Think about it: a Superman-style superhero built for today. The whole savior-from-the-sky bit is crucial but everything else about the character would have to be almost completely different, no? More vulnerable. Less omniscient. More fashionable. Yet, for him to act with all that outsize brashness and altruism, he couldn’t be an adult. He’d have to be a kid. That’s what you’re getting in Battling Boy.
The titular character in Paul Pope’s new graphic novel isn’t a direct analogue to the Man of Steel. In fact, he basically has Thor as a dad. But, brush those superficial similarities aside. This is Pope remixing the ideas that ignited the creation of Superman and the very idea of superheroes.
Kids used to be sidekicks in early superhero stories, analogues for the real-world readers buying the issues. Here, Battling Boy—yes, that’s his name—is center stage, sent to the besieged city of Arcopolis to fend off a plague of monsters that killed its last defender. This is his rite of passage: getting dropped off in a foreign reality with a cape he doesn’t really want to wear, a mandate to fight its evils and change things for the better.
And he acts like a real kid, too. The minute he realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew—a giant car-eating monster called Humbaba—he calls his dad for help, even though he’s not supposed to. After that victory is won, BB gets held up as a conquering savior even though he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He soaks up the adulation, though, and hides the fact that he’s not even figured his own special abilities. What kid doesn’t bluff their way through growing up? Likewise for Aurora West, daughter of fallen hero Haggard West. She wants to continue her dad’s science-warrior crusading but, her overprotective guardian thinks that’s premature. So, Aurora, of course, plays along and snoops until she gets what she needs. What kid doesn’t sweetly smile and fib, telling the adults what they want to hear?
Battling Boy traffics in the same kind of wish fulfillment that powers most superhero stories. But Pope strips away the decades-long cruft that’s accrues around the Superman, Thor or Batman mythos. And along with a healthy dose of realistic skepticism, he also layers in fun, of-the-moment ideas. Fashion as superpower, with t-shirts that give Battling Boy different skills. Slacker henchmen who are all “wait, why am I doing this again?”
All of these come to churning, riotous life in Pope’s art. His line has always been sinuous and sexy, brackish and pulpy, all thick outlines and muscular weights. Detailed and kinetic at the same time, Pope's art expertly balances shadow and color so that the universe he’s introducing feels like it’s being attacked by real threats without being totally devoid of hope, fun or joy.
There’s a drought of kid-focused superhero comics nowadays, at least when compared to 15, 20 years ago. Now, kids used to be in danger in comics all the time but times have changed. Battling Boy tackles the question of whether kids can even be superheroes in an era where Superman is, um, different. When I reached to Pope over e-mail, he said that “I see a kid superhero like Battling Boy or Aurora West to be symbols of the potential of youth to do something new and different, to invent a new solution to old problems.”
“Too often, I think the superheroes we see in films and comics are too perfect, too established, too impervious to real fault or challenge,” Pope continued. “I like the idea of writing a story focusing on kid superheroes who mess up and must learn from their mistakes.” As a creative work, it feels like Battling Boy is doing the same thing as its main characters: following in the footsteps that have gone before while trying to dodge old pitfalls and find its own way. With how Pope’s work manages to recapture the fun and humor of old-school superheroics while feeling more in tune with the young people it hopes to reach, the should be a mythos that soars high into the sky.