Comics Review: Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly

Hard to find and with a streak of weirdness.

Pope Hats #1/#2/#3
Ethan Rilly
Adhouse, 32pp/40pp/40pp, $4.00/$6.95/$6.95

It feels rather cruel to be reviewing a comic like Pope Hats. "Hey, here's an awesome series! You're going to have to work pretty hard to get hold of it, because the issues go in and out of print regularly. Right now you can get the first and third, but you'll have to sit tight hoping that the second is reprinted. Oh, and if you do like it, it will probably be a year until the next one."

Such are the pains of getting stuck in to the US small-press scene. Serialisation is frequently a frustrating experience for the reader, but never more so that when the sums are such that the author has to hold another ("real") job to make ends meet. But with Pope Hats, Ethan Rilly proves that the wait can be worth it.

Rilly burst into consciousness with the first issue in 2009, which was largely based on a self-published – photocopied, even – minicomic made and sold in the Toronto area in 2009. It focuses on Franny, a young law clerk, and Vickie, an alcoholic wannabe-actress and her best friend. Also featured is Saarsgard, a ghost who is stalking Franny, and kills her neighbours cat for attention.

Despite the apparently fantastical element, the book is a down-to-earth, though lighthearted, look at the shitty life of a recent university graduate in modern America. Vickie is the friend who's "taking a break" before starting a career – the one who has the sex, the parties, and then, seemingly, gets the career anyway. Franny, head down and hard-working, seems to be driving herself to a breakdown by thirty.

The comic is split into two stories, in the one-man-anthology format popular twenty years ago (it was the bread and butter of cartoonists like Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and Chester Brown), but less and less common today. Michael DeForge's Lose series is the only other that comes to mind – the product of another Toronto-based artist. Maybe it's something in the water?

That format continues into Pope Hats #2 and #3, but Rilly never quite seems sure what his extra pages are for. The first comic is split nearly half and half between the main narrative and the "back-up" strip, featuring Franny in a diner "telling stories". The whole thing is framed square on to her, and for the most part she's speaking directly to the reader – a tricky shot to get right, and one which can get boring fast. It's testament to Rilly's character work that that never happens.

The back-up strips in the second comic – by far the strongest of the three out so far – are more fully-featured. The first, Gould Speaks, is a monologue set almost entirely on a coach journey to Montreal. Gould comments on his journey, while mulling over Lindsay, who we see in fleeting shots sleeping, waiting.

She sleeps so soundly… eight solid hours, every night. It almost bothers me.

Where are the demons?

It's a powerful piece, and like the main story in Pope Hats, cut through with a streak of weirdness, as it slowly becomes apparent that Gould's monologue isn't entirely unheard by the rest of the coach after all.

That weirdness is less and less evidence in Franny and Vickie's story as the issues progress, however. Saarsgard, the stalker ghost, disappears – whether this is a meaningful point of plot or simply Rilly deciding not to write him anymore is unclear – and his half of the action is replaced with Franny's hellish new job. The observational aspects of life in a high-pressure corporate law firm are (to the best of my knowledge) spot on, and Rilly has spoken in interviews about being extremely interested in the "unique environment" it presents. Though firmly true to life, elements of the earlier volume's strangeness poke through, particularly in the design and characterisation of Franny's boss, Castonguay. Drawn as a monster of a man, with an obsession with working out and a caricature of an executive's determination, he sets an imposing figure.

As the book enters its third volume, which was released in November, it's clear where Rilly's heart is. The story of Franny and Vickie takes a back seat to the office drama, and Vickie even announces a move to LA on the back of some acting success. It would be a shame if the characters end up being parted so the story can change tack – with Vickie cast off as Saarsgard was – and hopefully the thread gets a proper ending.

Similarly, the back-up stories are reduced to just two pages, and are all adaptations – two of Spalding Gray anecdotes, and one from an interview with Ai Weiwei (featuring his famous lazy cats). They're examples of strong cartooning, but when you've got a voice as honed as Rilly's, you don't need to use others' words.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The new Tate Modern building is perfectly designed for the Instagram generation

Almost every three minutes a photograph of The Switch House is uploaded to Instagram tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location.

It's a Tuesday morning in the Tate Modern Switch House”s “Living Cities” display.  A group of teenage girls charge around the room, phones in hand, paused on the camera screen, hunting down a potential Instagram post or Snapchat story. A young man is capturing shots of Mark Bradford”s 2004 “Los Moscos”,  a violent collage made from the materials found on the floor of his Los Angeles Studio. Ten minutes later the same man remains looking at his screen, observing the images he has taken on his iPhone camera. A group of tourists are posing for a photo on Marwan Rechmaouis”s “Beirut Caoutchouc”.  A young girl tells her Dad “that”s a really good photo that you took”. Kader Attia's “Untitled (Gharrdaia)” is surrounded by lenses of Canon cameras attached to bodies.

You can't miss it. The camera is literally everywhere: in every hand, in every room, in front of every painting.  

Downstairs, in the room “Between Object and Architecture” Yayoi Kusaama”s “The Passing Winter” (2005) seems to be a hotspot for the perfect Instagram post. People crowd around the cube, placing not their heads, but their iPhone cameras through the inviting holes. I too am part of this. Standing just outside the grey tape boundary, I take a picture of myself in the mirrored cube. Add a Clarendon filter, adjust the brightness and contrast, and tap post. By the time I've left the room, three friends have liked it.

But why do we insist of photographing the art around us? And what are the consequences of doing so?  A common criticism of social media is that it discourages us from living “in the moment”. As we constantly view the world from behind a digital screen, the tech-sceptics say, we neglect details of life at that very second. But there are even greater ramifications for the clicking, capturing and photographing of visual art for the sake of your Instagram feed. As you take a picture of Louise Bourgeois  À L”Infini (2008) and adjust the brightness, contrast, structure, warmth and saturation, then apply a filter of your choice:  Gingham, Juno, Crema Sierra, Nashville or Sutro, you become an artist with your own digital palette, transgressing the intentions of Bourgeois in terms of colour, tone and texture. While the intricate effects of Bourgeois's own work may be lost in the snapshot, your Instagram feed gains. It becomes a mini gallery, holding these appropriated and transformed works.

As you pose in the cube mirrors of Robert Morris”s “Untitled” (1965), or next to Andy Warhol”s iconic “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), it becomes clear that the gallery is an ideal space for capturing the art via selfies. If you'd like to convey to your followers just how “cultured” and “artistically engaged” you really are (just look at the Tumblr “Tinder Guys Posing with Art”), this space allows you to promote your own self-image with ease.

I ask the woman beside me viewing (or rather capturing) Lorna Simpson”s “Photo Booth” (2008), exhibited in the “Artist and Society” display of the Boiler House, why it is she is taking images of the work. She tells me she herself is an artist, and so sees this work as inspiration, capturing photos as a record for herself.  Art is photographed as a means of preservation. The content of a gallery is simultaneously static and fleeting. If you come back to the Tate Modern tomorrow, or a week later, chances are Lorna Simpson's “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” (1986) will not have moved from that same space. You stand and observe the image, take it in, maybe read the detailed text beside it, and then move on to something that catches your eye in the next room.

The camera, however, offers a chance to capture the art forever. Will you ever come back to it? Perhaps not, but the image is stored away among your photos of a summer holiday, preserved as evidence of a piece of work that made you feel something. The camera provides a sense of security. It is a reassurance that you won't forget the image, just yet.

“But also”, the woman goes on to tell me “I think it”s really nice to share images. If I take a photo of this art, I can share it with my friends”. In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks of how the camera has changed the way we interact and engage with art. “The camera enables us to see something that isn”t precisely there in front of us”, he states, “allowing appearances to travel across the world in seconds”. I take a picture of a Gerhard Ritcher and Snapchat it to a friend with the caption: “Your fave!” A few seconds later, he opens the image and replies.

Indeed, in the corner of a display in the Boiler House, is a digital screen provided by the Tate that encourages an exchange of images between the gallery space and home. “When do you feel most creative? Post your photo on Instagram using #tatestudio and it may appear here”, it says. Alongside photographs of the studios of Claude Monet and Eva Hesse are square framed, edited images of the work spaces of @paulaclyde, @magpieethel and @rayofmelbourne. Social media, it seems, has become central to the identity of the Tate. Just look at its own Instagram feed, updated daily with times lapse videos and images of the art work in its collection. Access to free Wifi throughout the Tate Modern only epitomises the pertinence of social media to the art gallery experience.

When searching for “Tate Modern Switch House” in the Instagram search engine, you are presented with 194 posts with the hashtag #tatemodernswitchhouse, and a photograph almost every three minutes tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location. The most popular shots on Instagram, among Louise Bourgeois”s dresses and Marwan Rechmaouis”s immersive floor installation “Beirut Caoutchouc” are images of the concrete twisting staircases of the building and the newly expanded viewing gallery. This landscape of London, offering at various views as you walk around the external of the building, is perhaps one of the most photographed pieces of “art” to exist amongst the gallery space. There is a sense in which the Switch House has been built to be photographed.  And if you don”t bring your camera, you”re missing out.