Talking Comics with Tim | <i>Pope Hats'</i> Ethan Rilly

It's not every month that we get to discuss a new issue of Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats, but here we are. This month, AdHouse is releasing Pope Hats 3 and giving readers a chance to enjoy the latest in the unique lives of law clerk Frances Scarland and her pal Vickie (among many other distinctively engaging characters).

In an interview with Robot 6, the Toronto-born/Montreal-based storyteller talks about his view on creating covers, the impact of winning a 2008 Xeric Grant, and his inclusion of the late, great Spalding Gray in his latest issue. As much as I enjoyed reading Issue 3, as a longtime fan of Gray's writing, I was apoplectic when I found Rilly had worked him into a strip in the latest Pope Hats installment.

Tim O'Shea: First off, a little historical perspective. Last year the Xeric Grants came to an end for comics. You won a Xeric Grant back in 2008. How instrumental was the grant to getting Pope Hats off the ground?

Ethan Rilly: It seems like 10 years ago ... Of course it was a great help. It covered printing and shipping costs for the first issue. I can’t say at that point I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the series as a whole, but the seeds were there, and the grant definitely helped get the ball rolling. It’s rare as a cartoonist to receive any financial support for this type of personal work, so I was fortunate. I sometimes do freelance illustration and I get a taste of things going in the other direction—bending your creative energies toward a pre-established need. Doing your own weird exploratory thing is always best.

Let's talk about cover design. I love that you devote half the cover to the series title alone. Also I found it curious that you designed different logos for issues 2 and 3 -- can you talk a little about your cover design philosophy (and the decision to change logos on issues 2 and 3)?

Thanks. As much as I like a good cover, I don’t think they’re too important on their own, so I don’t want to overstate anything. It’s kind of awful when you read a book with a really impressive and overworked cover but not much going on inside. It’s deceitful. In terms of design, I think it’s helpful to consider what relationship you want to create between the contents of the book and its surface, and then simply take it from there.

My main goal for the front cover of number 3 was for the artwork to be more distanced and detached, hence that street scene and those colors. ... It never occurred to me to maintain a fixed title design. That whole “branding” approach seems like a mismatch for me.

On your interior art, I find it curious how you periodically opt for a completely black background on your panels, creating at least one side effect of the characters popping off the panel. What factors do you weigh when deciding how to approach the backgrounds?

Yeah, I guess I don’t mind knocking out scenery with all black or all white backgrounds occasionally. … Sometimes it’s about emphasizing an intimate situation. I try to be conscious of where I want to concentrate the reader’s attention as a story moves along. I’m not sure that I have any captivating theory on backgrounds. I tend to draw places where I used to live, exhaustively.

How challenging was it to get clearance from Spalding Gray's estate to adapt portions of 1999's Morning, Noon and Night for the two pages of Issue 3?

It wasn’t too bad. I tried to make it clear where my interests were — it’s not like some greedy appropriation project. Those strips are so brief. I was mostly concerned with the personal nature of the content.

I had the initial inkling to do those strips years ago, but I let it sit. And when I was working on the main story in this issue, I got the feeling that this would be the right time and space. It’s good to be patient and not force things into existence.

Not every comics letters page features letters from Jeffrey Brown, Adrian Tomine, Seth and Tonzci Zonjic. Does unanimous support from such a range of talented storytellers serve to bolster your creative drive or intimidate the hell out of you?

Oh, I don’t know. … I was hesitant to put that out there, because I’m usually very uncomfortable with praise. I generally just assume other cartoonists will despise my comics. It’s humbling and surreal whenever I do get feedback from artists I admire.

I don’t show my comics to anyone before they’re published, except for a swift proofread with a friend who isn’t involved in comics, so I always value the odd e-mail or letter where someone shares their personal thoughts about my stuff. It’s a welcome trip outside my bubble.

There's a cinematic vibe to your comics I think, would you agree or disagree?

I guess I’d agree. I think Annie Koyama once said something like that to me, but then her background is film production. I like movies as much as anyone else. The basic notion of montage is intrinsic to both fields — manufacturing an impression of reality and movement from pieces. Also, for some reason I’m not as offended by mediocre movies as much as I am by shitty art in other realms. Maybe it’s a context thing. A bad movie is usually framed as low art anyway.

I’m also interested in photography, which probably funnels into my comics. In photography, it’s always about what to leave in and what to leave out.

Issue 2 was released in 2011, this year we get Issue 3. How long does it usually take you to create an issue — and do you think word of mouth is strong enough that your audience has grown to expect a release once a year?

It takes me an enormous amount of time to make these comics. I don’t really know how to field the question about audience expectation. I don’t worry about it. I figure the right audience will always naturally find my work. I think I get a somewhat varied crowd, which is nice. Last month a woman came up to me at SPX and described how a good friend of hers, who is a managing partner at a law firm, felt about my last issue. It was so interesting.

Do you care about awards — how did you react to winning the Doug Wright Award and being nominated for the Ignatz?

Oh, jeez … I’m really grateful for any attention. But if you’re a creative person, I think it’s best to not worry about that stuff. Worry about your work. Treat everything else as a bonus.

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