Getting Graphic: 100%
Love in science fiction writing has a pretty shaky history. It is there, of course, but it usually feels grafted on, or idealized or, sadly, written from a perspective of the inexperienced. Capturing the complex feelings of love fuels huge swaths of fiction and yet, placing it properly into a science fiction story, while not impossible, definitely seems difficult. One would assume that a sci-fi comic book attempting to evoke these emotions, the feelings of elation and desperation that come with the tidal forces of love, would prove to be exceedingly challenging.
This brings us to 100%. What is 100%? First, let me talk about its creator, Paul Pope.
Full disclosure: Paul Pope is something of an idol to me. There are other comic creators I really enjoy (Morrison, Ellis, Lemire, Powell, a sane Moore), but Pope is the one I sort of wish I could become. I first discovered him through his indelible, identifiably mainstream, work in Batman: Year 100, a story that was so dynamic and fresh it seemed to sizzle and squeal off the page. Since then, I worked back through his bibliography, devouring all I could get my hands on (and lamenting all that I couldn't. Hello, THB!). I was entranced by Pope's style, which is fluid and wild, combining the best of Japanese manga and North American noir. Details, action and atmosphere seem to explode across every impossible-to-duplicate page and yet the real secret of his work is its heart.
Around ten years ago, Pope began releasing a series called 100% (later collected into a nice hardcover in 2005 by Vertigo). The story is set in New York City. It is the year 2038. It involves some science fiction elements in an over-stimulated world overrun with intensity, noise and people. But, really, it is about the piercing feeling of attraction, of romance, of love.
Of course, it actually starts with a dead body and dread. A sequence of panels fill in the details, the debris in an alley, the geography of the story. The world is fleshed out: scenes of night clubs, cluttered streets and scary (flying!) cars. It is a dirty Blade Runner-like future mixed with an NYC of the 21st century and faint Indian, rather than Chinese, overtones. Pope's art here is something to behold. But his heart? Enter the characters.
The plot of the book gradually unfolds to tell the interconnected stories of three couples in this future NYC. The reader meets each character and steadily learns of the links between them. The details of their respective histories are hinted at and economically Pope sketches out who these people are, their hopes and dreams, their fears and desires. The book's relationships emerge as archetypes; one of hopelessly doomed infatuation, another invigorating new attraction and finally one of rekindled, troubled tenderness.
Each of Pope's characters grasp at some technology; holographic projections, vid-screens, 'gastro' dancing (the logical endpoint to exotic dancing), they are communicating through barriers, seeing without feeling, protecting themselves from their harsh realities. All of these developments are reflected in a world overburdened with information and clutter. There is over-population, the threat of violence, allusions to past wars. It is overwhelming by design, a society in barely managed chaos. Here again, Pope's art style shines brilliantly; he depicts beautifully the vitality of a nightclub, the potential danger of a desolate street, the explosive joy of a first kiss.
As the threads of the story wind together, I think the triumphant feeling becomes one of bittersweet familiarity and warmth. Roger Ebert has said that the more specific a story, the more universal it becomes; and in this way, Pope succeeds. His story could only be told as a science fiction story, with its odd yet believable leaps into a potential future. He succinctly captures the excitement of a new relationship, a lifetime of longing and the risk of potential heartbreak in a milieu that usually crushes those types of emotions.
There is a character in the story, Eloy the artist, that the reader meets early on. He is introduced as a bit of a dreamer as he unveils to his counterpart, Kim, his art project. He takes her to a former grain silo that he's filled with kettles tuned to a single note; only 32 so far, he announces. Gradually, Eloy applies the heat. Sound and steam begin to emerge over the din and build. Finally, a release. Kim asks why he'd like to get to 100 kettles.
"One hundred percent sound."
Eloy won't settle when the art establishment encourages him to change his idea. His is a clarity of vision, of feeling, of heart. And there it is. That is Paul Pope and his work. The cacophony of life and love, harmonized, tuned to a single note, all-in. 100%.