Review: "You Can Be the President, I'd Rather Be the Pope": Paul Pope's 'Escapo'

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

U can be the President
I'd rather be the Pope
(I'd rather be... so happy)
Yeah u can be the side effect
I'd rather be the dope

- Prince, "The Pope", 1993

I've expounded long and hard about my love for the comic art of the one and only Paul Pope, about the way that this outstanding cartoonist takes our myths and heroic dreams, our mundane science fiction wanderings and banal worldly considerations, and introduces them back to us in ways that render things fresh and new.

Pope's work is a thrilling tightrope, pulled tight by his elusive, elastic, ever moving brushwork and restless eye, with people lumpen and bent and brimming with real-life joy, life and teeming sexiness. It presents a joy in life forever preserved in a protean world in which nothing is consistent but the dreams, aspirations, family, friends, lusts and loves and actions that we take in our lives.

Escapo is a book by Paul Pope, which means it's all that I described above, and more, and unfortunately, also less. It's an early Pope jam, his "Controversy" that led the way to his eventual "Black Album", if you will. It's got the beats and the rhythms, and you can hear his voice singing on every page of this book. But he hasn't quite mastered his guitar work yet and the melodies feel a bit unfinished.

It's a little more "college rock" than "top 40"; the plot wanders and meanders and doesn't quite amount to as much as I wished that it had when I dove into this work. Escape artist Vic is madly in love with the beautiful aerialist Aerobella. She's fairly aglow with manic pixie dream girl cuteness. He has a dreamy look in his eye and a nasty scar on his face from all his adventures.

It all seems to be leading up to something gorgeous and magical just a few pages into this book when we see Vic wander to the edge of his carny camp to Aerobella's cabin, alone in an open landscape under a starry sky (surely as apt a metaphor for the wide-open promise of fresh love as has ever been on a comics page). Her window is lit like a lighthouse in reverse, beckoning him to her door as she writes cryptically, feather in hand. When the girl opens the door of her cabin, in a gorgeous full-page illustration, her home almost glows – name above it in almost abstract letters, the girl slim and strong in a tatty bathrobe, fists clenched, feet bandaged, years of experience in her confidence as she stands there. In a facing full-pager, Vic wanders from behind a tree, stumbling over his banal words. "It's… it's me… it's Vic."

The man and woman connect, but over a distance. Their eyes meet but, significantly, Aerobella's face is shrouded in darkness. Vic can't see her. He's overplayed his hand. And as Pope and his wonderful colorist Shay Plummer play it, Vic wanders back, literally and figuratively through the darkness, his life just a little bit emptier. It’s a lyrical moment of grace.

Unfortunately there's not quite as much grace in this early work as we've become accustomed to from this comic rock star. The book bursts with energy and excitement but it's early, minor Pope. Still, "I'd rather be the dope." 

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