Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comics Review: Speak of the Devil, Gilbert Hernandez

This is a slightly revised version of a review that was originally published, in somewhat abridged form, in The Comics Journal #298 (May 2009).

One can’t help but worry about Gilbert Hernandez these days. For over two decades he’s been one of the accomplished and dependable cartoonists working. But apart from a collaboration with his brother Mario, his contributions to the first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories were an embarrassment: a series of undeveloped, one-off strips best described as sketchbook fare. I rationalized my disappointment in an online review by convincing myself that he was coming off a full-length project with Speak of the Devil and needed to recharge his batteries. However, I hadn’t read Speak of the Devil at that time. I’ve since sat down with it, and my reaction is one of shock. It is, by far, the worst extended effort by Hernandez that I’ve read. If it weren’t for the fluid assurance of his cartooning, this inchoate mess of a story would have me wondering if he’s lost all sense of pride in his work.

The main character of Speak of the Devil is Val Castillo, a champion high-school gymnast. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her father and stepmother in suburbia. She’s also developed a strange compulsion. At night, she dons a devil’s mask and black clothing and heads out to peek in windows throughout her neighborhood. Her favorite is the window to her father and stepmother’s bedroom, where, at various times, she watches her stepmother masturbate, have sex with her father, and walk around half-naked while talking on the phone.

Hernandez never takes the reader inside Val’s pathology. The story doesn’t develop; it just gets more convoluted as it goes. Val’s stepmother, Linda, is turned on by the knowledge that a peeping tom is watching her. And Val’s boyfriend, Paul, abandons his hesitations about their relationship after he discovers that she and the peeping tom are the same person. As the story continues, Paul dresses up as the peeping tom in order to seduce Linda. Val quickly discovers the two of them have begun an affair, but once she gets past her initial jealousy, the three decide to become a team and head off, willy-nilly, on a gruesome murder spree. The latter scenes are an orgy of bloodletting that would make most splatter movies seem restrained, with stabbings, a beheading, throats being cut, and most often, eyes being gouged out. We also get a fight to the death between Val and her mother that mixes up knives and gymnastic kicks.

Hernandez kills off virtually the entire cast before he’s through, and he ends with a final “twist”: a gymnastics rival of Val’s is shown carrying the peeping-tom devil mask in her athletic bag. The cycle of perversion and death begins anew--in other words, the most hackneyed ending imaginable. It’s bewildering to boot. Hernandez doesn’t offer any real insight into what started Val down her path, so why should one care if this rival, whom the reader has been told next to nothing about, follows in her footsteps?

The book feels like Hernandez was making it up as he went, without any consideration as to whether what he shows makes any sense. When Val discovers that Paul and Linda are having an affair, she attacks him with a knife. All the stabs and cuts are underneath his clothes, but there’s enough blood loss for it to be splattered all over the room. Why isn’t an ambulance called once Val is subdued? One would think it imperative, as that much blood means at least a vein or artery was cut. Professional medical attention is going to be required to get the bleeding under control, including stitches. But Paul’s not much worse for wear; Linda just takes him into another room and bandages him up. Hernandez seems to want to have his cake and eat it too with the violence in this scene. He wants the sensationalistic charge that comes from showing a bloody knife attack, but he doesn’t want to inconvenience the story with the logical consequences of it. In real life, with even a fraction of the amount of blood shown, Paul would have been hurt badly enough to require hospitalization. There would be an inevitable police investigation, with Val all but certainly ending up in a psychiatric ward or the juvenile justice system. It’s also safe to say that Linda’s infidelity to Val’s father would become known. But if Hernandez had played out the aftermath of the attack realistically, he wouldn’t have much of a book left.

It almost goes without saying that Hernandez hasn’t researched his characters. Val is supposed to be a top high-school gymnast with a solid chance of winning the state championship. However, Hernandez clearly doesn’t know much about high-school athletics. He certainly has no idea what the life of a top competitor would be like. Val’s daily routine wouldn’t be as brutal as the kind endured by elite gymnasts like Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson, which makes Marine boot camp seem like a picnic, but she’s not going to have much in the way of leisure time. A typical day would be school and three to four hours of practice and training, with hopefully enough time to finish her homework before she has to go to bed. She’s also going to be on a fairly strict diet. Alcohol is a major no-no, as it can play serious games with one’s metabolism. But the practice sessions in the story are portrayed so offhandedly that they feel like last-period gym class during balance-beam week. Hernandez also doesn’t appear to find it the least bit peculiar when Val heads off with a group of boys to hang out and drink beer. (I was surprised they would even have her along. I was friends with a champion swimmer in high school, and everyone was conscientious of her training needs without having to be told.) Linda is a ditz, but no matter how dumb she is, it would be pointed out to her that she shouldn’t be constantly offering to fix Val something to eat. The life of a champion high-school gymnast would make big demands on Val and everyone around her, but Hernandez is oblivious to that and everything it implies.

These complaints may seem pedantic, but they point up the fact that Hernandez’s laziness cuts him off from opportunities to give the story some depth. Couldn’t there be a connection between Val’s compulsive and violent behavior and the pressure she’s under? Fellow students and school personnel invariably treat star athletes like celebrities, with almost everyone looking to vicariously enjoy their success. It’s not unusual for them to feel like they live under a glass for everyone to see. Might the voyeurism be a way for her to turn the tables on everyone? Everyone just does what they do, and she gets to be the audience for a change? Perhaps Val’s deteriorating sanity might be reflected in problems with grades or substandard performances in practice or competition? (A twisted ankle sidelines her at one point, but the cause is unknown. It doesn’t appear to be the result of her neglecting her training.) Val’s coach is barely a presence in her life, which is also strange. One would expect the two to have a significant relationship. For someone like Val in real life, her coach would almost be more important to her than her parents. What might we discover about Val from the coach and their interactions? Hernandez doesn’t dignify the role gymnastics plays in Val’s life, so I don’t know the answer to this or any of the other questions. He cuts off a major avenue of insight into her character. It raises the question of why he made her a gymnast in the first place. I suspect the answer is that he just wanted to draw muscular girls in athletic poses.

That sort of attitude might explain some other odd elements, such as why Linda is shown working as a Playboy-bunny-type server in a local nightclub. Val’s father is well off enough to afford a good-sized suburban house and go golfing on Sundays. If suburbanites are conscious of anything, it’s appearances. He’s not likely to be tolerant of his wife working in a place where part of her job is to be ogled, no matter how tight the household income. Her work outfit is also an anachronism. Clubs haven’t had their wait staff dress like that in decades. But hey, it’s fun to draw voluptuous women in one-piecers, complete with fishnets, faux tails and high heels, so why not?

Hernandez can’t even keep his mind on what he presents. At one point, Paul recounts a horrific discovery while helping his father clean up an abandoned house. It’s clearly intended as a metaphor, which one expects to lead to an epiphany about Paul or the other characters in the book’s second half. But the epiphany never comes. Hernandez seems to forget about it in the midst of the massacres. Speaking of which, the ineptitude of the police investigation into the murder spree is beyond belief. The killings have almost identical m.o.’s, but the investigating detective can sincerely say “We’ve no conclusive evidence that they’re all linked.” He even says Val is not a suspect. However, forensic specialists are nowhere to be seen, much less the FBI, which is generally called in to investigate serial killings. In the age of CSI, with all the attention given to the ubiquity and exactitude of modern forensic investigation work, how does Hernandez expect anyone to accept what he shows? Val can’t even bother to wipe for her fingerprints.

The skill of the cartooning belies the laziness, stupidity and lack of depth in the story. As one expects from Hernandez, the characters are visually distinctive, the action is clear, and the pacing never lags. He probably enjoyed drawing it, which could have been all that mattered to him. But for a reader, Speak of the Devil is a terrible disappointment. The release of the giant Palomar collection a few years back prompted claims to the effect that only Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, and Art Spiegelman ranked him among living U. S. cartoonists. His more recent efforts have one wondering if he is going the route of Bob Dylan, who responded to similar plaudits by foisting album after album of self-indulgent crap on the public. Dylan’s fans ultimately saw it as contempt, and they responded by turning their back on him. After a few more works like Speak of the Devil, one would expect Hernandez’s fans to do the same. I never thought I’d say this about him, but these days he’s just filling up pages and cranking it out.

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