Comics Archaeology: Paul Pope
The Corruptor (Horse Press): Now, here’s something you don’t see every day. This is a quarter page mini comic from Paul Pope, circa 1993. The book is self-defined as a Russian “samizdat,” which basically translates to a “self-printed” publication, the types of which were often hand circulated in Moscow, and not officially permissible under authoritarian regimes. This copy is hand numbered and signed as copy 809/1,000. The way my friend Mike tells the story, when he loaned me this precious copy, is that he was wandering around San Diego Comic-Con one year and there was suddenly an unexpected announcement over the loud speaker that a creator named Paul Pope would be giving away free mini comics in Artists Alley at such-and-such table number. Mike had no idea who Paul Pope was, and at the time, I’m sure he wasn’t alone. But, he wasn’t about to turn down a free comic. He arrived at the table, all alone, and found Pope quietly sitting there, all alone. He also picked up some free postcards and a really interesting set of 6 trading cards advertising a new series called THB, which wouldn’t actually debut for another two years, until 1995.
1995 was also the same year that Pope was sequestered and began working for the largest manga publisher, Kodansha, on hundreds of pages of strips that would never actually see print. Coincidentally, these lost Kodansha strips WILL be published in a new edition of The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts recently announced by Legendary. While The One Trick Rip-Off itself was originally published in 1997, this is the first time these so-called “Deep Cuts” (the Kodansha material) will ever be seen. You can imagine how excited this makes us Paul Pope fans. Most of us are completists because the guy isn’t terribly prolific. You also have to realize how early this mini comic was. We’re talking 18 years ago. Sin Titulo was the only other book of Pope’s which he’d self-published at that point under his Horse Press imprint. The Ballad of Doctor Richardson wasn’t even out yet. This was two years before THB, as I said. Escapo wouldn’t arrive for another 6 years, until 1999, and these works are considered his early works! This mini predates what is considered Pope’s early period by roughly 5 years. THB and Escapo put him on the map, for me anyway. From there, it was on to Heavy Liquid and 100% at Vertigo. Those were the first books of Pope’s that I bought new singles of as they came out, instead of frantically chasing down out-of-print back issues. From there, he catapulted to stardom, receiving his first Eisner Award in 2006 for the Best Short Story “Teenage Sidekick,” appearing in Solo #3 (I actually own a piece of original art from this story, a full page of Robin being dragged by two of the Joker’s goons). In 2007, he took home double Eisner Awards for Best Writer/Artist and Best Limited Series for Batman: Year 100, a dystopian future tale set in 2039. The rest, as they might say, is a history we’re largely familiar with.
The Corruptor is an interesting artifact pre-dating nearly his entire body of work that contains seeds of some of his future themes and influences. Pope explains in the back matter that he was fascinated with didactic strips that illustrate singular notions which wouldn’t be perceived as artistically “wishy-washy.” This brief story combines two of his influences, the kind of romantic European comics he grew up reading, and hard-boiled crime stories. The 28-pager has a vaguely Eastern European aesthetic, and resembles the type of pamphlet that Thomas Paine would have circulated. The titular “corruptor” is about a man conspicuously disrupting authoritarian rule. It’s an odd corollary to think of this dynamic vis-à-vis the marketing exercise this was for Pope. He printed up 1,000 copies of this book, used these incredibly big letters to form PAUL POPE on the cover and overshadow the title, marketing himself when nobody knew who he was, and subversively gave them all away by hand. Thematically, the story itself is a direct example of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. The story is told in very direct full page visuals with no text. It’s a pure message about breaking forth from the bonds of oppression suffocating the human spirit. It’s about a man wanting to find the freedom to live, love, laugh, and specifically explore art. We’re glad he did.