Eventually, the child must prove themselves capable, they must become adults–even if they are still small, still growing, still uncertain. Most adults are uncertain, facing armies of monsters with only sketchy information, circumstantial evidence. Everything is a rite of passage.
The first volume of Paul Pope’s graphic novel series, Battling Boy, is concerned with the rite of passage, bread and butter of the adventure narrative. On the day before his thirteenth birthday, our eponymous hero drops down through the swirling lightning cloud and is left alone on a world he’s never heard of, meant to prove himself by defending it from monsters.
Arcopolis–a city the size of a continent, on one of a million-billion parallel worlds–is beset upon by an army of super-villains, monsters with no apparent source and no aim beyond devastation and the kidnapping of children. There’s a curfew in effect, as the monsters tend to avoid coming out before early evening, and the monsters are thwarted to some small extent by a singular champion called Haggard West. West flies around with super-science and ray-guns, shooting them up and saving what kids he can–until he ends up dead, sacrificing himself to save some kids. The world’s left without a hero, and his daughter Aurora is left without a father.
Meanwhile, in a higher realm, up above the DNA-like spiral of worlds, a Teutonic demigod returns to a shining temple-city after defeating a monster. He’s here to usher his son into a rite of passage–the children of the shining realm must leave on their thirteenth birthday and prove themselves heroic and capable. He ushers his son through the swirling lightning cloud and onto a mountain on the edge of Arcopolis.
He does the dad things, the heroic challenge things: he lays out the task at hand (live among the people, save them from monsters), he hands over the divine gifts (one magical cloak; one invisible credit card; one map; one book of monsters; one set of keys for an apartment; two wrist-bracers; twelve magical T-shirts, emblazoned with animal totems to call upon). After that, while his son whimpers and begs him for help, the Demigod–who carries a hammer, who wears a horned and winged helmet–leaps up into the sky and disappears.
And then, Battling Boy has to survive on his own. He has to prove himself. And, as this is only the start of the story, he does poorly. Pope allows Battling Boy to fail right from the outset, forced to make use of his enchanted wrist-bracers to call his dad for help with fighting the first monster, a ravenous dog-creature eating everything in sight, no distinction between whether it’s edible or not. Dad is, as well, not really paying attention, something that I really appreciated; the old man’s busy fighting a flaming minotaur in some other dimension, and gets so fed up with his boy’s complaining that he simply fires a lightning bolt across worlds and destroys the monster.
Which is great, right? Except for the part where all anyone in Arcopolis saw was a twelve-year-old boy calling down a blast of magical lightning that incinerated a monster. He’s their new hero! He can handle anything! He gets the meet the mayor, gets his own parade, stands in front of TV cameras and the paparazzi, is paired with a beauty queen. So desperate for a shred of hope are the people of Arcopolis that they’ll jump on anyone without question. Too bad he lies about being able to call down the lightning (and then he’s awkwardly questioned about the mechanics, because of course the city’s scientists and engineers want to reproduce the effect). Too bad that he feels mismatched right away, barely understanding his magical totem T-shirts.
Which I really enjoy. I love that Battling Boy has no idea what he’s doing and is struggling to keep his head up. He is from a better world and is gifted with tremendous power but is quite humble at the same time, even while he struggles to pretend like he can handle things. He doesn’t know how to work with the totems, has to learn their weaknesses and strengths (T-Rexes, for example, have no upper body strength) and by the end of the volume has already lost one, ripped right off his back by some of Pope’s more inventive monsters.
My favourite sequence from the book is a quiet moment in his apartment–Battling Boy doesn’t know what to do to save the city and decides he needs help. Two of his animal shirts offer a kind of intellectual help–the Clever Fox and the Wise Elephant. The sequence is beautiful and quite haunting–sliding the fox shirt on first, he’s is visited by the animal out of the darkness, a slinky trickster urging him to cheat right away. Call his father. When Battling Boy argues that Dad isn’t going to help him again, the fox encourages him to call his mother or lie to his father. Unsatisfied and unwilling to repeat his earlier show of weakness, he calls upon the elephant, wisdom incarnate, who suckles a houkah and tells him he knows what he has to do: be strong, be focused, do the work.
Part of why I love that sequence is that Battling Boy uses good judgement even when he’s down, and neither path solves the problem, just reminds him that it is his problem. It’s also eerie, as the audience is reminded that he isn’t literally being visited by these animals–he’s essentially hallucinating in the middle of his apartment, both speaking to his totems and being filled with them.
Another element that I love about the story is Aurora West, Haggard’s orphaned daughter. While Battling Boy gets ready to drop from the sky, we see her mourning her father and deciding to finally follow in his footsteps. While the boy is gifted with divine powers and gifts, Aurora has to actually learn the physics behind her father’s technology, feels less a need to prove herself and more a desire to see her father’s legacy fulfilled. She’s upset when she learns of the new hero in Arcopolis but that only fires her on, making her take action alongside him when some of the monsters attack during the parade. They don’t get a chance to speak, not really, and I’m very curious how their relationship will evolve in the second volume; Aurora is a teenager with a legacy, and I’m curious how she’ll handle working alongside an upstart from another world with magic.
Pope’s artwork is spectacular, scratchy and detailed. His depiction of the shining realm overtly references the work of Jack Kirby, of course, but brings his own distinct eye to it. He works in visual cues to the long line of mythological heroes in modern comics that Battling Boy is a part of–before he starts wearing his animal totems, he arrives in a shirt emblazoned with an eagle pattern that (along with his wrist-bracers) evokes Wonder Woman. His father is a Thunder God. His broach & epaulette-laden cloak summons the image of C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel (also summoned via lightning).
His monsters are detailed and strange, as well. Sadisto and his minions, Coil and Nails. The Spiders. The Hyena. They are all nasty and grotesque and spend their time off gambling, drinking uranium-enriched booze. We are given hints to the true villain, the ultimate monster, who seems to have some capacity or desire to drain children of their dreams–hence the kidnapping.
The story is simple and straightforward, but doesn’t allow easy answers for its heroes. Pope employs interesting forms of repetition to draw connections between Arcopolis and the higher realm. With Pope, knowing his political leanings, I tend to go into his work loving the artwork but wary of the story, but nothing strongly flagged for me beyond the typical issues with the hero narrative, one man against the world.
My biggest frustration was that I don’t quite know why the lead character had to be the traditional blond boy-child, particularly when his mother is shown to not be white, the choice felt a little lazy, a little too conservative, given that the story felt so assured of itself. That said, I still enjoy it and want more, as soon as possible.