Don't Put That Stuff in Your Ear!

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Paul Pope has become one of those American artists whose biggest audience is in Europe. You may wonder why, since he creates smart, uniquely stylized sci-fi-genre fiction. Pope's latest series, "Heavy Liquid," has now been collected into book form by DC Comic's Vertigo imprint. Pope's work has the same effect on his audience as the Wachowski brothers' "Matrix," creating an exciting new visual experience that you have to scramble to keep up with.

Pope has no pity for slow learners. By the time you read the first page, the main character, known as "S," has already stolen the volatile titular liquid from a criminal gang and begun to boil some of it up so he can drip it into his ear for its psychotropic properties. Thereafter it becomes a double cat-and-mouse tale as the gang hunts down "S" while "S" gets hired by an art collector to find a missing artist who can cast the liquid into a sculpture. Meanwhile, nobody really knows where this liquid comes from or what it is.

The whole thing takes place in a dystopic, near-future urbania familiar to any fan of "Blade Runner" or "Dark Angel." People live in dilapidated hovels, but can also travel from New York to Paris in an hour, or surf a network of information with a special contact lens.

Pope has a scratchy, dark drawing style that tosses characters and objects together in an impressionistic jumble. His influences seem more Japanese than American, particularly in his use of "speed lines" that turn backgrounds into a blur. Given the heavy amount of black in his work, American film noir seems to also play a significant role in Pope's aesthetic. (Film noir being another genre, besides comics, more highly regarded in Europe.) Particularly representative of his intelligent draftmanship is his use of two colors besides black and white — muted rose and slate blue — to offset highlights and establish changes of location. It's like a world lit by a gigantic, distant neon sign.

Sound like a bit much to you? It's meant to be. The story comes on fast, and the images too. In the past, Pope's fragmented stories and pictures made for impressive-looking but unreadable books. This time he got it right, with a straight enough narrative to pull you along while you leap from image to image, barely holding on. It's like crossing a river on chunks of ice.

"Heavy Liquid" may not be a deep read, but it has a lot of entertainment value. Paul Pope has a unique imagination and the talent to realize it. The story feels familiar while the details — a killer with the mask of the horse in Picasso's "Guernica," the hunt for an artist rather than a killer, and absurd stick-figure robots —feel fresh. This combination of new and old basically defines a superior work of genre fiction.

"Heavy Liquid" can be found be found in almost any comic book store. Pope's previous work: "THB" and "The One-Trick Ripoff" may be harder to find, but are also much harder to read.