LOVE AND ROCKTOBER | Comics Time: Speak of the Devil

PhotobucketSpeak of the Devil
Gilbert Hernandez, writer/artist
Dark Horse, October 2008
128 pages, hardcover
$19.95
Buy it from Amazon.com

(Note #1: Okay, so what is a Dark Horse book doing in the middle of my Love and Rockets review-a-thon? All of Gilbert’s Palomar-verse material is published by Fantagraphics, right? Well, more or less. But Speak of the Devil is definitely the title of one of Fritz’s B-movies — it gets mentioned as such in the main storyline, and you can see a poster for it in the lower left-hand corner of the endpages for the “official” B-movie graphic novels Chance in Hell and The Troublemakers. Moreover, the brief plot description we get in one of Fritz’s strips matches the plot here, so it’s not just a question of sharing a title. However, Fritz herself is nowhere to be found in the book (though it’s clear enough which role she’d be playing were she in it), and there’s no indication in the indicia or title page or wherever that this is part of the “Fritz-verse.” But how’s this for an explanation: Beto says that the Speak of the Devil graphic novel is adapted from the “true story” that “inspired” the (entirely fictional, need I remind you!) Speak of the Devil movie that starred Fritz. To me that’s enough of a connection to Love and Rockets to merit inclusion in LOVE AND ROCKTOBER, as opposed to stuff like Grip or Yeah! or Sloth or whatever.)

(Note #2: I originally posted this review on January 14, 2009. I gave the book a mixed review. I stand by at least part of the thrust (no pun intended — you’ll see) of my argument, but I’ve changed my mind about the most important thing.

“I understand that we’re not in the ‘real world’ of something like the Palomar material but in the heightened reality of the ‘Fritz-verse’ of b-movies Beto is slowly converting to graphic novel form,” I wrote, “but I still feel like the work requires psychological integrity if not psychological realism, and I don’t see how guileless serial murder flows from what we’ve seen in these characters up until that point.” You’d think I might double down on this point now that I know the book is the “real” story the b-movie was based on. But having read so much Gilbert in so short a period of time, I suddenly understand exactly how a trio of slightly kinky, slightly alienated characters become brutal murderers: To Gilbert, brutality is everywhere. Normalcy is more or less a mask. Compare these quotes, the first from Speak of the Devil, the second from Chance in Hell:

“What kind of person would do that to a kid? What kind of God would allow it? And I knew that baby wasn’t the first or the last. How many babies is this happening to as we speak?”

“Even if you do get him convicted, he’s only one babykiller. There’s thousands out there that’ll never get caught. Millions before him and millions after him.”

The long and the short of it is that the rape and murder of children has become of central importance to Gilbert’s work and worldview. I am communing with very dark material here. It has literally been keeping me up at night.)

Hmmm, you know what? Not quite sure what to make of this one. It’s Gilbert Hernandez, so it’s beautiful, in this case almost freakishly so. The image of the moon and clouds in the night sky in the first couple of panels is enormously evocative and engrossing–as cliche as it sounds, you really are instantly transported into the world of this comic. The book’s glossy paper takes Beto’s blacks to a new level of shiny, greasy oiliness. They almost look wet. He can lay out a page like nobody’s business and has the same knack for doing the unexpected but just-right with his panels that John Bonham had with his drums, from a dialogue sequence where word balloons always accompany a shot of the person who isn’t talking to a view of a make-out session that features a positioning of the two involved parties I’d never seen depicted before yet instantly recognized.

The story isn’t quite so smoothly done. I buy the character work in the beginning–I understand why each of these people is making these unusual choices. I was almost thrown by the first outbreak of violence, but then it turns out to be something different and less grievous than I thought it was, so I was back on board with what I thought was a really astute take on troubled teenagedom. I could even go along for the ride when the killing started because of the people with whom it started. I watched Snapped, I know these things happen. But as things get progressively worse, I never quite bought the ease with which our protagonists become a Mickey and Mallory menage a trois, particularly the stepmother, who seemed basically happy with her life if a little kinkier than she felt comfortable letting on with her husband. I understand that we’re not in the “real world” of something like the Palomar material but in the heightened reality of the “Fritz-verse” of b-movies Beto is slowly converting to graphic novel form, but I still feel like the work requires psychological integrity if not psychological realism, and I don’t see how guileless serial murder flows from what we’ve seen in these characters up until that point.

And there’s also this weird disconnect between the astonishingly graphic violence–seriously, this thing is brutal–and the strangely prudish sexual material. Which, I’m sorry, erotic thrillers should have nudity, particularly erotic thrillers from Gilbert freaking Hernandez, the most refreshingly no-holds-barred tackler of sexual material in alternative comics. Am I saying that I want to see the sexy female characters naked? Well, yeah, that’s partially what I’m saying, same as how I wanted to see Superman actually punch people in Superman Returns–it’s sort of the point. And while we’re at it, this isn’t Hollywood, we don’t have the MPAA breathing down our necks, we can show dick, too, as Beto has countless times in the past. To do a Brian DePalma story about peeping toms with several sex and masturbation scenes and not show any nudity at all…it’s just weird, it left me wondering why that decision was made and distracted when the over-the-top violence kicked off, like, “this is okay but nipples aren’t?”. At first I assumed it was because this was originally a serialized Dark Horse comic, but Dark Horse also published Sin City and Hard Boiled, both of them insanely violent comics with a decent amount of nipplage. I dunno, it’s odd, don’t you think? I have a feeling I’ll be returning to this comic anyway, because like its sister book Chance in Hell it’s magnetic and extremely revealing in terms of how much of its author it puts on display, but it doesn’t quite all click for me the way thematically (and even visually) similar works like Black Hole click.

One Response to LOVE AND ROCKTOBER | Comics Time: Speak of the Devil

  1. Hey Sean,

    This is coming purely from your review (and I appreciate the turducken-style assemblage of it), as I haven’t read this one of Gilbert’s, but do you think maybe he’s playing with the reader in a way? That is, is he trying to make any kind of statement (about American social mores, real B movies, whatever) by withholding the sex and upping the violence?