I've seen the name of Paul Pope quite often, but priorities have kept me away from his award winning 'Battling Boy,' at least until now. 'The Fall of the House of West' is a slim volume, the second half of a prequel to that series, following 'The Rise of Aurora West.' I wonder why First Second didn't combine the two halves into one volume, but this one does stand well enough on its own to be read separately.
Aurora West is a young girl, still in school, who happens to be a superhero; or, at least, a costumed vigilante. The back cover simply calls her father a 'detective,' but he's clearly following the superhero mould, along with his daughter and a lady I presume is her stepmom. Her father is Haggard West but her mother died when she was four, killed by a criminal monster known as Coil. She still burns for revenge and that's the story arc that this volume takes.
Aurora's first outing in this book is in the company of her father, who takes it upon himself to save her from danger instead of letting her deal with it herself. She isn't happy and persuades him to let her go solo the next night. Of course, that means that she can concentrate on tracking down Coil, something which her father would never approve of. What makes things more interesting is whom Coil turns out to be when she figures out certain things, things that frame this as a coming-of-age story in a number of different ways.
I can't say that I didn't enjoy this book, but it felt rather insubstantial, like a side story to a bigger one we all know. I was reminded of some of the many odd 'Batman' standalones from 'The Killing Joke' on down. That was a good book but it was thin and succinct and told a very isolated story, using characters we happen to know well. This feels like the same thing but I don't have the background in the 'Battling Boy' universe with characters like Haggard West and the city of Arcopolis as I do with Batman and Gotham. Of course, perhaps Batman comes to mind because Haggard West feels like a translation of 'Batman' too, his surname surely hardly coincidental.
As I understand it, 'Battling Boy' is an odd coming-of-age story and this is no different, except that the protagonist is a young girl instead of a young boy. That angle is the best thing about the book, mostly because J T Petty and Paul Pope recount a complex time in Aurora West's life in a simplistic way. There's no room for messing around here, characters do what they do and the plot moves on. That works well in a story about growing up, because that's one of those things that's so simple that it'll happen whether we like it or not but is often far from easy to go through.
The catch is that I'm not sure how much I care about Aurora West. She's a good kid who does well with a tough decision but there's not enough there for me to ache to see her in another book, not even the first half of this story. Maybe 'Battling Boy' is more interesting but I wonder. I want more from my graphic novels, especially when they feature superheroes as I'm no great fan of them.
Batman was always my favourite because he was a costumed vigilante without any particular superpowers, so he could escape the tired old formulae that the rest have to go through. I get the impression that the Wests are like that too, training themselves hard to do what they do, but without anything inherent to give them an advantage over everyone else. I wonder why I don't care about them more, but I don't.
I didn't care for the monsters either, who were always so fascinating and colourful in 'Batman' stories. They're villains, sure, but they're monsters too, albeit bizarre-looking ones that often remind of childhood fantasies. Remember the fairy tales you read as a kid, with goblins in nightcaps? They came back to me often as I looked at the monsters and that didn't help, as fairy tales are heavily sanitised for modern consumption by children and, as adults, we know that. Those memories diffused all the danger for me in this story and that didn't help.
'The Fall of the House of West' is a read quick enough that I could devour it in one night while waiting for sleep to take me. In fact it's so quick that I think I immediately shifted on to another book after this one. It's enjoyable but unchallenging, light where it might want to be heavy, and so short that it's as quick to forget as it is to read.
Presumably this isn't the best place to start with Paul Pope. Maybe something more substantial will find its way to my attention at some point and I'll give him a fresh look but, in the meantime, I'm not likely to seek him out. ~~ Hal C F Astell