We’re spending the month of December looking back at some of the great new releases that we missed out on reviewing earlier this year. This is The Rest of 2014.
There’s a lot of things I like about The Rise of Aurora West, the prequel/spinoff graphic novel to Paul Pope’s hit Battling Boy. I like the focus on a compelling female protagonist who was a little short-changed in the previous book. I like the central mystery elements, and the building on what we know of the Battling Boy/Haggard West world. But more than anything, I’m struck with how Pope and his collaborators continue to strike a balance between whimsy and intensity, creating a story that appeals to younger readers without talking down to them.
The Rise of Aurora West is set prior to Battling Boy and its predecessor, one-shot issue The Death of Haggard West. It follows West’s daughter, Aurora, as she’s trained by her father as a science hero/sidekick. During her studies (which include repairing jetpacks and learning kung-fu) she begins to unlock memories of an incident when she was younger involving an “imaginary friend,” one who may have been involved in the death of her mother and the growing alliances between the monsters that plague Arcopolis.
David Rubin’s art here is a change of pace from Pope’s style, but still similar enough that it feels appropriate. It’s a little less raw and a little more polished, which sort of suits Aurora’s character in the way Pope’s rough, energetic line work suited Battling Boy. There’s a rich eye for detail, especially in cluttered rooms or alleyways full of litter. Monster designs are silly, but with an appropriate amount of menace. His compositions are steady and clear, and he has a good handle on pacing and setting apart key scenes, with a full-page spread here or a couple of jagged panel breaks there.
As a prequel, this is the most we’ve seen of Haggard West himself, and it’s primarily through the eyes of his daughter. Aurora provides an interesting perspective on a character who’s achieved a sort of mythic status, even in the span of essentially one book. West is both a stern taskmaster and a somewhat overprotective father. He’s driven to the point of obsession in his crusade against the monsters, but he still retains his humanity. A scene midway through the book where he tries to talk a despairing man off of a ledge embodies his spirit: harsh and blunt, but ultimately caring and optimistic. Aurora is much the same way, and her curiosity and stubbornness while investigating her past drive much of the book. She’s a smart, capable heroine, skilled but still flawed, and I’m glad we got to see her in a little more of the spotlight after Battling Boy.
The most compelling part of Aurora West, to me, is the continued worldbuilding of Arcopolis and its citizens, and the ongoing siege by monsters. It manages to be equal parts whimsical and melancholy. Monsters like Sadisto and Croward are cartoonish, with their dimwitted banter and elastic facial expressions and gestures. But they also manage to be clearly malevolent. The monsters’ M.O. of kidnapping children is absurd, like a strange, bad dream, but it has real consequences. While Gotham City at least attempts to provide verisimilitude, Arcopolis is pure fantasy. It’s essentially a lone island, relying on itself and its ever more desperate heroes for protection. There’s a clear sense of decay about it. It’s in a holding pattern, waiting for a change in the status quo to make or break it. While we as readers know that’s coming in Battling Boy, the book never feels like its treading water. This is Aurora’s story, with its own arcs, resolutions and dangling threads.
The Rise of Aurora West continues Paul Pope’s sprawling send-up of superhero and pulp stories made famous in Battling Boy. It’s a unique, interesting world, and it’s nice to see it in a somewhat different light. There’s a sequel on the way by the same creative team, and I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s rare that a creative team can walk the tightrope of light fun and dark elements so well, but this book is a knockout.
The Rise of Aurora West is available at comics and books stores everywhere.