Art and Artifice
Paul Pope Solo
Essay on Alex Toth/Robert Kanigher's
"White Devil... Yellow Devil!"
DC Comics 1972
From Star Spangled War Stories #164
The urban environments that populate several of the five stories that make up Paul Pope Solo are all rendered as well-worn places where human beings trod uneven thoroughfares. Random bits of debris, sidewalk cracks and shadows frame street to corner to wall. Pope uses painterly, inky brush strokes to build these locales, and it is a world apart from the beautifully unreal architectural drawings that serve as the usual comic book story backdrop. In fact, it seems to me this is what divides Pope's figure work from what resides among most comic book pages – instead of the flawless and hyper attenuated forms one expects, Pope draws the human equivalence of his city renderings.
The stories making up this collection are all written by Pope and each share an intimate but journalistic verbal style. His quirky Batman tale (Teenage Sidekick) that ends the collection seems a partial homage to the Bob Kane/Bill Finger/Jerry Robinson era, but with a few pages of quite modern psychoanalysis of the Joker, and a punched-up Robin that bleeds from the nose in every panel. On this Corner, the centerpiece of this collection, is a series of tiny vignettes that tells the story of a city street. It looks like a real city, not gritty and dirty, but well-used and dirty, and Pope has shown it with real warmth and personality.
The first tale The Problem in Knossos is a compact reconstruction of the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It has an urban backdrop (an ancient city in Crete) which Pope does not detail in any particular way, instead opening the tale with a fine drawing of the Minoan palace at Knossos, and ending the tale with the same. In-between human figures populate the story, blocking out, for the most part, any detailed visualization of the locale. Not that this is a necessary element that shows up missing, since the story itself is about the hubris of humans, and the cruelties of them (Pope gives the Minotaur a particularly sympathetic hearing). It seems significant that while Knossos is in fact a real place but is thinly depicted in Pope's visuals, the "real world" of an comic book American city is highly detailed in the Batman tale.
I am guessing that the script for this tale is Pope's and is an adaption in some part based upon the ancient Bacchylides (500 B.C.) and Ovid's (50 B.C.) writings about Theseus and the Minotaur? In either case Pope gives us an ending in which a blood-crazed Theseus inadvertently slays half of the Minoan royal family, guaranteeing a continuation of the war between Athens and Crete. Also, Theseus escapes Crete with the Minotaur's sister Phaedra, versus Ovid's rendering in which Theseus decamps with the other sister Ariadne. What does this mean? Well, Pope can make the story any way that suits as DC comic books fans are not going to require fidelity to ancient Greek myths. Myths are plastic and can be molded to fit to whatever entertainment requirements an audience has at hand (the point of which is well proven by Pope's excellent telling of this old tale). But the main point raised might be that by leaving the story of Theseus open-ended as he has (with the sisters - - Phaedra or Ariadne); it enables Pope to pick right back up and make another installment of the adventures of Theseus if he were to so choose - - a perfect American comic book conceit and ending, where the 'hero' (Theseus is hardly as hygienic as a regular spandex-clad hero, but the similarities are otherwise many) travels on to face the next challenge.
Are You Ready For the World that's Coming? is an unrestrained Jack Kirby homage. Both in style of story and in the utilization of a 1970s character of Kirby's (Omac), Pope tells a very Kirby tale of a nightmare future where a totalitarian government meddles with Buddy Blank, an unwitting "candidate" for experimentation by "a basement subdivision of what was once NASA". Strange faceless government 'Peace Agents' select Blank to be imbued with the powers of project OMAC, a powerful weapon under the control of the orbiting "Brother Eye" which is "the most advanced satellite system ever built." Equipping Buddy Blank to be this super being means literally changing him from the nebbish Blank who works at "Pseudo People, Inc." into the muscular Omac who sports an astonishing mohawk protrusion of hair.
But first, Pope shows Blank being bawled out for a 6% drop in his job performance rating as a manual laborer schlepping boxes of robotic human parts at the "Pseudo People, Inc.," manufacturing plant. Pope also tells us, through the raging boss who is abusing Blank, that the company psychiatrist diagnosed the mumbling, nervous company drone with an 'acute persecution complex.' Shortly thereafter Blank seeks friendly comfort with Lila, who he thinks is a co-worker at the plant but is in fact an artificial humanoid built by the company's secret division. The victim of a prank by co-workers, they hide, laughing, while Blank pours out his dilemma to the robot. Later following Lila to the secret "Section D" of the company, the lovesick Blank is confronted with the awful truth, which is not only is Lila not whom Blank thought "she" was, but the female robots being turned out are equipped with explosives intended for various world leaders. It is at this moment that "Brother Eye" activates the "...electronic surgery... A computer-hormonal operation done by remote control" that is inside Blank. Surrounded by flames from the effect of the ray shooting from the orbiting satellite, Blank transforms into OMAC, but says nothing of his dramatic change, but instead is shouting his outraged question of whether Lila is human or "one of those abominations?"
That OMAC then promptly trashes "Pseudo People, Inc.," is hardly unexpected, but it is the strange question of "Where does humanity stop and technology begin?" that OMAC asks when he ponders a boxed, disassembled robot "girl" that is the center of the story, since OMAC is indeed himself a technological creation built out of what "was" Buddy Blank.
Pope deftly makes several Kirbyesque panels that fit the supercharged storyline perfectly. In my experience reading Jack Kirby's self-written comics, from which Pope has based this story, it was the power of Kirby's ideas and linear, straightforward adventure storytelling that compensated for any other lack. That a goofy 16-page story like this can actually pose a serious question about what is (or is not) human speaks volumes to the purple potency of pulp narration. Unfortunately, the question is not answered (it is, after all, only 16 pages long) but it is the putting forward of this element alone which allows for some separation of this tale from the usual man versus machine slugfest. In fact, it is that Pope (or Kirby?) builds in empathy for the pathetic human-shaped exploding female robots, let alone Buddy Blank, that sets up for a complicated emotional impasse. My sympathy is entirely toward the supposedly paranoid Blank and certainly non-human Lila, and the feverish, maddened OMAC that emerges from Blank with a vow of vengeance, "I'll grind them to a bloody smear under my unflinching heel." But it is OMAC's vowing this to Lila, who is not human and cannot register OMAC's vendetta of "They have made a mockery of the human spirit," that points out that, after all, Lila is not human and I am not quite sure that OMAC is either, let alone sane.
The futuristic world of Pope's OMAC tale seems not unlike the world he has fashioned for his Batman Year 100 series. In both government is oppressive and not mindful of any particular right of humanity, and it is force which sent to meet the challenge.
Artwork is by Paul Pope. Copyright Paul Pope & DC Comics 2005.
Original page 2005