Page 45 Review by Mark
Pope creates some of the best near-future cities.
They're not rank with 'Bladerunner' grime, full of Gilliam clutter, overloaded with Alan Moore's advertising or policed to near perfection like Shirow's, but they are still recognisable as being lived in, potted with enough landmarks of reality and peppered with little advances and related setbacks. His best work is set through early twenties' eyes with the good coffee bars and musician friends.
As long-time readers of this journal will possibly remember I was very excited by this series as it came out. Pleased with both Vertigo for publishing something quite removed from their usual programming and Pope for finally producing the kind of work that I knew he was capable of. There had been hints in the small fragments that he'd throw out ('Smoke Navigator' springs to mind) and there was always promise in the artwork. I originally attributed this great leap to an editor but I can't find a mention of one in the book. [Shelly Bond : she's credited in this new edition - ed.]
At room temperature, heavy liquid is a dense, lava-like chrome substance, corrosive and poisonous. Boil it up and it transforms into a drug, an inky black milk giving you a clear, clean high with a feeling of invulnerability. No one knows where it came from; most people think it's a myth. Those that know it exists will pay handsomely for it. S has just scammed a load of it and found that the interested party wants to sculpt it and he must find the one artist to fashion this deadly metal.
Stunning artwork, using the two-colour separations (blue & deep salmon) to their fullest extent, this is more akin to print-making than the usual colour by numbers that passes for mood in these things. The colours help to set up each new passage by switching from a deep night blue to a swift, light salmon wall covering. As ever, his cities are loud and alive with beautiful wide skies. S and other characters are given a swagger to them that other writers and artists vainly reach for but end up with mere vacuous posturing. It's New York belief with Tokyo style, under Italian inking.
Re-reading the now-collected story it proves to be cleverer (and trickier) than I previously thought. The central character has to be the elusive substance itself. There are four different groups after it for four different reasons. For S (somewhere, Pope described him as a fish out of water, he wears a jumper with plastic scales and is given a fish-head mask to disguise himself) it's a drug like no other, part of his life, tho' it ends relationships and killed a friend.
Pope seems to side-step the idea of addiction. His friends complain about his 'habit' but if there's danger we're not told. For the three 'clowns', faces mostly hidden by full-head masks (a death face under a Devo hat, a Jack-Kirby-influenced demon and a Picasso collision of the horse and central warning figure from Guernica), it's a commodity, money in the bank for the unseen Lynchpin. The collector wants it because it is a luxury, the ultimate expense, to be crafted as a trinket and then kept under lock and key. The government might be after it because they know where it's from but not what it's for. Only S discovers that piece of the puzzle.
So who is S? There's something about a government job in his past. S could stand for Stooge, making him Ron Asheton rather than Iggy. He's a late-twenties drifter finding himself lucky with a haul of the rarest element in the world, a man with the key to the future. The romance from his past is called up to fashion the alloy into solid form while his present threatens to end him.
Throughout the book the hurried chase across neon-lit cities is tempered by strange chance meetings. A girl appearing in half a chapter is fleshed out enough to surprise you when she doesn't reappear.
Pope's love of Picasso comes over not only in the clown's mask but also on the hood of a car, predating the recent TV adverts. Even with the mask, it would be easy to cook up such an image but the clincher is to make the cape clasp echo Guernica's baby. At one point the catch is transported in a rat poison canister, bringing up Burrough's bug powder - an allusion compounded by a cab driver's mention of Tangiers as a better destination. Sandy Calder is mentioned at one point and certain objects, particularly the insect-like communication device, are highly influenced by his mobiles. As for his own flights of whimsy, Pope manages to rein himself in and show what is needed. No more flying off to deliver us an unnecessary cubist backdrop or pylon structure.
Here's a book that refuses to sit in the Vertigo crime/fantasy area by an artist who dares to call up the names of past trailblazers and do them justice with his own rendering: a near future with advancements and slang ('copper julies and peach pies') that never flies too far from the possible.
It's a story that refuses to fall at the last hurdle.