Guttergeek review: POPE HATS

Posted by on December 11th, 2009 at 4:05 PM

Ethan Rilly; AdHouse Books; 32 pp.,  $4.00.

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The Canadians are killing me. It seems every time I read a Canadian comic these days I am pulled up short by my own inescapable Americanness. Their restraint; their quiet, dark humor; that whole literate, educated, multi-lingual thing they have going on–is this what universal health care and meaningful gun laws produce? Well, it might be good for society and the long-term survival of humanity, but is it good for comics?

Yes. Yes, it is. And Pope Hats pretty much seals the deal, if there was any sealing left to be done after the genius that is Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant. At first glance, Rilly’s strange, small, self-published book might look like your average (and American) twenty-something angsty semi-autobiographical comic. That is until you meet Saarsgard, a pathetically inept ghost who stalks our protagonist, Franny. Then you are left wondering what it is you are reading, where it is going, and why. And then you are right where Rilly wants you. I think.

Pope Hats (which Rilly tells me refers to his idea for a substitute for the tried-and-true knuckle tattoo “Love/Hate,” and not, as I lamely guessed, to the shape of Saarsgard’s head) is a Xeric award winning self-published mini-comic, now beautifully reproduced and distributed for international delectation. The story focuses primarily on Franny and Vickie. Vickie has come to the big city to make it big as an actress, and she is playing the part—immature, flaky, and demanding—to the hilt. Franny is the responsible one, the grounded one who has a job and who holds back Vickie’s hair while she is barfing on her shoes. But Franny is also the one who sees ghosts and talks to demons (demons who accidentally kill the neighbor’s cat), and it is Franny we want to get to know.

We are given our best chance in an extended bar story Franny tells us in the final long section of the 33-page first issue. Here we see Franny at her most confident and enticing, delving into a darker world that is clearly not so dark or strange for her. When the conversation comes back, as inevitably it must, to Emilio Estevez, we cannot help but resent the stupidity of the joke or feel the forced nature of Franny’s laughter as she slips back into the groove of the everyday lives of her friends and peers. By this point, I suspect you will be in love.

Still not sure what this book is about? Me neither. I just want to find out more. I want an issue 2, although Rilly has suggested that instead we have a graphic-novel-length story to look forward to, and I for one can’t wait. But there is something about the comic book format, increasingly rare in our 21st-century world for a story such as this one, that feels just right–somehow small enough and open-ended enough to capture the rhythm of Rilly’s storytelling. And since we probably have a year to wait for the 100-page version, grab this one from AdHouse books right now. You will be, I promise, haunted in the most delightful way.

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