Cage Match #2: Heavy Liquid (1999-2000)


Monday, February 18, 2008

[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.

That’s probably 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.

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!

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47 Responses to “Cage Match #2: Heavy Liquid (1999-2000)”
  1. Dustin Harbin says:

    I hereby lodge dissent. Pope, like (but obviously in a much different way) Chris Ware, is judged as much for his odd place in comics as he is for the actual comics he produces. This sounds more like an indictment of Pope’s idiosyncratic public persona than a qualitative statement on the merits of Heavy Liquid. I may have misunderstood the rules, though.

  2. Alex Holden says:

    One of the reasons that I thought this would be an interesting choice is because I had (incorrectly) assumed that the coloring of Heavy Liquid was a direct influence on Frank’s Cold Heat pages.

    But I guess not? Frank?

    As a spectator, I’m not really interested in a broad indictment of Pope’s writing. It’s a little lopsided. (As is critiquing Nick Cave’s lyrics/persona without any mention of the music. It’s a package.)

    The great thing about these cage matches is when you guys really tear apart specific passages, as Frank has begun to do. It looks like Tim is hitting the scanner soon…

  3. T Hodler says:

    Good point, Alex. We’ve probably made our point about the story itself (though I had several more nits to pick!).

    Maybe Frank will address the Cold Heat/Heavy Liquid coloring thing in the main post (though since he apparently didn’t read it until recently, I guess it probably wasn’t a direct influence.)

    Okay, to the scanner.

  4. Alex Holden says:

    I think the nit-picking should continue. The specifics are interesting.

    I really agreed with Frank’s point about the Forked Tung gang tangent. I kind of wanted Pope to follow that thread instead of the main story as well.

  5. Dustin Harbin says:

    Yes to the raised eyebrows at the blanket poop-smearing of Pope and Nick Cave, although I’m biased in that I’m a big fan of both, so maybe I’m just not objective enough. No, that’s not true.

    Also yes to the more in-depth assault–while I still disagree with much of it, it’s very thought provoking. Also, and only to clarify, since I was named TWICE (blush!), my initial comment was made after Dan’s original bit, and before any rebuttals.

    And I can’t sit back down without mentioning: I have always looked at Pope’s comics as being in part exercises in style–I still remember wondering what to think when I first read THB, especially the early ones with essays and what-I’m-listening-to-right-now and all that. The Moebius reference is a good one. You wouldn’t judge a Moebius book on the same criteria that you would Booster Gold or something–his books are visionary and strange and wild, but are they satisfying adventures narratives? Blueberry, maybe, but he didn’t write that. His books seem to me more about ideas than about story. Similarly, while the “future” of Heavy Liquid isn’t as consistent as the much nearer future of 100%, it’s best parts (like most science fiction) aren’t involved with flying cars and aliens, but with ideas. Drug-as-weapon, consumer art in the grubby future, and Pope’s libertarian ideas are the meat of Heavy Liquid.

    Damn it, I voted for Persepolis!

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    Hey Alex,
    no Cold Heat’s palette was swiped from a Jessica Ciocci print. That and I talked to the printer at Westcan and he told me I could get the best range of purples with that particular pink and that particular blue.

    But I did find it fascinating reading because I saw it (the palette in HL) more as part of the drug experience than “just a choice” for PP like it is, I think for most folks when they choose a palette. –For me in Cold Heat, I feel like the colors are the story… Ha! So, that rang true for me. The drug being a color.

    Also, I could add this to the main post but…Heavy Liquid is really good. Despite this whole rockstar thing, Pope’s never attempted to hide the
    fact that he’s playing around with “identity” –so it doesn’t bug me really, at the end of the day the guy is a remarkable artist. And maybe Heavy Liquid is just recycling Blade Runner, but- look- when he does work for Marvel and DC what does he do? Recycle Kirby like crazy- his OMAC story in SOLO?, thats totally rad.

  7. T Hodler says:

    Yeah, Frank you should defend it in the main post! I actually like Heavy Liquid a bit more than it sounds like right now myself, but I’m waiting to hear from you or Dan so I don’t feel like I’m just talking to myself.

  8. Eric Reynolds says:

    I vote for Persepolis!

  9. T Hodler says:

    I think Persepolis has to be considered a strong favorite for next time around, even if it seems like no one really likes it that much. (I still haven’t read it.) It’s like the John McCain of Comics Comics.

  10. Frank Santoro says:

    Persepolis is propaganda!

  11. T Hodler says:

    Frank —

    To quote a great Pennsylvanian: “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.”

    Works for Persepolis, too! But I guess we should save this…

  12. Frank Santoro says:

    HaHa. True. I guess Persepolis is our next cage match, eh?

  13. Brian says:

    Doesn’t the ending of Heavy Liquid come out of nowhere? Frank just sort of summarizes it as “tying up loose ends” but it introduces a bunch more of them. There was some foreshadowing of it in terms of plot, but not really in terms of theme or tone.

    Maybe that didn’t bother anyone besides me- Certainly I think that sequence on the top of the train is good for the action cartooning Pope excels at, and the depiction of the “spaceman” works with the color theory of the rest of the work pretty well. It’s just a really odd conclusion. It works better as a single issue than a book’s ending, but it’s kind of both.

    (I also think 100% is the better comic, but I get that that’s not what’s being debated. Although it’s funny that I think it’s stronger because it has way more artist-philosophy-autobio elements, and none of the cool coloring, which would seem to be weaknesses. But maybe that book works better because it doesn’t feel at all “tough” or Hammett-y? No noir affectations.)

  14. Frank Santoro says:

    I dug the ending and wished there was more of that interaction before the actual end. It WAS surprising but sort of made me think of THB and then I felt “Man, that would have been cool throughout the whole story!”

    The loose ends I summarize do, I guess, open up more questions. But that was even okay, sort of classic comic book. I was surprised by the sunglasses wearing spy guy showing up on the train, and yeah, that action scene was a great coda, but the ending, hmmm… I liked and and didn’t like it. It just made me think of THB and the “fun” thats in that book. And re-inforced that the fun in this book was really in the “chase” scenes.

  15. Frank Santoro says:

    Oh, and I do want to mention that I’m getting a few emails from friends (and professionals in the, um, industry) who are too pussy to post a comment here but all more or less say “PP rules, Dan doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” What is it about comics artists who can’t,won’t, write about their likes and dislikes in a forum like this? Yet privately they’ll say “Oh, no, I don’t like so and so’s work.” Or even have super positive interesting things but feel like they can’t because they don’t want to “upset” people. Or their peers. Maybe thats it. I’m mostly talking about comics creators afraid to tell each other what they really feel about each other’s work.

  16. Alex Holden says:

    I think you should “out” the closet Paul Pope lovers, Frank.

    Print those emails!

  17. Dustin Harbin says:

    I agree that this these silent supporters need to take their underwear off their heads. Poor Heavy Liquid has really taken a drubbing today.

    Although may I pose that (even though I voted for it) Persepolis is a bad choice? If no one wants it, isn’t that just everyone teaming up on the teacher’s pet? Pick something that there are more sides to–this tarring and feathering of Heavy Liquid didn’t make for particularly great reading. I’m sure there are plenty of things out there that one of you three likes with fewer reservations.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Why won’t people defend something they like publicly? I can understand wanting to keep your disses private (out of just plain politeness) but to not come to bat for something you genuinely enjoyed? I really don’t get that at all.

  19. Anonymous says:

    when i first read pope’s heavy liquid i thought only about the title. it matched that drug he was describing. had a font that was curvy and biting and dizzy. and the clothes. there was something sickening about hot metal being poured into my ear and yet i wanted to do it. he came up with a slang and a plane ticket (the scram jet ticket logo on the covers of each comic) and the hot dirty gotham that had been, before the whitewash, mixed up with that future we all hoped was one year away, in 2000. just before the turn of the millennium, remember? everyone was being upstaged by matrix movies and Y2K, there was a growing fear that kids(me,we) were NOT going to get cooler after 2000! just more predictable and ambivalent. yeah, matrix is cheesy now but it’s b/c we’re embarrassed that we aren’t defying gravity yet. it’s not like matrix or blade runner b/c he put pre-9-11 new york in new clothes and i like that.

    like it or hate it: heavy liquid created a unified taste for me. it was graphic design. it’s graffitti. pp brought that vibe to comics and i’d like to say he might have been among the first boppers to, without pretension, swing said vibe into the 00’s for comics. then he made a batman. what happens then when you mix graphic design graffitti and batman into a comic? certainly that’s a lack of pretension and someone with some kind of other motivation?

    which brings me back to this sort of subplot/M.O. of making the art world some kind of rock star stage, which, though forced, is really sharp. high art as drugs. fast paced and sexy and high profile. he’s glorifying uncompromising artists and yet delivering it in this pop/ glam/ corvette.

    writ by a girl

  20. BVS says:

    for your next cage match
    I vote for 3 issue marvel comics adaptation of Dune

  21. jogs6000 says:

    I think most comic artists have some sort of ‘attitude,’ whether it be rockstar, indie-rocker, weirdo, boring white guy or whatever. I don’t think Paul Pope was posing, though, I think that attitude/aesthetic comes naturally to him. I haven’t read Heavy Liquid in ages, but when I was 16 and read it I thought it was awesome. Perhaps it was just the art and overall vibe, I actually don’t remember the specifics of the story. Like someone else said, it blended a few art forms together and made something that looked really new.

  22. Frank Santoro says:

    Man, when I was 16… that’s when Mai the Psychic Girl was coming out bi-weekly from Eclipse, anyone remember that? I used to run to the comic shop, Friday afterschool. Pittsburgh!

  23. Alex Holden says:

    I re-read a few issues of this last night. I’m going to rip off Frank’s note style:

    + Pope really captures a cluttered city accurately. One of my favorite things about him is his ability to render buildings with the right amount of detail. If you look carefully, they are never straight and the details are never in line with each other, but they really FEEL like buildings looming over you. Adding more detail, or ruling them out would actually take the reader out of the moment. They have a solid physicality. The opening on the book on the LES is great. The cab in issue one is cluttered in a great way that feels very physical and authentic.

    + His compositions are really effective. I love how Luna is off to the left on the bottom of page 13. He really lends weight to what she is saying by pushing her off to the side and letting the speech balloon linger in the middle. I also love how he shows the explosion on page 71 from below and down the block.

    – S’s addiction feels more like recreation. Since this is an important part of the book, it’s a pretty big fumble. When he’s in the tub drinking wine after being all upset about hearing about Rodan, why wouldn’t he comfort himself with some Heavy Liquid instead?. It rings false to me. The scenes where he is high are very successful though. It works as a druggy moment, but I don’t feel like he NEEDS it. Just likes it. There’s a big difference.

    + I think this probably reads better as issues. I prefer to get all Paul’s stuff in issues, mostly because I can’t wait, but I like the packaging of these. I think there’s something to be said for his getting Vertigo to publish 5 thick, 2 color, ad-free issues. I also love the 2 covers. I found that I consistently liked the “back covers” more. Not sure why.

    – I think that car scene is messed up because he zooms in on the cab and the thug as the car is supposed to be speeding away. They should both get smaller, not bigger there, and if one gets zoomed in on, the other should be pulled back from even more.

  24. Frank Santoro says:

    sounds good to me Holden.

    Yeah, the city, NYC is depicted quite soothingly and energetically thru-out the story. Really real for anyone who’s ever spent time in NYC.

    The thing I was thinking about last nite is that this story really does capture a moment tho’ in youth, or young adulthood, and reflects itself, its own fumbles and all. I’m sure PP wouldn’t make all the same choices now and thats whats cool about this work: how that moment is preserved.

  25. Alex Holden says:

    I think that is a big part of the appeal of these comics for me.

    I moved to NY in 98, around the same time as PP, and the story reads as a bit of a love letter to NY, from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been here that long.

  26. Tucker Stone says:

    I’m only interested in a Persepolis cage match if it’s just constant repetition of the word lame and the phrase who cares.

    While reading the plot synopsis I realized that, although i remember liking the art, I must not have actually read Heavy Liquid.

    And solo Nick Cave blows, but Grinderman is totally sweet.

  27. Jeremy says:

    Good cage match, gents. I have to say I’m also eager to read your thoughts on Persepolis.

  28. Dustin Harbin says:

    Great Scott! That comment about Nick Cave and his blowing is only exacerbated by the immediate endorsement of Grinderman.

    Although that is obviously a completely different Cage Match altogether, lest this turn into a typical discussion hijacking. But oh! the humanity!

  29. MrColinP says:

    Dan- I understand your comparison of Pope to Cave, and agree with you. But while I think Cave is boring, I like Pope. This is because I think there’s more to Pope than the obvious rockstar posturing- namely, fun action sequences and an inventive (for mainstream American comics) illustration style. I understand your point, but I think there’s more to talk about here than that. It seems like you came to a knife fight with a loaded gun. If I had to sum your thoughts about PP/Heavy Liquid up in two words they would be “violently dismissive”, which seems an odd disposition for a prominent comic commentator to have.

    Tim- RE: Pope’s instances of bad storytelling. I agree with you on the car scene. I disagree with you however, on the scene where S falls through the window. I remember when I first read it thinking that Pope had made this confusing on purpose, to replicate the cognitive dissonance S was feeling. Anytime I’ve experienced a bad accident like that it was a blur, and I didn’t know what had happened until it was over, much the way Pope depicts it here.
    I actually appreciate this type of experimental storytelling, even if it fails often, over more “sturdy” methods like Toth’s.

    Hope this isn’t too late to be cared about.

  30. T Hodler says:

    Hey Colin —

    Thanks for commenting. It’s never too late!

    I hear you on the window scene, and I can almost buy that explanation, but it’s not that we don’t see exactly how S fell through the window that bothers me — it’s that, judging from the way the window is positioned and constructed, I don’t see how it’s possible for him to fall through it at all! I mean, it looks like to fall through that gap, you’d have to have forced your body through a pretty narrow gap, and S doesn’t look even close. Even if he slipped, he wouldn’t fall through. I suppose he could’ve broken through the glass (though that doesn’t look possible either from his position), but we don’t see any broken glass in the following panel… Maybe I’m missing something. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    Admittedly, this isn’t that big a deal in isolation, but on a pretty regular clip (I’d say at least once, often two or three times an issue), Heavy Liquid features these kinds of flubs.

    So … whatever. It’s certainly possible to disagree about the importance of this, but this kind of thing pulls me out of the story every time.

  31. Brian says:

    I wanted to comment about Frank’s “it’s a comic book” comment, which seems pretty appropriate if we’re going to talk about “narrative fumbles” of a “how’d he fall through that window” variety.

    I like thinking that saying “It’s a comic book” for something like that isn’t dismissive or indicative of low expectations in the way that someone saying “we don’t go to comic books for their views about life” would be. It’s instead saying that all sorts of great comics play sort of fast and loose with things like narrative progression and three-act structure, from Jimbo to Paradax to Casanova or whatever. With strips, it’s even more pronounced.

    Maybe if we’re talking about something like the falling through a window thing, we’re talking more about visual storytelling, and this manifesto is misplaced. It’s probably misguided if directed at Tim, at any rate. Just wanted to put it out there.

    Anyway. What do you think about the decision to put THB out in book form in color?

  32. Dash Shaw says:

    The back of that THB collection is going to read: “In America, Paul Pope is known as the Nick Cave of comics.” Nadel just made Pope’s day. Rock on!

  33. Tucker Stone says:

    Don’t get me wrong, Nick Cave is pimp fantastic in Ghost of the Civil Dead, but Abattoir seriously blows. Warren Ellis (the music one) is undeniable.

    Grinderman: Paul Pope drawing Batman.

    Nick Cave solo: Paul Pope drawing Diesel ads and close ups of vaginas.

    Birthday Party: puke

  34. Frank Santoro says:

    okay okay save the birthday party arguments, try and stay on target here… it’s a decent argument but it’s Dan’s comparison that got us here in the first place!

    “it’s a comic book” is not dismissive. not at all. fast and loose. yes, yes.

    I didn’t riff on the window scene cuz it didn’t seem like a snag to me…

  35. T Hodler says:

    Frank. Anybody. Please explain how he fell through that window. I would love to be proven wrong on this one, believe me. It’s driving me crazy.

  36. Frank Santoro says:

    (shrug) those things aren’t that sturdy, those paris roofs It would take an extra half page to show all the close-ups, it’s not the same kind of thing as the cab scene in #1, not as important. its a device. works fine.

  37. Tucker Stone says:

    Just to be helpful after derailing a bit with cave stuff, i took a look at that roof cave in, and t hodler is on the money. shit makes no sense whatsoever.

  38. Patrick says:

    I tried to skim through this Cage Match but it made my head spin.

    Kinda like how I remember THB.

  39. MrColinP says:

    Okay, okay. I rescind on the window thing. I like my explaination, but there’s nothing that can be done to save it- especially since Rodan’s closing of the window a couple of pages later means the window didn’t break, and he must have fallen thorough that small opening… let’s move on…

    Specifically to the scene in “Strange Brew” where the dog rolls up the roof, like a ninja. Who can explain that? Also, Greedo shot first.

    Also, thanks for the Fun Home/ Presepolis/ Blankets comment. You’re my new hero!

  40. Frank Santoro says:

    I’ve been watching a lot of sctv so this was really funny,

    ” let’s move on…

    Specifically to the scene in “Strange Brew” where the dog rolls up the roof, like a ninja. Who can explain that?”

  41. Frank Santoro says:

    The window thing isn’t that big of a deal but yes, everyone is right, its weird, but, c’mon, tell it to Jack Kirby. It happens.

  42. Dustin Harbin says:

    This seems like a genre-specific argument, focusing on this gaff in storytelling. For instance, I just finished Powr Mastrs last week–I think I’m the last one–and I LOVED it, but it would never occur to me to go through and nitpick on continuity from panel-to-panel, because it just isn’t that kind of comic.

    Heavy Liquid to me is, first and foremost, a highly stylized sci-fi comic, and so I read it differently than I might Powr Mastrs or Hellboy or Invisibles. The same as I’d read Dune or Robert Heinlein with a different set of expectations and conditions for “success” than I would Philip Roth or John Irving.

    I guess what I’m saying is that visually, Heavy Liquid satisfies on every level for me. It’s weird palette and format (a $5.95 Vertigo creator-owned miniseries?) were bizarre at the time it came out, and it was pretty exciting. In retrospect, the story is not as satisfying as Pope’s other stuff, but it’s preceded by THB itself, his I’m-22-at-the-height-of-my-creative-powers story, and followed up by 100%, his post-9-11 story. So it’s probably the weakest narrative in his body of work. But what has always been exciting about it is the visual verve. I mean, come on–clowns with Guernica masks? I would pee my pants immediately.

  43. T Hodler says:

    Hey Dustin —

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve just said (visual nerve, etc.), and also that this might not have been the best Pope book for our discussion, but I disagree when you seem to say that these kinds of storytelling flaws aren’t important in this kind of story.

    On the contrary, I wouldn’t go to Philip Roth expecting well-executed action scenes, but would absolutely expect Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein to get that kind of detail right. That’s a big part of what they have to offer in the first place!

    But it’s not such a big deal that I want to keep going over and over it, so I’ll stop now. Except to reiterate that I think you’re absolutely right about the visual strengths of the comic.

  44. Frank Santoro says:

    storytelling flaws are important to address but its not like one should not go thru the narrative with a comb and nitpick. If the flow is stopped, fine. Yes, a problem.

  45. Tom Spurgeon says:

    reading the scene with the window, I just figured he shifted his weight in trying to open it and the whole thing fell through, taking him with it.

  46. T Hodler says:

    Please don’t make me pull out the scanner to post the scene three pages later, where Rodan uses a broom to close the same, perfectly intact window.

    I really need to stop arguing about this…

  47. Frank Santoro says:

    man, T-dog, let it go, daddy-o!

    Does that Luger that the Red Skull is brandishing in Cap #191 really shoot bullets? It looks like its made out of shiny cardboard.

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