Following in the footsteps of a universally praised project like “Battling Boy” would be tough for anyone. That book – which won 2014’s Eisner Award for Best Comic for Teens as well as the praise of nearly anyone who read it – was the rare highly anticipated release from a preeminent creator that lived up to its expectations. But with Paul Pope behind it, who would really be surprised by that? It’s that towering level of genius behind the book that earned the book its love, but also what makes following it up with a prequel about supporting character Aurora West such a tough act, especially considering Pope was now only co-writing it with JT Petty, leaving David Rubín on art duties for this spin-off graphic novel. Could it possibly live up to its parent book?
In a word: absolutely.
“The Rise of Aurora West”, which arrives Wednesday at comic shops and book stores, isn’t just a prequel adding depth to West’s character. It’s a stunning achievement in its own right, and it both expands the universe of the story told while adding real richness and depth to the grand story Pope is telling.
Let’s lead with the biggest standout of the book, though. David Rubín isn’t an artist I had previously been familiar with, but trust me when I say he’s an incredibly gifted artist, and someone who never makes you wonder, “what would this have been like if Pope had drawn it?”
A huge part of that comes from how gifted of a storyteller Rubín is. Whether it’s depicting an action sequence or quite literally connecting the puzzle pieces of Aurora’s past, Rubín’s ability to craft a tale that keeps the reader pushing forward is tremendous. He keeps things visually interesting and diverse, taking the time to use clever page design to better show how a scene is progressing to add tension to the narrative. His usage of inset panels in some pages to provide time references helps immeasurably, as they develop context for us as a reader but in a way that feels completely organic.
His character work is uncanny, making all ages of Aurora a fully realized person who never idly responds to moments. We know how she’s feeling in situations because his work is so wonderfully expressive. It’s not just Aurora though. His work with Sadisto’s gang is as cartoony and exaggerated as Pope’s, mitigating their creepy nature with an oddly fun feel. The way he handles Haggard West and Ms. Grately, two physical behemoths with hidden heart with them, ingratiates you to the characters incredibly well, and when a final emotive moment hits involving Aurora and her father towards the end, it’s all the more powerful because Rubín never breaks Haggard’s character before.
Rubín is an absolute marvel, and someone who captures the madcap energy of Battling Boy’s world and then some, even with the book being black-and-white rather than its predecessor’s full color.
Pope and Petty give him a lot to work with, though. Their script is charming, fun and full of adventure, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the story, which finds Aurora chasing her imaginary friend from her youth as her and her father try to solve the mystery of a random symbol a villain left scrawled after his defeat. Aurora was an often frustrating character – by design – in Battling Boy, and this book does a wondrous job of showing who she is and why she is the way she is. It’s an incredible tale, and one that, as I said, does a fantastic job of giving that first book a lot of depth that we wouldn’t have seen before.
It’s also a hell of a lot of fun. The story finds the fiercely capable Aurora bounding from one adventure to the next, whether it’s with her father or her trainer Ms. Grately or her Bruce Wayne esque best friend (who, most importantly, has a car). Like her father – just like her father, as they discover – Aurora has no trouble at all going headfirst into danger, and the scenes as depicted by Rubín are filled with energy and excitement, drawing us in completely.Continued below
Most of all though, this book has a ton of heart. Aurora West is a winning heroine, and one that you appreciate infinitely more in this book than you did before. Her relationship with her father and their relationship with her deceased mother forms the backbone of the book, and the little reminders that no matter what else they are – adventurers, heroes, detectives – they’re family first, and it makes the tale all the more powerful when we’re given a chance to remember that.
“The Rise of Aurora West” is a tremendous accomplishment, and something that builds and expands upon the world of Battling Boy in incredible, triumphant fashion. Sure, it’s not all Paul Pope, all the time, and that’s okay. It achieves greatness because of the work of a trio of stellar creators in Pope, Petty and Rubín. This book looks to the past to show us how bright the future of the Battling Boy world is, and now that it’s here, I already can’t wait for what’s next.
“The Rise of Aurora West” is out now from First Second. Pick it up from your local comic book shop or book dealer, or the online purveyor of your choice. Whatever you do, don’t miss this book if you’re a fan of Battling Boy.