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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.