Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On the Fringe with Paul Pope

Paul Pope is flipping through an American manga-style graphic novel, standing in The Slipper Room in Soho, hours before opening, the bar and stage empty and the lights dim. Dressed in blue jeans, a Western-style blue shirt, and scuffed brown boots, the lanky artist takes a look at the art, heavily influenced by his own style. “I’m gonna have to call this guy,” he says, half-joking and half serious.

One thing the cartoonist can pride himself on is having his own distinct style; one can almost understand a lack of flattery over imitators. Pope’s comics are populated with adorably cute girls and brooding model-esque guys, in an amalgamation of American, Japanese, and European storytelling techniques and art styles…all blended together with that little something extra that makes it distinctly his. It’s not dissimilar to New York’s unique identity created through an international blend of citizens populating her streets.

“This is an international city,” Paul notes. “New York is a satellite, really, a moon of America. A friend of mine from France was telling me that all the bad press America’s had recently has made many foreigners sad. Everyone projects on New York, because here is where you start over again. Europeans see New York, and America is a larger sense, as the place where you can start over again.”

“I think one great benefit of having moved here is that I no longer think of myself primarily as a cartoonist, but more of an artist,” he observes. “But I feel like in choosing to come here, I’ve become part of a larger community of creative people. My friends aren’t all cartoonists: they’re club owners, musicians, performers, designers. It’s great to be here, because it’s not my simply being a myopic guy in college in Ohio and not finding anyone who was interested in the same things I was interested in, or people I could talk to. This is a better place to find out what you can creatively contribute to the entire culture. Iggy Pop had a great line – ‘New York tells you what you are by showing you what you are not.’”

“There’s a certain sense of chasing bohemia here,” Pope says of New York, having moved to Soho in 1998. “All the oddballs shuffling toward the sea to find a place where they belong. Sometimes it feels now that there are a lot of yuppish 20-something trust-funders and Euro-shits here, and it’s kind of a bummer. There used to be a lot of freaks here, and the city’s become a bit of a drag, but just most recently. Maybe that will change. I used to live here, on this street. Orchard Street.

“[There are also] shopping mall people you thought you’d escaped. Maybe this is just me being in a foul mood at the moment,” he ruminates, leaning back in the corner of a booth. “There are still some things here that are untouchable.”

Freaks are a common theme in Pope’s work, from 100% to Batman: Year 100 (both, interestingly enough, set a year apart: 2038 and 2039, respectively), not in a “be one of us” horror movie way, but in a slightly off-kilter from the rest of society way, with that society being a version of New York.

“A lot of the types of stories I’m interested in writing take place in an urban microcosm.” Pope states. “New York, in that sense is always a stand-in to the world at large. To actually be here and to see with your own eyes, to drink it and breathe it all in, it lends a truth to the stories you want to tell and the pictures you want to make.”

100%, set in a future New York where guns are illegal and porn has degraded to video of a dancing girl’s insides, is at heart a trio of love stories between three couples, ranging from highly dysfunctional to destructive.

One of the main protagonists, John, has given up on pursuing academia, and finds himself a busboy at a strip club. After getting his heart ripped out by a dancer who abandons him, he throws a dart at a large map of the world, deciding to go wherever it lands him.

It lands on New York, leaving him doomed to forever be a freak on the fringes of society, in a city haunted with his past failures, or perhaps forcing him to realize that he has been where he belonged the whole time.
“New York has got its own, different mythology. People like Michael Chabon helped shape the fictional blueprint of the cartoonist’s New York. His book The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay is about the kind of guys who created our cultural conceptions of the superhero. The Siegels and Shusters and Eisners. There’s a good case to be made that the modern superhero is a Jewish – or at least immigrant – invention. There’s also a lot of print media coming out of New York; a lot of American publishing is here. And there are just so many people here, being competitive, living on top of each other, looking at each other, rubbing shoulders, fighting, making love, buying things, getting drunk. It affects the work because it affects your psyche.”

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