Sauntering Through the Lands of Wonderful, Awful Dreams
(this review was first published in The Comics Journal #279; I've added boldface to titles of works to match the formatting of this site)
Comics art can be disarmingly pliable thing, especially so under the pen of a talent as adept as Gilbert Hernandez. Few contemporarily working artists can balance their visual approach quite so gingerly between high comedy and broiling melodrama, or divine the ominous undercurrent of pretty girls weeping chunky, iconic tears or handsome young men in long coats floating through the air. In art such as this, the stuff of popping romance and teenage fantasy is tinged with the genuine dread that realistically accompanies youth, without any of the stolid trundling of a heavily realist visual schema. Hernandez’s faces and reactions, his library of eminently familiar expressions and vivid squints and grimaces and yowls -- he imbues all of this familiar iconography with the punch that potent symbols can wield, an authenticity of emotion that facilitates their straightforward use in many contexts. You’ll look at his characters and feel as you’ve seen their every positioning, every curve of the line one hundred times before, and certainly multiple times in the same book, yet you’ll get so much that’s unexpected out of it on each onrushing flipped page.
It’s context, of course. The context of the page, and the context of the pages. The microcosmic page design and the flow of the storytelling sequence. In case you need my assurance, Hernandez is in keen control of each element.
There are several contexts, several environments for Hernandez’s index of postures and features to extract multiple tones from in Sloth. His pacing ambles steadily along, the entire affair occasionally feeling like a brisk series of one-sided conversations with his characters, few sequences more than a few pages long. Many of them seem connected, though Hernandez perches the total work (in the sense of plot) teetering on the line between explanation and obscurity, inviting both criticisms of telling us too much and merely throwing loosely related events around, hoping readers will concoct their own connections. I do see connections, and goodly depth, though the author’s storytelling doubtlessly allows for several different views of the story through which his characters walk (not run). Allow me to detail my own view of things, since individual viewpoints are so important to the comic itself.
Sloth is Hernandez’s new book, an original graphic novel from Vertigo, attractively packaged as a compact hardcover. Hernandez is eager to put its 128 pages to the sort of work that is undoubtedly best experienced outside the boundaries of serialization; I imagine that some of this book’s build would be confusing, perhaps a few of its narrative techniques rendered inchoate, had all of its pages not existed in permanent and close proximity to one another for maximum flipping and simple association. Images recur, and panels sometimes mirror one another; it’s best for everything to remain fresh in the memory for maximum zip. And besides, this isn’t the sort of book that’s particularly prone to reward a single, start-to-finish reading on even a surface level, though you can certainly get some enjoyment that way; Hernandez encourages wandering back and forth through pages, slowly circling around his curious tale and its manner of doubling back on itself, to fathom how one side of it informs the other and how his images and characters shift so smoothly from role to role while retaining an at-heart consistency.
If reality is easily altered, in other words, Hernandez’s art is the perfect means by which to view the shifts.
The story of Sloth follows the lives of three characters, Miguel, Lita, and Romeo, who live in a small town and inevitably chafe against its lack of stimulating activity. It will surprise nobody who’s encountered non-urban life as depicted in any form of art ever before that such a place is seething with dangerous feelings and simmering malaise, “boredom and existential low self-esteem” among the youth, in Miguel’s words. Hernandez bombards us on but the third page with images of kids and teens seeking violent escape through murder and suicide. Miguel apparently had a simpler plan: one day he went to sleep, and didn’t wake up for a year, leaving girlfriend Lita and goofball pal Romeo behind. Notably, we don’t see the world before he took his nap -- we must take his word for it that it was what it was.
And even after Miguel rises from his bed, he finds himself flummoxed by a strange mental incapacity that will not allow his physically fine body to move with any speed, his literal movements ironically even slower than the infuriatingly slow pace that small-town life provides. His narration guides us through his return to the waking world, a dried-out place of grandparents filling in for jailed and missing (perhaps murdered) biologicals, dull romantic angst amongst he and his aforementioned friends, and a strange lemon grove that’s home to all sorts of legends, like that of a goatman that can will others to take his place in haunting the area, should they ever encounter him.
Hernandez indulges in some outrageous, seemingly ham-fisted foreshadowing early in the book (oh, how could our young heroes not run into legendary trouble in the orchard?), but his technique is ultimately far more complex than he lets on. An early mention of a legend regarding a woman who rises from the water at the edge of town, damned for having killed her children to please a suitor, initially seems like obvious commentary on Miguel’s absent mother, who haunts his lemon-adorned dreams. Yet Hernandez later uses the image of a figure rising from water as a symbol of no less than emergence from one way of thinking to another -- following many an encounter with strange people and understandable betrayal, Miguel dreams of falling into white space, splashing into water, and rising up, his eye fixated on:
Lita, who has just woken up from a year-long coma, presumably in another world.
And thusly, a bit over halfway through the book, the story restarts itself with Lita as the main character, the narrator, a girl who cannot move fast. She even has the same grandparents as Miguel did. Except, her world is different; Miguel’s universe of creeping angst is seemingly displaced by a candied teen comedy world of secret crushes and zany friends and rock ’n roll hi-jinx. Where Miguel and Lita were once a couple, Lita now pines after Miguel, the cutest and most popular catch at school. Where the pair and Romeo used to have a band, the two are now fans of Romeo, who’s a popular music star, and very serious where the old one was goofy. Lita’s zany friends are the same dangerous bullies who creeped Miguel out just pages before, and every other character in the book has similarly switched up their role. Lita even now has missing parents, though she doesn’t dream of her mom. She dreams of Miguel, whom she feels as having watched over her during the long year dreaming.
The implications of this quickly become evident to the reader, though the details are kept dutifully obscured. If Miguel is dreaming of Lita, her world beginning as she woke, was someone dreaming of Miguel, his own existence commencing as he woke into some third party’s dream? Could it have been his absent mother’s? Was she really still alive, and simply plugged into a different role, just as Miguel shuffled the personage deck in Lita’s world? Hernandez presents us with clues: as mentioned before, an extended sleep is visually connected to diving into water, which gives that old legend new punch. And what was that about the monster in the orchard switching places with people? There’s also recurring motif of threes: teens, pieces of a body. You can toss it all around as much as you want, but I suspect the details aren’t all that important to Hernandez, as they never emerge as anything quite so interesting as the book’s larger picture.
Countless commentators have cited filmmaker David Lynch as an evident influence on this book, though my readings brought more readily to mind Ursula K. Le Guin and The Lathe of Heaven, that saga of dreams changing reality. But Hernandez’s ambling, stumbling, slothful teenagers aren’t granted the relative self-awareness of a George Orr -- just as they are forced to walk out of pace with the rest of the world, one they barely understand already, so are they forbidden from grasping the multitudes of worlds they might inhabit, the different roles they might fill, even in their own fantasies. The best they can do is dream away the current world, and subconsciously observe new dreamers emerging into an altered realm of conscious youth life. It’s never any better.
If Miguel is truly dreaming of Lita’s second reality (and as I mentioned before, that’s frankly up for grabs), he’s cooked up a nice little world for himself and his friends. Where he once was a figure of uncertainty and dejection, he’s now the object of desire and a laughing prince. He didn’t much like Lita’s father in his world, so he recasts him as a cruel letch in the new one. The people who tormented him are now silly, harmless sidekicks. A threat to his romantic hold on Lita is now a homosexual, surely someone who’d no longer be interested -- but wait! Did Miguel even know of that threat? And why are his new parents the night watchmen of the lemon orchard? Why is Romeo now a rock star? Is Miguel just feeling generous?
Or is the new world responding as much to his subconscious as his known wishes, free-associating elements of one world and swapping them around in the land of dreams, much in the way you or I might recall a nighttime reverie that’s utterly connected to errant thoughts throughout our day? Even in dreams, especially in dreams, Miguel still can’t be in control. He’s not alone, though. Reflect for a moment upon Lita, the supposed protagonist of this latter storyline; really, she’s little more than prey to the male gaze writ large, with Miguel looking down upon her through dimensions, and Romeo -- well, he ultimately has his own special role to play as well, one that very nearly throws the book off its proverbial rails near the conclusion, as Hernandez veers sharply toward a semi-logical explanation, then pulls back at the last moment. What does emerge as clear, however, is the author’s thematic masterstroke: in the grand scheme of the universe(s), these teens still don’t know what’s what. They were lost before, without control; in the end, they are again lost, and it’s additionally evident to us that the very cosmos have assured such a state.
Who wouldn’t move a bit out of pace?
“Meanwhile, the real world is bullshit.” So declares the first Miguel, the woken Miguel in one of the book’s standout sequences, as he wanders the lemon grove alone and literally flies through the air, just as he could when he was dreaming prior to the book’s start. It’s more beautiful in dreams, somewhere else, and Miguel reflects upon the cruelties of the waking world as he soars, fast and free. “Love is our only consolation, but that can be pretty elusive. And love can cause as much pain as anything else.” That is his conclusion as he drops back to earth, and indeed that same notion arises at the conclusion of Hernandez’s book, where the pain and beauty of foolish young love changes the system of reality in just the tiniest way, to make a few people just a little happier. That kind of sacrifice is the only thing that can truly change the world as Hernandez sees it here, and as blunt and bathetic as it might seem upon analysis, it works like a charm in the context of these pages.
And like the book’s looping narrative, we’re back where we started, with Hernandez’s art. No matter how much the batting order is scattered, we can look at these characters and glimpse a constancy in them. Lita’s smile might seem funny on one page, and desperate on another, but it’s always hers, and Hernandez has concocted a grand context in which such things truly matter. It’s important that, visually, these teens remain a bit tied down to broad, familiar mannerisms, because in terms of story they never can quite escape themselves. They can imagine themselves as new people, but they are them. And not just them -- everyone circles through the possibilities that different viewpoints might cook up for them, yet everyone seems uniquely themselves. There’s a great sequence early on in which Hernandez deftly handles the touchy interactions between Miguel and an old bully, one who’s tentatively interested in maybe making amends. The dialogue is fine, but the real kick comes later in the book, in Lita’s waking world, where the same character is recast as an overtly comedic character, and you can see how the comedy flows from the menace, and the menace remains in the comedy.
It’s not a pleasant world in Sloth. It’s really sometimes an awful nightmare. But if we humans are destined to be tossed around by the waves of fate, recast in fresh roles yet still at-heart devoid of self-actualization, Hernandez at least allows that through our very helpless consistency, a temporary sweetness is always possible. From man or goatman, or whatever. And there’s always the welcome respite of sleep…