I’ve never seen a cartoonist so thoroughly dismantle–discredit–his own artistic preoccupations.
In High Soft Lisp, Gilbert traces the relationship history of Fritz Martinez, the ultimate sex goddess in a career full of them, and in so doing reveals that her every fetish outfit and sexual free-for-all is fruit from the poisoned tree. Lots of characters in this book enjoy the living shit out of Fritz’s sexuality, not least Fritz herself, but to a man and woman they’re revealed to be creepily predatory about it, embracing the worst in themselves and encouraging the worst in Fritz. And here’s the thing: What have we been doing over the hundreds of pages we’ve spent watching Fritz adorably and kinkily fuck her way through the post-Palomar cast of Beto’s comics? What has Beto been doing? What does that say about all of us?
That’s one way of looking at High Soft Lisp. Another way is to expand Beto’s list of targets to include his critics. “Ooh ooh, the criticth are going to dithapprove becauthe I’m naked again!” Fritz says at one point after drunkenly stripping after an apocalyptically awful confrontation with her lifelong misery’s author. “I’m too often naked in my filmth. Criticth write with the finger of God!” “Fuck them,” her girlfriend Pipo responds, and it’s clear this is as much an internal authorial conversation as it is one between two characters. But then! Pipo…ugh, just ugh. Just another victimizer, no matter how complicit Fritz is in her own victimization. Shouldn’t someone be expected to know better? Dammit, where is Gorgo when you need him? And then you realize Beto wonders if maybe the critics have a point.
Certain story developments in this book made me return to Human Diastrophism and Beyond Palomar to review certain characters’ backstories, and in so doing I discovered just how different Gilbert’s art has become–much less dense, much less rooted in three-dimensional space, much more prone to techniques akin to those he uses in his non-narrative work. At this point characters routinely break the fourth wall against vast white spaces, or do their dirty deeds isolated against a blank background as though they’re the only objects on earth. And yet it’s still a single, well-observed bit of portraiture that impressed and crushed me the most here: the shaky half-smile half-grimace of pain on Fritz’s face as her father tells her off once and for all. It’s the most intensely human moment in the whole book, at the moment when Fritz’s humanity receives perhaps the most vicious wound it possibly could. I care about this human being, still a human being underneath all the sex bomb trappings, even as author and audience and characters conspire to keep that trap shut.