If comics had a yearbook, Hartley Lin would have been last year's Most Likely to Succeed. The general opinion that Lin and his one-man anthology Pope Hats have earned admittance to an elevated circle with Tomine, DeForge, Seth, and company seemed to crest with AdHouse's release of Lin's Young Frances. Collecting four of the first five Pope Hats issues, Young Frances is about as good a bookstore-market debut as any cartoonist could create: a clear descendant of the Comics for Smart People made by the Mount Rushmore guys whose books it's shelved next to. Lin's book gracefully bypasses feeling derivative with its focus on emotional minutiae and professional life over deep-dive soul searching, and a consistently surprising sense of humor. If the book perhaps read a bit more impressively in its discreet, occasional installments than one unbroken narrative - better as parts than sum - that really wasn't here or there. Young Frances, not Pope Hats #1-3 and 5, was obviously the story's final and abiding form, and the work was obviously first rate.
There's less that's obvious about the first post-Frances issue of Pope Hats, subtitled Shapeshifter. Honestly, it feels perplexing. That Lin, fresh off his early-career defining triumph, uses this issue to take stock rather than diving headlong into another decade-consuming saga, is understandable. That Shapeshifter feels like a minor issue in the wake of Frances's triple-sized conclusion in #5 is equally so. But that Lin batted out a new Pope Hats in a year and a half, close to his quickest-ever turnaround time, and that it feels so utterly in search of a motivating principle, is, like I said, perplexing - doubly so given that the short-story grab bag in the excellent issue #4 implied its author had so many great ideas on tap that he couldn't help letting a couple leak out ahead of schedule.
This, by comparison, feels barren. Part of setting a high bar as an artist is that subsequent failures to clear it will be met with negativity that the work in a vacuum doesn't necessarily merit. And indeed, it's not that Shapeshifter is a terrible comic. From an unknown, this would be impressive. Like every issue of Pope Hats, it's got little grains in it that gleam and hook into the eyes and brain, and like every issue since #2, it's unimpeachably drawn. The letdown is a result of its failure to cohere, to rope those great bits and great drawing into a shape that feels like a great comic - or even a particularly good one.
Shapeshifter is an example of a subgenre that's really boomed in the decade Lin's been publishing, the I've-got-a-kid-now comic. It's a niche with pros and cons like any other - the potential for high drama and emotional stakes is clear, as are the risks of falling into triteness and pabulum. There's a huge captive audience for birth-and-parenting comics, and a similar number of people who'll have to strain to care. Full disclosure: I count among the latter group. I'll read anything Lin does, but there aren't a ton of other names who'll get me to pick up one of these. Narrative has a way of swaddling characters in virtue if they aren't explicitly marked out as being less than virtuous, often due more to the simple fact that we're reading about people's struggles than to any thumb an author might be placing on the scale. Comics about having and raising kids tend to subtly ascribe a moral dignity to the endeavor, yet the tender daddy mommy comics rankle. In a world where every human's carbon footprint is an established fact and there are scores of suffering children who need absolutely nothing more or more urgently than a non-biological parent's love, they can chronicle amorality and self-obsession as much as sacrifice.
Still, credit to Lin: at least this isn't a my-kid-is-so-special comic. The kid is more of a Macguffin here, a core around which to wrap Lin's own childhood reminisces, anxious monologues about his family unit's future, and vignettes from his wife's pregnancy. Pieces with genuine heft to them - an agonizingly plain observation of birth as a traumatic physical process, a few pages describing Lin's wife's unexplained prepartum hair loss - are stuck sharing equal time with ones that carry little power. Glimpses of Lin joining a gym or staying overnight in an airport hotel have the quotidian banality that Young Frances made unexpectedly refreshing, but aren't developed obsessively enough to manifest any charm or distinctness. They're not so much diaristic as google calendaresque. A passage on Lin's childhood fear of worms is downright laughable, playing every worn cliche about navel-gazing "alternative comics" into two pages.
It's remarkable what a similar problem is visible in Lin's drawing. The tight three-tiered grids of Young Frances's pages give way to an airier four-panel square in Shapeshifter, accompanied by a slightly more minimalistic drawing style. The smaller amount of work on each page is evident, which doesn't have to be any kind of problem whatsoever if the intention and execution are at the same or greater levels. When they are, Lin's bolder line and more design-oriented approach pays off. A few frames set on an interstate highway during a snowstorm are pure poetry, a fragmentary wedding memory crystalline and lovely. The best drawings in this book by far are of Lin's wife, bone-simple renderings whose few simple marks carry an incredible amount of personality. That's as it should be: he doesn't have to work to manifest an interest, and one assumes he's got a personal investment in making them look extra nice. The problem is that that personal investment in reaching a higher level just isn't visible in panel after panel of this book, on page after page. Other characters look vaguer, less distinct, just collections of comics-shorthand tricks like the trees or chairs around them are. Lin's still working from an incredibly high baseline - there isn't one bad drawing in the book - but the number of memorable ones isn't much greater. Not a few just feel empty.
Basically, Shapeshifter is a classic sophomore slump comic. Lin, fresh off a book that met with as much success as anybody working in his area of comics could dream of, is captured at loose ends here, ideas floating around him and evading his grasp like a cloud of dandelion fluff. It's a frustrating read. I wonder if it couldn't have made for a more satisfying one if Lin had eschewed his nonlinear, vignetted structure, placing scenes end to end so that chronology, at least, could build an arc. There are tidbits of intensity that seem to go unrecognized or undervalued - the aforementioned gory verbiage about childbirth, allusions to domestic scandals whose narration you can hear the whisper shrinking away from, two pages of anecdotes about fraught moments in the lives of friends that seem imported from another more compelling comic. Any one of these, chased down, could have (not would have, but could have) given a worse cartoonist something better than what Lin produces here.
It's difficult assigning value to work this clearly personal, but Lin's playing in the big leagues now, and there's a value assigned to Shapeshifter on the corner of its back cover: $6.95, which for the first time in Pope Hats' run you could spend more wisely elsewhere.