Thursday, June 16, 2016

Heavy Hitters Part 1: Rilly, Galloway

Pope Hats #4, by Ethan Rilly. In a format reminiscent of 80s alt-comics, Rilly continues to defy conventions by publishing his work in serial format. This issue is a collection of short stories published elsewhere, some of which are related. Indeed, the front cover features several key characters from the issue in one scene. Interestingly, none of the characters are looking at each other, which makes sense considering none of them interact within the context of the issue either. The back cover features mostly silent images from the stories, or rather images suggested by the stories that we didn't actually see. It's a clever idea that helps frame the entire issue.

"All In" connects to "The Nest", a story seen later in the issue. It's a small character moment: a young woman ignores going to bed for the siren call of playing poker on her phone. The steady march of panels in the 3x4 grid gives the story a deliberate, uneasy quality. "The Hollow", done in a yellow and blue wash, is about a disgruntled member of a colony on another planet. It's not just that he's disgruntled with the conditions, but that his mind has become wrapped up in conspiracy theories and paranoia, unable to see the point of view of any others. When he takes a drug that allows him to read the thoughts of others, it's too much to bear the actual thoughts and feelings of others. Rilly's takedown of an egocentric, Clowes-style misanthrope was extremely clever.

"Stained Glass" is a strip that really shows off Rilly's incredible understanding of how to convey gesture with just a minimum of lines. It's a story about the way vanity and ego, especially an artists's vanity, can have horrific real-life repercussions. Gesture is crucial to the story because the artist, who created stained glass windows for a church, noted a slightly unimpressed expression on the face of the sponsor, which drove him crazy. Rilly's simple and subtle use of gesture here was key to making the story work. "New Friend", which has a homey, brown wash, is all about trying to reconnect with one's past and the ways in which the choices of people we thought we knew can confound us. Once again, Rilly uses gesture and body language to tell the story even without dialogue.

"The Nest" is a multipart serial about the heartbreak of parenting and mental illness. Clement, a middle-aged dad drawn with a huge, bigfoot-style nose and a mustache (he looks like a slimmer version of Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace), discovers his grad student daughter sitting in her car behind his house when she should have been in school. Marie, his daughter, developed schizophrenia and no longer recognized her parents as such, thinking them impostors. This is the only story in this issue that features women as primary characters with their own agency, which I imagine is coincidence since women feature prominently in the usual Pope Hats narrative. Rilly navigates Marie's point of view, Clement's point of view, and the point of view of various other characters with a great deal of empathy, especially since Marie's mother is so obsessed with the idea of being judged for Marie's mental illness. The story ends with the father of two neighborhood vandals talking to him about how difficult it is for him, and without saying a word, it's clear that Clement does. The character design in this story is particularly clever, mixing a naturalistic setting with exaggerated facial characteristics. That combination creates a shorthand that allows for fluid panel-to-panel transitions, slightly rubbery movements and immediate clues as to the characters' emotional states.

"Bitter Drummer" is the most straightforward story in the book, as it talks about a famous but defunct band deciding to get back together, from the point of view of the drummer. He's the most grounded and domesticated member of the band, and his eventual fate (hinted at in the first couple of panels of the story) made sense because one got the sense that this was really no longer his life. There are few other gags in the issue that round it out that remind me of the sillier things Dan Clowes used to do in Eightball. Clowes and Adrian Tomine are Rilly's most obvious peers, but Rilly's line differs in important ways, as does the overall emotional tone of his comics. Certainly, there are sometimes desperate, obsessed people in his stories, but Rilly's take on them is to give them a fair shake rather than use them as either an emotional stand-in expressing frustration or as subjects of pure derision. While his comics are usually subtle and restrained, there's a remarkable sense of warmth to be found.

In The Sounds and Seas Volume 2, by Marnie Galloway. The second volume of three silent volumes about the creative journey is much more straightforward than the first, but no less filled with deeper meaning. The first chapter of this book is about the three creators we met in the first book working on building a ship for their journey. It opens with a crow flying into their workshop (in the middle of winter, no less) and perching at the top of the mast, becoming a sort of living good luck token. The woman with the longest hair is chosen for a special task: having all of the ship's ropes woven into her hair. Weaving is a repeating image in the comic, as there have been visual representations of weaving together songs and weaving in groups of three. While the task of being at the center of the ship's operations clearly wears on the woman, she accepts it without complaint. The fourth chapter describes the first part of their ship's passage. It's a joyful journey, full of fishing, diving, sketching, and bioluminescent squid. When the ship's crow is discovered dead, the crew reacts with horror, and a violent storm envelops the ship as the chapter ends. As always, Galloway's skill as a draftsman and cartoonist is impeccable. The density and precision of her hatching is a sight to behold. Her use of blacks adds perfect balance to every page. Her nature drawings are incredibly lifelike, indicative of her ability to reproduce patterns in a matter that's entirely organic. The fact that she's also an excellent cartoonist on top of a great illustrator is what makes this such an absorbing reading experience. Rather than one's eye falling off the page, the reader instead is sucked into each panel as the characters react to each other with fluid gestures and vivid expressions. All that said, this is still just a story fragment, and I eagerly await the finished product when it arrives.

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