Thursday, June 21, 2018

AdHouse: Young Frances

I've reviewed all three issues of Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats series that featured the stories that make up the Young Frances collection. so rather than a formal review, I thought I'd make a few comments about it, bullet-point style.

* Rilly is actually the pen name of Hartley Lin (an impressive anagram), which was revealed for collecting the original stories into a single volume. Lin is a superb illustrator who can tell a story with a single image. The covers of the original issues were striking, and the book is every bit as well designed. Frances is centered perfectly in a type pose: mousy appearance with hair in ponytail, shoulders slightly stooped, a neutral expression on her face. It's as though she wants to disturb the equilibrium of the surrounding environment so little that she doesn't want to do anything to draw attention to herself.

Her best friend, Vickie, displays her naturally flamboyant personality by posing like a model, while their friend (and occasional romantic interest) Peter, has dropped out of the foreground where the other characters are and sunk into the background, reading a newspaper. It's fitting for a character lacking in pretension, and whose role helps keep Frances balanced and sane.

* One of my favorite characters is the unnamed spiritual adviser of Vickie whom Frances decides to see toward the end of the story. She's a classic scam artist who at the same time believes some of her own hype. Frances is such an unrelenting cynic that she can't help but be a smart-ass when she meets her ("So how do we do this? Do you give me a spiritual plan to work on or something?"), while at the same time the adviser notes that her redecorated place will "be a write-off". The adviser realizes that Frances is not going to fall for any of this and so gives her simple advice: diet, exercise, sleep, someone to be with. It really is the advice she needed to hear. The adviser really is a con woman in the best sense of the word; she figures out ways to boost the confidence of the people she advises. That's why she worked so well with Vickie, who was waiting for that kind of prompt.

* There are a number of appealing supporting characters, the best of which is Marcel Castonguay. He's the massive, hulking genius lawyer who's always one step ahead of everyone else, resembling a cross between Daddy Warbucks and Wilson Fisk. He's eccentric in a way the powerful can afford to be. He lives in a hotel across the street from his office. he apparently never eats in front of anyone else, he doesn't use a computer but instead dictates all of his thoughts to his three assistants and tends to talk in terms of enigmatic riddles. However, when your pants fall down in the middle of a filmed speech about a major new acquisition, it still means you're human.

* A major theme of the comic is what it means to be successful, along with the masks and identities we must adopt in order to achieve success. When the book begins, Frances fears success. She's a college drop-out who apparently left despite being a brilliant student. She took a drone job as a law clerk and began to slowly realize that she was so good at it that she kept succeeding and being noticed despite not trying to do so. The fact that she didn't try to perform or put on a mask made her extremely valuable but also confused a number of people around her. On the other hand, Vickie wants to be a star more than anything, but once she achieves her dream, she learns that the games and masks have only begun.

* Lin does something very smart and reminiscent of something from the Jaime Hernandez playbook when he separates the two friends for more than half of the story. Hernandez found he was able to really play up the tense friendship between Maggie and Hopey by frequently separating them. The absence of one in a story was always strongly felt, and the reunions were that much more intense. Vickie and Frances had a relationship that was symbiotic in some ways, but it was also starting to become codependent. Their separation led them to really think about what the other meant to them. Vickie in particular told Frances that she was remembering to be cautious in ways that she never was as a survival mechanism in Hollywood. Frances needed to hear what Vickie told her about herself, that she wasn't a fucked up person. More to the point, she needed to hear that Peter really was in love with Frances.

* Lin's portrayal of office dynamics is something I've never seen in comics before, and he nails the eccentricities of being in this kind of setting. There's the tiny boardroom that means you're going to be fired if you go there. There's the balance between ruthless treatment of employees and figuring out that morale has to be boosted in order to keep the machine working. It's no accident that the most cartoonish characters are the heads of the firm; they are larger than life but absurd people.

* Despite the subject matter being familiar overall, and one that could perhaps be told in a variety of media, Lin takes full advantage of the comics form in telling this story. The aforementioned cartoonish characters, for example, only work in their absurd glory because they're juxtaposed against more naturalistically drawn characters. But even those latter characters are still very much done in a clear-line style, so the juxtaposition doesn't take the reader out of the story; they make sense next to each other. This wouldn't be effective in another medium. Also, Lin does things with pace and panel-to-panel transitions that slow up time in ways that are not only clever, but give real insight into Frances' personality. Stillness is a crucial aspect of this comic: gazing out of windows, looking at nature, conveying the feel of cold, crisp night air.

* Something that's clear is that Lin has a lot of affection for all of his characters, even some of the slimier ones. Vickie may seem flighty, but she's far sharper than she acts. Frances may seem overly tightly wound, but she's trying hard to relax into being affectionate toward others. Even the lawyers are treated with a certain bemused sense of humor. For the most part, the conflicts in the story are internal ones. Or rather, the conflicts that concern Vickie and Frances are internal. There are conflicts in the firm that play out with some people getting fired and some people getting promoted, with every move and gesture made part of the conflict. It's absurd in the same way the conflicts of subcultures are difficult to understand unless you're immersed in it. Lin is interested in giving an outsider's perspective for both this law firm and for Hollywood and draws a clear parallel as to the made-up rules, performative nature of all interactions, and the way both take over the lives of the participants.

* This is a very funny book, filled with tiny moments of humor rather than uproariously hilarious scenes. Lin is great at visual humor as well as witty dialogue, but it's all in service of the characters. It's a snapshot of a transitional period for the two friends who had been living together for some time, and there's a quote from Castonguay that sums it up: "There are no final outcomes. There are only developments." The end of the book is not the end of Frances or Vickie's story. It's simply a significant development for Frances, one that she that finally embraced in the way that Vickie embraced her development. The difference is that an outcome implies finality, whereas a development reveals a fluid situation. In this case, that fluidity is important because it's what allows Frances and Vickie's friendship to not only survive, but thrive.

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