Review: Pope Hats #6: Shapeshifter by Hartley Lin

AdHouse Books has been publishing Pope Hats for nearly a decade. The series has been critically lauded, and a new issue is often the cause for celebration. The last few years have been revelatory for the series and its creator. With the publication of Young Frances (a collection of issues #1-3 and #5 of Pope Hats), Canadian cartoonist Hartley Lin dropped his long-held pseudonym, Ethan Rilly. Less than a year and a half later, Lin has released the sixth issue of the series. Pope Hats #6: Shapeshifter is 32 pages of black and white comics, and is a clear contrast to previous issues. The cover is immediate proof of this change; Lin himself appears alongside a massive baby and ladybug. This contrast is a signal that, at least for this issue, everything has changed.

Pope Hats #6: Shapeshifter is therefore aptly named; it is Harley Lin discarding a pseudonym and revealing himself to the world, but it is also a waymarker by which to separate different phases of his life. Lin himself is shapeshifting, becoming something new from something old. The catalyst at the heart of this issue becomes visible relatively quickly – Lin is a new father, and the work presented in Pope Hats #6 is a reflection of that. Lin is processing the new experiences of fatherhood, with all of its worries and exhaustion. And, in doing so, Lin is becoming more open with his writing than he ever has, bringing more to the reader than ever.

Being the parent to a newborn is a uniquely challenging experience. There’s nothing like it that I’ve ever experienced, and it can take even the most easy going person and wring them like a sponge. There’s a strange neurosis and a crawling anxiety that accompanies almost every action you take. The numbness of sleep deprivation claws at your sanity. Any moment that isn’t consumed by this mental twilight is one to hold on to tightly, because not many memories escape the haze. 

You can see all of this in Pope Hats #6. It seems as though Lin is, in some small way, trying to capture these moments for posterity, and he brings all of his talents to bear in that monumental task. And trust me, it is monumental, in the sense that any productive time during this period in a child’s life is difficult. It’s difficult to even get through the day, let alone create something with the kind of beauty that Lin brings to his pages.

Unlike previous work, Lin uses a 2×2 grid throughout Pope Hats #6, perhaps more out of necessity than anything else. The structure of the comics in Pope Hats #6 seem like an admission, a “this is the work that could get done.” The moments he illustrates, like trying to soothe his fussy son using every trick he knows (and failing), will feel immediately familiar and tender to anyone with children. Those who have never had the privilege of childrearing will likely come away from this specific piece empty.

And perhaps it is because of this fragile, tenuous personal situation that Lin’s comics have become more poetic and more lyrical than before.  A series of interspersed one-pagers titled “Driving Through Vermont” are comics poetry at its best, beautiful and enduring. “Forget It,” a meditation on parenthood, touches on much of the concerns of this piece, but in a personal, specific way. Lin’s piece about his wife’s hair loss during pregnancy was likewise touching, a meditation on fear and love and the unknowns of life. And Lin’s cartooning is as precise and as gorgeous as ever, a testament to his skill and exacting eye. The book is a joy to look at. 

For the record, I realize that I am primed for this reading experience. Much of Pope Hats #6 addresses something that still feels fresh for me, and I get that while it’s a common experience, it isn’t universal. I’ve been through a lot of the things that Lin is expressing here. I understand, to a large extent, why these comics feel powerful to me. And I can see a person who thinks these comics don’t feel like anything. But, like they say, if you know, you know. 

Autobio comics aren’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Hartley Lin, but he shows an adeptness for the form. His previous short stories from Pope Hats #4 come to mind, since one of Lin’s strengths is knowing the precise amount of detail it requires to convey a particular moment or human emotion without strangling it to death. These comics are a further distillation of that tendency.

What Hartley Lin brings to the table having shapeshifted into a new kind of person is worth considering. What does the future of Pope Hats look like now that Lin has a family? It’s not clear whether Pope Hats #6 is a new era or a moment of respite between decade-long sagas. I for one am excited to read more of Lin’s fiction. But frankly, it doesn’t matter what kind of comics Lin makes over the next few years. What matters is what is in front of us now, and Lin’s latest work is a revelation. Pope Hats #6 is everything I could ask for, a book that brings Lin’s beautiful cartooning into a place void of the detachment I’ve felt in his previous work. It marries the personal with a quietude that’s profound and far-reaching. And, while the work in Pope Hats #6 is clearly inward-focused, it is more honest and more assured than ever.


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