Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope is a futuristic neo-noir comic book put out by DC’s Vertigo imprint. The story is a little disorienting and slow to start, but it builds into a very engaging tale about a mysterious substance called Heavy Liquid. Is it a special metal, a drug, or a weapon of mass destruction? Perhaps, possibly, this black liquid is even alive. All of these possibilities are considered in the course of the comic. Overall, the book is not for everyone, but if you like Paul Pope’s art, it is an essential read, perhaps his greatest single narrative other than Batman: Year 100.
The story is about “S,” a man whose job it is to find people. He’s been hired by a wealthy art collector who wants S to find Rodan, a famous artist who has become a recluse, lost in plain sight in the middle of a sprawling futuristic city. Rodan also happens to be S’s ex-girlfriend, and she does not want to be found, especially by “S.” The collector wants Rodan to make a sculpture out of Heavy Liquid, the most precious item the collector can imagine being used for such an artistic endeavor.
The comic starts with S’s crew breaking apart. His friend and partner Luis, who stole the Heavy Liquid in the first place, has been killed by the criminals from whom he acquired the substance. The theft happens before the start of the comic. The criminals are on S’s trail, so S takes the Heavy Liquid that Luis acquired, and he gives half to Luna, the third member of their small crew. She knows how to turn the liquid into a drug. After she converts some of S’s liquid into the drug for him to take, S and Luna split up, hoping not to be caught by the criminals, or the police who are also after the liquid. The chase begins and S is on the run, trying to get for the collector both the Heavy Liquid and the artist who can turn it into a rare sculpture.
What makes a Paul Pope story great, however, is not the plot itself. What makes the comic worth seeking out is the art. Paul Pope’s art is easily identifiable once you know his style, and he is a difficult artist to simply like. You love him or hate him, and the reason is that his style can be described as “ugly” to a certain extent. But it is an intentional ugliness that shows the grit and grime of the world in which his characters live. These characters move through a world that leaves a mark — they are not pretty people with clothes that never wrinkle or get dirty. And his technology is a retro-futurism that is as recognizable as Jack Kirby’s technology is.
Heavy Liquid may not be the best storytelling, but it is a good noir tale with plenty of action and great chase scenes. And if you get halfway in, you will by hooked by the plot. If you like the art, then it is almost a five-star book, but in my opinion, comparing Heavy Liquid to better-written noir like that by Ed Brubaker lessens the praise I can give it. In the end, fans of Heavy Liquid will think my four-star rating too low, and those who are put-off by his art will never understand why such a book would rate so high.