Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Make Good Art, Battling Boy reviews

Make Good Art is the transcript of Neil Gaiman's commencement speech at the University of the Arts, Class of 2012. It's an inspiring message of encouragement to artists everywhere to keep doing what you want to do, no matter what, and contains some nice ideas and quirks that only Gaiman could conjure up to make it a memorable talk.

The whole thing is worth reading as its kind of an instructional manual to creativity by being anti-instructional. If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do, he says at one point, which is both strangely poetic and true. He tells you how he became the successful writer he is today - by writing. If you want to be a writer, be a writer, and keep writing. It's a simple message, one that many writers have stated before, but it's worth hearing again for anyone not doing it but still wishing they could become writers.

He talks about the lessons learned through the years, of dealing with failure, and to never do anything for money. His first book (I think it was on Duran Duran) was written because he thought it would be a commercial success, and was anything but. At least when you make something you love, even if you don't get paid, you've still got the art left. I also really liked the story he told about someone asking him for advice on doing something (I forget the particulars) and the solution was to tell her to pretend she was the kind of person who could do that. That's pretty brilliant. There's also a poignant moment when he reveals the best advice he ever received (from Stephen King no less) - but I'll let you discover that gem for yourselves.

A quick note about the presentation of this book - I generally like Chip Kidd's designs but the way he's formatted the speech in this book makes it less readable than it would be if it were simply straight text, which I would've preferred. Instead it's got varying fonts, colours, and sizes that I suppose takes the message of creativity on board but makes reading it a less pleasant experience. Alternatively, if you haven't the cash for this book, the speech is also on Youtube and Vimeo for free so you can watch Gaiman give the speech instead (recommended).

Make Good Art is a short but delightful message of art, choices, and the courage to do both - whatever happens, an artist makes art, whatever happens, you should make art too: so do it. Well worth a read for anyone really but especially for those who might need a good kick up the bum to get creating, whatever form that takes.

Keep going towards that mountain.


I feel like Battling Boy should his own 80s kids cartoon theme music.

Battling Boy! Battling Boy!
Fighting monsters ‘stead of playin’ with toys!
Battling Boooooooooy!

He’s a space prince come to save the world
There a Batman character who’s also a girl
The boy’s got a cape that’s big and red
He’s basically young Superman - yeah!

Battling Boy! Battling Boy!
Nothing rhymes with Battling Boy!

(To the tune of something awesome and ‘80s rockin’ with a montage of Battling Boy punching bad guys and then looking sheepish in the final shot)

Paul Pope’s Battling Boy sorta reminded me of 80s kids cartoons but the similarities in this book go beyond those shows and mines references across the cultural spectrum from the 1960s Batman show to the Golden and Silver Ages of comics. You have Battling Boy who lives in the Hidden Gilded realm (basically Asgard) and whose dad is unnamed but is pretty much Thor. As part of his coming-of-age ritual (he’s a pre-teen) he has to undertake a “rambling” which is where he’s taken from his home to another world on his “turning day” and made to overcome obstacles to prove he’s a man (kind of like Hercules’ Labours). Thor takes Battling Boy to a city called Arcopolis that’s under siege from crazy monsters and he’s left with a suitcase of interesting magical objects and a red cape that makes him look like a young Superman.

There’s also a Batman-ish figure in Arcopolis called Haggard West (a tribute to Adam West?), a cross between Batman and the Rocketeer and whose car is called the Westmobile(!). The main villain of the book is Sadisto, kind of like the Joker but looks like the Grinch wearing a ninja outfit with a hint of Mumm-Ra. But despite the numerous references to more familiar cultural figures, Paul Pope manages to make Battling Boy feel fresh and his own thing.

Pope captures what being a boy who discovers he has superpowers really well. First off BB really seems like a boy – his personality is at times overconfident which leads to mistakes, innocent, which leads to situations he doesn’t want to be in, and he can become scared and run back to his dad for protection (like he does when he faces his first monster). Being young, he’s not as articulate as he would like to be and his natural politeness makes it hard for him to communicate how he truly feels – in one brilliant scene when Arcopolis’ mayor is trying to use BB as a political tool, BB becomes frustrated and wordlessly scrunches up a metal paperweight with his bare hands before remaking it anew. It puts across his unique strength and otherworldliness while also letting them know he will not be their puppet all at once. 

One of the most inspired choices Pope makes is giving BB a dozen t-shirts with animal totems on them, with each shirt bestowing BB with that animal’s attribute, eg. King Lion or Curious Orangutan or the Sly Silent Fox. It’s similar to Bravestarr’s powers (“Strength of the Bear! Speed of the Puma!” – there are those 80s kids cartoon references again!) but work really well here as we see BB figure out how to use these powers, failing to control them at first but slowly learning to.

The book is fleshed out further with the excellent character, Aurora West, the daughter of Haggard West, the Batman/Rocketeer figure of Arcopolis. Haggard dies early in the book and, as a subplot to BB’s main arc, Aurora, though only slightly older than BB, begins training to become the new hero of Arcopolis. So this book contains the origin stories of two heroes in one, both of whom are loosely analogues of arguably the two most famous superheroes in history. It’s fantastically realised and fun to see, especially if you’re a superhero comics fan like me.

In terms of the audience for this book, Sadisto is kind of a disturbingly drawn figure and his unsettlingly vague mission of abducting children for an unknown purpose (it’s implied they are abused) might make this not the most appropriate read for younger readers, but I think it’s alright for young teens to pick up and it’s definitely sophisticated enough for adults to get a lot out of it too.

I just wrote a lengthy list of things I loved about this book and, though they’re harmless observations that won’t spoil the book for you, I deleted it anyway because I want the little touches Pope throws into the mix to be as much a pleasant surprise to me as they will be to you. 

Combine the many small but brilliant touches into the 12 Labours of Hercules-esque storyline, the characters of Battling Boy, Aurora West, and Sadisto, and Pope’s AMAZING art, and you have one helluva book. As much as I’ve written about this book, there are lots of other things I haven’t mentioned – Battling Boy contains multitudes. If you love superhero comics, you’ll really get a lot out of this but even if you’re not well-versed in superhero stories, it’s still a really fun story that anyone can enjoy. For me, I think it’s the best work Pope’s done yet, and is one of the most enjoyable and original superhero stories I’ve read in ages. I had a blast and look forward to Vol 2 as BB and Aurora West team up to take down Sadisto and the remaining monsters of Arcopolis.

Battling Booooooooy!

Make Good Art

Battling Boy

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