The changing mask stays the same.

Batman: Year 100 #1 (of 4)

One of the definite pleasures of following writer/artist Paul Pope’s work arrives via seeing which variation of his visual style he employs with each project. And I don’t mean that in a top-to-bottom transformative sense - Pope does, after all, have one of the most instantly recognizable visual styles around, something swiftly distinguishable from even his close emulators. But there’s more than one means of executing that style in Pope’s catalog of visual attack (excuse the violence, but he is a comics destroyer), though each approach retains the distinguishing features of the author.

For a handy illustration of all this, you need only gaze at examples of old and new material from Pope’s long-running, unfinished epic THB - you’ll need to find the early examples in the form of interview illustration or maybe as reprinted in one of Pope’s later books, as THB #1-5 themselves are extremely difficult to come by today, but that’ll do. The early THB work follows directly in the path of Pope’s other early works, Sin Titulo and The Ballad of Dr. Richardson, presenting the sci-fi action in tight tiers of panels, the action handsome yet restrained. Looking at the later chapters of THB, after Pope had been thoroughly drenched in general manga influence (via a campaign of production for Big Three manga publisher Kodansha, which included the production of an abortive THB variant titled Supertrouble), the integration of various Japanese influences into the style of THB could not be more plain - panels seemed to open up to vast skies and cityscapes, events became greatly decompressed, action became balletic and swooping. Yet the old and the new shared so many traits - so smooth was the integration of fresh influence into Pope’s core style, that it didn’t seem as much ‘influence’ at all as the unlocking of something latent in the artist’s prior style.

Those early issues of THB are long-gone now (and Pope’s never collecting them - it’s been said he wants to redo this early material in his revised THB style for greater visual consistency, and then collect that), but a glance at other recent projects like Heavy Liquid and 100%, Vertigo-published miniseries both, reveals a talent still willing to vary his approach as per the demands of his individual projects, tightening his layouts and thickening his use of dialogue when necessary. Despite their common genre branding as ‘sci-fi’ stories, the constrained arrays of panels in Heavy Liquid, the flight-happy expansiveness of THB, and the environment-saturated, exploding set piece dotted panorama of 100% set them all apart as unique affairs, yet all unmistakably the work of Paul Pope, those glamorous, rustled character designs and chunky sound effects and sharp/rolling backgrounds constant. Pretty much all of this factored into Pope’s semi-recent issue of DC’s Solo (#3), which featured a neat adventure for a certain Boy Wonder, and now we have a full-blown Prestige Format Batman miniseries to hang our hats on.

And much of the fun of this initial chapter lies in witnessing Pope at work - the visual approach here is heavy with action, though clearly positioned as North American superhero-type action, stopping well short of the loop-de-loop sprawl of THB. Thus, the running and grunting and fantastic leaps of this futuristic Batman (and there’s plenty of that) are part of a more crowded page design, movement kept fluid but fundamentally as part of a similar layout schema as the dialogue scenes. The insect-like helmets momentarily sported by Pope’s Federal agents in early pages seem almost like a THB citation, but this is very much its own visual world, and needless to say it’s very accomplished. Pope’s Batman looks pleasingly makeshift, with his heavily laced boots, longish shorts, slightly too-short sleeves, and removable gloves. You’ll believe that ‘Batman’ is a possibility, at least in this particular futuristic Gotham, especially since the title hero is designed so complimentary to the rest of Pope’s cast, an appealingly eccentric batch of designs. There’s the cowboy-costumed Agent Tibble and his mouth full of golden teeth, other agents bald & hook-nosed or dressed as mid-20th century leading men with slicked hair and pencil-thin mustaches and flowers on their jackets. There’s a pair of typically big-featured Pope women, eager to aid Our Hero, plus a classically bushy Detective Gordon and a handsome, coffee-sipping base team operative who literally turns bright red with emotion over the Batman’s apparent return to the Gotham of 2039.

Speaking of which, it’s not just Pope at work here, for better and worse. The aforementioned color is by the ever-reliable Jose Villarrubia, and his hues are perfectly complimentary, dressing Pope’s weathered lines in muddy urban color, with some great bursts of radiance (love those deep red spotlights!). Less effective is the lettering (by Jared K. Fletcher and John Workman), which is unfortunately constrained to typical dialogue balloon fonts, utterly placid and unresponsive to the liveliness of Pope’s lines; it’s especially distracting next to the excellent sound effects, which bloat and tumble with consummate sensitivity toward the action of the page - each element of this work is so uniquely responsive that the very presence of such standard-issue lettering seems like a gross misstep (not that this is a unique problem with DC projects - I’m immediately reminded of some of the ludicrously inappropriate superhero-style sound effects pasted onto the otherwise soothing visuals of Teddy Kristiansen’s issue of Solo).

For those wondering about the plot of the book, well - we can presume that the meat of the story is still ahead of us. Actually, this is one of those cases where if you read none of the pre-release hype and avoid the synopsis on the back cover of the book itself, you’d have a tough time sorting out the running theme of superhero secret identities as a symbol for privacy and individual initiative in a hostile, communal future. Structured around a wounded Batman’s flight through Gotham, the frankly rather familiar plot’s details are filled in modestly - we know there’s been a murder of a Federal operative, Batman was there, and there’s plenty of trouble brewing between the Feds and the administration of Gotham City. And that’s just about all we get as far as big-picture advancement goes; the joy of this first issue comes entirely through the interactions of the characters, and Pope’s tour of his new world, the delight taken in rendering it and making it breathe, not only through visual art but with help from his increasingly adept dialogue, dots of slang mixing into hurried conversation.

One does hope that more of story interest will surface in later issues (and one has no reason not to expect such things), but as far as style-over-substance goes (or better yet: style-as-substance), there’s few better at it than Paul Pope, and he’ll have you believing that his cityscapes and gritty fights are more than worth your $5.99. Like his legend-powered Batman, it’s there and impressive and suddenly gone, but you’ll be delighted at its presence.