Interview: Ethan Rilly on Pope Hats # 2

Back in May 2010 when I posted an interview with Ethan Rilly about his 2008 minicomic Pope Hats, I described it as simultaneously surreal and very familiar.

The comic, which saw wider distribution via publisher AdHouse Books in 2009, introduced us to roommates Frances and Vickie. Vickie is an alcoholic party girl, and Frances is ostensibly your average, down-to-earth type just looking to eke out a living in the world. Except of course for her numerous idiosyncratic behaviors – like, for instance, maintaining an ongoing dialogue with a fictional ghost named Sarsgaard.

At

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the time of my interview

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with Ethan, he was working on a graphic novel follow up to his well-received debut effort.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, his sophomore effort is available for purchase from select comic retailers as well as directly from AdHouse.

It’s not the graphic novel he had originally planned, but instead a 40 page second issue installment in the Pope Hats series. The book is also far less surreal, even going so far as to abandon the character of Saarsgard entirely.

Both of these changes reflect the new confidence that Rilly has found in his artistic voice.

Pope Hats # 2 may not be voluminous in nature or feature talking ghosts, but what we are given is presented with purposeful sincerity and a unique sort of human empathy. As Frances Scarland works her way up the corporate ladder as a law clerk in a high-pressure firm, the reader is given a candid glance at the abstract thought processes that separate people from worker drones.

Throughout her bouts with insomnia, exchanges with an obsessively intense new boss, and experiences on the rollercoaster ride that is living with Vickie, Frances

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is consistently a very real, relatable character.

The look and feel of Ethan’s art is similarly more polished. Solid, confident linework and memorable cityscape imagery establish a visually distinct backdrop against which Ethan’s characters casually live out their lives.

Ethan was kind enough to field a few more interview questions for The Fabler, ranging in topic from his decisions involving Pope Hats and thoughts on having Chester Brown moderate the book launch, to his own current comic book picks and preferences.

Read on for more words from Ethan Rilly, writer and artist of Pope Hats Issues 1 & 2:

KD: I wanted to ask you about your decision to take Pope Hats back to a shorter, issue sort of format rather than do the graphic novel you had in mind back when we last talked.

You did an interview with Squidface & The Meddler where you touched on this, but could you elaborate a bit on what it was that just didn’t jive with you when you were working on that?

ER: Yeah. I probably shouldn’t have talked about it in the first place. I’m usually a pretty quiet guy.

It just didn’t feel right in the end. It’s a basic thing to step back from whatever you’re working on and ask, “Would I enjoy reading this book?” Unfortunately, in comics, you have to complete a fair amount of work before you can get a straight answer from yourself.

Abandoning the thing wasn’t difficult. It’s like trying to cook a new exotic recipe and messing it up. Just because you put effort into it does not make it good. But you learn from the experience, presumably.

KD: When you decided to scrap everything and take a fresh approach

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to this book, what was the first thing you established the new issue would focus on?

ER: I can’t remember exactly. I knew that the central character Frances was a law clerk and I wanted to flesh out her environment.

KD: As a whole, how was the experience of writing and illustrating Pope Hats # 2 different from the first book?

ER: It was more deliberate and intensive. Plus I did the second issue while I was living in this great apartment above a storefront on Bloor St. in Toronto. I had a big window facing the street, which was ideal for natural light and overt people-watching.

KD: What can you tell me about your decision to omit Sarsgaard from the second Pope Hats issue? Do you feel like any of your fans from the first comic were really choked about his absence?

ER: I think my interests simply changed over the lapse between issues. I haven’t really received negative feedback about switching gears. People who read the second issue seem to immediately get it.

It was never my intention to do a story with a really obvious hook. I don’t want to be that guy that does hundreds of books about a talking animal or whatever. For me, doing a straight-up fictional story is challenging enough.

KD: In addition to the feature story, Pope Hats # 2 features a trio of shorter vignettes. Speaking to the longer of the three, where did the Gould Speaks short comic idea come from?

ER:

I was curious about whether I could capture the contained atmosphere of a very long bus ride. It’s a weird mixture of excitement and routine for people in long distance relationships. Time passes very slowly. It seemed like an impossibly boring thing to depict, and for some reason I found that intriguing.

KD: Hey, so Chester Brown did your comic launch event! How was that?

ER: Chester came onstage with a clipboard covered with post-it notes and opened with, “So Ethan, when was the last time you paid for a prostitute?” Ha ha. I figured it would be the only opportunity he would have all year to come out in public and not mention prostitutes, but no. Anyway, he was very gracious and asked challenging questions. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple months, so the whole thing was fun and conversational. Obviously, his work is monumental to me.

KD: What comics/books are you reading/consuming yourself these days?

ER: Matt Forsythe let me read the proof of his upcoming Comics Class book a couple weeks ago and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Publisher Annie Koyama has excellent taste. My friend Nick Maandag’s self-published book Streakers will be shipping through Diamond soon and it’s a wonderful oddball humour book. I came late to the Sublife books by John Pham, but I read them recently and they made my brain explode.

What else? I came back from the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco with a big pile of stuff, including Mike Bertino’s Trigger from Revival House, two issues of the smut anthology The Thickness, co-edited by Ryan Sands and Michael DeForge, and the obligatory Charles Bukowski books and Cometbus zines from City Lights. When you’re a tourist, it’s okay to act like a tourist.

To pick up Pope Hats #2, visit AdHouse Books here. You can also visit Ethan’s website to see some of his additional illustration work.

-Interview by Kevin de Vlaming

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