“I deal in comics and I deal in science fiction. Sci-fi is the literary vehicle through which we can express and address our anxieties about the world we’re – intentionally or unintentionally – creating. It’s where we experience our screaming future. And comics… well, probably like a lot of you, comics is my passion. It’s my medium, its my canvas. I believe that anything worth saying about life and the human condition can be said through the voice of comics, and that’s good enough for me. “
- Paul Pope
100% is Paul Pope’s most realized work of science fiction. And his best. Heavy Liquid and THB, and even Batman Year 100 are all contenders for that spot – but I think that 100% is a lot less… artificial? In its conceits, anyway, it is a remarkably strong work as a whole work. It is mature in a way that its greatest contender – Heavy Liquid – is not. The way Pope describes the book in the afterword (some of which is quoted above) is “low-voltage” science fiction, shying away from even the hugeness of the emotions that run through Heavy Liquid’s fairly low-level noir piece. This isn’t an adventure story, this isn’t about catharsis in the way that almost all great science fiction is. This is a comic about small moments and people living through their day – there is no grand statement on the future being made here, no operatic tales of murder and grand schemes of aspiring artists. The plot is 3 couples – Daisy (dancer) and John (busboy), Kim (bartender) and Eloy (artist), and Strel (club owner) and Haitous (boxer) – and how they interact. Heavy Liquid, on reread feels like someone using an adventure/sf structure to begin writing personal material, and it not quite gelling, and 100% shows that either Pope became a lot more comfortable using the genre to his needs rather than bending toward genre demands.
Both works share similar themes and characters – the role of the artist is consistent in Pope’s work as he considers it central to creating an image of the future – in fact Eloy is a more realistic variation of Heavy Liquid’s S. Both are long enough, and well-told enough, to suggest an entire world existing outside of the story at hand. In Heavy Liquid the ideas are slightly more metaphorical but it’s still a world where they make that Guernica mask. There are much larger ideas at stake in 100%, in a strange equilibrium with the books lower-voltage intent. Heavy Liquid exceeds its grasp, even if only a little, it also has the sense that this is more of a job for Pope than 100%. It’s a lot less lyrical, and when Pope gets lyrical it’s what he means when he talks about what comics are capable of – Pope is built for comics. Because he can do something on a page like this:
That’s just showing off. Here is the science of telepathic comics – strange first person pov of something you’ve done a dozen times, a whole series of ritual motions playing out for you, barely suggested by these two shots. 100% is full of those small moments where actual communication happens using a simple transition between images.
With all the recent fanfare for John Workman’s return to Thor – his best work for me wasn’t on Simonson’s run, it was his work on Hard Boiled and 100%. There are long stretches of this book carried only by sound effects – the clubs are shown to be so loud that conversation is impossible, the boxing sequences are carried more by sound than by what’s being drawn, the wads of money spilling out onto the floor, masses of squealing kettles, even the second panel above is achieving what it wants to by the “fwik fwik”. Workman’s as integral to the story as Pope – and the amount of silent scenes in 100% only make more space for Workman. In the opening two pages to chapter 10 (here and here), Workman gives us all the sounds of violence while Pope shows an empty gym, using it as a nice understated reveal. Sound effects are frowned on nowadays but in a book that is naturalistic almost to a fault, they are possibly the most important element. The chapter titles, while not the huge interlacing of title text that has been done in comics from Will Eisner to Brandon Graham, are as important – the huge dominance of the numbers against snapshots of city environments – they are where we as an audience feel the motion of this place, the size of the numbers forcing us to contemplate these shots as something more than another frame we blow through in seconds. Pope and Workman are managing our pace with titles, as they do with sound throughout the book.
There are a lot of shots following the characters in 100% – you are occasionally looking at this world through the character’s eyes but more often you are seeing them navigate the world, and while it should be less of an immersive technique it actually results in something closer. By not showing certain character’s faces in these shots – and they recur several times over the series, usually in scenes with Haitous or Daisy (look at how many times Pope breaks the 180 rule for much of the same reason). This doesn’t work the same way as film – where POV feels real, in comics it’s this strange position of the character between the space and the reader that feels like you’re in it.
And being science fiction, this is all about the environment and how the reader is exposed to it. There’s an interesting genre push/pull in 100% – in some ways its Pope playing with science fiction on a smaller scale than he had before. It is also a romance comic, one that slides in under it being the guise of science fiction. Pope doesn’t ever violate the rules of one for the other. The world of 100% is not too far from semi-militarized post-9/11 New York (which is interesting as the book was mostly written/drawn pre-9/11), with cops in spinners (in the books only nod to Blade Runner – the spinners show up in Heavy Liquid and Year 100 too) almost everywhere. Its full of snow, simultaneously overcrowded and lonely. The tech Pope is mostly concerned with delineating is a lot smaller and well-ingrained into everyday life. “Threading” is basically the internet, and that’s not really a big deal. Almost everything else is extra “low voltage” – Kim’s digital glasses that are basically just frames, Daisy’s stick-on light pollution dampers, etc. There is a thematic use of technology in 100% – imaging and projection are constant. The strip club the story is mostly centered around is a “gastro” club, where the dancers wear an apparatus that projects their insides as they dance. Pope makes a lot of use of this small idea – the idea of someone objectifying their insides rather than outsides and what that says about them as a person is important. Daisy’s character is complicated to the point of being baroque – – wearing her personality as armor as well as makeup/wigs while stripping and exposing her guts, dropping important personal details on John and then saying she’s lying – – the gastro is a huge part of it. Pope even makes the direct parallel of dancer/boxer and has Haitous as a boxer in the “gastro-fight” which pulls the same trick for different results. Haitous is reticent and quiet as hell, and the difference is with him it exposes nothing but his organs. The metaphor doesn’t work for him, his actual thoughts and problems aren’t as easily represented – he is an athlete and that’s it. His actual internal struggle – with Strel and his kid and Eloy – none of that is in the ring with him.
But yes – projection and cutaways, things revealing or dividing – that’s where 100% lives and dies. John and Daisy sitting in the 4d-booth while they eat – John’s projection during his story is that of a dreamer who’s having fun, Daisy’s is inscrutable and somewhat disturbing. Kim finally pulling off her glasses to kiss Eloy (through a gate) at the station. The gastro-projector wall dividing Strel and Haitous as they have a face to face conversation without saying anything (definitely one of Pope’s best-executed sequences throughout his whole career). It expands past the tech too – Haitous and Strel talk through another divider at the end of the story but its a simple changing screen. Kim listening in on Eloy’s negotiations through a curtain. The cutaway isn’t just the Gastro scenes either, most importantly it plays out as Kim feels the weight of her gun in her pocket as she’s stalked by a faceless creep in a car. For Pope, the whole series is in some ways about the divisions between people, and the divisions between how they think and how they act, and while not necessarily breaking those divisions down but showing them to be more porous and malleable than can be concretely defined.
For a book that is really a series of people having conversations one on one, and all of them doing their jobs (something very important in Pope’s work, that his characters are always doing something that defines them but not allowing that to define them completely), there is a lot of silence. Pope actually thrives on that pacing, allowing us to really get invested in the dialog by contrasting it with the quiet sequences. There is a very interesting use of narration, as well. At first, it’s simply character-based narration, actually captions of Strel’s dialog. Then it shifts to John, then Kim, etc. Over the entire book, Pope pulls some interesting tricks – Daisy and John share a narration as she dances, the voiceover starting out as one and become the other without any demarcation between (see here, here, and here). Later Daisy starts talking to the omniscient narrator/her own narration – none of this is done with any intent other than serving the story, the narration is there when it needs to be and Pope uses it however he needs to. There’s a sense that he’s thinking about it throughout but possibly intuitively as he goes.
Thinking of 100% as science fiction leads the reader to some pretty interesting conclusions. While Pope is interested in doing scifi-as-warning, the series as a whole makes the argument that while life places us in more and more uncomfortable situations day-to-day it doesn’t change the way we act and whats most important. A romance comic, in a world where everything is smaller and everything is accessible, other people become the most important thing. Two people getting together, that’s not going to change, if anything it’s just going to matter more.
– Sean Witzke October 2010