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Years before NYC-based artist and writer Paul Pope was garnering Eisner Awards for an intricate, boundary-challenging Batman series, he was making a name for himself working at a Japanese comics publisher. At night, however, Pope was crafting the story of how a circus’s sinewy escape artist earns his keep. While Pope is now well known in both the American comics and manga industries for his off-kilter superhero monthlies and visually dazzling graphic novels, the pair of long out-of-print comics finally collected in Escapo and reissued by Manhattan publisher Z2 this summer is likely under the radar of most of his readers. This deluxe hardcover celebration of Pope’s late-1990s work is big and bold in size, perhaps countering the occasional “it’s too small” page-specs criticism he garnered for his recent Battling Boy (First Second Books, 2013) graphic novel. At 11″ x 9″, Escapo‘s acrylic inks and hues — rich blue-green gradients and limitless night-sky opacity, all the new work of colorist Shay Plummer, as the stories originally ran in black and white — are given plenty of room, each worthy of prolonged, slack-jawed looks.
“Nothing’s more life-affirming than the escape artist, defying death,” says Escapo’s manager, squatting cross-legged in front of a trailer. It’s one of the book’s few idle sequences, but it looks as if it were storyboarded for a classic film. A ginger-haired, pouting Vic (“Escapo”), looking like a 1950s-era movie star, a tough guy with a heart of gold, partially shields his prodding cheekbones and fraying bandages from view (Police Commissioner Jim Gordon’s grandson wears similar lumps in Pope’s Batman: Year 100). After a good scare, Vic’s playing sick, and, with thick black brows furrowed, he wonders aloud if the end is near for him. At this juncture we’ve already seen him swerve from the path of danger in several sprawling, flamboyant stunts that monopolize the pages. A pulpy, horror-comics-styled bargain with Death drives the conversation with manager Steve, but the heartbreak that we rode out with Vic plays a role in the existential crisis at hand, too.
Pope hasn’t ever been one for assigning many panels to a page, and rarely is the action broken into more than three or four big ones in Escapo — five at most, each bleeding off the edge. Along with his perpetually skewed gutters, the panels emphasize the frenzy that’s percolating in the circus’s center ring. The full-bleed characteristic is rooted in manga, the Japanese comics medium from which Pope draws considerable influence. It’s used to jarring effect in a gritty story collected by Image Comics in 2013 called “The One Trick Rip-Off,” and even more prominent in that book’s back matter, where Deep Cuts, a varied selection of rare vignettes and less formal, sketch-styled work Pope also produced in the ’90s, are filled-out with comics form poems — sweeping, psychedelic visuals paired with romantic verse and steeped in color saturation. Escapo‘s creator directed his colorist on this book to consider Picasso’s “Blue” and “Rose” periods, which weren’t without their renderings of circus performers.
Escapo’s chief character is a fragile, sympathetic loner behind all of the promotional glitz, but for some reason, Vic’s background merits less attention. While the glimpses of his origin are captivating — a sequence of him studying a locket with photos of his mother, or absorbing taunts from jealous clowns, whose unnerving face paint matches their viciousness — they’re stop-offs in stories that read like second and third chapters.
Following a graphic, obstetrician’s perspective of his birth in a prelude piece, Pope whisks us to the circus at ground level. There, the grim reaper literally materializes midway through a show, seeking Vic’s soul, but it hardly weighs on Escapo compared to the bout of lovesickness he battles early on. Pope’s hopeless romantic admires petite acrobat Aerobella from the grandstand, her peach skin pronounced under matted blue-black spit curls and against Plummer’s army green tent canvas. But Vic’s cherub-faced diversion is spoken for, and he can think of little else. It nearly kills him. When he’s chained and straightjacketed, then lobbed into a tank of water, even his otherwise fiendish, greasepaint-caked peers are frightened for the troupe’s now-distracted top billing, who appears to be plunging toward certain death. “Direct yourself southward … toward the far end of the tent,” the ringmaster says, motioning feverishly with a top hat. “For it is here we will find the one and only: ESCAPO!!” His proclamations are as big as the stunts themselves, captured in word balloons shaped like oversized raindrops that puddle around huge, dewy letters.
Though Escapo is short in the “origin story” department, every inch of the book radiates energy, from visual dynamics like the application of vivid red tones in roses or capes, popping against dark backdrops, to the heart of Pope’s distinctive script. Prepared by book designer Jim Pascoe, this reissue is backed with supplemental content, too. There are guest artist pin-up pages, sketches, and an inside-baseball essay on both process and influences. But Pope’s profile of his high-swinging daredevil — even after all of these years — is nearly enough of a main event on its own.
Paul Pope’s Escapo is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.