Writer: Paul Pope
Artist: Paul Pope
Colorist: Hilary Sycamore
Publisher: First Second
A great hero is killed in the line of duty. His daughter and his city Acropolis mourn for him. At the same time, a child of the gods is sent to the Acropolis because it is time for him to learn the lessons of how to be a god himself. Fighting giant monsters and masked terrorists teach the boy, whose only given name is Battling Boy, his first lessons. But the real lessons in Paul Pope’s Battling Boy are more political as the boy gets in over his head once he starts dealing with the leaders of the city, who are looking to replace their late beloved hero. Pope’s take on the Hero’s Journey mythology revolves around heroes and gods, but he loses sight of building his character into someone who we care about on any level other than hitting the plot-driven beats needed to show us how Battling Boy “grows.”
The opening death of the hero, Haggard West, sets up the far more interesting young character; Aurora West. The daughter of the city’s protector, her story is a familiar one but has more room to explore than Battling Boy’s story does. She sees her father’s death and becomes determined to carry on her father’s legacy only to see the city quickly move on from grieving her father to embracing Battling Boy as its next hero. Pope constructs Aurora’s tale around Battling Boy’s but she has a purpose and drive that is lacking in his main character. Battling Boy gets all of the screen time but Aurora gets all of the pathos. Pope gives Aurora an actual story; she has to become the hero now that her father is dead. Battling Boy doesn’t have any kind of purpose like that. He has to become a hero simply because that’s what his people do. They go through these tests (like Hercules tasks) to graduate and become gods themselves.
The city around Battling Boy becomes much more lively as Pope explores the boy’s tests. The city is ravaged by giant kaiju-like monsters, wonderfully and demonically drawn by Pope. While the monsters attack the city, it is also besieged by a hooded gang of terrorists, who steal the city’s children and kill its heroes. The fantasy of the monsters seems so much less dangerous when you stop and think about the child abductions. Around these threats, Pope builds this visual smorgasbord of action, architecture and people. Like most Pope books, you can get lost in almost any image of the book, trying to figure out how he achieved a certain brush stroke or marveling at how he can pull a page together out of chaotic marks on the it.
With all of those visual treats, Pope falls flat whenever Battling Boy with his stark white pants and stark white t-shirts shows up on the page. Pope briefly gives him a colorful flourish when he comes to the city of Acropolis. His father hands his son a gift, a fringed reddish cloak. It flows and captures the eye in a way that his normal white attire just can’t. Then Pope abandons it for most of the remainder of the book. Battling Boy simply feels like an open void whenever he appears, an empty gap amid all of the other sights and wonders that Pope produces. It’s surprising how flat the character Battling Boy feels amid Pope’s Jack Kirby meets Katsuhiro Otomo bombastic energy in every other part of the book.
The city and subplots that Pope conceives are really let down by his main story here. As he tries to bring mythology down to a simple coming-of-age story, he lets all of that energy he builds escape into the ether as he tries to hit the standard beats of the Hero’s Journey. The struggle, the defeat, and the weaknesses of young Battling Boy don’t add up to much in this volume that is only half of the story (to be continued presumably in a couple of years.) The book lacks any signs of insight or optimism about the lessons that Battling Boy should be learning. A great book to look at, Battling Boy relies on its titular character to carry it and he’s not a strong enough character to support the reader’s engagement in the story.