When you live in times like these it’s hard not to think about ones fate, and ultimately death. Sometimes it barely cracks the surface with me, but there are some days when those thoughts of the morbid and dark are around every corner. Maybe I’ll bite it going to work. Or maybe I’ll choke on some pasta. Maybe on one of my afternoon walks I’ll get hit by some senior citizen with a wandering attention or some 17-year old texting while they’re driving. Or maybe the heat will get to me. Maybe some space debris will make its way into the atmosphere and it’ll hit me as I’m walking out to the car with the week’s groceries.
The possibilities are endless, really.
Okay, I’m not trying to be morbid here. I’m trying to prove a point, and that point is we have no idea what our fate is. Sure, we can do things like exercise, eat right, and stay away from putting carcinogens in our lungs. Those things help, but for the most part it’s a crap shoot. I started thinking about fate and death quite a bit after reading Paul Pope’s excellent book Escapo, the story of an escape artist in the circus.
When I started digging into graphic novels one of my best friends was guiding me to the good stuff. He sent me a list of writer/illustrators that I needed to read. One of those guys was Paul Pope. Pope has a very unique style, both writing and illustrating. He’s from Philly, yet was hired by Japan’s most prestigious Manga publisher, Kodansha, and developed for them the book Supertrouble. He completely immersed himself in the Manga style, but decided to come back to the US and get to work on his own material, publishing his work on his own as well as with DCs Vertigo imprint.
The thing that stands out about Pope is that he comes across like a real renegade. A DIY kind of artist that follows his muse wherever she takes him. In that respect Paul Pope feels more rock and roll than a lot of other comic artists. That’s not to say that guys like Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Scott Snyder, Jeph Loeb, Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, R. Crumb, and S. Clay Wilson aren’t rock and roll, but Pope looks the part. With his long, scraggly hair he looks like a cross between Thomas Haden Church and Jason Patric from The Lost Boys. His attention to detail is phenomenal. His drawings are crude and sleek, sometimes in the same frame. Bodies seem elastic while facial expressions are intense and pointed. It all comes together beautifully.
So the first book I read by Pope was Batman: Year 100. It’s a work of gritty genius as far as I’m concerned, and it pushed me more into Pope’s direction. So, digging through his books I found Escapo, a story about an escape artist that has a near death experience which changes him. I’ve always liked the idea of escape artists. Putting their lives in danger for the sake of entertainment. I guess boxers, MMA fighters, and footballers do that too, but you don’t have that unique sense of pizzazz; you don’t have that air of show and entertainment in those sometimes brutal displays of force that you do with an escape artist. Chained, bound, and tied, the escape artist must escape the depths of a water tank or the pending death of a dangling car overhead.
Vic is the real name of Escapo, but Vic is merely a beat up, Band Aid-covered ugly mug. Escapo isn’t a man; he’s a legend. Vic is a lonely guy who pines for the lovely and beautiful tightrope girl named Aerobella, who has feelings for The Acrobat King. When Vic is Escapo he looks at Death in the face and laughs. Even losing the girl Escapo seems to keep the crowds entertained and his fellow Circus folks in awe of his talents.
One night Escapo forgets the combination to a lock that he needs to open in order to escape a container from drowning. While in this life or death situation he’s confronted by Death himself. When Escapo is floating in this vault-like container filled with water he sees Death floating towards him. Once he realizes what is coming towards him he exclaims “Oh!“, with Death responding “Why do you look surprised? Your time has come escape artist.” Escapo then begins to barter with Death. “I’ve got things I gotta take care of…Wait, I have a letter…w-written to my sister…It’s in my coat pocket in my trailer! It’s all stamped and ready to go! But-But I didn’t have time to put her name on the envelope! How will they know it’s for her??“, to which Death replies “That is not my concern.” Eventually Escapo dares Death to keep him alive, and if he does Escapo will let Death ride on his shoulders during his next performance. If Escapo dies then Death can steal his breath while it’s still in Escapo’s throat.
So does Death take up Escapo’s offer, or does he take Escapo right then and there? Well you’re going to have to read Escapo to find out. Believe me, it’s well worth diving into this beautifully drawn and written story. The pages are sharply drawn, and the colors are rich and full. Pope’s prose flows effortlessly. You hear conversations between the acts, but the true draw here is the heart-broken and lonely Vic. He may have respect among his peers when he’s performing, but afterwards he’s just a “pug-ugly luckless jack”.
Now I’m sure you could find this somewhere online and you could read it and be done. But I say find this wonderfully put-together book. It’s a hardbound book with this amazing cover art that looks like a homemade, cut and paste art. It’s hard to describe, really. But it’s absolutely stunning. You hold the book in your hand and you can feel Pope’s intentions and aspirations. I guess I’m just a tactile kind of guy. I like the feeling of the hardcover and pages between my fingers. The heaviness in my hands.
You just don’t get that flipping digital pages with a mouse, folks.
So Paul Pope, he’s pretty great. Maybe Paul used to think a lot about death, like I do sometimes. Writing about an escape artist is a pretty unique way to work out some of those existential kinks, don’t you think? Escapo is avoiding death at every corner, and we’re all the better for it…but at some point, we all falter. Even Escapo. Just one misstep; just one second of hesitation and we’re floating face down in a tank of water as onlookers gasp in horror. Or we’re crushed under the weight of a ’52 Buick just seconds after it drops from it’s dangling perch in the air above. You just never know. You can never be certain when your time is coming.
Death’s got a schedule, man. He’s got places to go and people to see.