Review of Paul Pope’s 100%

100% is a love story, after a fashion. Or, more accurately, three loosely connected love stories, all told without so much as a drop of sentimental syrup. Make no mistake, it’s still science fiction, but it’s a very near future–2038–in a still-very-recognizable New York City. The indie sensibility is more immediate than any far-fetched futurology, and while the setting is very present in the story, it never quite overtakes the characters–though it’s often breathing right down the backs of their necks.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the frighteningly hip Pope, who, in addition to his occasional forays into mainstream American comics, is the longest-tenured American manga author/artist in Japan and also has a clothing line with DKNY. He’s a nerd, to be sure, but he’s probably the coolest nerd on the planet. Like much of his other work, he uses his science sparingly, interested not just in the potential trends of technology but also culture, and the places in between where the two mingle. It unnerves us not because of its strangeness but because of its familiarity; the gentle depravity of Pope’s future might not take even 30 years, might have already come and gone if Warhol hadn’t died.

Those with sharp eyes may notice the American/United Nation currency bearing the image of Che Guevara on its hundreds, but you’d have to be asleep not to notice the x-ray strippers. After medical imaging devices become simple and affordable enough for commercial use by laymen, they’re put to work heightening the experiences of boxing matches and strip clubs, worn by the athletes and performers for real-time “gastro” display of their insides. From chapter six:

In the old days, a flash of ankle was enough. Then a calf, then a thigh. […] But it all got boring. All of it. The porn and the porn pills and the V-Jak…even fucking got boring. Then some charming gentleman asked himself, “What’s it look like inside a woman? What do her insides look like when she gets off? Bet that’d be a sight! Bet that’d get the blood pumping. Bet they’d pay to see that.”

Pope rolls in and out of this weirdness so casually, so seamlessly, having a fantastic ear not only for dialogue but the slang of the working-class future-fashionistas. “This club is set up like a place where I danced gastro in Montreal,” says Daisy, one of the six lead characters. Daisy is a gastro stripper at The Catshack, described here in a fictitious review: “The food is ‘robust’ and ‘decent,’ but it’s ‘to be seen and not seem’ that the clientele shows up. Don’t wear much. No cash accepted. 2 pc. I.D. req.”

On her first day of work, she encounters Medieval Literature-major-turned-busboy John, who like many 20-somethings is in the midst of an existential crisis. From this crisis we get the first phrasing of the graphic novel’s title: “I don’t wanna die. But if I gotta die, first I’m gonna live. I’m gonna peel life like fruit and use it up. I’m gonna light up and burn,” he says, as the illustration shows him lighting a match with one thumb. “I’ll burn and burn until I’m snuffed out. Then I’ll just fade away. But until then, I’m gonna live! I’m ready. I’m gonna do it! Come what may, one hundred percent.”

Filling out the cast is single-mom Strel, the dance manager and Jill-of-all-trades at the Catshack; Kim, Strel’s friend and a bartender at the same club; Strel’s ex Haitous, a gastro boxer at the end of his career; and Strel’s cousin “Kettlehead” Eloy, an artist and janitor, with a liking for Kim and a massive installation of Bunsen burners and tea kettles tuned to C major, “for one hundred percent sound.”

The common thread, more so than the tenuous links between the six characters (Pope originally wanted to do an anthology of short stories but was convinced by his editor to join them into a single larger work) is that each of them is dissatisfied, balancing on the wire between improving some shortcoming and making the best of what’s practical. Strel wants to start a coffee roasting business; Eloy is faced with compromising his artistic integrity for grant money; Daisy just wants to save up enough to move on to the next place; Kim wants a gun for protection; John wants to continue devolving from his academic roots, past busboy, to neoprimitive Antarctic explorer; and Haitous, while outwardly the most successful, is a miserable, pummeled piece of meat taking an emotional and physical toll that might not be worth the trouble.

There’s not a ton of plot here, but there doesn’t need to be; the tone and the common locations are enough to make the stories cohere. Towards the beginning, the chapters are longer, the transitions tangential as characters move and each interacts with the next until all are introduced. Once we’re familiar with them and the themes are more established, Pope cuts back and forth more rapidly between simultaneous, and often parallel, scenes. He moves effortlessly from a date at a sushi restaurant to another in a holographic private booth: “Sake, the wit-sharpener. The blood-pumper, the vision-tunneler. Kim and Eloy lose count of the tiny bottles before them…while, not far away, John and Daisy’s one bottle of Spanish red turns into two.” The inter-cutting accelerates right to the end, building suspense in what ought to otherwise be a straightforward story, and while not all the endings are happy ones, they are all utterly fitting.

Structurally, this may be Pope’s most well-rounded work. The plot(s) have definite beginnings, middles, and ends; the characters get equal face-time and are roughly as sympathetic, even the ones antagonizing each other. His dialogue is sharp, and only once does it wander off, when John and Daisy take turns sharing fairy-tales, each laying it on pretty thick during what should be a low-risk first date.

My only other complaint with the writing is with the selective use of a narrator. Sometimes the narrator is omniscient, sometimes it’s a character’s thoughts and in these cases, it’s often not immediately obvious whose voice we are hearing. This is not to say that the narration is all out of place. In some instances it works extremely well, especially when we can identify whose thoughts they are and contrast it with what that character speaks aloud to himself or herself, occasionally with humorous results:

(narration): The tits, the ass. The pussy.
(John, aloud): Yeah.
(narration): Leather, fur, duct tape. Fuckshoes. All in full color, all in 3-D.
(John, aloud): Uh-huh. Virtually the real thing.
(kitchen staff): You say something, kid?

The places where the narration fails, though, fail because they violate the “show-don’t-tell” rule of writing. Because his artwork is so spectacular, his writing appears merely good. Pope is so talented in visual storytelling as an artist that sometimes his writing can’t quite keep up. When he overtly states themes in direct narration, I stared at the pages and thought how much better they’d be with no words at all. Clearly, he knows how to pull off a silent sequence better than nearly anybody. In one chapter, Kim and Strel go into a crowded club to buy a gun. Unable to hear over the music, they must negotiate by hand signals. This sequence goes on for nine pages without a single printed word, as Pope illustrates a range of emotional beats as the women disagree over which gun, the seller holds fast on a price, and ultimately an agreement is reached.

In fact, the only downside to the art is that it’s not in color. Lushly detailed with vibrant linework, the urban-nocturnal settings cry out for neons and pastels. Though the gray tones are supremely competent, the colored scenes on the dust jacket tease what could have been. While understandable for an artist so fluent in the manga medium where black and white is a necessity of that publishing market, even a dash of color here would have been enough to put this book over the top; Pope showed a tremendous range of versatility with just blue, black, and red in another near-future urban story, Heavy Liquid (DC Vertigo, 2008).

Like Heavy Liquid before it, 100% had long been hard to find, either as single issues or the previous paperback, until these re-releases complete with supplemental material. In this edition, Pope offers a brief new essay explaining the origin of this story, along with a few early design sketches. In addition, the index includes the faux-future advertisements, news copy, and classified that are among Pope’s best prose: “Airborne computer viruses are discovered to be spread by some forms of human contact, reports UNICED. See the full V-Jak Up On, including a full list of effective prophylactics and other preventatives.”

DC Vertigo has plans to offer these new editions as paperbacks in a few months, but the hardcover is worth the extra few bucks. The dust jacket has a secondary glossy image embossed in the margins, visible when held to the light at the correct angle, and a tertiary image image recessed underneath in the hard cover itself. This work is a more-than-modern small masterpiece by one of the sharpest one-man acts in comics today, and present here are all of the very best things to love about graphic storytelling.

100%
by Paul Pope
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