How fucking weird is it that Pop Art has morphed from a seemingly disposable movement to one of the most prophetic social commentaries in the modern era? Today Andy Warhol’s purposefully hollow replications of celebrity iconography look a whole hell of a lot like memes and his prediction that in the future everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame seems to eerily connect to social media and reality tv in equal measure. Critics felt Warhol was dumbing down art for the masses but now it just seems like he had his fingers on the pulse of the timestream, and that’s something Curt Pires and Jason Copland channel in their new Dark Horse series Pop, along with doses of Cronenbergian body horror, Alien invasions and enough meta-commentary on geek fandom to make you ask whether this is a comic you’re reading or a comic that’s reading you.
Theoretical as Pop is, it’s still a work of entertainment and Pires and Copland aren’t here to lecture you, they just want to wrap you up in a story that continues to gnaw at your brain long after you’ve put it down. In an undetermined era, Elle is a literally manufactured pop star who has fled her incubator just a little too early, ending up on the run from her developers, saved by the timely intervention of a geek who has taken stock of his life of collectibles and slacker stasis and decided maybe it’s just time to call it quits. The geek in question is Coop, a figure Copland has perhaps subconsciously drawn to look a lot like a bizarro iteration of himself, clad in a beard and a semi-ironic Western shirt. Real life Copland has a bit more salt in his salt-and-pepper hair, and he smiles more because he’s found a way to make his lifelong fandom come through as art, but you get the sense that he’s fully aware the character Pires has created in Coop could have been him or Pires himself or any other crazy person willing to devote their lives to this weird medium called comics. Point is, when Elle crashes into Coop, he’s walking out of a comic store called Dreamland, in which he had been dwelling on the life he’s wasted on longboxes, dreaming of the noose waiting for him at home.
Elle is a bit like one of Coop’s precious back issues, wrapped up in plastic and frozen in time until the moment is right for her to be sprung on the world. The difference is that Elle’s creators were leaning towards a larger cultural impact than most comics can ever hope to achieve. She’s a star creation from a pop lab that is also responsible for a Justin Bieber stand-in that has gone rogue and who knows how many other TMZ darlings, but Elle has decided to skip the innocent beginning and public temper tantrum middle era and go straight for the hermit years, on the run from the charts and the public eye and her makers– it’s not for nothing that Dylan Todd’s fantastic cover has a barcode silencing Elle. In other words, as Coop is poised to end his cardboard color tone world, Elle is blatantly rejecting the color and excitement of her promised future, and it’s only in their collision that they have any hope of salvation.
The genius of this Pires/Copland pairing is that as an artist, Copland has the unique ability to make some gonzo concepts feel lived in. Elle is created in a laboratory that looks like a severely fucked up collaboration between H.R. Giger and David Cronenberg, but it also looks lived in. That in turn helps Pires work grind dialogue click, as the technicians responsible for doing insane shit like making terrifying insect-like spy devices pop out of Elle’s skin only acknowledge the weirdness of their jobs by chastising each other for not getting sci-fi references. It’s just a job, it pays the bills, no sense in dwelling too long on the alien environment or the horrors you’re unleashing. Even Elle’s state of the art bio womb is shown leaking unknown fluids, covered in a neon blue grime as her creator attempts to show her off to the “investors” before he realizes she’s flown the coop.
The goal is to make you appreciate the tech while also making it clear it’s not really anything to wonder over. Like Alien before it (a property that looms large over all things Pop), Pires and Copland want to tear down a previously glamorous world—here it’s the pop machine rather than space travel—and rub its dirtiness in your face. Elle is a product of the artificiality of pop, where young hopeful stars are promised a world of bright celebrity and nonstop excitement, and Copland and colorist Pete Toms don’t go cheap on presenting the fantasy of that world in certain sequences, but they also want to make it easy to understand why someone like Elle would be enchanted by the otherwise drab world Coop lives in.
On that coloring note, it’s absolutely necessary to single out Pete Toms’ contributions to Pop. Even great colorists are usually invisible contributors, since their role is to enhance an experience rather than steal the spotlight. But Pop is one of those rare comics that makes its coloring a thematic experience. Outside of its subject matter, the biggest connection to Pop Art that Pop has is Toms’ coloring, which is purposefully flat and stark; the opening page, which is one of the best moments of the comic, actually ends in four solid blocks of color, punctuated only by the anonymous narration Pires provides. Throughout the issue, dramatic pauses and zoom ins are emphasized through the use of that same solid coloring technique, with character expressions and declarations backed up by vivid reds and yellows. It’s a simple but devastating technique that forces the reader to pause with the characters, and this team maximizes its impact by dropping it into heavy action pages, like the one where Coop has to pry that aforementioned insect robot out of Elle’s flesh. In Pop, color is used as raw emotion, it’s not just a seasoning, and it demands the extra attention from readers’ eyes.
Of course, that coloring choice has the extra side effect of recalling Warhol’s Pop Art panels, with each of the characters getting their own color. Elle is usually shown against a flat yellow background, while Coop is a more somber orange, Elle’s creator gets a greyish color to emphasize his industrial nature and the sex pistol assassins he utilizes to keep his creations in line are shown against a vivid bloody red. Outside of the color representations, the characters are also connected to certain drugs, with Coop unsurprisingly being the pot enthusiast and Elle suffers LSD-like flashbacks to the fantasy world she escaped. The Joey Ramone and Joan Jett lookalike assassins have speed on their minds and their boss is all about the frenzy of cocaine, something he shares in common with his current star creation Dustin Beaver.
There’s a lot to take in in this first issue, to be sure, but don’t let all this deconstruction convince you it isn’t fun. Pop has deep meaning in every panel, but it’s still a comic where Joey Ramone and Joan Jett fulfill an entire generation’s fantasy of dishing out some delicious punishment to Justin Bieber, where a conversation about Alien climaxes in its own take on the legendary John Hurt scene, where a comic book nerd is forced to get out of the basement and help save the day. This is a story where you’re told it’s okay to reject your fifteen minutes of fame and the drug fantasies of comics and the actual ecstatic experience of drug intake can be combined to positive effect. This is Pop, and it’s every bit as fun as its namesake, and just as self-aware as the best examples of that genre can be.
Pop #1 comes out this Wednesday through Dark Horse. Be sure to pick it up at your local comic shop or order it through Dark Horse’s site. And in case you missed it, we also interviewed Jason Copland and Curt Pires about Pop a couple months ago.
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 friends on twitter: @Nick_Hanover