100% Heavy Liquid – Pondering Paul Pope

I first encounted Paul Pope's work back in 2002, when I started picking up 100%, a 5-issue miniseries published by Vertigo.  I think it's fair to say that I have been a pretty big fan of his ever since, making a point of picking up pretty much anything he has been involved with.  Recently, I found a copy of Heavy Liquid, which was originally published by Vertigo in 1999 and picked it up immediately.  I was excited to check this book out–I had thought that this was his first big piece of work, and how it was a precursor to many of his books since, but it's not–it's just the oldest thing I could find. Well, I finished Heavy Liquid, which inspired me to dig through my "Top Books" short box and grab my original issues of 100% and an SDCC 2007 exclusive issue of thb, which, in turn inspired this particular article. (Don't fret, Batman: Year 100 will be covered in an upcoming article.)

There is no mistaking a Paul Pope book.  Heck, there's no mistaking a Paul Pope panel.  While all artists have their own style, Pope has a look and feel that is distinctly his own, that continues to become more compelling as the years go by.  There is a fluidity to his work that makes it hard to take your eyes off the page; almost overpowering, with full curves and line quality that border on the sensual.  One is not watching the action through the panels, you are immersed in them. The pages of 100% are so drenched with ink that you might find youself checking to see if it's stained your fingers after a few chapters.  His character design, while varied, does have traits that carryover his characters–Pope is a big fan of lips–so you get the sense that when you are reading one of his stories that you are entering Pope's head…this is how he sees things, this is how he feels about the story. This is his world. 

Indeed, Paul Pope himself seems to turn up in his books, first as the main character "S" in Heavy Liquid and later as John the dishwasher in 100%.  I don't know, truly, if he means to, but, like, when I saw Pope DJ in a club at SDCC last year, he looked a lot like Jack washing plates!  While it might strike some as being a bit egotistcal, I think it's great. These two books seem incredibly personal–he seems to know the settings very well, whether it be his characters walking down Orchard Street in New York, or ordering sake at a dingy sushi bar or devouring Chinese food in a closet of an apartment (you get the feeling he has more than a few Chinese takeout boxes littered about his studio).  This attention to detail goes along way in making his stories so very memorable.  I heard some editor bemoan some stat, that readers spend about 7 seconds reading a comic book page…hard to do with a Paul Pope book.  While his pages can see chaotic at first, once you let your eyes react, you realize he's just filling the scene. Not a lot of blank backgrounds in his stories (especially in 100%) he wants to ground his characters in a place, in a moment.

Paul Pope loves cities. He loves Paris and he is passionate about New York.  His street scenes down in SoHo and the East Village…I mean, he's definitely lived there. He probably leaned out his window and took pictures of his neighborhood and used them to inspire his backgrounds.  If you have always wondered what living in New York might feel like?  Check out 100%.  He balances out the beauty–the skyline, the architectural details of the buildings, the dizzying variety of people–with the gritty chaos, the trash, the beautifully manic energy of the place.  Both books take place in the future, but his future is much more about personal technology than gleaming new buildings. The physical cities are the remnants of time past–people spend more time in their cramped apartments glued to their skinny flat screen computers than adventuring out into the real world.  The city is the world, in a way–Pope rarely lets the reader out of the street or the apartment or the cafe or the club…the government and the law are oppressive yet distant forces, with the police vehicles (which tend to look like blobby, inky, obese flying insects) a constant presence in the skyline. 

Technology and the media play a major role in these stories, largely as an communal opiate to keep people satisfied, unquestioning. 100% takes place largely in the Catshack club, where a girl named Daisy is hired to dance "gastro".  People are so numbed out by the lack of any kind of taboo that MRI technology is being used to photograph the insides of the dancer while they perform — that's dancing "gastro."  It's kind of a crazy concept, but, oddly…well, you can see it, somehow, too?  Everyone's looking for the next thrill, the next titillation, and, with ready access to porn from a smartphone, you gotta find something, right?  Written in 2002, Pope's assumptions about what the information age is really all about seem increasingly, depressingly prophetic.

 For those burnt out by the constant chatter on the TV, there are drugs, which are just part of the landscape.  Indeed, Heavy Liquid opens with the hero cooking heavy liquid, which is a rare substance, which, when dripped into one's ear, trips you out like crazy. There is no judgement about drugs being good or bad…they're just there, the drugs have their use and that's that.  Pope does a great job of drawing someone tripping out, I gotta say. The wild eyed confusion battling with the focus of keeping cool…yeah, he's got that figured out. Funnily enough, our main character very rarely gets a chance to use the heavy liquid–he's just too busy–Pope's got that figured out too.  

From the mechanics of good comic book making, Pope has some cool tricks up his sleeve. The challenge of sound is always interesting–sound would seem to me to a big pivot point in the creative collaboration when making a comic. Perhaps the writer adds sound effects, perhaps the letterer does, or maybe the artist draws it into the panel. Paul Pope uses sound as powerfully as he uses his Ink–it's pervasive in his pages. When you go to the Catshack in 100%, you are not only hearing the music in your head, you are feeling it. BOOM BOOM chikka chikka chikka — these words, no: these shapes, permeate the panels. I mean, sound is everywhere–literally, everywhere on the page (just like in real life)–yet Paul is able to balance it all out in truly incredible ways, in ways that only the person who is drawing the panel can merge it with the rest of the picture. It has been probably 5 years since I last read 100%, and his use of sound really struck me. From the booming bass tones to the unsnapping of a jacket, sound is all over the place, permeating the action…it's pretty damn inspirational.

Pope also use of narrative boxes is distinctly personal as well, acting as a voice describing the action and emotions of the characters not only to the reader, but to the characters as well. There are many times when the narrator tells us what a character is feeling, only to have the character respond, outloud, to what is being said. It gave me this great feeling of unease–what if that nagging voice in the back of my head was some omniscient narrator commenting on the story of my life?  Dude! (It's a great trick, one that Pope wisely uses sparingly.)

I guess I should talk a bit about the specific books, though, huh?  Heavy Liquid, I must admit, felt much more basic than Pope's later works, which, I guess, makes a bit of sense.  Pope worked with a guy named John Workman to create this kind of neo-art-deco typeface, which at first I found a bit annoying, but then realized it added this discomfiting formality to the dialogue that was at odds with the emotion and the action on the page, and then I liked it a lot (I like the space between the push and pull of different styles, it makes you pay attention). Heavy Liquid tells the story of S (for "Stooge," as the preface explains), who has this shadowy past as some kind of enforcer, who has long since left whatever service he was in. He gets caught up in what is basically an art deal, he is to convince an artist (his ex-girlfriend) in Paris to create a piece of art using the most expensive metal in the world…heavy liquid.  There's a real Hitchcock flair to the story, with S having to deal with a mysterious art collector who speaks only through super secure two way video conferencing, running headlong into the initiation rites of a particularly hardcore girl gang, traveing from New York to Paris and back again all while getting chased by thugs wearing Picasso-inspired masks.  It's a glimpse into a future, as I said, and the world Pope describes is as troubling as it is compelling. There's a twist at the (very) end that leaves you wanting more…but you get nothing, my friend. You get nothing and you gotta deal with it. 

The book is bold. Like, just a few colors, with bright pinks and yellows and blues..sounds odd, but the colors really support the black inks nicely.  The Paul Pope of the future is there, with full-lipped characters, dingy apartments, odd vehicles, teapots, pervasive sound effects…and, of course, S looks just like our creator.  I am stoked I found the book and I am looking forward to re-reading it.

Pope worked on 100% while working on Heavy Liquid. He discussed this in the afterward to Heavy Liquid: "While working on Heavy Liquid for Vertigo, I was also working on a thing called Smoke Navigator, which was supposed to appear in Japan, from the manga publisher Kodansha. I'd work on one in the daytime and the other at night. But Smoke Navigator never appeared … [it] would eventually appear from Vertigo, having transformed itself into a book called 100%."   

I find it amazing that he was able to work on both of these stories at once, mostly because 100% is so much more ambitious than Heavy Liquid. I honestly think that 100% is a masterpiece. Pope obviously loved this book, he wanted to be different than any other kind of comic; he calls it a "graphic movie" on the cover of each issue. Whatever it is, there's a passion behind this book, there's a personal attention (and connection),  to not only to the locale (New York), but to the characters, of which there are a good many.  At its core, 100% is a love story, the story of three couples, most of who work at the Catshack club.  This book captures perfectly the clumsy romance of your mid 20's, when you are just trying to figure out your life, so you move to New York, get the first job you can, and start creating yourself.  From John's struggle to carry two feet of dishes through a croweded dance club to staring at the ceiling in your cramped apartment, Pope nails that time of life, page after page.  The relationships are handled with care and compassion, whether it be the raucous, confused, messy and way passionate colliding of Daisy and John, or the slow, quiet and oftentimes sublime understanding between bartender Kim and struggling artist Eloy, who is working on an installation of 100 teapots on the floor of his silo-turned-studio-turned-home.  

Not surprisingly, 100%, is very cinematic, with really solid pacing and a great assortment of characters–there are six people involved in the story, which is a lot, but none of them get short shrift. Like Heavy Liquid, technology plays a major role, including a very memorable scene in a "4D Cafe" where John and Daisy have a drink on top of a floating space station, then in the middle of a stampede of giant roadrunners.  100% is Paul Pope at his inky best and I find myself having to stop talking about it here because this article is already far too long!

Paul Pope has been referred to as "the comic destroyer," and I honestly have no idea what that means. His stuff is different, sure, but I don't see how it is destructive. He has a passion for artistry (and artists, too–Heavy Liquid and 100% both feature artists as major (and majorly intriuging, beguiling) characters) and a singular focus that I can see might intimidate some readers…but "destroyer"?  Perhaps the monicker means that he destroys what people expect from comics, that one's preconceived notions about what Japanese sumi-ink and 2 ply 18×24 boards won't help you here, but I find his work exhilirating and challenging and affecting.  There's a vibrancy to his characters, how they just want to live their lives at, well, 100%, that reminds me of what it was like to leave a party in New York feeling I wasn't doing enough, that I was wasting time going to work when I should be writing and drawing and creating.  These two books capture that terrifying and thrilling feel that this is it, this is the moment you get, and even as I write this, even as you read this–it's slipping by.


Mike Romo is an actor and writer in LA.  He misses New York, even now, in February. You can follow him on twitter and send him email, too.


  1. Great article, Mike. Thanks.  100% and Heavy Liquid are two works that you want to discuss with people, but my environment doesn’t lend itself to that right now.  I just gotStill  the re-issues DC released, and they were amazing.  What I really want though is for Pope to continue and/or reprint "thb."  Remember those crazy over-sized comics, thick paper, and the most eclectic writings and insights from Pope on the inside cover?  I thought he had done something amazing for self-publishing.  Too bad he didn’t keep it up.  The flip side is that he did stuff like 100% at a major publisher and more people got to be acquainted with his work. I still miss the big purple guy and Watson though.

  2. I’ve always heard about how amazing Paul Pope is, but this is the first time anyone has ever really made the case to me specifically how/why he is amazing. He has just been promoted from "maybe I’ll look into that one day" to "I have to get a look at this guy’s books." Thanks, Mike!

  3. When I first started reading 100% a year or so ago, I couldn’t believe the detail and linework that Pope put into every page. Very impressive. This is a really cool in depth look at his style, Mike. Very much appreciated and enjoyed.

  4. Oh, thanks for these comments, folks. I really appreciate it.  When discussing books like these, I find myself wondering if I should even attempt it, you know? Because each work can be dissected like crazy–I could have written a book that covered each aspect in detail (art, story, theme, characters, production, etc) and found myself writing a paragraph then deleting it, the restarting, then doing it all over again…plus I kept having browser crashes so I ended up having to redo the photos and the formatting 3x last night…! argh!

     But the intention of these kinds of articles is to dig up work that has made an impact on me personally and do my best to expose new readers to the work using my experience as a baseline. If I can at least get a few people to page through the trade next time they see it, then I have succeeded, I guess. 

    I do think Pope is one of the most original creators out there, someone in this current generation of creators, whose work we can actually track as it comes out, so it’s kind of exciting.  As to thb, I haven’t been able to find backissues of it–I got that SDCC issue in 2007, but I didn’t know the context of it–maybe we’ll see a reprint?

     But anyway, I really appreciate you all taking the time to read this thing and sharing your comment. thanks.


  5. Never actually liked Paul Pope at first. I read Batman: Year 100 and thought: ‘Yeesh, I do not like this style at all, hurts the eyes’.

    Then down the road Wednesday Comics came out and I absolutely adored his Adam Strange work. No idea why this sudden 180 turn from me, but I couldn’t get enough of his work. Then he did that amazing cover for Strange Tales #1 and his Lockjaw story….It was pretty much the slam dunk of loving him.

    I will definitely give Heavy Liquid a try when I see it again, it was in a Barnes and Noble last time I was there. Great article as always Mike.

  6. @TNC — thanks, man. I am the first to admit his style may not be for everyone…at first I wasn’t sure about 100%–I just hadn’t seen anything so…aggressive? is that right? before.  But I kept picking it up and reading the story issue by issue…and then read all the issues back to back, and realized that I was enjoying the story for a different reason everytime.  Heavy Liquid is basic, but the concepts are good..be curious to see what you think!  I am looking forward to a softcover version of 100%…hopefully we’ll see that soon.

     thanks again,


  7. I already said it on twitter, but dammit. You are kicking ass the last couple of months. I get excited for your column every time I see it get posted. Great work on this one. Been meaning to grab these for a while now but now I really have to get my hands on them.

  8. Yep, Paul Pope is fantastic. really good. i find stories of his stories a little lacking but the art more than makes up for it.


    There’s an excellent art technique based podcast called sidebar. they had an indepth interview with Pope recently

  9. Paul Pope is by far one for my favourite creators making comics right now. It all started a year and a half ago when I kept passing by this Batman book over and over again, each time I entered my LCS. This odd, great image of a crouching Dark Knight waiting to spring into action – kept taunting me every time I went to buy comics. But the title, Batman: Year 100 – always made me think, "futuristic Batman? Really? Didn’t we learn anything from Marvel with those ‘2099’ titles?". But one day I took the time to finally grab the thing off the shelf and give it a good look through. Simply put, I was amazed. Within 5 seconds of looking through Batman Year 100 I told myself, "Yup, this is a purchase". Went home and devoured it. Being a huge fan of Batman, I wasn’t expecting it to blow me away as much as it did or become one of my favourite Batman stories, but it has.

    So, I was hooked on the Pope wagon. At that time Heavy Liquid had just be re-issued in HC and I quickly scooped up that piece of magic. Loved it. Then was equally happy to see 100% being solicited as HC several months after. I did buy the 100% HC, but have yet to read it. Too much in my "stack"? Am I saving it? I don’t know. But I am very much looking forward to reading it.

    THB, as far as I knew was supposed to be issued in a huge compendium type release from First Second Books. I had heard that about a year and a half ago but not since, so……who knows.

    @mikeromo – Great article. Loved it. Keep ’em coming.