John Ford kept coming to mind as I finally got the chance to read Paul Pope's Escapo because Pope's highly-sought-after, long out-of-print graphic novel (let's call it a graphic short story, or graphic novella though, it's more fitting) moves along with the same kind of iconic rarification of characters, images, and locales as John Ford's work. And just as importantly, like Ford's work, Escapo plays-out in sweeping, big-ass single-page panels and double-page spreads--the comics grammar equivalent of Ford's signature widescreen images--all wrapped around a deeply felt, melodramatic unrequited love plot.
"Ford has never been sufficiently appreciated for the verve and snap of his visual storytelling..."
That's a quote from Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, noting the critical focus on director John Ford's storytelling, melodrama, and supposed worker-bee film direction over his visual style and flair. Besides establishing my point that there's a distinctly Ford-like feeling and visual style in Escapo, I like that quote from Andrew Sarris because in many ways, Paul Pope's critical reception is the opposite of John Ford's: It's all about Pope's verve and snap. What that leaves out is the deep caves of feeling behind his deceptively developed characters, the rush of sex and love and fear careening through his characters, even if they sometimes seem to only be smoking and babbling on about this or that.
In Wednesday Comics, Adam Strange is a knowing icon, a handsome hard-ass, fighting through every strip with existential abandon. Everybody in 100% is squirming and just because Pope too looks and maybe seems to act like his characters, doesn't mean he can't do a kind of comics surgery on their psyches and make a comic about how damned lost and confused they all are (less than a year after September 11th, mind you and not long after another post-9-11 comic, Heavy Liquid). Speaking of Heavy Liquid, that upside-down, hazy single-page spread of "S" injecting the titular liquid is not only a brilliant illustrations (and the most perfect visualization of the feeling of opiates, maybe ever) but a stylistic flourish that makes events of the comic palpable. As Pope bragged, his Batman sweats, and bleeds, and all that...
What I'm saying is, there's emotions in Pope's work and that's easily forgotten or pushed to the side because he's sick with his pen and ink and tucks all this emotion in very sexy people doing very cool things. That said, Escapo is also arguably, Pope's most hit-you-in-the-gut direct piece of storytelling. It all builds to a devastating and then life-affirming climax and it's got all the cool shit you expect from a Paul Pope story.
Beginning with a strange, almost overture like beginning, illustrating the birth of Escapo in graphic detail--it is, in a sense Escapo's first "escape" through dangerous circumstances and parallels his (sorry) leaps and bounds through narrow, water-filled canals as a big-time circus performers (though not too big-time, an important detail) many years later--Escapo kicks-off on sensory overload. Dashes of ink, thick and thicker bounce across the pages, sometimes motion lines, sometimes the dialogue of a carnival barker, sometimes drops of sweat dripping from the increasingly-aware-of-his-mortality main character.
From there, it's very much that aforementioned "verve and snap" as Pope, in one of his awesomely laborious action sequences--it's about 19 pages--presents a stunt by Escapo, moment-to-moment, step-by-step, pausing a little over halfway through when Death shows up in a filling-with-water pipe/tube thing to tell Escapo his time's come. Escapo being an escape artist and all, bargains with Death (represented as a gangly skeleton who speaks like he's from a Bergman movie) and holds-off Death (and death of course) until his next stunt.
The moment's awesomely surreal but classicist too, a simple physical manifestation of the main character's fears, that becomes more powerful because it totally slows down the extended action sequence: From being chained up and elevated, to breaking free, to navigating his way through a grinder, to falling into a cage to battle a tiger, to some more grinders, to a tube of rushing water...to Death. And so yeah, it's a big, show-offy, unrestrained piece of narrative storytelling, but it's distinctly Ford-like in that it defines its character through action, physicality, and even, occupation.
But then Pope's story takes a fascinating turn, almost entirely inward, as every panel, page, and sequence of Escapo following the introductory stunt is tightly wrapped around Escapo's insular concerns. Namely, his own mortality and a his love for a tight-rope walker. The comic doesn't become any more wordy or less action-packed, but these two obsessions--love and death, core obsessions/themes for most art--flutter through every subsequent page. The next escape sequence is just as well-wrought, but it's now dominated by Escapo's sudden confrontation with death and so, he's second-guessing every move he makes, and thinking of everything that could/might go wrong. Pope, simply by hinting at the spectre of death and failure, mindfully removes that verve and snap from the action.
At the same time, there's Escapo's very old-school quasi-courting of the Tight-Rope Walker. Watching her perform, slackjawed, Escapo says, "She's the most beautiful girl in the whole world, I declare." A few scenes later, other circus performers mock Escapo for his heart-on-the-sleeve affection and the otherwise daring character shuffles away in silence. His friend and maybe manager--who bears a resemblance to a young Hemingway--scoffs at the others with a simple, declarative, "You guys are a buncha bastards." You can hear John Wayne uttering that line, the whole scene anchored in Ford's blend of mean, mean reality bumping up against starry-eyed romantic idealism and refusing to fully fall on either side of that binary.
Where the comic goes from there, I hesitate to explain in-detail, but Pope artfully weaves the realization of death of the first escape sequence through Escapo's romantic idealism and the two meet-up, appropriately under the circus tent. Apparently rejected by the Tight-Rope Walker and diving into a bizarre, hollow metal creature full of water, while chained-up, Escapo just kinda rests there in the water--like Benjamin in The Graduate, Herman in Rushmore--purposefully pushing the possibility of escape and in a sense, committing suicide. In a final burst of hard-assed reason, he thinks "Aw, she's not worth it" and bursts out of the creature, now unchained, to an adoring crowd. The Tight-Rope Walker, stiff upper lip, is on the verge of tears--why we don't totally know, it's a beautiful piece of ambiguity in the straight-forward tale--and Escapo says to himself "I'm alive..." and the story ends. A deeply moving, in-the-gut simple affirmation of life and living.
Now, why is this still out of print??