For those savvy enough to have read Paul Pope’s (BATMAN: YEAR 100, HEAVY LIQUID, BATTLING BOY in 2013) ONE TRICK RIP-OFF when it first appeared serially in DARK HORSE PRESENTS from 1995 to 1996, or even in its collected edition from Dark Horse in 1997, they experienced the raw power of an unusual story and even more unusual artwork in its first incarnation, but it’s unlikely there are many Pope fans who would shy away from seeing the comic rise again in full-color glory in the hands of Jamie Grant (ALL STAR SUPERMAN, SUPERBOY) and Dominic Regan (SUPERBOY, OMEGA MEN). Add to that the appeal of what’s really an omnibus edition of Pope’s early work in a hardback edition from Image, released the last week of January, and containing rare and unpublished work in the form of DEEP CUTS. Pope produced DEEP CUTS over the better part of a decade from a wide range of international locations, taking experimentation to a new level, and even better, taking his readers along for the ride. I suspect that even for new readers of Pope’s work, this attractive, elegantly designed edition will simply be too intriguing to pass up, and draw in the browser as well as the committed fan.
The edition also collects context for the comics, a bonus feature in its own right, in the form of an introduction by Charles Brownstein, and what may seem a foregone conclusion, but is not always a feature of collected editions, a very helpful table of contents will some nods toward chronology for DEEP CUTS. It’s an all-out edited collection, with some substantial frills, including glossy, numbered pages. One might even call it “archival” in its scope, and for those who recognize the virtuosity of Pope’s work, this kind of edition is well deserved. It would have been quite a let-down if such ground-breaking work was handled in a perfunctory way without attention to this kind of detail.
[Warning: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Spoilers await you!]
THE ONE TRICK RIP-OFF is not a simple story, though it’s basic structure might seem familiar from cinematic tradition: a thief stealing from thieves and wrangling with the consequences of that scenario. Though “heist” films have been popular since the 60’s, there’s been more of a glut in recent years, a testament to their popularity, however, if you’ve seen a few of them then you already know that it’s possible to ruin the core appeal of the concept in poor execution. It’s clear within the first couple of pages of ONE TRICK that Pope has full control over the dynamics of his storytelling and has no intention of allowing drag to take away from the suspense possible when a reader expects thing to go wrong, but isn’t sure yet exactly how that’s going to happen.
One of Pope’s main methods for keeping readers guessing is to ramp up the emotional climate of his scenes. Another is through dropping readers into the middle of an intensely detailed social setting and demanding that they keep up with the names, personalities, and internal conflicts of anti-hero Tubby’s world. Though the story would probably work if it was simply the tale of one young man descending deeply into the amoral question, “Is it right to steal from thieves”, constructing the narrative around two characters by including Tubby’s girlfriend Vim really makes for a far more powerful tale. The reader is likely to identify with her vulnerability while “following” Tubby’s man of action juggernaut through his everyday underworld.
But none of these things are accomplished purely through writing, to say the least. When an artist also functions as the writer of a story, they have remarkable control over the nuance of visual storytelling, probably only accomplished otherwise through intensive and long-term collaborative teams. Style blends seamlessly with storytelling in ONE TRICK, and it’s all about the mood and emotion of that combination. Vim, coached in Tubby’s plan, acts as a kind of narrator to open the tale, and through her eyes we see the disjointed complexity of the world the two move in: a gangland where disparate units only overlap through intense turf violence. Vim also acts as a kind of barometer of emotional states in ONE TRICK, states that are quite a rollercoaster, but mainly alternate between the extremes of panic and calm. In fact, the calm of her introduction to the world of ONE TRICK quickly erupts into her own intense, displaced panic, suggesting to the reader that a sane reaction to Tubby’s world is, in fact, terror. “I’m scared of everything”, she says, casting a shadow over the opening narrative. Tubby forms the center of both action and calm. Walking on the roof of their apartment building with Vim amid star-fields, he seems to take on the role of a fixed point to center the reader, and Vim. We learn that he’s an unlikely dreamer, but that’s all part of the fragility of the story. Can a dreamer survive surrounded by violence, or, more importantly, when he’s a proponent of that violence, too?
Once the action of the story gets underway, there’s no beat for breath. That’s when a story told about a limited urban grid becomes a form of road-trip in another great literary and film tradition. Urban landscape seems towering and threatening, even for a knowledgeable insider like Tubby, but it’s people, he learns, you have to watch out for, particularly those close to you. Tubby’s plan to rip off his own gang proves that actually, he’s at the center of the chaos that breaks loose. It’s not a story that could be told without Pope’s heavy, organic inking that make Tubby seem part and parcel of the grim apartments and clandestine meetings he frequents. Grant and Regan’s addition to color to these panels ranges from the mellow, but still sepulchral hues of lavenders and greens during the calmer scenes to sharp, claustrophobic pastels that set off the inking rather than subduing it. But for Pope as well as for Grant and Regan, the artwork really becomes eviscerating during the desert scenes when Tubby, dumped by his erstwhile friends in a ditch so his shark-like nemesis can steal his plan, wanders seeking a way back to Vim, and his unswerving course of action. If the comic didn’t feel like a road-trip yet, the archetypal frame of a furious man surrounded by unforgiving elements cinches the deal. Grant and Regan’s orangey gold cracked earth and piercingly blue skies contrast with the almost maniacal calm Tubby holds onto. “I kinda like it out here”, he says, “Nobody to bug ya”. It’s another genre crossroads with just a hint of the gun-slinging western waiting in the wings.
Of course this return from the dead was a little too easy for Tubby, but does present him in a mythic light that galvanizes the reader’s approval for a man who overcomes the odds. It’s not a mistake of the narrative, but rather the jumping off point for a shell-game with quick sleights of hand to drive the reader’s adrenaline to ever-higher levels. Who’s Tubby’s real nemesis going to be? Is it Jesse, whose penchant for fine clothes suggests the egotism of a super-villain? He, like Tubby, possesses an unusual power, a “trick” of rather grotesque proportions to manipulate the minds of more fragile beings. Perhaps one of the most disturbing sequences of the comic, and this is a comic where bodies pile up with a certain laissez-faire, is the struggle for Jesse’s gun when the “rip-off” is in full swing. Vim is enlisted and manipulated into pointing the gun at Tubby and his once best friend Swimmer, and her dripping tears, sweat, and tension really steal the show, while underlining the distinctive possibility that this morality tale may also be a tragedy.
It’s a master stroke that this face-off is not the final confrontation of the story, but instead a knock-down, drag out emotional pummeling match between Tubby and Swimmer, grinding in the personal overtones of a smashed friendship. ONE TRICK is a comic that goes too far, but that’s why it’s so significant, since Tubby himself goes too far. Following his unilateral dreams built upon the simple concept of casting off personal morality when it becomes too ambiguous, Tubby surrounds himself with death and mayhem on a scale even he has never encountered before. He’s the a-bomb at the center of his own blast zone. Like the lone witness standing on stage at the conclusion of a Jacobean tragedy play (maybe a John Webster play’s the best analogy), he asks “What did we do? What was it worth?”. Left with “nothing” (since the heisted travelers checks are scattered to the wind), including the social world Tubby previously inhabited, Tubby and Vim fall back, at least, on love. But the starfields Pope closes on, perhaps, are even further away than Tubby and Vim first imagined.
Though the question that prompted Pope to take this epic journey, a question about the morality of stealing from thieves, is the framework for the story, the heart of the question might as well be, “What happens when a dreamer becomes a thief?”. He breaks down, but he takes his whole world down with him. The depth of emotional conflict that Tubby faces throughout this descent would be up to the reader to construct if this wasn’t a Pope comic. Instead, every panel resonates with emotional tone. Just like Tubby and Jesse can change and manipulate the minds of others through suggestion, readers are at the mercy of an altered state conjured by the artwork. It’s a hallucinatory read, to say the least, a dark dream with painfully sharp moments of clarity.
The short comics collected as DEEP CUTS make a virtue of the unexplained and the space between words and panels where a reader can get lost and is forced to conjure their own connections. These comics form another kind of journey through psychological realities, and the underpinning intensity of their impact, as in THE ONE TRICK RIP-OFF, lies in emotional tone. “The Triumph of Hunger” frames another kind of morality tale that may shed some light on ONE TRICK, actually. Its lovers are caught in a kind of wheel of basic human instincts tied to the earth and its cycles, battered by “hungers” that are “waves of black air”. In “Portrait of a Girl with an Unpronounceable Name” and “Yes”, Pope works out mastery of the short form in both a dialogue heavy and silent formats. You can see the pendulum of experimentation swinging as he tackles new subject matter and chosen constraints. A common thread between most of the DEEP CUTS comics is, of course, a kind of inescapable magnetism between two people, and the effects thereof, often magical, but just as often haunting and unsettling.
As one of the duo in “Supertrouble” states in a more lighthearted vein during an eating contest, “This is pushing human endurance levels”. I couldn’t agree more with her sentiment when it comes to the combination of THE ONE TRICK RIP-OFF and DEEP CUTS in a single volume. Pope pushes his characters, and the reader, a lot further than they expect trying to seek out and define those limits, but it’s nearly impossible to look away. It’s quite an unpredictable trip that ventures far into unknown territory, a trip both intensely serious and dazzling at the same time. You’ll probably feel like you’ve been to hell and back if you read this rapidly as a single volume collection. But just like Dante, it wouldn’t be appropriate to complain when you opted for the full visionary tour.
Title: THE ONE TRICK RIP-OFF + DEEP CUTS/Publisher: Image/Creative Team: Paul Pope, Story and Art; Jamie Grant and Dominic Regan, Colors; Michael Neno and Jared K. Fletcher, Letters; Jim Pascoe, Design and Production; Casey Gonzales, Line Producer; Greg Tumbarello, Assistant Editor; Bob Schreck, Editor.
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.