‘You Need a Lot of Stamina to Make Comics’: An Interview with Paul Pope

The cartoonist on analogue versus digital art, post-punk rock musician Rowland S. Howard, and his idea for a "Tao of comics."

Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, and one of the participants in the collaborative omnibus novel Di...

Guilherme Marcondes

Paul Pope, the self-styled “comics destroyer,” has long understood that creation is an act of displacement—a “sum of destructions,” as Picasso famously put it. The annihilation of the empty page when overlaid with balanced grids and figures is an extension of this destructive impulse and, in Pope’s graphic design book Pulphope: The Art of Paul Pope, he expresses a desire to discard all “inflated and worn-out edicts which serve only to keep the medium of comics in stasis.”

This pursuit of comics’ kinetic future has taken him far afield. In 1995, after self-publishing books such as Sin Titulo, The Ballad of Doctor Richardson, and the Martian science fiction gangster-epic THB, Pope accepted an invitation to work for Kodansha, Japan’s largest publishing company. Producing eighteen pages of art a week, a workload that most comic book artists strive to complete on a monthly basis, he returned to North America with a workhorse mentality towards comic strip production.

Marrying the Japanese and European traditions of manga and bande dessinée with a uniquely American ethos, Pope released three graphic novels with DC Comics—Heavy Liquid, 100%, and the blockbuster Batman: Year 100, a dystopian thriller set a hundred years after the caped crusader’s inception in 1939. Pope’s one-man wave of artistic destruction even found entry points in the fashion and film worlds, where he designed two seasons of a capsule men’s line for DKNY, and worked for several years with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment to develop a feature film adaptation of his young adult comic series Battling Boy. In addition to the conclusion of the Battling Boy series and a secret project that will be announced in late 2021, Pope has been mulling over something called a “Tao of comics”—a protreptic in the comic arts that, in addition to establishing the “rules” of the form, will lay out practices to sustain the cartoonist’s singular lifestyle.

I spoke with Paul on the phone to discuss the protean nature of his work, the mentorship of younger artists, and his love of Australian post-punk musician Rowland S. Howard. 

Jean Marc Ah-Sen: I like this idea of the “Tao of comics” you’ve been talking up lately, because it seems to go beyond the ambitions of drawing manuals or academic elaborations of the comic form. Am I right in thinking that the book you’re planning isn’t in the vein of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art?

Paul Pope: This notion of the Tao, the way I see it, is an attitude towards living that is benevolent and open. That’s the way I feel when I read Lao Tzu. To become a cartoonist, I didn’t go to SVA or Pratt—I was trained in traditional painting and printmaking and art history. The teachers mostly didn’t think comics or even illustration were art. My early masters were the late Pheoris West and Charles Massey of Ohio State University, life drawing and printing professors respectively. I wanted to learn hands-on technique from them. I wasn’t interested in conceptual art. It mattered to me if I actually could draw anatomy and paint. I spent eight years doing figure drawing, painting with Pheoris, learning how to stretch canvases, lithography, and silkscreen with Charles, etc.—learning the technical details about the science of art. “Why do you change your ink out every six months?” “Why do you use this type of brush?”

The Tao I want to write will describe not only tools that are good, but also how to live in a holistic way so you can maintain the lifestyle of an artist. As I’m getting older, I am more conscious of that, since you need a lot of stamina to make comics. There are all kinds of social reasons why people drop out of the arts, or pitfalls along the way that might be spider holes, rather than good career or lifestyle choices. Rather than tell people, “You should do this, you should do that,” the Tao is a poetic questionnaire. I know it sounds kind of grandiose to say I want to write a Tao of comics, but it’s more like “a way of comics,” not “the way of comics.” Especially as we move more toward a digitally-oriented society, I notice younger artists asking me questions about simple analogue tools like brushes and inks, that sort of thing. So I’d want to codify that in some sort of book.

Are there certain core values that have informed your work over the years?

A lot of my tastes are Modernist sensibilities and I consider myself a pop artist too. As far as core values go, I think we have to have room for storytellers and picture-makers without blinders on, but we’re in a kind of revolutionary phase in time. I think—let me start with this: critical thinking, skepticism. The tyranny of social media is we’re given things we’re supposed to believe in just because they’re written. It isn’t natural, it isn’t the way people have always thought or discovered things. We have one group shutting down another group, this group against that group, and vice-versa. It’s a turn-off because, as an artist, I’m interested in exploration of ideas, in free inquiry, and in a long-term call and response with other artists and, at large, with people out there. People I respected growing up were Milo Manara, Moebius, Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt. You absorb their work and do something to respond to it. I want people to remain critical. Talk, debate, challenge ideas. If you don’t like something, formulate a response to it rather than just try to shut it down. That’s the discourse and, without it we don’t have society. That’s the temperature of the culture right now. If everybody cools down a little bit, it’ll be better.

Do these ideas translate as you work across mediums? Can you incorporate the same principles when you’re doing non-comics work, like the print-making you do with Nakatomi, Inc. or when you designed the end credit sequences for Netflix’s Altered Carbon

They’re all different rhetorics, but when it comes to animation, screen printing, illustration, they all have rules—fuzzy rules let’s say. So I think you want to learn the language first. As a visual artist, I think that the skill set you might bring to animation versus screen printing versus comic book storytelling—they’re all different yet related. It’s important to find the things that are specific to the subgenres or the submedias, and how they all kind of relate to the larger picture, which is visual storytelling or the graphic arts.

With the likes of Stan Sakai, Colleen Doran, and Jeff Smith, you came out of the American independent comics/self-publishing scene in the early ’90s. Can you talk about breaking into comics by starting Horse Press as opposed to the more traditional route of sending samples to comic publishers and signing work-for-hire contracts?

When I got into comics it was the early ’90s, and it was right after the top artists from Marvel and DC splintered into their own company and formed Image Comics. It was like, “Okay, you can be an artist outside of a corporation?” That was exciting. There were also self-publishing examples with books like Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Jeff Smith’s Bone. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was already huge. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start publishing, especially if you work in a printing shop like I did. I cut a lot of costs by doing my own pre-production work in-house. So I read a couple of books on how to self-publish and it was a business model that actually made sense. Considering I was in my early twenties—I mean my rent was 189 dollars a month and I lived on baguettes and hummus and coffee—it’s kind of strange I was able to do this. That’s how it started for me.  

As an artist still using analogue materials of paper, pencils, ink, and brush, what do you make of the popularity of digital platforms for experiencing comics, and of comics being made digitally? Has the digital revolution levelled the playing field for creators, or created more challenges in publishing?

I don’t think it’s levelled the playing field because we still have to have fundamental art skills. If you look at Western art examples, the eye will still see representation of a body. You can say this person has a certain style, but we still read this as a body or as space, which I consider to be formalistic ground rules of picture making. Most comics, whatever the style or subject, rely on figure/ground imagery. The thing I always think about, because of the career I’ve had and maybe because I started drawing before computers were useful for making pictures, is I prefer to make tangible, analogue drawings made out of archival tools on paper. They’re able to last beyond our lifetimes. The life of the art is longer than the life of the artist, usually. I’m always a little bit perplexed about making digital art for its own sake because there’s no document—there’s a digital document, but not an artifact. That’s why I was calling myself a Modern artist before because there’s a body of work that’s left behind. I wouldn’t want to have anything that was only digital, although I do work digitally all the time. In my case, it’s technical rather than creative. I mainly scan art I drew and send digital files to the publisher. I’ll start with a pencil and a blank piece of paper, and work that way.

What’s your opinion on the mentorship of new artists? You developed friendships with comic luminaries Moebius and Frank Miller, who looked at your work at various stages in your career. Do you think that built into the conception of what an artist does is the understanding—I don’t want to use a loaded term like “responsibility”—that they engage with the next generation, and carry on a tradition of technical, maybe even philosophical instruction?

Not necessarily. I think it depends on your personality, really. I know that I’m not the type of person that wants to be a teacher. The one time I did teach was at a month-long residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. I told the students, “You can come to me with questions, I’ll suggest exercises that we can do, but I’m not going to grade you.” Everybody walked away with a different lesson. I’m more interested in presenting questions and letting people find their own solutions. While I was studying with Pheoris, I also had an epistolary relationship with Alex Toth, and he would tell me things like, “No, you’re doing this wrong, it needs to be like this.” It was pedantic. I prefer to have a mélange of styles where you pick things up from manga, from comics, from literary essays, from art history, wherever—different things that come together because you’re not working in one rigid tradition. Eventually, your style percolates. As I got older, I got to know Bill Sienkiewicz. Even though we’re close in age, I consider him a master beyond my level. We’ve drawn together many times and I ask him questions as we’re working. It’s truly a dialectic. He will say, “Maybe this works, maybe that doesn’t work.” The openness of it is much more in my spirit.

Your work has reflected a deep connection with music. You’ve done promotional artwork for bands like Heavy Trash, Thee Hypnotics, and Metallica, you illustrated the last piece of writing Dee Dee Ramone ever published for Spin magazine, and you were going to direct a music video for the Tea Party at one point. Are these projects a way of recharging before you go back into comics work, or a way of signalling your own personal tastes?

I’ve had three or four chances to make music videos. I’m sure I could have hit a home run, but there’s never any money in it for the budget. The era of big music videos seems like it’s passed. Even small videos will lose you money. It’s like you show up at the batter’s cage and there’s no bat, to continue this clumsy metaphor. Earlier on, working with bands, it was about flagging my interests, but then you ask yourself how you can make something new. The thing I’ve discovered about the musicians I’ve met is that a lot of them draw. There’s this universal handshake that happens between musicians and whatever I am—a graphic artist or a cartoonist. A lot of them either went to an art school or read comics and science fiction. You meet in this neutral playing field. The strange thing about comics is there’s no sound—we always make sound effects, things that suggest sound and action, but it’s really just a piece of paper. And music has no visual element in itself—the recording is just sound. I think there’s always been a secret fraternity between graphic artists and musicians. I’ve been interested in carrying that forward.

You were saying how Rowland S. Howard’s music, especially in Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, is something you return to often for inspiration. What is it about Howard’s career and tragic end that resonates so strongly with you? 

When I was a teenager, the Birthday Party was still together—Nick Cave’s band with Rowland S. Howard. There were hidden elements in Howard’s guitar playing that I had to discover later, everything from Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, to Les Paul—in short, the history of reverb. There’s this kind of Byronic thing that post-punks had that I liked where it was kind of romantic to be emaciated and wistful. Because he was Australian and his music had this reverb-heavy sound, it always made me think about space and the desert. The music was full of imagery to me, had this romantic, wide-space sound. I could see ways that it related to Sergio Leone and Moebius—“big picture” pictures, as it were.

You took a trip to Egypt and the Middle East two years ago that galvanized your work and recalibrated what sort of relationship you thought was possible with your audience. Can you talk about the experience and what it did for your outlook?

From what they told me, it was the first time an American had come to headline a comic convention in North Africa, specifically Egypt. They were so welcoming, which is interesting if you think about where we are in history—going as an American pop artist to meet other Egyptian pop artists. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction with this thought, but they had a lot of questions about comics and bande dessinée. Many never really had a chance to meet people from the West who did this, so I was just available to talk, like an ambassador of comics or something. There’s a strong French comics tradition there too, which is cool. Lots of late-night discussions about craft and intention, stuff like that. The work there is definitely more politically active because of the time and the place. There’s tons of screen printing, anthologies, and flash art. Some artists were coming from Lebanon. I met a number of artists who had been arrested and put in jail because of their work.

I think with the ubiquity of comics today, it’s easy to forget that there is and always has been a history of iconoclasm within the medium. Fletcher Hanks, Spain Rodriguez, Art Young, George Herriman, June Tarpé Mills…

Especially here in North America, where we have laws protecting satire and parody, and there [in the Middle East] they don’t. It’s easy to even fall into a net where you didn’t intend to do something that was a parody of the government, but over there it will still land you in jail. It was pretty profound to see that firsthand. It really made you rethink the power of the pen, so to speak. It really felt like a cultural exchange. It changes the intention of making art when you realize it’s actually a political act.

I’ve always thought there was a humanistic and political dimension to your writing, asking questions about where society is heading, usually in relation to technology, personal freedoms, and authoritarian government powers.

Well, I infuse my work with things I find relevant as a science fiction writer—which is what I consider myself to be. I just happen to draw, rather than make prose. The thing with science fiction is that it’s predictive literature that’s concerned with where society is going, as opposed to “capital F” Fantasy, which seems to me to ask questions of balancing right and wrong, good versus evil, and where we are in the moment. I think the big questions right now would be about artificial intelligence, the relationship of digital technology with the government and media, longevity, and the questions of how we can preserve our lives beyond the human life scale, the ecology. Those are worth writing about because those are real things and they’re there.

What do you think about the artist or writer who does not engage along these political lines? Is the apathetic or apolitical artist relevant to an audience increasingly engaging with these subjects?

I kind of agree with the notion of ars gratia artis. Art for its own sake is fine. I don’t think the artist has any special responsibility to respond to anything in society. You can just make a pretty picture. And by “pretty,” I don’t mean to denigrate the value of an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. Some artists are very strident politically, but when it comes to aesthetics, I think an artist can just make their art. Nobody even needs to see it. That being said, I think, by its very nature, science fiction does respond to concerns about where we’re going as a people, and that’s a social issue.

You almost got the chance to adapt A Clockwork Orange for the now-defunct Vertigo mature readers imprint of DC Comics, which would have paired you with comic and TV writer Grant Morrison. How were you going to approach a book with such loaded audience expectations? Did it incorporate the infamous last chapter that was omitted in Kubrick’s film where Alex DeLarge is legitimately rehabilitated and wants to start a family?

I’d been wanting to work with Grant Morrison for a long time, and at one point they were attached to adapt it at Vertigo. I think they’re one of the great writers of our medium. We’d almost worked together a couple of times—I seem to remember there was talk about doing a third year of All-Star Superman with different artists. They don’t remember talking to me about it, but I remember discussing it. When A Clockwork Orange came to me, I said, “Why don’t we recast this as an American story and put it in Los Angeles or Detroit? I won’t draw it, but I’ll help find an artist from Los Angeles to do it, and rephrase everything so the dialogue isn’t going to be a Nadsat mish-mash of English and Russian—make it an up-to-the-minute LA hip hop thing where Alex is a kid from LA and speaks with that vernacular.” Editorial shied away from it. I didn’t want to do a literal adaptation, as much as play with the theme and update it. I love this dystopian story about an attempt to cynically rehabilitate a rebellious, troubled kid who eventually, tragically learns to love the system. I was against adding the final coda with grown-up Alex. But I don’t know if the original text is contemporary enough to make sense to young people now, so that was my suggestion for how it could have been done. But as for a literal adaptation, Kubrick’s film was already perfect, I think.

Your art is very large—you draw on 19x24” artboards as opposed to the American standard of 11x17”. Your art rep has described your pieces as having real “wall power.” What are the advantages of working in these dimensions?

Before I got into comics, I was studying what they used to call monumental painting. I was looking at Anselm Kiefer and Mark Rothko, Frank Auerbach, artists that would cover an entire wall. When I learned to draw, the action point was my shoulder and, later on, as I got more precise, it was my elbow. When I get into detailed stuff for comics, it’s my wrist and, beyond that, it’s the tips of my fingers on my drawing hand. When I started making comics professionally, I had to estimate what size I should work at and ask myself: how large is the actual drawing for print? Because I was already studying painting in college, I was thinking about making big wall-sized landscapes or images. It was comfortable to work large because I was already doing big paintings. I still draw standing up. It’s funny now because it’s changed the way people think about making comics pages. Most everybody working in comics now has read How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and it’s full of unnecessary rules and standards that people over time have followed because Stan Lee said it is so. There’s no reason comic book original art needs to be 11x17”.

Your linework has changed over the years, and still shows signs of further evolution. In the ’90s, you were working almost from an animator’s tool kit—channelling archetypes and expressive simplicity. Then your line got more detailed, complex—the rendering got to be more rugged. Were these changes intentional, or inevitable stages of progression as you mastered the craft of composition, design, etc.? 

To bring it back to Howard and expressionism for a second, I want to make sure that the art has integrity and responds to the way I feel. Rowland’s music is full of cues which relate back to the artists he studied, yet he built on what he discovered and twisted it into something new. There are times when I feel the art should be more rugged, as you say, or expressive, more times when it should be meticulous. So depending on the project or drawing I’m working on, it might change. For Battling Boy, for example, I’m trying to channel Jack Kirby and classic comics and kids’ stories. To me, it feels like the story requires a style that’s a little more art brut. If I’m doing a commission of Lone Wolf and Cub, which feels like it should be a little more traditionally fine, I’ll make the linework in a classic Ukiyo-e-style.

Original comic art sales are finally catching up with the fine art world, but you decided that you wanted to channel some of that revenue into philanthropic causes. What made you want to get involved with the NAACP during the pandemic?

I’m fortunate to be in a place where I have a really good art rep, Felix Lu. Every year, his roster of artists has a think tank about where to contribute a portion of our art sales revenue. This last year, with everything that’s gone on with Black Lives Matter, we raised a lot of money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then also because of Felix’s personal history—having lost his wife—assistance for families surviving cancer rehabilitation through the Paltown Development Foundation’s Lu Family Fund. I never thought I’d be able to do that as a guy making comics. There’s this classic notion of how a person should be in society and, according to Aristotle, it was what he called arete—which is his concept of athlete, artist, and saint. In my own ways, I’ve achieved some of those things I guess, but I wouldn’t with a straight face call myself a saint. But to be able to help other people without asking anything in return is a good feeling, I’ll say that.

You alternate between creator-owned, auteur-style projects, and big corporate properties whose decades-long essences you have to distill—I’m thinking of your stints on Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Inhumans, and, of course, Batman. Are you writing to different imagined audiences, or is it more about finding properties that you can reconcile with your sensibility and broader goals as an artist?

Yeah, the latter of the two. I like what Clint Eastwood said: “One for me, one for them.” So when I work on something that we might call mainstream, whether it’s Spider-Man or Batman, I try to get a sense of what’s the demand. Then I’ll write within the boundaries of the genre limitations and try to hit the bullseye, but go way above the bullseye. That’s always been my attitude. And then when it’s time to write something small and personal—well, I wouldn’t go to Warner Bros. with the idea of a Tao of comics. They wouldn’t touch it.

You released new editions of your breakout books Heavy Liquid and 100% with Image Comics—recoloured for a new decade and a new audience. What’s your attitude towards maintaining your backlist? I imagine it’s not just a question of simply keeping the titles in print.

When DC Comics moved to Burbank to be closer to their parent company Warner Bros., they went through their backlist and dropped a staggering number of properties. In my case, DC comics returned the rights to my Vertigo books, and I was able to take them to Image Comics. I consider those works to be cyberpunk, dystopian, near-sci-fi things and I think they still have an audience. The books have all remained in print, they’re published overseas, and those books are able to carry over as a placeholder as I’m finishing my new stuff. I’ve been out of the public eye for a while, just working—stealth years—and I got trapped in the Hollywood maze for a little bit, so returning to the roots for me is getting back into comics again.

You’ve got multiple books on the go right now. Total THB, colour and black-and-white collections of your unfinished Mars sci-fi epic, a Jungian dream book for Dargaud called Psychenaut, the second and final installment of the Battling Boy series, and a top-secret book so big that it may eclipse everything you’ve ever done before. Can you give an update on the statuses of the first three projects?

THB can’t happen until Battling Boy Vol. 2 is finished, which is with the same publisher—First Second Books, a division of Macmillan. That’s in our contract. Those books are aimed at young adult audiences. Psychenaut has kind of been on hold for a while. It’s a book about dream analysis, dream therapy, so it’s very personal and revealing. I wanted to rethink how much I wanted to share. It’s almost finished. That’s something that’s going to happen for my French publisher Dargaud. I have a couple of new things in the works that I hope to surprise people with in the next couple of years though.

Your most recent project was a reimagining of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and Other Nightmares for Beehive Books’ Illuminated Editions series, which has a curatorial component because artists are invited to illustrate passages from a book in the public domain. What is it about Blackwood’s body of work that compelled you to engage with it?

He was a precursor to H.P. Lovecraft. I like pastoral writing a lot. When an author can depict something that’s as static and seemingly tranquil as nature can be, and on top of that add an element of supernatural horror, it makes the work really interesting. The thing I love about The Willows is that most of the novel is just about two guys in a boat going down the Danube. Moving depictions of the water and trees, and this extra dose of phantasmagoria. There’s no monster that pops out from behind a tree or some zombie crawling out of the ground. The horror is all psychological. It’s a type of horror we don’t see a lot of today. 

Lucasfilm wanted you to decamp to Skywalker Ranch and design spaceships for a sizable block of your life. What was the experience like?

It was thrilling and weird. After I did Batman: Year 100, I went through this strange phase where I was in Hollywood a lot, meeting directors and studio heads, working on projects. This went on for a few years. I had done some artwork for one of the Star Wars: Visions books, so I was on George Lucas’s radar. I went up to the Ranch and did this presentation for the directors and crew, not knowing it was a job interview. It was still fairly early in the game with Battling Boy Vol. 1. They told me, “We have a LucasArts job to offer you, but we can’t tell you what it is unless you accept it.” It was shocking because I had to finish Battling Boy no matter what—I had contracts that I couldn’t drop. We were standing behind the Ranch and a deer walked out of the woods. It was such a surreal moment. This was in Marin County on a hill in the springtime. The deer looked me in the eye and then went on his way. It felt like the spirit of Battling Boy was telling me I have to keep on the path that I’m on. So I said no. I only found out later it would have been work on the animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this, but weren’t there rules about how you were to engage with Lucas?

You can’t look him in the eye. Don’t touch him. Don’t call him George. Don’t ask anything Star Wars-related. This is kind of common for people on that level of celebrity. They prime you for those kinds of meetings.

Comics began quite literally as a kind of gutter-medium, but it was only through years of advocacy, scholarship, and the establishment of the canonization of comic books—its touchstones that crossed over outside of the direct comics market—that this reputation was rehabilitated. What are your thoughts on a “comics canon,” and what would be included in it?

I guess going from the beginning, I’d say Windsor McCay, Charles Schulz, Walt Kelley, Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Frank Miller obviously, Hergé, Moebius, and then we could go into Japan and stuff like that. Make it country by country maybe, or tradition to tradition. I think, in a more general sense, as our culture’s becoming more visually literate, the value of comics as a visual storytelling medium is becoming more valuable. When I was a little kid, I remember unsuccessfully trying to convince my grandfather of the value of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck comics. But I don’t know if I should be the person to say what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. If we looked at the top 100 comics, what I can say is that it should be international at this point. This goes back to Harold Bloom and the Western canon, which is an idea that I believe in, to an extent—we have a bedrock of certain works which make the foundation of the canon, which are required reading, and that can change or adapt over time. But the further you get into the industry, you think more about making work, making money, bills, and less about what should or shouldn’t be considered a great comic. If I like it, it’s great. 

Every few decades, some doomsayer muses on the death of comics…

It always dies. It dies every couple of years because they kill it. They declare it dead, and it comes back.

Are there measures the industry can take to maintain its durability against attentions being split between streaming services and video games? Is Hollywood’s compulsive strip-mining of comic book properties enough? 

Some of my younger friends are more used to listening to music on Spotify or other streaming services, or selecting various random MP3s out of order. I’m not sure either is better, but I’m more used to listening to tracks in the order the artist intended. Album sides. There’s always going to be a schism between the delivery system and the message. I don’t quite know what the answer is. Art never dies really, expression never dies, and I think the kind of people that talk about the death of comics are critics. They’re doing it to get a response out of people, to stay relevant. It just seems stupid because it’s no less dead than speech is dead. It’s people speaking to each other in elaborate cuneiform. That’s all comics are.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of Grand Menteur, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, and one of the participants in the collaborative omnibus novel Disintegration in Four Parts. He lives in Toronto with his wife and sons.