The most fun superhero comic to be published this year didn't come from Marvel or DC Comics. Instead, it was a book published earlier this month by First Second called Battling Boy. I've been a fan of comics artist Paul Pope for almost twenty years, but he's always been an artist whose potential far outweighed his output. He's never made a book that fully lived up to his considerable skill as a cartoonist, until now.
Battling Boy is, on its face, an homage to Jack Kirby. The comics industry is lousy with Kirby homages—and it's lousy with lousy Kirby homages—but this is a book that manages to pull off the spirit of Kirby without getting too caught up in blind worship. The title character of Battling Boy is the son of a god-king from another dimension. His father wears an impractically huge helmet and travels space and time in search of adventure. He sends his son, a lanky, ordinary looking teenaged boy, to Earth ("a place built for heroes") on what he calls "a-rambling."
The inventiveness of Battling Boy is its real charm. The monsters are silly doodles springing to life on the page, belching fire and waggling their crooked teeth around menacingly. Pope's messy style evokes Kirby, but it doesn't slavishly imitate him; all the characters have Pope's signature beestung lips, and the linework is brash and subliminally sexual in a way that most American comics artists can't seem to manage. Battling Boy's powers come from his collection of magic t-shirts. Each shirt has a different animal on it—a bull, a lion, a t-rex—and he gains the power of whichever animal he decides to wear. ("The pictures [on the shirts]—they appear to shimmer and shift, as if they were alive! These were painted," Battling Boy explains, "with inks made of pulverized moonblood!") It's a great gimmick, one that you can imagine Jack Kirby laughing over. Battling Boy quickly develops its own mythology, creating a world where the sole apparent superhero, a cross between Batman and the Rocketeer, dies, leaving his daughter with a bunch of beautiful toys and a mission that will surely set her onto a collision course with Battling Boy.
The only problem I have with Battling Boy is that it ends abruptly, and there's no indication in the book that the story will continue anywhere. (I checked with First Second, and Pope is thankfully at work on a second volume of the book now.) This is a great book to give to kids who are interested in comics but who maybe need exposure to something a little more artistic than the standard superhero stuff. For someone who was raised on superhero comics, it's a great little jolt to the brain-stem.