before the “war years” in NYC. (P.S. See comments section for color commentary from me.)
It really sings at issue-length, and I’m glad that I read it this way, in individual issues. Also, the color “works”. Consistently. It’s all about the tonal range and it’s perfect for the world that’s being depicted. And it’s still really awesome all around, despite everything in the story that goes off-base. I really don’t mind the stagey-ness of it because the art is so “on”, but it just underscores how good THB really is…
What? Who said that in the third row? You don’t like THB? Thats it, I’m going after you–
Well, Dan’s allowed to bring in “image” and P.P. “the artiste” and whatever, but the thing is we’re reviewing a comic book. So I tried to check my assumptions at the door. It is hard to separate P.P. the person from his work, especially when he puts himself into the story (more or less), but the hope is that the work will transcend the “attitude.” So yeah, I get it, but sometimes, for example, I hear a cool country song that I like and then I’m aghast that it’s played by a band that I hate. Or that I am supposed to hate. (This happened to me when my metal-head friend made fun of me for singing along to the Grateful Dead in the car. “I didn’t know!”(Insert Nelson Muntz laff.))
So Dan, I figure you’ll say that this book doesn’t cut it and you might be right. However, it’s a cheap shot to roll this out as your main argument. If you don’t like the book, fine, but do the work first, review it, give a little, take a little.
The art and P.P.’s comic, Heavy Liquid, is on review here, not the person. And if you’re gonna gripe about what you’ve already griped about, don’t bother.
There, that ought to rile him up!
TIM: Body blow!
FRANK: It’s the bar scenes and the “landscape” around the action that take on a real “presence.” What about that, Nadel? What’s that got to do with attitude?
DAN: Sorry, I had to take a break to run my elitist publishing company for a little while. Anyhow, I don’t think I was reviewing the person at all. What I was saying was that the work itself is about attitude. This has little to do with the person, and is really just about the feel and ultimate content (or lack thereof). Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. I dunno. I was just bored silly by it. There are no discernible characters, and the setting, once you take away the, as I’ve said, gorgeous linework, etc., is, as Tim noted, completely bland. Frank, I think the landscape takes on a nice presence because of the linework and colors, but I guess in this case it’s not enough to sustain my interest. Pope is an exciting stylist, but to my mind the best stylists, like Moebius, as Tim astutely noted, invent, and there’s nothing here invented. And, like I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with that — I liked his Batman because he didn’t have to invent — he could just lay his style over ready-made content and, presto, instant entertainment. But that sort of does it for me. On some level it’s hard to write about this book because besides getting into the nitty gritty, as Tim admirably does (but which I’m not inspired enough/too lazy to do), there’s not much to say.
TIM: You know, I kind of wish we’d picked a different Paul Pope comic for this debate, because it might have been more interesting/fair to argue about either an early, more wholly independent comic like THB or a later title that reflected Pope’s more mature storytelling ability. But what’s done is done, so here are a few final thoughts.
First, in some ways, I think it looks like I dislike Heavy Liquid here a lot more than I actually do. I don’t want to repeat myself, but Pope does get a lot of things right here. The imagery is consistently stunning, the setting is dense and vivid, and his layouts and composition are excellent. I think his visual storytelling stumbles far too often (there are several more examples than the ones I already posted above), which is a big problem, but at other times, he handles action and movement with real and unusual grace. These are not small things, and if it seems like I’m dwelling more on the flaws than I am on what works, well … the flaws really stand out in context. But flaws and all, I have to say that I wish there were more artists like Paul Pope in comics, not less.
Someone in the comments mentioned the ending, and I have to agree that yes, it’s one of the best moments in the book, a transcendent sequence that might have just worked as a slingshot effect if it didn’t feel so disconnected from the rest of the book. Earlier, Frank mentioned how late in the series we learn that heavy liquid can be used as an explosive, and that really does kind of capture in a nutshell the missed opportunities here: how can you present a concept like that and never let the reader actually see it in action? (The much-quoted line by Chekhov comes to mind: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”) All the elements of a potentially great adventure/mystery story (minus interesting characters — another big problem) are here — they just got bungled in the storytelling. Maybe a big part of this stems, as Frank semi-implied, from the fact that this was Pope’s first real comic for a big publisher. In any case, reading this again has definitely made me interested in checking out 100% and some of Pope’s other work. If he figures out how to iron out some of the narrative and visual wrinkles (and maybe he already has in comics I haven’t read), I think he could pull off something really valuable and unique.
So I think that’s it for me. Any final words, Frank?
FRANK: In my post-match press conference, I’m gonna call this one a draw. Mostly because Dan came out swinging but then wouldn’t really review the thing, and while that is kinda fair, I guess — it is his personal taste after all — it makes for a dull match. We’ve just wound up with a book that we all don’t really, uh, disagree on, wanna fight over.
There are tons of books out there like that. Dan knows I like Bob Layton‘s Iron Man run and has made fun of me for keeping them ’round the office, but so what? Bob Layton rulez!
Anyways, fans, I say it’s a draw. (Though check out the comments section for a few more of my thoughts that I wasn’t able to squeeze in up here.)
The landscape, the feeling of New York in the ’90s, YOUTH, this futurepastpresent that dominated the pop culture then: Pope did a great job with these signs. The narrative fumbles, ultimately, are forgivable. It’s a comic book for cryin’ out loud! And it was a fun read, so there.
The fun was the night life and the lighting and the otherworldliness to it. The ending with the alien life form was surprising and it made me think of THB, like I said, but really it was a comic book ending. At the end of the day, I’d rather read this than Fun Home. Sorry. Or Persepolis. Okay, or Blankets.
TIM: And on that auspicious note (a hat trick of cheap shots), I think this Cage Match comes to an end. (At least for us. Please feel free to keep arguing in the comments.) I hope all bruised feelings will eventually heal. Good night, fight fans!