Thursday, January 22, 2009

Speak of the Devil: And Dick Cheney appears

Take that, Dick!  Ooh, he's feeling the hurt now.  I would prefer if he went to jail for war crimes though...

Links:  Check out this awesome gallery of Polish movie posters for American movies.  There's some really cool artwork there.

Derek Kirk Kim's righteous anger about the casting of white actors in Asian roles in the upcoming, M. Night Shyamalan-directed movie adaptation of Avatar the Last Airbender makes for a good read, and an issue to get behind.

And here's a new blog to add to the feed reader: The Tearoom of Despair.

Speak of the Devil
By Gilbert Hernandez

Whoa.  That's the (well, one) proper response to Gilbert Hernandez's latest entry in his series of "movies" starring his character Fritz (Chance in Hell was a previous example, and The Troublemakers is scheduled to come next), delivered with a full, Keanu Reeves-style air of incomprehension.  What Gilbert is going for here is nigh-inscrutable, in keeping with his current output that seems to be defined by its surreality.  But that doesn't make it any less entertaining; in fact, the book works perfectly well as it is intended to be, an exploitation movie full of sex and violence.  But if you want make yourself feel smart (or not so much, in my case), you can also spend a lot of mental energy searching for deeper meaning.  It's a win-win.

The story goes: what seems to be a typical suburban neighborhood is being plagued by a peeping Tom.  Teenage gymnast Val's parents (or rather, her dad and his younger wife Linda) are worried, but what they don't know is that Val is the peeper, spending her nights prowling around the neighborhood in a goofy devil mask and black sweat suit.  This seems to set up a story of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and desire, as Linda seems to become sexually obsessed with the idea of being watched, and Val starts to pursue a friend named Paul, who might or might not be gay.  But he rebuffs her advances, seeming more interested in Linda.  But when he discovers she's the peeping Tom, everything changes.  And they get complicated even further when he decides to go out peeping himself.

And then the story takes a jarring turn, seeing a sudden display of gory violence and a complete shift in direction, as characters leave their lives behind in order to set out on a journey of random murder and near-constant sex.  It's enough to induce whiplash in the reader, but it somehow seems to work for the characters, maybe due to their disaffected nature.  And then it all comes to an apocalyptic conclusion.  Or does it? (Yes, it does.  But that sort of question is obligatory in stories like this, at least for me).

It makes for a roller-coaster ride, but the question is, what does it all mean?  One interpretation might be the emotional violence of growing up, rendered as luridly as possible.  After Val disappears, we see frequent scenes of her father worrying about her, but unable to do anything.  What better metaphor is there for children "leaving the nest"?  And while Val's actions are extreme, they do seem to be at least somewhat meant to be a reaction to things like her parents' divorce or her father's pushing her to make it to the state gymnastics finals.

Other characters seem a bit harder to read, although Linda's exhibitionism might be connected to her desire to relate to the youth that she lost when she became a married woman.  And Paul has a similar issue with his parents, especially his verbally abusive father, but he also seems motivated by peer pressure.  All common concerns of youth, right?  And when real life intrudes, why not respond with a violent rampage, showing the world your distaste for the adult responsibilities forced upon you?  Well, besides the obvious reasons of morality and whatnot.

Of course, I could be completely off base here; maybe it's just a series of images meant to provoke and/or make people come up with ridiculous interpretations.  But Gilbert makes some interesting choices that don't seem to point in as exploitative a direction as he could have.  For instance, even though there is plenty of sex, there is no actual nudity in the book.  That is, nothing that wouldn't make it into a PG-13 movie; nipples are always covered by clothes or strategically-placed limbs:

And whle the violence is prevalent, it's not as lurid as it could have been; gouged-out eyes and stab wounds appear as black splotches of ink, rather than the ragged, meaty gashes that you might see in a comic illustrated by, say, Steve Dillon:

Overall, I really can't say what exactly it's all supposed to be about, but it makes for an indelible experience.  Gilbert is such a professional, he can take a weird, freaky story like this one and pull readers along, not allowing them to stop and catch their breath.  And everything fits the mood, from the looming clouds that give even cheery-seeming scenes an air of gloom and menace to repeated visual motifs, like profile views of characters as the stare dispassionately at the awful scenes that surround them.  Few creators could pull something like this off and not completely turn off readers, but Gilbert makes it look easy.  It shows why he's one of the top cartoonists in his field.  Now, if only I could read one of his books without feeling like an idiot.


  1. a) I wouldn't worry too much about what the book "means." My own impression from talking to Hernandez is that he tends to follow his muse and not worry too much about the "themes" of his books, particularly a work like this.

    b) On the other hand, I wouldn't discount the theme of desire running throughout the work. Sex and desire have always been a driving force in his work. Here it seems to lead people to violent ends ...

    -- Chris Mautner

  2. Thanks, Chris. I've often thought that Gilbert's work (especially from the last decade or so) seems to come from his subconscious, as if he's just ("just") emptying the contents of his mind onto the page. It's neat to get a sort of confirmation of that notion.

    I don't think there's really a need to determine exactly what the book (or any comic, for that matter) is supposed to symbolize, but I find it an interesting exercise to explore my interpretation(s). But yeah, it's definitely not necessary to enjoy the story or anything.

  3. Speak of the Devil really felt like a cheap video nasty from the late seventies to me. Dull suburbia melting into violent anarchy, with lots of gory deaths and tantalizing sex scenes to hold the interest.

    It made me feel a bit sick a couple of times, and any comic that can get a physical reaction out of you has got to have something going for it.

    I was also completely lost a couple of times when reading in the monthly format, but it became much clearer as a finished story. I guess the confusion comes from the fact that you never see inside any of the character's heads, and it can be often difficult to figure out exactly what they're thinking. The events themselves are obvious, but the motivations are obscure.

    Of course, since this is meant to be a film that has been made in Beto's wider universe, the lack of any internal monologue is only to be expected, and the reader has to come to their own conclusions about the motives of the main characters.

    This is still a good thing, especially with a creator as skilled and experienced as this author.

    Thanks for the mention of the blog, Matthew. And for the link to the Polish posters. There is some nightmare fuel in that lot....