The Rise of Aurora West, by JT Petty, David Rubin, and Paul Pope
Considering how long it took Paul Pope to complete Battling Boy (my fuzzy recollection is that he worked on it for three or four years), I was surprised to hear that we were getting a second Battling Boy book this year. But when my local funnybook store (Nostalgia Newsstand, represent!) gave me a chance to check out an advance reader copy for review, I happily jumped at the chance.
Then I discovered that it’s not actually by Pope.
Sure, his name’s on the cover. And artist David Rubin does such a great Pope imitation on that cover that, if I don’t look at it carefully, I think it IS a Pope illustration. And inside, Pope’s credited as a co-writer behind JT Petty. But… It’s not the sort of singular, idiosyncratic work I’ve come to love from Pope, so…
“Well, hell,” I thought. “What’s the point?”
Seldom have I been happier to have my preconceiving head handed to me by a comic. Because The Rise of Aurora West is a great little all-ages book in its own right that, in some ways, I actually like better than the first one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Paul Pope’s Battling Boy came out last year, and it’s Pope’s answer to the lack of good comics for kids in today’s funnybook market. If you haven’t read it, it’s fun stuff, with a pretty great adventure set-up: a city beleaguered by monsters, its only protector killed in action, and now depending on an adolescent god sent down to prove himself.
This book’s a prequel to all that, starring the series’ other youthful hero: Aurora West, daughter of the monster-fighting juggernaut Haggard West, whose final battle was chronicled in the opening pages of the first Battling Boy book. Aurora’s story is about her training by Haggard, and about her coming of age as a hero in her own right, as she investigates the mystery of her mother’s murder.
It’s not Pope. It plays in his world, and so is lent some of his craziness. But it doesn’t feel much like a book he would write. JT Petty’s script is more conventional in many ways. But it’s also more coherent. Tighter. And, considering the subject matter, that’s probably a good trade-off. The story here is more complex than that of Battling Boy, so the tighter scripting serves it well.
The murder of Aurora’s mother adds a degree of pathos to Rise of Aurora West that was almost entirely absent from Battling Boy. That book had a light, “boy’s adventure” feel that didn’t have time for much in the way of depth and introspection. Here, though, emotional subtext abounds. While Aurora is hardly what I’d call a brooding character, the loss of her mother, and the affect it’s had on her father, looms large. I’m particularly fond of this page, about the three big conversations in Aurora’s young life:
It’s a nice summation of her time on Earth, but what really impresses me about it is that glare of sunlight over her mother’s face in the first panel. Aurora was very young when her mother died, and so doesn’t remember what she looked like very well. Though we see her face in other flashbacks later in the book, those aren’t from Aurora’s perspective the way that panel is, and it speaks volumes about the role her mother plays in the story.
(The fact that her name was Rosetta is kind of nice, too. ‘Cause if there’s a Rosetta Stone for the West family, it’s her.)
Aurora’s relationship with her father, on the other hand, should be slightly familiar ground for comics fans. Haggard West is sort of a cross between Batman and Doc Savage, and Aurora’s story isn’t dissimilar to that of Robin. Not the “orphaned circus performer” part, of course. But the training part, and the relationship-to-the-father-figure part, are bound to feel a trifle familiar. This isn’t a criticism, understand. There are enough differences that this isn’t just another “alternate Batman and Robin” story. And even if it were… honestly… it would be a pretty good one.
There’s a classic adventure fiction feel to the proceedings here. The book is thoroughly modern in its way, as I’ll get to in a minute, but also redolent of pulp (and not just because of the cheap paper this advance copy is printed on). The West family explores ancient ruins, trains in esoteric Eastern meditation, and dabbles in super-science. Haggard’s got a jet pack that Aurora’s dying to try. And their one-legged warrior woman retainer Ms. Grately echoes characters as diverse as Orphan Annie’s Punjab and the Asp, and Batman’s butler Alfred.
Ms. Grately is particularly important to Aurora’s path in this book, in fact, not only because she’s one of Our Hero’s combat trainers, but because of the way she wants to protect Haggard from Aurora’s investigation. Haggard was crushed, almost beyond redemption, by his wife’s death…
…and Grately believes that bringing up the spectre of it again might destroy him. So Aurora operates on the sly, applying the things her father teaches her both in the investigation, and in keeping that investigation a secret.
This is all accomplished with a sort of effortless, matter-of-fact feminism that I like a lot. Aurora’s gender never enters into the discussion of whether she’ll succeed or fail. That’s based solely on her youth and inexperience, and how well she can apply her training and native cunning. That’s a nice message to send to both girls and boys who might be reading this thing. And it’s not a bad thing for adults to see, either.
There’s more to discuss, but the book won’t be out til the end of September, so I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible. If I haven’t convinced Battling Boy fans to pick this one up, though, I’ll also say that it gives us some interesting insight into life in Arcopolis, and hints at the society and origins of the monsters, important background that the first book couldn’t slow down long enough to cover. But that’s all I’m going to say for now.
I do have a few things, however, to say about the art. That’s entirely the work of David Rubin, and it’s pretty terrific. He’s obviously been influenced by Pope, but with a cleaner line that lends slightly greater clarity to the action scenes.
Pope’s hardly the only influence here, though. I can see a bit of Rafael Grampa in it, as well, along with some manga dynamics, and maybe even a bit of Bruce Timm or J Bone here and there. Rubin’s one heck of a cartoonist in his own right, though, and rises above his influences to create something unique unto himself.
So! Pretty, engaging, mysterious, pulpy, and even just a little bit creepy… That’s The Rise of Aurora West, in a nutshell. Not the greatest funnybook ever made, but good kids’ comics that us poor benighted adults can enjoy, too. It’ll be out on September 30th, and I’d advise you to check it out.