by BK Munn
If you’ve picked up the latest issue of award-winning culture and politics magazine The Walrus, you may have noticed a new comic strip feature about the love lives of Parliament Hill staffers called “Party Lines.” A sort of Adam’s Rib for the millennial set, this tale of political strange bedfellows has a few charms to recommend it. Not the first politically-themed comics feature to appear in the very cartoonist-friendly magazine, what sets this new strip above its predecessors are the names of the creators involved, Jeet Heer and Ethan Rilly. Cartoonist Rilly is familiar to art comics fans for the laser-like wit and linework on display in his Pope Hats comic book series about young lawyers and bohemians on the make in the big city, and as such is an excellent choice to depict the talky, ironic interactions of 20-something politicos in Ottawa. Jeet Heer is also a familiar name, not as a writer of comics but as a writer about comics. For the last two decades, Heer has made his living as a journalist and academic writing seriously about comics and comics creators, past and present (his two most recent books are In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, and The Superhero Reader), but until now he has never seemed overly eager to cross the line from critic to creator.
Thus, his new venture has us brimming with questions. How did this gig come about? Why did Heer wait so long to make his debut as a comics writer? How did he luck out and land Ethan Rilly as his partner and what is the strange nature of their collaboration?
Sequential contacted the writer himself for some answers. Here’s Jeet:
“The Walrus wanted to do a monthly strip and asked me to advise them. I suggested a list of cartoonists including Ethan Rilly. During my consulting, I suggested the idea of doing a strip about Ottawa staffers as a way of dealing with politics from a fresh vantage point. Both Rilly & the Walrus then asked me to write the script.”
Ethan and I (and our editors at the Walrus) first brainstorm ideas. I write out a script but have a lot of back and forth with Ethan and the editors. While there is a full script, it’s very much written in collaboration. I don’t want to be the type of Alan Moore figure who micro-manages everything — the ideal is to have an organic integration of words and pictures.
I actually never had ambitions to make comics, and sort of fell into this, although I’m very happy to do it now. I suppose the good thing is that all the cartoonists I’ve criticized over the years can now take pot shots at me. The playing field has been leveled. (I’ll note that another comics critic, Douglas Wolk, is now also writing comics — in his case Judge Dredd. Maybe it’s a trend. I’ll wait for Dan Nadel, Gary Groth and Brad Mackay to do their comics).
The whole experience has been like a dream, perhaps even a Kafka-esque one. ‘One day Jeet Heer woke up and discovered he had turned into Harvey Pekar.’ That’s not so bad, although my nightmare is this: ‘One day Jeet Heer woke up and discovered he had turned into Stan Lee.'”
I’m sure the critics are sharpening their knives, although Jeet’s reputation as a considerate commentator and incessant booster of all things comics makes me wonder if he has anything to fear. The full-page strips, a sample of which you can see above, are scheduled to run in every issue of the magazine and will soon be online. It looks like there may also be a playful social media campaign in the works, with the two main characters Ashley Torrison and Sonia Sodhi already fitted out with Twitter handles.
The magazine is on shelves now and can also be read through digital subscription.