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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis