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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Battling Boy - The Rise of Aurora West

2013's Battling Boy, by esteemed alt-comics pioneer Paul Pope, was the singularly best stand-alone graphic novel I read last year. It was a perfect mixture of Captain Marvel (the Shazam variety), Thor, Kirby-style big ideas, and Kamandi (of which the project originated as). The genre of Young Adult Graphic Novels have seen an immense surge of creative growth in the past two years with the explosion of this category's popularity. As such, creators have begun to stretch their legs in this area and expand the conceptual boundaries of what is generally considered acceptable for titles of this nature.

Paul Pope is one of these creators, never one to play it safe, even his take on Batman is an objectivist, anti-authoritarian nightmare far beyond the boundaries of what DC Comics would likely ever publish today. His other works, like his cyberpunk opuses 100% and Heavy Liquid, are equally gutsy turns that represent the kind of dynamic output that traditional superhero comics publishers used to produce with regularity. To have a creator of this nature turn to the Young Adult and Teen audience and create a graphic novel as inspired as Battling Boy, it's quite the watershed moment, as new innovators have begun to spring into this market with regularity.

With the release of The Rise of Aurora West, we see an expansion of this universe in a method akin to the work Mike Mignola has enacted on his own Hellboy mythos. The Rise of Aurora West is co-plotted by Pope and JT Petty with art by David Rubin. With this new story, Pope and Petty shift their focus from the God-like fantasy of Battling Boy into the pulpier realm of The West Family acting as a prequel to the original graphic novel. 

What makes Aurora West defy the age-old "prequel problem" that so often cripples projects of this nature is that there were a number of intentional blank spots left in Battling Boy itself. We were introduced to Aurora after the death of her father, Haggard West, the hero of Arcopolis that preceded Battling Boy's arrival, but much was left vague. Readers were only given limited background on Sadisto and how long his gang has held the city in a grip of terror, and if there might be other rival organizations jockeying for power. Additionally, background material on Aurora herself was fairly scarce, as she was an important but still secondary player in the machinations of Battling Boy. The Rise of Aurora West answers many of these questions by way of a crackling adventure tale.

When Aurora was a small girl, her mother was murdered by the same creatures that caused a city-wide panic of child kidnappings. These creatures conceivably did this in an attempt to gain revenge on Haggard, who had begun to put a stop to their plans as a part of his ongoing heroic duty to act on Arcopolis' behalf as its "Science Hero". Since then, Haggard has begun to train Aurora at his side as he enacts his vendetta of ending the scourge of monsters that have poured into the city. On one particularly harrowing patrol, Aurora notices a symbol that she recognizes from her childhood; one that specifically reminds her of (what she thought) was an imaginary friend, and the ramifications that this being's presence may have had on her life and the ongoing plague of monsters that drives her father's obsession.

The way in which Pope and Petty unravel the story is quite novel, as it uses a flashback structure, but only in a sparing way. The details of Aurora's childhood are continuously fed to readers as she furthers her investigation into the possible suspect in her mother's murder, and with every advancement, the more we begin to learn about her background. It's that wonderful "show, don't tell" style of storytelling that really hammers home just what a master of the comics form Pope is. Beyond that, Aurora becomes a character with significant agency. Superhero Comics have often struggled with being able to define its female protagonists (such as there are any) in a satisfactory way. Luckily no such problem exists here, as Aurora is a fully self-realized character that is actively easily to empathize with, and who determination makes for a hero that is on the rise despite the tragedy that has marked her life both in the past and in the "future".

The Rise of Aurora West also gives Haggard West significant definition as well. While in the preceding story, Haggard wasn't much more than an archetype of a yesteryear style hero, Pope and Petty give him a fairly stirring emotional arc of his own. Haggard is a man torn between the role of being a hero and being a father at the same time. He recognizes that his daughter is well suited to a sidekick role, but he also wants to protect her, particularly in a time when children have become targets and the subject of severe curfew laws. There's a fantastic sequence in the latter half of the book, when Haggard is faced with a father on the verge of committing suicide after his child had disappeared (and presumably was murdered), and after being faced with the facts as this bleary-eyed father saw them, our hero encourages him to jump for a resolution that is utterly character defining. This is heavy stuff to say the least.
This effusive praise only scratches the surface, and fails to mention the contribution of a rising talent like David Rubin. I was unfamiliar with his work going in, and to be the person who has to follow up Pope's illustrative skills is an unenviable task, but much to my delight, he does so with aplomb. Rubin makes much of Acropolis his own, designing new monsters like Croward and Medula, while also playing with the tone of the world as well. In a sequence that flashes back a young Haggard and his wife's tomb exploring days, Rubin channels a very 1930's serial approach that falls not far from the realm of Doc Savage, along with the obvious Flash Gordon and Rocketeer influences that are clearly at play in Haggard's design and characterization. Rubin is even able to find unique ways to differentiate Sadisto's gang of hood wearing thugs via strong characterization that comes through in his masterful designs. While some may find the black and white approach that is employed here might require a bit of a learning curve, particularly for such an action based graphic novel, it only takes a few pages before you're fully invested due to Rubin's line-work.

The beauty of The Rise of Aurora West is in how accessible the story is. One need not to have read Battling Boy to maintain an easy understanding of the story arc of this father- daughter pair in a city under siege. Though, for those who have, the inherent triumph and tragedy of Aurora West is enriched by a foreknowledge of what is to come, along with a realization: The world of Battling Boy isn't really just about its title character, it's also series about the rise, fall, and rise again of Arcopolis' West Family Legacy and Aurora's ascendancy to the "Science Hero" role occupied by her father. While I'm dreading the upcoming Fall of the House of West for the pain to come, I know that her redemption is going to prove awfully satisfying when it finally arrives. Pope, Petty and Rubin utterly have me in their grasp. All I can say is "don't let go". 

Battling Boy: The Rise of Aurora West is available in bookstores on September 30th, and can be ordered on Amazon.

For further info about this graphic novel, feel free to read our interview with artist David Rubin at The Beat.
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