Every chance, taken.

*Best manga news out of San Diego? Yes, yes - I know Dark Horse teamed up with CLAMP to produce a simultaneous-release US/Japan/Korea thingy for 2009, which I’m sure will be simply delightful for the 37 abbreviated volumes it’ll run prior to the artists getting sick of it and doing something else. But really, there was even better news to surface -

Del Rey licenses Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues!!

I read some scanlations of this one, and it’s very good stuff. Kind of a fantasy spin on the life of bluesman Robert Johnson, with bizarre sights and run-ins with historical characters. Fascinating, well-observed take on distinctly American subject matter. It’s still being serialized in Kodansha’s Afternoon anthology, with three collected volumes released thus far. I suspect a fourth may be due soon, given that the most recent one was published in mid-2006. I also suspect Del Rey may be planning a slow rollout, given that there isn’t all that much material to release… but still, it’s licensed!

*Looks like I’m turning into a short review posting addict, because I put yet another batch up at the Savage Critics. But I have a very coherent plan! My Gilbert Hernandez review over there nicely complements what you’re about to read:

Chance in Hell

This is an original hardcover release from Fantagraphics, 120 b&w pages of story for $16.95. It should be out in two weeks or so.

It’s the second in an ongoing series of projects from writer/artist Gilbert Hernandez, ‘adapting’ to comics a bunch of the disreputable films his Love and Rockets character Fritz appeared in throughout her in-story career. So, it’s fiction-within-fiction, though no L&R knowledge is necessary. The first of these things actually appeared in comics stores this past Wednesday, as Dark Horse began a pamphlet-format serialization of Hernandez’s Speak of the Devil, which will ultimately wind up being just as long as the present book. Why these projects are being spread out over multiple publishers and formats is unknown to me; an additional 21 possible ‘films’ to adapt are suggested in poster form as soon as the Fantagraphics book is opened, so maybe Hernandez simply wants to keep multiple projects in front of readers.

One thing instantly noteworthy about Chance in Hell is that Hernandez does not illustrate the front portion of the dust jacket - that task is handed to Rick Altergott (of Doofus fame), who whips up a perfectly sleazy pulp novel painting which, fittingly, doesn’t quite synch with the book’s actual content. But that’s not the only bit of misdirection in store. You might go in to this book expecting exploitation thrills -- and you’ll get them, in a way -- but Hernandez is interested in bringing to comics not just grimy movies, but the sort of grimy movies that used their grime as leverage to explore bold filmmaking techniques. Make no mistake: this is an uncompromising Gilbert Hernandez work, stuffed with enigmatic flourishes and surreal story turns, and buzzing with the feel of a master storyteller nudging pressure points of the form.

Hardly any sequence in this book lasts for longer than three pages. We are sometimes granted audience to only fragments of conversations, which blend into successive fragments for emphatic or ironic effect. The book is divided into three unofficial chapters, each occurring in its own time period, set apart by establishing splash panels. Hernandez employs further establishing panels early in each chapter, to give us a loose grasp of the environment each chapter occurs in, but he quickly cuts us loose. Discreet locations snap back and forth without warning, sometimes mid-page. Attention must be paid.

We are aware of time passing in-chapter, though we never know quite how much - a conversation on panel three might lead directly to a later-that-day conversation in panel four, although it’s possible that panel four actually takes place weeks later, or weeks before. Though guiding us generally from point A to point B, Hernandez untethers us from strict chronology, forcing us to accept individual events as unique passages, rather than simple bits of progression toward the goal of chapter’s (and book’s) end. Elementary, I know.

But Hernandez’s story is well-suited to extract maximum power from this type of presentation. The book as a whole charts the life trajectory of a girl/woman called Empress. The first chapter covers her childhood in a horrible shantytown erected in a garbage dump. Every adult (or near-adult) male she meets she calls “My daddy,” while her real daddy is nowhere to be found. She meets a few nice people, but they're not always nice for long, and individual survival always has primacy. Urges too.

Young girls and boys are raped constantly, often by people who otherwise act as de facto family. Violence is common, ranging from deadly theft to the constant obliteration of a fence that surrounds a perpetually malfunctioning bit of equipment from the nearby city - items of sophistication can’t be hidden from the disenfranchised and feral, you see, just as a strange, well-kept man can't be made to keep out of the dump. There is no love lost between the dump and the city, but a particularly outrageous skirmish (featuring such exploitable elements as a man’s sexual equipment shot to pulp) results in young Empress being taken away to that very alleged haven of civilization.

The remaining two chapters chart Empress’ adolescence and adulthood in the city. As a moody young woman, she finds herself torn between her (unauthorized) adopted father, a philosophizing elitist and poetry editor, and a charismatic young pimp, whose ferocity is a barely-altered translation of the dump’s sex and violence to a ‘civilized’ setting. It is here where Hernandez’s whiplash transitions build to a frenzy of oppositions and associations between poles of behavior, the father and the pimp carrying the iconic charge of the city and the dump, order and chaos, while still remaining vivid characters. It’s no good vs. evil, however, as Empress’ daddy becomes intertwined with the primal urge for sexual satisfaction (Fritz ‘plays’ one of the prostitutes, for the record - one can easily imagine her scenes and the violent bits making up much of the movie’s trailer), just as the girl’s prior daddies also served as sexual exploiters.

A cruel confrontation ensues, a string of exclamation points at the end of a dancing, singing sentence. Just as in his story, Hernandez's approach to building his pages forces the delicate to interact with the blunt. On one page, sex workers bind Empress’ daddy and cover his weeping face with a mask. On the next, there are three wordless panels of he and Empress staring at fine art, then Empress moving to stare out a window. On the third page, the sex act (or maybe another sex act) is over, the mask and collar come off, and the man dresses, satisfied, speaking of being unable to distinguish good poetry from bad, but ready to try something new. Such a simple, effortless construct, but it’s very nearly breathtaking in its emotional and aesthetic impact.

The third chapter sees Empress married to an ambitious prosecutor, who’s in the middle of a big case involving a child murderer. Those opposing poles again, complete with the added kick of capital punishment as the ultimate in civilized violence, and the return of the first chapter’s ‘fence’ motif as protection from a literal bog of quicksand. As you might guess from that, Hernandez absolutely overloads the book with metaphors for its final movement, as the action leaps into outright hallucination, Empress interacting with her prior selves from earlier chapters, any notion of reality dissolving away, and settings drifting back toward the beginning. And I wouldn't dare spoil the final page, which is likely to leave readers scratching their heads or possibly flinging the book across the room, in the manner of Roger Corman's alleged fit upon reading the finale to the script for Monte Hellman's Cockfighter. That's life in pictures.

But let's not underestimate Hernandez's skill as an entertainer. This is a very approachable work, energetic enough to prompt horror and build suspense, even as it makes its demands of the reader. The drawings are as fine as ever, starting out chunky and black, with the backgrounds of the dump little more than blobs and gashes of ink. The city is a little finer, but not by much, as reflecting its place in Hernandez's pocket universe. Tiny, revealing moments abound, and the broader segments pulse with the beauty of good trash. I know I tend to get evangelical with Gilbert Hernandez, even his failures carrying so much interest for me, but he keeps feeding me ammo. This is a fine comic. Do not deprive yourself.