Saturday, 6 February 2010

Review: Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats No. 1 (AdHouse, 2009)

Cover to Pope Hats #1 (depicting a scene unmentioned in the comic)

First of all, I'd like to make it known that any comic that ends with the words "Emilio Etevez" is okay by me.

Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats is a comic that, structurally, is difficult to describe concisely. Whilst I realise that the preceding statement is a gigantic reviewer's cliché, in this case I believe it to be an appropriate point of discussion. Of course, from a marketing perspective, there's no comic that can't be reduced to a combination of features; however, to do so here would be a disservice to a book that circumvents being simply another "genre story with a twist”.

A problem with "paper-and-staples"/ "floppy" format comic books is that they are a medium at the mercy of their own format. Like film, the necessities that inform the production of comics, in turn, dictate the limitations of their content. The most apparent of these limitations is space: the space for drawings, panels, words - and, by extension - story, characterisation, dialogue and to describe the passage of time within a narrative.

The North American comic industry has developed in such a way (mainly due to the prominence of superhero serials) that the 20-40 page story has become its publishing standard. As a consequence, the majority of its output (mainstream or otherwise) adheres to a very truncated style of storytelling, where all the components of a narrative are compressed, losing detail. The result of this being that most graphic narratives become simplistic and easy to describe (“high-concept”). Whilst I don’t necessarily mean this derogatively, in most cases genre becomes apparent above all else.

Rilly demonstrates time passing throughout Frances' day

Whilst Pope Hats is certainly not the only comic of its format to challenge this principle, Rilly does so quite decisively with an intricately arranged narrative, methodically paced. Initially, however, a reader could be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The first nine pages deceptively lure the reader into the belief that the comic is an entry into the “cynical group of twenty-somethings coping with adult-life” genre. In reality, this segment serves as a device to introduce the characters and establish their relationships. Primarily focusing on the relationship between Frances (a law clerk) and her aspiring actress-roomate Vickie, Rilly introduces us to their life: eating at fast-food restaurants, drinking with their friends, throwing up on the pavement, etc.

Then, on page 10, Saarsgard materialises. Saarsgard, in his first appearance, seems to be a ghost who, rather than being a terrifying apparition, is more of a mild inconvenience. Appearing only when Frances is alone, Saarsgard demonstrates the “many ruthless acts of paranormal cruelty under (his) belt” (his own words) in such ways as SMSing mildly-obscene messages to a boy on Frances’ cell-phone and mistakenly killing/ taking “the innocent soul” of her neighbour’s cat.

Saarsgard’s inclusion in Pope Hats is notable for a few reasons. In terms of the flow of the comic, it demonstrates Rilly’s ability to introduce a significant change of direction that manages to seamlessly connect with the rest of the story. Rather than being jarring, the ghost’s initial manifestation in Frances' bedroom is delivered in such a way that it is rendered plausible. As in the Magical Realist genre in written literature, here the mundane combines with the extra-normal without severing the books' relationship with the reader. Appearing in just 21 of the comic's 137 panels (yes, I did count; twice.), Saarsgard irrevocably re-contextualises the comic and Frances with it. Never explained, it is the reader’s guess as to the true nature of the apparition. Perhaps he is a figment of Frances’ psyche? Perhaps he is exactly what he appears to be? A possible clue may exist on the inside of the front cover, where the comic is subtitled as “Wherein Frances Scarland Quietly Battles Demons”.

More mystery: the image on the interior of the front cover

Frances' interaction with Saarsgard illusrates a key dichotomy at work in the comic: that a story with so much dialogue manages to contain such significant mystery. Rilly's sense of pacing fundamentally holds these two poles together, creating a narrative rhythm that, in just 36 pages, manages to deliver a setting and character that seem fully-realised and identifiable. The universe of Pope Hats has so much potential. Luckily, Ethan Rilly’s website states that the writer/artist is currently at work on a graphic novel-length volume (due for release late this year), so there we'll soon be able to see how these characters develop in a longer format.

From the issue’s unexplained cover image (Frances and a comatose Vickie on horseback riding through the streets) to the 12 page long coda, in which Frances discusses paranormal visions of the First World War and the electrical phenomenon “St Elmo’s fire”, Pope Hats is a comic that reminds me that the humble single issue length comic is still able to house a great, engaging and uncompressed story.

Finally, any blog post that ends with the words “Emilio Estevez” is immediately recommendable to all of your friends:

Emilio Estevez.

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