His new package seems more inviting than the glossy-paper format of his HEAVY LIQUID mini-series for DC, and less imposing than the jumbo-sized one-shots he published a few years ago. This time, printing quality takes a backseat to artistic quality.
Subtitled 'A Comics Reading Machine', the book is as much concerned with exploring comics as an art form as it is with storylines and characters. Indeed, Pope's frantic brushwork and startling page compositions stand side-by-side with heroine HR Watson and her giant android servant THB as characters in the book.
Pope's draftmanship is a startling dialectic between the realistic European style and American punk. He improvises textures and shapes with the reckless abandon of a Gary Panter, but maintains a sense of physical space, and faithfulness to anatomy-- HR Watson is often drawn loosely, but never grotesquely so. Also, whereas other punk cartoonists generally shatter the narrative form, Pope fosters continuity in his sequences.
The resulting effect is of an outre' landscape traversed by realistic characters, a science-fictional experience rather than an abstracted one. His protagonists carry us along to encounter his action-painted vistas as if they were real.
Pope's work sheds an interesting light on the potential of comics as a medium of pure graphic expression-- reading the stories page-by-page is roughly equivalent to examining a large painting in minute detail, our faces only inches from the canvas. Of course the same might be said about any comic book, but Pope's style and storytelling technique renders more of the equivalent sensation.
Pope's storytelling represents an interesting stateside interpretation of the 'manga' tradition. He doesn't use the typical manga style with its large eyes, slender lines, and intricately-detailed realistic backgrounds. But the storytelling aspects of manga, especially the large panels and dynamic layouts, are very evident in Pope's work. Pope's art controls the narrative flow with striking contrasts and seductive images.
As a writer, Pope is remarkably versatile. This anthology provides a cross-section of his many narrative styles.
'Point Flatter Cut' is an exercise in what Pope dubs his 'cutie-pie' style-- frenetic and humorous action sequences for an all-ages audience, featuring Watson as a game-playing prankster. The cutie-pie stories are amusing but superfiscial, and their outrageous graphics seem out-of-control. But watch your back-- this could become the next Pokemon craze!
'Survival Studies' by contrast is a moving drama about friendship and sacrifice. Heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov's robot stories, it follows a young man and his robot tutor as they attempt to survive a hiking mishap in the Martian badlands. Filled with quiet philosophical dialog, this is one of Pope's best stories.
The anthology is filled out with shorter pieces on topics as diverse as mall shopping and the nature of consciousness. One of the most stunning is an untitled one-pager in which a cloaked figure approaches HR Watson, holding a crayon. The figure's head is covered by a device with six lenses protruding where the face is supposed to be, giving the figure a disconcerting, spider-like visage. The figure reaches towards HR's face with the crayon-- and draws a mustache on her! Character as icon? Artist as cold observer? This short piece is rich in implications.
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The circus metaphor suggested in the title, cover, and endpapers is carried through in several stories, but applies as well to the anthology as a whole, a three-ring circus of often-grotesque stylistic diversity, accentuated by a rich variation in printing styles-- full-color, duotone, and potent black and white. Two comixs-within-the-comix are included, 'The Full Show' by Israeli collective Actus Tragicus; and a Jeff Johnson anthology, 'Standard Deviation.'
The book reflects the contemporary preoccupations of a new generation of cartoonists, and for this issue a prevailing theme is the nature of bliss and what lengths one must go to to obtain it. In 'Have We Peaked Yet,' Jeff Levine's characters dialog about whether they're satisfied with their lives (or will ever be.) Dylan Horrocks' 'Maungarei' captures the bliss of a quiet morning before dawn. And in 'What is There to Say,' Dylan Williams shows us the subtle satisfaction of an eventful slice of life.
The mindlessness of bliss is satirized in an untitled Mike Diana piece in which alien invaders delight in the devouring of naked humans. In 'A Dilemma at Gattenburg' a town plagued by suicide, a car wreck and a downed passenger jet finds solice in a simple solution. 'Bunny Enjoys the Day' follows a cyclopean rabbit on the road to happiness. And in 'Louis', Yirmi Pinkus chronicles the enduring sexual pleasure of an offbeat keepsake.
Religious bliss is explored in Josh Simmons' 'God Is Happy', taking us on a tour of the pearly gates and a deity who won't let you be sad. Garret Izumi's hilarious 'The Big Bang' shows Adam and Eve's vain attempt to impersonate the devil. And Roydon's excellent short 'The Meek' tellingly contrasts earthly routine and heavenly reward.
The bliss of family values are explored in several stories. In 'Family Eats Out,' Josh Simmons probes satirically beneath the surface of an emphatically happy family, and we encounter another such family in 'Junior Shares,' in which the title character makes a curiously flat testimonial of happiness.
'Mother and Daughter Discuss Life' is a sweet and funny interlude in which the mom gives a bedtime lecture. 'Lets clear a few things up here, hon; Rape is bad. Murder is bad. Anal sex is bad. Nobody likes a party pooper...' And conversely, 'Loving your fellow human beings is good. Fluffy little kitty cats are good. Sharing is positive...' Silly as her pronouncements are, her earnest attempts at nurturing are touching, and her daughter's innocent smile is reassuring.
Ever wonder how a child feels when her mom is a high-flying trapese artist? One of the books' best pieces, 'My Life with Miranda the Magnificent' is a bittersweet tale of a mother/daughter relationship in the world of the circus.
Finally, bliss on the job is captured in Mandy Ord's memorable 'Five Minute Break,' in which a stressed-out wage slave cherishes the refuge of a ladies room that has everything-- soap and water from the faucet, warmth from the hand dryer, toilet paper for letter writing, and best of all, peace and quiet!
The above is only a sampling of the many funny, thought-provoking, and innovative stories in this excellent anthology!
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