By the second issue of Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats, Rilly had established himself as a fully-formed cartoonist. The first three volumes of the series focused mainly on Frances and Vickie, a pair of post-recession Canadian twenty-somethings. Rilly detailed the friends’ lives with a crisp, elegant line and an ear for the language of anxiety. He also took a sizable leap as a storyteller between issues one and two. Pope Hats #4 marks another leap, this time into the one-cartoonist anthology format.
The new issue may initially disappoint readers who were expecting further adventures of Frances and Vickie; it’s centered not around a cast of characters but around a set of themes. (Although issues one through three also included some standalone vignettes, they read as peripheral to the Frances and Vicki pages.) Rilly maintains the neat classicism of his linework, but he’s a cartoonist with new preoccupations. His gentle looks at millennial malaise are absent. Instead, Rilly turns toward cases of outright alienation. Issue four is not as fun as previous installments—it’s a demanding work, by comparison—but the comic is also earnest and engrossing.
Although Rilly’s Frances character works on the margins of her profession, assisting a series of high-powered attorneys as an entry-level law clerk, the earlier issues of Pope Hats present her as a thoroughly relatable figure—someone who reminds you of, if not yourself, than a friend or a neighbor. But Pope Hats #4 belongs to some real outsiders. “The Hollow” is a science-fiction story featuring a mid-level space surveyor, a smartest-guy-in-the-room type who underperforms and clashes with his coworkers. Rilly manages to both follow this character and also create distance between the surveyor and the reader, employing a slightly queasy yellow palette and a series of claustrophobic grids (about sixteen panels per page, on average).
“Stained Glass”, the issue’s next story, uses a milder set of colors, and its six-panel grid relays the story at a more measured pace. But the point-of-view character in “Stained Glass” lives at an even further remove from the people around him. He’s a window artist whose exacting standards lead him toward obsession and deceit. Given that fastidiousness and delusion are near-prerequisites for success in comics, Rilly’s decision to spotlight characters like this carries an ironic bite—if “Stained Glass” isn’t a commentary on cartooning, it at least teases the possibility.
The lead character in “The Nest”, issue four’s longest story, falls closer to Frances in terms of relatability. Clement, a man in his late middle-ages, finds his neighborhood less recognizable than it used to be. He begins to struggle with a more severe disconnect when his daughter returns home from university, afflicted with a mental illness that makes recognizing her own parents a challenge. “The Nest” documents the negotiations that the daughter, Marie, undertakes with her own brain, as well as the efforts of Clement and his wife to find a semblance of clarity. The story has a muted tone but a powerful cumulative effect, as even panel borders—marking jumps in time or breaks in conversation—come to serve as reminders of the many distances between these characters.
The subject matter, the single-artist anthology format, and occasionally the linework of Pope Hats #4 invite comparisons of high order: Daniel Clowes, Seth, Adrian Tomine. Of course, with these comparisons come the questions: What does Rilly do especially well? Does he build on the work of his predecessors or just reconfigure it? (An illustration on the letters page, for example, recalls the geometric minimalism of Ivan Brunetti to a degree that makes the issue feel like a pastiche of the alt-comics canon.) The case against Rilly’s new work would look something like this: comics doesn’t need more auteurs of despair, and Rilly lacks the acerbic wit that distinguishes a cartoonist like Clowes. Now, most comics don’t hold up well when put against the work of some of the world’s most celebrated cartoonists. But in this instance, the shoe almost fits, and a reader may notice both the closeness and the distance.
There’s at least one major feature of Pope Hats #4, though, that reads as fresh and personal as well as carefully articulated. Most of Rilly’s studies in alienation include moments of creativity from his characters, allowing for a conversation about art’s ability to foster connections—a conversation that takes place across the stories and includes multiple credible perspectives. A talent for window installations can’t cure the pathologies of the artist in “Stained Glass”. But in a later story, “Bitter Drummer”, a group of estranged collaborators lock into back into place by playing songs together. And a brief but crucial scene from “The Nest” shows Clement insistent on repainting a mural on his garage door, despite a pattern of vandalism in his neighborhood—a gesture of confidence or futility or a combination of the two, but certainly a manner of reaching out.
Rilly’s comics in Pope Hats #4 make a case for art as a defense against alienation—complete with counterpoints and without the kind of sentimentality that would torpedo the whole affair. (Here’s where a cynic says, “See how he feels in five years!” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Issue four lays out its arguments with enough conviction that when Rilly reveals a glimmer of optimism, he’s—no small feat—convincing. It’s exciting to consider what leaps he’ll take next.