I first ran into Brett Hamil through his sour Warhead sharp political cartoons, showing Seattle centrist politicians as the fear-mongering bullies they are. Hamil’s work is armed with a sea of facts and research to back up each of his six-panel cartoons; it’s awe-inspiring in his ability to get to the heart of what’s wrong with any given public policy.
Like many of us, Hamil obsessively followed Simon Hanselmann’s daily Covid comics on Instagram. There was something cathartic about those little story segments that inspired hope for the future, even if it was a future of stoned witches, fucked up cats, and the unhinged uniqueness of Werewolf Jones. The format also struck a chord with Hamil, and Slight Return was born.
Slight Return is a massive departure from Hamil’s other work; beyond his political comics for the South Seattle Emerald, he also creates one-two panel comics for a parenting magazine, a first-person tragicomedy about a man named Burl, and created Sk8 Dad Summer, an autobio comic about building a skate ramp. Each of his previous comics contain an urgency congruent with Hamil’s background in stand-up comedy and journalism. Slight Return strikes an entirely different tone; it meanders, taking the space and time it needs to give the reader a complete sense of the world it inhabits. Slight Return reads more like a love letter than a list of demands.
The story centers around Everett “Kevin” Elkton, a burnt-out indie rock star who has returned home after his mother’s death. One of the main narrative differences with Slight Return, compared to Hamil’s other work, is that Kevin doesn’t lead the narrative in any real way. Hamil’s main characters have a strong voice in his political comics, and even in Burl’s Criary, we know what Burl loves, Makita power tools, and we hear about his tragedies directly from him. In Slight Return, Kevin seems to be letting life happen to him, and his voice is often dragged out through dialog. He seeks out old friends, a cast of people who stayed in suburban Florida, and their lives seem to take center stage. Set in a near future where we’re maybe 15% more apocalypse-y than our current reality, Kevin is fully immersed in nostalgia for the Florida he grew up in. We see him reading comics, listening to tapes, and, like in Hamil’s other comics, skateboarding. If this comic is a love letter, it’s a love letter steeped in nostalgia for a teenagehood spent in Florida.
We hear about Kevin’s friend Kimmy’s husband and kids, JC’s yard care business, and his field recording art project. Hamil strikes a perfect balance with the information given in each encounter; in the end, I care about everyone I meet, even if we only meet them once or twice. Hamil resists the urge to make the people who stayed in small-town Florida into bitter and shitty characters, instead letting a gentle pride in a life lived happily take over. Kevin, for his part, seems fulfilled by the love he feels for his friends and diverts any conversation about his time as an indie-rock darling who once played the Oscars back to their lives.
Throughout Slight Return, Kevin lets the plot happen to him. He goes along with the teenage girls that want him to play a show at a festival they helped organize, even though it’s clear that he doesn’t want to play music on a stage anymore. Kevin has given up agency in his life, and the story that unfolds around him is gentle and complex. The sharp parts are the moments when the direness of current society pokes through. Early in the book JC, a childhood bud of Kevin’s who helped look after his mom before she died, offers to hook Kevin up with his grocery guy. In the background are men in sunglasses with AK-47s, burned-out stores, and a bulletin board that acts as the primary method of communication now that phones no longer work.
In some ways, Slight Return is in a parallel universe to the Simon Hanselmann Instagram comic that eventually became Crisis Zone. They both occur during the pandemic, though Slight Return is probably a year or two further in its apocalypse scenario. In every way that Hanselmann brings drug-fueled hedonistic insanity to the lives of his characters Meg, Mogg, Owl, and WWJ, Hamil brings calmness and a grounded sense of identity to Kevin and his friends. Through opposite energies, both stories capture the chaos and small moments of the early pandemic. Knowing that Hamil is a fan of Crisis Zone and was inspired by the format makes Slight Return feel like a direct response to it. Slight Return is still a comic told in small moments, but it shows that humanity is mostly ok, though at the end of both books, it’s pretty clear that neither author has a lot of faith in the goodness of all people.
Unlike the story, Hamil’s art keeps it simple with a loose, sketchy style, though there are some surprisingly effective sex scenes. The comic opens with him in the middle of foreplay with Belinda, a girl he knew in high school who he’s finally sleeping with for the first time. This scene isn’t exactly sexy, but it captures that awkward dream-like quality of finally ending up with your crush twenty years after you thought you’d put that desire to rest.
Some part of me loves this story so deeply that I would love for it to be a 200-page graphic novel that took a team of illustrators years to complete, but Hamil’s drawings are charmingly effective. It’s easy to tell everyone apart and to get a feeling for the world Kevin lives in. There’s magic in how he captures the textures of Florida, and the uniform size of the panels grounds a sense of being stuck in time. The only time I feel a little cheated is during the tragic ending when I’d have loved to see that drawn out with more care and poignancy. Saying that the end is so solid that I won’t spoil it for you here, all I can say is prepare to be devastated.