Local comic Brett Hamil has done a bit of everything in comedy — ruthlessly roasting Jenny Durkan online, ruthlessly roasting Jenny Durkan in print, telling jokes on stages as both himself and as his rad-dad character Burl Dirkman, volunteering for Real Change’s Vendor Week, and drawing cool cartoons for the South Seattle Emerald.
Now, he’s really gone and done something else. That something: a graphic novel titled “Sk8 Dad Summer.”
The book documents the spiritual journey involved with building a miniramp — a small halfpipe for skateboarding on — in his Mount Baker backyard. At face value, this doesn’t sound groundbreaking; building a miniramp is a fairly common dream for adult skateboarders, and many realize it. But the book ends up being about a lot more than the ramp. Subtitled “Ramps, Rebellion, and Raising a Kid,” it is as much a book about parenting as it’s a book about skateboarding. It’s also the first book I’ve encountered that deals with the intersection of those two things.
It opens with Hamil sitting in his empty backyard, daydreaming about his early experiences with skateboarding and how formative they were. As a kid, he built a ramp with some buddies in the woods using lumber stolen from construction sites, which they skated obsessively for an entire teenaged summer. Later, they found it destroyed by vandals who had torn it in half and built a fire in the middle. Why someone would destroy their fun just for fun is something he still can’t figure out.
He also got kicked out of a lot of parking lots by a lot of cops, which laid the foundation for his current worldview. Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, is another one of his favorite comedic targets.
The ramp is painted in green-screen neon, and he has filmed himself doing a bigspin over Solan’s face. Besides instilling him with an anti-authoritarian streak, he credits skateboarding with his eventual choice to pursue comedy, which also requires you to be comfortable with near constant failure.
It’s hard to say that the book has a neat narrative, but he moves on from his trip down memory lane to adult life: getting a day job, still doing comedy on the side, being a dad and trying to maintain his connection to skateboarding. After hauling in a good take from a bad gig — doing comedy for bored rich people in the suburbs — he decides he’s earned himself the right to build the ramp he’s been dreaming of.
The ramp comes together quickly, and just as quickly becomes a nexus of fun: For him, who skates like he’s 12 again. For his dogs, that get to mark it. For the neighborhood kids, who run up and down the ramp’s transitions, and their parents, who come over to chase the kids around on it with RC cars. And, of course, for his kid, whose imagination runs wild with the thing. His wife even comes around to it, impressed by his secret handy side.
But for Brett, that’s not what it’s all about.
“I wanted to get good at skating again,” he writes, before breaking down the maddening, frustrating and extremely rewarding process that is trying to learn a new trick. This is where Hamil pulls off perhaps his best trick, which is to not overdo it.
Certainly, learning a trick is amazing. It does take a lot of tenacity. It feels incredible when you finally do it. But a lot of skaters who have tried to write about their passion can’t do it without laying it on more than a little thick. Proselytizing even. To paraphrase Mark Gonzales, one of the best skateboarders to ever do it, it tends to take away the magic when you try to explain it. Especially, in my opinion, when you try too earnestly.
Sitting on his ramp after a session, sipping a LaCroix, Hamil explains that despite skateboarding nearly every day since he built the ramp, he’s got a little more of an outsider’s perspective than other skaters.
“I don’t get all the current references, and I don’t hang out with a lot of skaters. That actually probably helped me avoid that; I’m just one dude in his backyard versus somebody that is constantly in communion with the culture and stuff. That probably did allow me to strip it down to just what it means to me without hammering about what it means to everyone else,” he said.
There are lots of little vignettes in the book that seem like they’re about something, like he’s going to draw some sort of deeper meaning out of them, and then he just doesn’t. In an increasingly moral era for literature, where authors are often expected to lead their audiences along to a neat conclusion, Hamil instead opts to respect readers’ intelligence. Thus, instead of being the afterschool special it could have been, it’s just full of poignant moments, open-ended observations and wry little chuckles.
“I’m definitely sneaking in a lot of stuff about my worldview there, but I’m not trying to persuade anyone. I’m more trying to say, ‘This is my experience, you can probably get some meaning from it if you’re just a parent, or a just a skater who doesn’t have a kid. You can take from it what you want,’” he says. There’s certainly more to it than just skateboarding.
Woven through it is a wonderful relationship with his kid. Another unsavory trend in skateboarding, now that the subculture is old enough to have multigenerational skate families, is the “Coach Dad.” These are typically men in their mid-40s, which Hamil is, who aggressively push their hapless kids to pursue the clout or sponsorship that dad never had in his younger years.
While Hamil says he would absolutely love for his kid to skate someday, he’s not holding his breath. His only goal is to expose his son to it and see what happens.
“He could be a great skater because I let him know it was something he could do. He could never skate and that could be fine. It’s going to have to be fine,” he said.
As an aging skater who would absolutely like to be a dad someday, I’ve often wondered what I would do if my kid didn’t like the thing that has effectively defined my life. Would it be a massive disappointment? Hamil answers that question with a concise “no.”
“It’s never going to be like you thought it was going to be,” Hamil said. “Ever, ever, ever, ever. It’s going to always be something different. Throughout the book, there’s all these moments that could have been Hallmark moments. ‘Yay, daddy!’ But they’re actually like, I’m learning a trick and he’s like, ‘I want a snack!’ I’m cutting wood to build the ramp to show him that you can make things and be things and he’s like, ‘Daddy, the saw’s too loud!’ That’s what having a kid is like. They’re their own people.”
Overall, the book is a breath of fresh air in the midst of so much breathless skate literature. Unlike Hamil, I have remained intensely involved with skate culture for my entire adult life. I’ve worked in skate media and I have an embarrassing number of opinions about skateboarding. As a skater first and a writer second, I am especially cynical about people who think they can put into words what makes skateboarding special. I went in expecting Hamil’s book to be cutesy, especially given the fatherhood angle. Instead, I was gobsmacked by how well he captures our weird, idiosyncratic subculture.
In one of his Burl Dirkman bits, Dirkman extolls the virtues of star head screws, hundreds of which surely ended up in the ramp. “You’re not what the people expected, but you just might be what they need,” he said. I’d say the same of this book.
“Sk8 Dad Summer” is available now from Birdcage Bottom Books for $10. Hamil will be hosting a release party at Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery, April 9, 5–8 p.m.
Read more of the Mar. 30-Apr. 5, 2022 issue.