By Matthew Jent
The Rise of Aurora West
Written by JT Petty and Paul Pope
Art by David Rubin
Published by First Second
“You don’t have to attack what’s attacking you.”
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Paul Pope appeared on a panel called “Middle Grade Extravaganza,” which discussed comics for a younger audience. Younger than the grown-ups who are currently buying superhero comics, at least. A young fan approached the mic during the Q&A and he asked how Pope got the idea for Battling Boy, the long-awaited original graphic novel released by First Second last year.
Pope responded immediately that he wanted to serve an audience that modern comics have left behind. “I have nephews who were your age,” he said, “and they thought it was cool I was making comics, but they can’t see most of it. It’s geared toward adults. I wanted to write the best superhero for people your age, so they don’t have to keep going back to Batman, who is 75 years old, and Spider-Man, who is middle-aged.”
The Rise of Aurora West, a prequel/spinoff to Battling Boy, expands the world of Arcopolis and the monster fighters who try to keep that megalopolis safe. Arcopolis as a nightly curfew that attempts to keep kids safe from the monsters (quite literally, they are goblin-faced, spaghetti-armed creatures with razor-sharp teeth) who prowl the dark alleys. Aurora West is a teenage monster hunter trained by her father, Batman-stand-in Haggard West, a super-rich adventurer with a face-fitting mask, high tech gadgets, and a Westmobile. In Battling Boy, Haggard is dead and Aurora is left to battle monsters on her own. In Rise, Aurora is still being trained by her father to, in his words, “make her strong enough to survive when I’m gone.”
Though set in the same world, Aurora West has a tone than the action heavy, magic-t-shirt story of Battling Boy. Aurora is not the strongest fighter or the surest of foot, but she’s got an investigative mind. She notices details others miss, even her father, who is “Arcopolis’ Wiliest Detective.” She plays squab at school (a game that seems to involve mallets and baseball bats, but not necessarily a ball?), practices “anti-mandible kenpo” with Ms. Grately (the Wests’ version of Alfred Pennyworth), and ignores (or doesn’t notices) flirtatious asides from Hoke, a boy from school she brings along on illicit investigations. As Aurora and Hoke look for clues in a library, his whispered “you’re so pretty” is a welcome reminder — right before the story kicks into creepy/action/conclusion mode — that this is still a story about kids, intended for an audience about that the same age or younger.
Aurora West can be read and enjoying without any foreknowledge of Battling Boy. It’s clearly established from the start that Arcopolis is a city with a monster problem, and that Haggard West is a Batman-figure with doom in his future. In Haggard’s case, the event from his past that’s made him the grim avenger he is today is the death of his wife — and Aurora’s mother. But Aurora is clearly our main character. She’s learning how to fight monsters, but more importantly, she’s learning when to listen to her mentors and when to trust her instincts. She’s learning to ask why there are monsters in Arcopolis, and discovering there might be more to their motivations besides madness and appetite.
Written by Pope with JT Petty, Aurora West is illustrated in black-and-white by David Rubin. Rubin’s work resembles a wonderful hybrid of Pope, Jeff Smith, Ren & Stimpy’s John Kricfalusi (those scrunched faces, that sweat!), and a pinch of Charles Burns. He employs great visual effects — the glare of light that obscures the face of Aurora’s mother the first time we see her, the thought balloon turning gears when Aurora puts something together in her head — and every page really works as a page. They are clearly constructed moments of story. Whether that comes from a tight script from Petty & Pope or from Rubin’s storytelling sensibilities — or both — it makes for an engagingly page-turning read, and it makes me think of Pope’s own masterwork (in my own opinion, at least), THB. Like THB, the art of Aurora West balances sci-fi action with adolescent drama, and while it gets spooky, it never stops being fun. Rubin’s monsters go from silly to strange to scary without losing any of their power, and when, late in the book, a strange creature steps from the shadows that is itself unsure whether it is a monster, a ghost, or something else altogether, I found myself looking around my apartment nervously. That’s a testament to Rubin’s work with mood and shadow just as much — if not more — as Petty & Pope’s words.
Zachary Clemente spoke to Paul Pope about Aurora West at NYCC, and Pope said that Aurora’s influences are H.P. Lovecraft and Boris Karloff Universal Monster movies, providing the flip side to Battling Boy’s wellspring of Jack Kirby, Moebius, and Miyazaki. Aurora West also speaks to something else Pope mentioned in that SDCC panel: that he’s writing to himself as a younger person.
The Rise of Aurora West is about a girl being propelled out of adolescence and into young adulthood, discovering that maybe her father doesn’t have all the answers, and that the imaginary friend she half-remembers from her youth might not have been so imaginary after all. It deepens a world of new mythologies introduced in Battling Boy and proves that there is a way to create new superhero comics, for a younger audience, without having to use the same old corporate characters of decades past.
Haggard West might be doomed, but Aurora is on the rise.