Written and Drawn by Paul Pope
Colors by Shay Plummer
Published by Z2
Paul Pope’s Escapo starts the same way every story really starts: with a birth. Utilizing the lyrical narrative flow of the carnival barker who comments on the main story, the titular Escapo details his own conception, the way “that little sperm and that little egg…joined and blended and rolled up” until Escapo gestated and was “born in a sterile room full of steel tools and knives.” The punchline is that his first escape was from his mother’s womb, though he’s adamant that life was a gift he never asked for, making Escapo the magic game Richard Hell, saying “let me outta here” before he was even born.
Escapo the work has lived a life not too dissimilar from its protagonist. Originally started in 1996 by a then unknown Pope, Escapo was released in 1999 and has basically been out of print since. Pope helped the work escape relative obscurity by teaming up with Shay Plummer to color it and release it through Z2, but as he’s said in interviews, he’s only recently started to believe there’s a big enough audience for this earlier work. Whatever the reasons for its dramatic rebirth, Escapo is notable as an unusually confident early work, with Pope’s unique aesthetic sense clear throughout. Fearless, frenzied linework jutting up against frequently soft, malleable figures, backgrounds that bleed out through panels that twist and turn at their leisure, Escapo is full of Pope’s visual trademarks and it still stands out as one of his most intimate stories.
Inspired in part by the rumor that comics legend Jim Steranko had once been an escape artist, as well as Jack Kirby’s Miracle Man, Pope sought to tell a story that was faithful to the works of masters like Hemingway and Fellini, who were major influences to him at the time. There’s a heavy dose of Tod Browning’s Freaks in there, too, particularly in the early segments, when Escapo gets hassled by his fellow circus performers for his crush on “Aerobella, Queen of the Highwire.” More than mere set dressing, Escapo’s peers are lovingly detailed and designed, from the fire breather who looks like a Dragon Ball Z escapee to a pair of pierced clowns flanked by steampunk mechanical men. Pope has always been a creator who has as much love for his backgrounds and scenery as his main characters, but something about the circus brings out a different energy in Pope and Plummer’s vivid colors augment that.
Pope has stated that as far as he’s concerned, Escapo is a romantic work, and that’s true, but it’s more specifically about the risk and danger of love. The narrative itself focuses on the way Escapo, who courts death every time he performs, only becomes terrified of death after he falls for Aerobella. Though at first he nearly commits suicide because of her, he comes to his senses and succeeds at escaping from the death device he’s submerged within and emerges even cockier than before. But his love for her is more than a romantic longing, it’s a deadly nemesis that ultimately shakes his confidence and brings him face to face with a literal approximation of death, who spares Escapo from extinction but in the process leaves him permanently altered, nervous and aware that his time will be up sooner than later. That certainty is juxtaposed by Escapo’s interactions with Aerobella, which are frustratingly vague and thus harder for Escapo to deal with. A late night rendezvous early in the comic leaves his affections not rejected but entirely unanswered, which serves to enrage Escapo more than a refusal would have.
Readers of the story share that experience with Escapo since it’s a purposefully unfinished work. Pope indicates in the appendix that he’s still working on Escapo but doesn’t want to finish until he’s a little closer to shuffling this mortal coil himself, a fact that adds a meta element to the “good luck” coin Death gives Escapo while reminding him he’ll be back some day to collect. For critics who caught on to Pope early on, Escapo’s confident swagger announced a bold new presence in comics but looking back at it with historical foresight, it can be viewed as a work that signaled Pope’s own awareness of his evolution and the fear that must come from witnessing strong reactions to your work, even if they’re positive. Drawing comics is its own kind of daredevilry, where juggling plot and style and structure is necessary but Pope is one of the few artists in comics whose aesthetic is not just unique but has also had a notable impact on the medium. To see one of Pope’s rare works revived so lovingly is inspiring but it’s also extremely humbling to see how incredible his artistic vision was even so early on.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover