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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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