The spine of the Heavy Liquid hardcover has been staring at me since I first gave it a rushed read about a year ago. Paul Pope’s multifaceted approach to comics-making can demand more than a drive-by read to appreciated, as was the case with Batman: Year 100 for me.
Just to sketch out this graphic narrative’s anatomy for the uninformed, Heavy Liquid is the story of a cyberpunk urban drug addict whose life revolves around a massive substance resembling white mercurial lava that both grants superpowers and can be formed into exquisite works of art. Thus, you have a direct representation of Pope’s own stylistic staples, the use of white negative space, and role of comics as an escapist medium for incarnating super-beings. There’s also a passage where the heavy liquid is shown to become “black milk” when heated, which demonstrates that metaphorically black ink is another manifestation of the narcotic. Thus, Pope introduces a yin-yang-ish synthesis of opposing concepts, directing the broad focus of the book back on his own artform, labor, and — via a hero who looks just like him — his role as an artist.
The central tension in Heavy Liquid comes from the title meta-plot-device’s nature as both an illegal substance whose origins may be alien or governmental. It’s introduced in the context of the AIDS virus, which has long been the subject of conspiracy theories citing it as a bio-weapon against poor people. Thus comes the liquid’s mystique and inherent dichotomy as a danger, as well as an inspiration and medium for brilliant creations. The investigation over the course of Pope’s tale parallels the artist’s own quest to confront the morality and calling of his vocation in a world where pop art and culture are birthed from the womb almost immediately as commodified tools of unseen hidden powers atop capitalist systems. The hero (named “S”) embarks on a quest resembling Pynchonian noir Bond that involves assassins from a secret syndicate and a delivery mission for a Post-Modern art collector.
Pope clothes his hero humorously in a scaly shirt that looks like an Aquaman costume, which supports a interpretation of the artist completely submerged in a world requiring superhuman abilities of its inhabitants. Without spoiling the origins and revelations that come along the way to Heavy Liquid‘s ending, I’d point out that this graphic novel doesn’t come to an ultimate conclusion about the conflicts and mysteries it navigates as much as it frames a slice-of-life account of its hero in his daily struggles. The focus of the book rather seems to be to generate a fleshed-out world as a work of art and use it to reflect Pope’s assertions about his subject matter. In that, he succeeds while rendering characters and landscapes that are unmistakably his own. Ultimately, those elements become a story about the power beneath commercial artwork and the creators and transactions that determine how it is delivered, becoming a tale as much about how humanity is lost within commercial artwork as it is about where the human condition exists amid art and culture economies.