Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















December 23, 2011


CR Holiday Interview #5 -- Ethan Rilly

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imageI knew going into this year's Holiday Interview Series that I wanted to talk to at least one younger art-comics cartoonist. Of all the choices out there -- and there are happily any number of young, interesting comics-makers to choose from -- I decided to ask Ethan Rilly because of all the folks in that category that intrigue me, I know the least about him.

Rilly showed up on my radar like he did for many people, with a comic-book issue of Pope Hats #1 that apparently grew phoenix-like out of a previous mini-comic that also had many folks excited. Rilly has a commercial illustrator's craft chops and a sense of comics storytelling that feels restrained, studied and elegant. A Pope Hats image in an advertisement on this site set one prominent comics person on a mini-Twitter quest to find out who Rilly was. His publisher described him to me as "trustworthy." Rilly also seems to have some comprehension of the art-comic as an object: the slightly absurd title that can't be anything other than a comic book title, the one-man anthology forma of the individual issues, the kinds of stories being told... I was happy Rilly agreed to talk to me in this, the year AdHouse Books published his Pope Hats #2. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Ethan, you're kind of mystery to a lot of us. Can you walk me through your relationship to art and comics that got you to the point where we saw that first Pope Hats mini? Were you a comics reader? Were there comics that made an impression on you that linger to this day? What made you finally decide to start making them?

ETHAN RILLY: I definitely was a comics reader as a kid. A friend introduced me to Marvel Comics when I was about 10. I gravitated toward the X-Men titles. This was right before Image Comics started, and I followed all that stuff because Jim Lee was my hero at the time. So that's what I grew up with. Much earlier there was Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes in the weekend newspaper.

My comic book memory is spotty because I had at least a couple phases as a teenager where I vowed to quit buying comics forever. I can't remember why. Obviously, there was a lot of amazing stuff out there that I was unaware of. I was lucky enough to read Love & Rockets early on, because the public library had it. I'm the same age as Love & Rockets.

SPURGEON: Okay... huh.

RILLY: Comics as a medium really clicked for me when I moved to Montreal for school in 2000. I started to notice all those moody Drawn & Quarterly comics. Dirty Plotte and Optic Nerve and Chester Brown's work. It was such a relief to discover all that. And Jimmy Corrigan came out around that time. I read that book instead of studying for an exam, very late one night. It was so moving.

I originally started making comics as a temporary escape from the bubble of being a university student. I made strips for the campus paper because they would publish anything under the sun. It was actually the ideal publishing experience. I would draw a strip, slip a photocopy under the door of the editorial office and just walk away. Within days it would be all over campus. And I eventually collected those strips for the early years of Expozine, Montreal's small press fair. Montreal has always had this vibrant DIY culture. The whole attitude is, "Just make the thing, don't worry about anything else." That has always appealed to me.

Years later, on a whim, I applied for a Xeric Grant for the Pope Hats mini-comic I was working on and was completely surprised to get it. It forced me to release something in a semi-official capacity. It was a great boost, but also a strange experience. I guess that was a turning point.

imageSPURGEON: Was getting into a relationship with a publisher something that was even on your mind when you were distributing that first mini-comic?

RILLY: Definitely no, if you're talking about the photocopied version.

SPURGEON: I was.

RILLY: I only made enough copies for friends and for the Toronto store, the Beguiling. But also no to the final version of Pope Hats #1. I didn't have the confidence to seriously think about publishers then -- I was mostly just absorbed by my day job. My entrance into the world of comics has been a total comedy of errors.

SPURGEON: What appealed about working with Chris Pitzer on the new one? What does he do that you can't -- or choose not to -- do yourself? Do you use him as an editor, as a designer...?

RILLY: Chris is such a supportive and hardworking guy. We met at TCAF right after I had the first issue printed and he offered to help me out with distribution. It lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. The Diamond order minimums policy was fresh at the time and there was all this doomsday talk. Being able to bench off Chris' Diamond relationship was reassuring.

I'm always amazed to see Chris work as a publisher. He's smart and pragmatic, and entirely focused on solutions. He's decisive and moves quickly. I totally lack all those great qualities. And as a designer he appreciates the importance of details.

Chris was very generous with me during Pope Hats #2. He gave me a wide berth and focused on the publishing element, on making it available to the public. He didn't ask for any editorial changes. I'm a bit obsessive with my comics, so I like to design the entire package, even when I have no idea what I'm doing. Chris handled all the logistical business details that no one ever gets any credit for. That Chris agreed to publish Pope Hats #2 at all, as a finicky comic book, is a really big thing to me.

SPURGEON: The current comics culture loves a new face, and certainly the AdHouse-distributed issue of Pope Hats #1 got a lot of that specific kind of focused attention. How did you process so many people saying nice things about your work at that time? Was that a good experience? Did it help in terms of wishing to continue to work on comics?

RILLY: I think you're greatly exaggerating the response. [Spurgeon laughs] I remember reading a couple negative reviews and totally agreeing with them because they were well written.

I was never crazy about the first issue. Bear in mind, most of that book was intended for no one at all. I was the intended audience. Probably the main reason why I applied for a Xeric Grant in the first place was because of its rich history. Knowing there was this common ground between Adrian Tomine and David Choe and Tom Hart and all those guys who got the grant. It was just my dumb vanity. But I also really liked the idea of it -- the fact that this foundation was financed by the Ninja Turtles franchise. It's goofy but significant. There aren't a lot of people who would actively give back the way Peter Laird and his volunteers have, for so many years.

Anyway, I am really happy whenever I hear that someone likes my comics.

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SPURGEON: I have a hard time tracking influences with you, which I think is to your benefit. With someone your age, where things have exploded in terms of what's available, I don't know for example if you're influenced by someone like Seth, or by the same people he was influenced by, or both, or if you're arriving to some of the same conclusions all on your own. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at your current style, if there were significant influences, and what you want to achieve through the visual tone of what you do?

RILLY: I really like how you presented this question. It's tough, because I don't spend time alone defining my influences. It's probably the usual suspects in alternative comics. Certainly Seth is in there. It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken and Chester Brown's I Never Liked You are books that I go back to. A lot of art outside comics probably seeps into my stuff.

I'm not a good comics historian; I'm not really aware who Seth's influences are. One figure I am curious about is Richard Taylor. He was this Toronto guy who went on to become a successful New Yorker artist, but I only became aware of him last month. He was an amazing visual artist. Still, I don't think there's any meaty personal work of his for me to find, so I might forget him soon.

I can't judge my own case, but your idea of "arriving at the same conclusions" seems like a really apt way to view things in general. Art is always a crazy mixture of influence and personal experimentation and cross-pollination. It feels like every cartoonist has to re-invent the grammar of comics from scratch. It's not like there's a law on how to draw multiple word bubbles in one panel, for instance. That would be dumb.

For my visuals, I just try to keep them accessible and in tune with everything else.

SPURGEON: You've talked about a failed graphic novel project between the two issues of Pope Hats. Why that project after #1? And what specifically wasn't working for you? What did you take away in terms of lessons learned that you applied to #2, beyond just getting more pages drawn and all that comes with that?

RILLY: I can't recall why I wanted to do a graphic novel then. I probably thought it's what people wanted. The market isn't exactly welcoming new alternative comic books. They don't make much financial sense. In any case, what happened was I started working on this graphic novel with a number of new self-imposed rules that I thought were sensible, and every one of them backfired.

imageOne really stupid take away lesson was I can't draw in perfectly square panels. A lot of artists do it well, like Chester Brown and Gabrielle Bell. And the underlying principle was to increase the capacity for editing the art. I wanted to try this format where all the panels have the same dimensions, so I could do future editing like in the filmmaking process. I wanted the ability to swap panels, add new panels, or switch out a whole scene even if it began halfway down the page.

What I discovered is I can't balance a composition inside a square panel. I don't know why, it just isn't natural for me. It took me dozens of finished pages to realize this. I tend to work better when I envision the page in its entirety, with varying panel sizes. Also, I discovered that editing finished art is a slippery slope. It's dangerous. Once you begin re-drawing and expanding and shuffling sections it's easy to lose sight of what's important.

That's only a couple examples. I'm glad I was misguided enough to make a great number of mistakes rather than just one. I learned more that way, I think.

SPURGEON: I guess that leads into a natural question -- and kind of one that's been bandied around a lot, so I apologize -- but is the comic book format specifically satisfying for you? In a sense, Pope Hats is a one-man anthology of the kind that was at its most popular 20 years ago, and the lack of fellow travelers on the stands really kind of sticks out. What do you like about publishing that way? Calling it "Pope Hats" would seem to indicate that you at least have some awareness and affection for comics like that -- because that just sounds like a comic book title.

RILLY: That's a totally fair question and I'm happy to answer it. Yeah, the comic book format absolutely works for me. I have real affection for it. I occasionally fear that people might think I'm trying to be forcefully "retro" or something, which would be obnoxious. The format alone is smart and flexible. There aren't rules for what goes on between the covers.

I really appreciate being able to see artists grow through their work and switch gears over time. The single-artist comic book is a window into that author as a person. It has a weird weight.

Also, some of my favorite work in the recent past has been in the comic book format. Sammy Harkham's Crickets and Michael DeForge's Lose, to name a couple.

Graphic novels are great, too, though.

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SPURGEON: Is the short story "Laughter" something that survived the aborted project?

RILLY: No, that page was conceived for Pope Hats #2. I actually had to do that page twice because I screwed up the drawing and inking the first time around.

The sole thing that carried over from the aborted project to Pope Hats #2 was the ceiling fan on the inside cover. I liked it too much, apparently.

SPURGEON: [laughs] What interests you most about the core relationship between your two leads? Because I think that's at the heart of what you've done -- more than their gender, more than the vocational aspects, more than the whimsical parts. Is this a kind of relationship you've observed that's intrigued you? Is it placing onto two character a dichotomy you've thought through in terms of a single person or even yourself?

RILLY: Well, friendships can be complex. Sharing a sense of humour and point of view, depending on one another, feeling strongly about what the other person should or shouldn't do at certain times. I don't know, I'm just trying to capture it, a portion of it. I'm drawing both from dynamics I've observed and experienced.

imageSPURGEON: When I've talked to a few people about the latest comic, all of them mentioned how well-observed the law firm stuff is, at least the feel of it. What specifically interests you about that setting? Because you convey that wonderful sense of accomplishment, but also the bewilderment of being in those workplace situation, and it also seems you have a nice sense that young people have in a job like that of wanting to improve and move on in their jobs but also seeing these examples in front of them that are not exactly welcoming, these exhausted lawyers, or former assistants.

RILLY: Thanks. I sort of wish you weren't so observant. I'm still working on this story and it looks like we'll have nothing to talk about in the future.

The corporate law firm is a really unique environment. I hope you'll let me refrain from spelling out exactly what interests me about it right now... Sorry to be dodgy. It'll probably become clearer as this thing progresses.

imageSPURGEON: Can you talk about the design on Castonguay? Because in a sense it was really striking; it looked like something Drew Weing or Michael DeForge might use in a more fantastic tale -- and it reminds one of Daddy Warbucks. How much do you work with character design before bringing one into your work? How much of the fanciful elements reflect the way the characters are perceiving something?

RILLY: I haven't read Little Orphan Annie yet, so I wasn't thinking about Daddy Warbucks. I need to set aside some time for Harold Gray; I've been kind of putting that off. I originally planned to model Castonguay after a famous Canadian figure who was quite slim. But the design changed over some sketching. I was just aiming for a general feel, anyway.

I rarely do much if any character design, which can get problematic. Often when drawing I have to refer back to the first panel that a character appeared in just to remember what they look like.

Your question about the fanciful elements reflecting the way characters perceive... no comment. You're an interesting reader.

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SPURGEON: One thing I thought was very well done in this latest issue is the way you took care of sequences of dialogue. How do you break a sequence like that down in the creation of it, say the scene between Frances and Vickie talking, what becomes important to you about the scene entire and what gets conveyed? Are you merely trying to keep up the reader's visual interest in the scene, or is there something to the framing of it that you want to convey to the reader?

RILLY: Sometimes it's haphazard, but usually the characters are staged and framed in such a way to help communicate the scene. Or that's the idea. The way Vickie moves around in that kitchen where Frances is working -- all that movement is important to me... I don't know if it conveys anything worthwhile, though. I have no distance from the comic to be able to read it.

When I'm drawing a page there's mostly this persistent feeling of dread --of trying very hard to not screw up the important information. Because it's so easy for everything to go off the rails. Readers seem really forgiving, though.

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SPURGEON: "Gould Speaks" is very pared down in terms of the effects employed -- it seems almost as much about the main narrative technique as it is about the content of what's being conveyed. Why include that short story here as opposed to using it someplace else?

RILLY: I wanted to include some breathing room that would be different from the first story. "Gould Speaks" is basically one confined environment, for many pages, and with a much narrower time span. I really love all this about comics. That you can modulate all these key aspects.

SPURGEON: What did you find intriguing enough about that kind of character, always watching himself, enough to do a story about one?

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RILLY: More than the character, I think the environment or the situation of the bus was the thing I hoped to depict. That's probably the main character of the story. This space where time passes and nothing changes, except the outside surroundings. Whether it deserves a whole story? I have no idea. I sometimes find it hard to justify these things I find interesting even to myself.

SPURGEON: Is there any tension when dealing with a story that is observed from real life that applying the conventions of story to it works at odds with any kind of naturalism you're hoping to convey? Because that seems a tension in your work, these fanciful flourishes placed up against very emotionally and tonally realistic moments.

RILLY: Maybe there is some tension. That would be a good thing.

SPURGEON: How much are you interested in crafting a narrative and bringing to the forefront certain effects as opposed to just documenting certain emotional states and situations?

RILLY: I'm definitely interested in all those things, and for whatever reason, I don't view them as being too much in opposition. The comics that I do are categorically fiction, and that sets certain limits. But you can play with those limits. There's a lot of room for realism and so many other things.

At the end of the day, I'm just trying to weave a bunch of stuff that interests me into a conventional fictional story. And I have this delusion that it might actually entertain some people.

SPURGEON: I've asked this a few times of a few people, so it must be on my mind. But how ambitious are you? Will we see more issues, eventual collections? Is there a plan for five years down the road, or even hopes?

RILLY: I'm working on a third issue. After that there will be a fourth. My focus for the next while is this longer story with Frances and Vickie. Main ambition is just to have more time and space to make more comics.

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* Ethan Rilly
* Pope Hats #1
* Pope Hats #2

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* panel from Pope Hats #2
* photo of Ethan Rilly from BCGF 2011
* cover to the comic book version of Pope Hats #1
* panel from "Gould Speaks"
* panel from "Smokey's Journey," which we never discuss at all
* sequence from "Laughter"
* law firm interactions
* Castonguay
* a dialogue sequence
* two from "Gould Speaks"
* an illustration pulled of Rilly's site (below)

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