Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats #2 is one of the more satisfying reads of the year. It succeeds on any number of levels: it’s a fairly dense character study that doesn’t feel the need to spell things out in an obvious way, it features page after page of lovely drawings, and it dips into the language & history of comics in an interesting manner. I didn’t get to read the first issue of this series, but my understanding is that Rilly’s command over his line has become much more self-assured. The book is a fairly simple slice-of-life story of a law clerk named Frances and her alcoholic actress roommate as they negotiate their lives. Rilly injects dramatic and uncomfortable humor into the way the mousy Frances navigates her job, using a variety of interesting cartoon tropes to get across subtext. While the character of Frances is relatable in a number of ways, the comic works because Rilly is careful to make the story very specific to a certain set of ambitions and goals not usually seen in this sort of vehicle.
For example, Frances is great at her job and isn’t a drifting slacker. As the story opens, she is promoted to work with one of the most powerful partners in the heavyweight law firm, and the sense throughout the book is that despite her own self-doubt, she’s probably too smart even for the new job–a fact that others in power may well be exploiting. The reader learns that she was in law school but dropped out, possibly due to her anxiety about working in an arena that requires so much performance and persona creation. To a degree, her unwillingness to perform is a kind of performance unto itself, one in which she simply lets her work speak for her.
Rilly creates a sense of unease throughout the book by using deceptively simple character designs, matching the tension and occasional absurdity of the image to the tense and occasionally absurd scenarios Frances is faced with at work. Rilly is clearly an artist who has studied everyone in the art comics world, but I can’t quite pin him down to a particular model. Chris Ware is an obvious influence in terms of character design, body language, and lettering. I can see Adrian Tomine’s hand as well, in his use of stillness, and the kind of stories Rilly tells. The flatness of affect one can see in Dan Clowes, as well as some surface elements of his drawing are also present. Rilly also goes much further back, emulating Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie for some character designs in much the same way Chester Brown did for Louis Riel. Seth’s ease of pace and street-pacing scenes pop up as well. I don’t think it’s an accident that Rilly is cycling through artists who are also great designers and illustrators, since Rilly does illustration work himself. Beyond that surface comparison, Rilly’s sense of design is superb and conjures up much of the comic’s vaguely melancholy but still somewhat hopeful tone.
The cover alone is one of the most striking I’ve seen this year. The black top half of the page first pushes the reader to read the title, then shoves the eye down to the cropped image on the bottom half of the page. Here, the eye is drawn first to Vickie, Fran’s blonde roommate, thanks to her white outfit and the way the wind is blowing her hair to the right. The hair leads us to the cigarette in her hand that is also part of the figure’s overall breezy and too-open gesture. We then move our gaze down to the brown bottle in her hand; its placement in a brown bag lets us know it’s alcohol. We then see Fran, all in brown, who is clearly the central figure of the page (and as we later learn, of the story). Her hair’s in a mousy pony tail, her hands are in her pockets, she’s carrying a big bag, she’s wearing a big coat and her head is tilted slightly down. In just these few visual details, Rilly lets us know that these two friends are opposites in the way they approach the world–almost like Aesop’s Ant and Grasshopper. Fran is practical, frumpy, and weighed down by life in a way that Vicki isn’t, but Vicki is also far more vulnerable and fragile.
The theme informing everything else in this issue is insomnia and Fran’s attempts to overcome it. Even when she manages to fall asleep, irresponsible Vicki, who has forgotten her keys, barges through Fran’s window late at night. To fall asleep, Fran tries running, a white noise machine, and drinking, and not just as sleep aids, but almost as magical cures to help her deal with the craziness of her job.
Rilly’s keen use of details elevate this above standard slice-of-life stories.The beads of sweat on Fran’s boss’s brow reveal both his stress and how he tries to deal with it: he has to fire two associates (and present them with a cake afterwards), and deals with it by quaffing eight cups of coffee before 9 am. Fran attends a lunch in her honor when she’s brought on to work with the high-powered Castonguay and learns that the person she’s replacing is at the lunch as well. Nervous partners reveal the desperate ways in which they try to vie for attention.
The character design for Castonguay is one of Rilly’s best. He’s a massive brick wall of a man, looking a bit like Daddy Warbucks in his three-piece suit and blank white eyes. Fran reaction to his presence is no different than her reaction to everyone else: bemused but steadfast. She has a nervous energy to her, revealed when she quotes Voltaire: “Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need.” Fran seems desperate to keep all three at bay, but nothing can help her sleep. Every aspect of her life is strange, yet she stays in motion, even if she feels like her life has no particular direction.
The backup features feel more directly Clowesian: “Gould Speaks” is one man’s monologue about life while on a long bus trip. He’s a philosopher-blowhard, saying things out loud like “Why do we feel the need to measure everything?” Finally, someone on the bus threatens him into shutting up, a refreshingly funny burst of reality in a situation where as a reader we’re used to characters blabbering on and on. “Laughter” is the tale of a young Fran watching her father practice his fake laugh for work, a tidbit that informs the main story in showing that she had a reason to distrust workplace personae from a very early age. ”Smokey’s Journey” involves a sentient puff of smoke who emerges from a lit cigarette, floats over the city, and is immediately hit by an existential crisis. There’s a dry but absurd wit at play here, a strong but unconventional intelligence in the vein of Gabrielle Bell. Rilly’s work is a model of subtlety and restraint, but he also knows when to tap comics’ more cartoonish well. It’s interesting that so many young cartoonists seem to be so interested in publishing their works in the traditional comic book format; Rilly goes out of his way to make this a handsome and rewarding package to look at as well as read.