Ethan Rilly's first issue of Pope Hats came out in 2007. Since that time, his improvement as a storyteller has been remarkable. I thought the second issue of the series was one of the best comics of 2011. It's interesting to see how he's evolved this story of two lifelong friends: a mousy, insomniac and highly competent law clerk named Frances and a flighty, talented alcoholic actress named Vicki. Now Rilly has found a great home with Chris Pitzer's AdHouse books, a publishing house dedicated to impeccable design. Simply put, everything about his work as a cartoonist has become more restrained and subtle, allowing him to really get across big emotions and themes without resorting to storytelling histrionics. The first issue is an example of a young cartoonist who doesn't yet have the confidence in his line or figure drawing to keep things simple; Rilly relies too much on over-rendering and adding intrusive blacks to flesh out his page. Moreover, Rilly drew his characters in a fairly naturalistic style; it wasn't until he went to a more iconic style that he was able to bring their qualities to the surface in a more direct manner.
Rilly also abandoned a slightly cutesy trope of Frances being haunted by an incompetent ghost, one that accidentally killed the neighbor's cat though he was intent on frightening her. Rilly left it open to interpretation as to whether the ghost was "real" or not, but the device was dropped after the first issue. Instead, he furthers a number of storylines that he began in the second issue. There are parallel plots in the comic, as Frances finds herself inadvertently rising in status at the law firm and Vicki finds herself being flown to Hollywood for an audition. Success for both of these fuck-up friends seems like an odd phenomenon, something that's happening in spite of themselves or like something that's happening to other people. Both Frances and Vicki are "out of body" types who are all too aware of the disconnect in their lives, and both have strategies for dealing with this sensation. Vicki does it with alcohol and sex, while Frances tries to fight her crushing insomnia with work, booze and running. In neither case are they ever able to get away from themselves.
Rilly's detailed account of the machinations and politics of a law firm are riveting. A hypercompetent, efficient and hard-working clerk like Frances is a greatly desired tool in a law firm, because it means that cheap labor will be doing a lot of heavy lifting. Of course, the fact that there's a game that everyone but Frances seems to be playing in order to become successful is what makes her successful: her superiors can see that she's not playing that game, which is why she's so valuable. In a profession filled with sharks, Frances represents someone working for the sake of work, trying to find some kind of peace or purpose in the moment. The fact that she's also so tightly wound (especially regarding her emotions) allows her to blankly interact with those in authority, something that also gains their favor. The whole issue is about her continuing to draw attention from new sources, being rewarded with an office (something met with intense jealousy by others) but constantly feeling like garbage. Her refrain throughout is "Today I'm crap, but tomorrow I'll be good", magically hoping for that one good night of sleep that will transform her entire world.
On Vicki's end, every gesture she makes is a dramatic one. She throws a huge going-away party after she gets the lead role in a new TV show (about a vigilante DA, a concept worthy of Michael Kupperman), showing up late and absurdly, in a giant bird outfit. Rlily's dialogue simply sings in this comic, as she asks someone to wet her beak when she takes off the giant bird head, or when Frances struggles to explain how not everyone likes her to yet another partner in the firm who's trying to woo her to his field. It's interesting that the most emotion Frances can muster is anger at the parasites and hangers-on at the party who don't really care about her friend. She can't bring herself to cry that her childhood friend is about to leave her (indeed, Vicki seems more despondent); everything is too bottled up, including her obvious feelings for Peter, a fling of Vicki's.
His presence in the issue ties together the issue's main theme: work as a central part of our identities. Peter, a construction worker, pointedly tells Frances that his work doesn't define him. For Vicki, acting is both her passion and her meal ticket, but she has a sense that things are going to change because "I'm famous people now." As Frances' star rises at the firm, the issue zeroes in on the story of Nina, an struggling associate who is being subtly sabotaged by fellow associates and is called upon to do an impossible job in court the next day. Frances offers to tell her everything she knows about the case but is rebuffed, as Nina says "I know my place now." She fails spectacularly in court and is then called into the dreaded boardroom 25H--the only one small enough for just three people and so the room where everyone is fired. Various lawyers tell Frances of the things that keep them grounded, with some claims more dubious than others. Frances isn't quite sure what to make of her situation; she dropped out of law school and feels like a failure treading water in a nonprofessional job, but her influence becomes greater simply by not acting like a shark. As I've noted before, these are not typical themes in a slice-of-life comic. The most important relationship in the book is between Frances and Vicki as a friendship that defies logic; love relationships are very much sidelined. While quotidian details are part of the scenery, they do not dominate the comic in a way they might have in a more typical title. When you add Rilly's fully-formed, mature art style that doesn't lose an ounce of its expressiveness despite its clarity, you have a book that puts the lie to the notion that alternative comic books are dead.