First there was Noah and his arc. Then there was Brett Hamil and his skate ramp.
Okay, yes, that compression of time and fiction is too radical, but the broad strokes are there. One is a Biblical dude compelled by God to save humanity with his wooden ship. The other is a contemporary Seattleite looking to get in touch with himself via a skate ramp he built in his backyard. Both are men answering a call.
In his debut graphic novel Sk8 Dad Summer: Ramps, Rebellion, and Raising a Kid, which gets a release party at Fantagraphics this Saturday, Hamil reflects on fatherhood, middle age, and skateboarding through his journey to build this ramp from the ground up. If you're not a father and have never thought about hopping on a skateboard, same; the book still resonated with me. Hamil's observational and insightful takes on how to shake off the sludge of everyday life and reshape yourself rings true regardless of how balanced you are on a board.
Sk8 Dad Summer is exceedingly more gentle than Hamil's standard stuff, like his acerbic stand-up comedy and political cartoons in the South Seattle Emerald. Over the phone, Hamil told me the book got its start as illustrated vignettes of his young son's early years, which he initially created for him to read when he gets older. And as the pandemic set in, Hamil reignited his love of skateboarding—like a lot of dudes during this socially-distant era—and eventually the project intertwined and grew into "the biggest thing I could write about how I ended up the way that I am."
The book eschews a linear plot, floating circuitously between Hamil's past and present self, taking readers from his young adulthood to his current life as a father of a toddler. He documents his time constructing and skating on the backyard ramp, weaving in anecdotes of time spent on the structure with his son and reflections on his growth as a skater.
Throughout, Hamil frames skateboarding as a centering practice, one where improvements only come when you allow yourself to do dangerous things. Landing a new trick relies on "recalibrating your internal gyroscope by blunt force doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature," he writes.
And with that striving toward a new trick comes a whole lot of pain. He graphically details the euphoric high of wiping out so hard he saw stars and the satisfying explosion of pus that shot out when he removed a splinter. “You survived, you’re still okay,” he told me about pushing his limits. “You can put yourself in harm’s way or in imminent peril and you might get hurt, but you can still get up.”
Perhaps the most compelling idea in Sk8 Dad Summer is Hamil's concept of rebellion. While the panels in the book aren't as overtly political as his other work, he traces his dislike of the police to his run-ins with cops as a young skateboarder. And as he approaches middle age, he now has to deal with a different kind of cop—the disapproving glances and remarks made by the other adults in his life who find his ramp-building endeavor silly. "I've learned that people may begrudge you some liberties," he writes. "That's their problem, not yours."
In raising his son to be an abolitionist, Hamil told me it led him to think about rebellion differently. A lot of it involves talking with his kid about the George Floyd protests, but part of it is also respecting his son's autonomy. In the book, his son is an enthusiastic participant in his father's ramp-building scheme, even as he doesn't seem keen to skateboard himself. Kids are "never gonna do what you want them to," he writes with pride in the book. "They're always gonna do some different weirder thing." And Sk8 Dad Summer is a testament to that, to carving out new ways of engaging with the world around you and the ones you love.
Brett Hamil's Sk8 Dad Summer: Ramps, Rebellion, and Raising a Kid release party and book signing goes down this Saturday, April 9 from 5-8 pm at Fantagraphics. If you can't make it out, you can pre-order a copy here.