Thursday, December 18, 2008

Speak of the Devil

Speak of the Devil
by Gilbert Hernandez
Dark Horse Comics, 2008

Hillary Brown: Merry Christmas, everyone. What could be better and more heartwarming to read at this time of year than Gilbert Hernandez's Speak of the Devil, a jolly romp featuring a whole lot of knifed eyeballs? So, um, this was my first book by Gilbert. I've read a good bit of Jaime's stuff (Locas and some of the smaller compilations), and I'm a big fan, but I still didn't know exactly what to expect. Nor do I yet. Have you read any of Gilbert's books? Is the darkness typical? I'm not saying I minded it--in fact, this book ended up being a really nice pairing with Kill Your Boyfriend--but even though the back warns you that it's going to get dark, it's still hard to anticipate just how dark. It's often said that Jaime is the better artist and Gilbert is the better writer, but I don't know if you can tell the latter from this example. Maybe? Why don't I shut up about Los Bros. Hernandez until you fill me in on your preexisting knowledge and expectations.

Garrett Martin: Very little knowledge of either preexists. This is the first comic I've read by either. Yep! And maybe it wasn't the best one to start with? It does get really dark, but in such a shocking and ridiculous way that I honestly have no idea what Hernandez is trying to say. I mean, I laughed some, but mostly out of discomfort, I think, and not knowing how to react. It gets so over-the-top so quickly that I have to assume we're supposed to find it ridiculous, right?

HB: I don't think we are, and it's possible you have to be familiar with their stuff to realize that. It definitely is over the top, but it has a kind of melancholy (especially female melancholy) that's very familiar to me from Jaime's work. Of course, Jaime's characters aren't so much with the crazy murdering sprees--they exist in a more down-to-earth, realistic world, at least after he gets past the initial rocketship stuff--but Maggie, who's one of his most important and well-rounded characters, suffers from some pretty severe depression sometimes, and she's not the only one. There is something here that rings weirdly truer to me than Kill Your Boyfriend did. It may be that the black-and-white art really suits the strangeness and sneakiness of the story. Or that I have all this background. I mean, I don't already know any of these characters, but I'm steeped in the kind of neo-noir that Jaime does really well, so seeing Gilbert go that route isn't entirely surprising. Except when it is. Basically, there's a kind of outrageousness that manages to pack an emotional punch that they're both very, very good at, but it's possible you have to read a bunch of it to get to that point.

GM: It's definitely outrageous. Does Speak of the Devil pack that emotional punch for you? It doesn't for me, and I don't even see how Hernandez could be angling for that. There's a visceral reaction to the violence, sure, but I didn't feel anything for any of these characters. He does a good job of building things up over the first few issues, establishing a relatively mundane but believable cast of characters, and then suddenly veers off on that absurd twist. Nothing in those first few issues lead us to expect these characters to do some of the things they later do so cavalierly. It's almost like Hernandez is mocking readers for potentially caring about the earlier part of the story. But yeah, maybe it'd make more sense if I was familiar with his work.

HB: I don't know. I'm still working out how I feel about the book, but, yeah, I definitely liked it, and I do think it's deeper than it seemed, although I'm not sure there's a logical way to explain that. There's a deep sadness to the characters that I see, but, again, I don't know if that results from reading similar work (minus eye stabbing) by Jaime. It could result from the minimalism of both story and art. There's a very flat affect to everything that happens, which makes the sudden swerve into extraordinary violence more shocking and more interesting, but, yes, possibly less believable. I definitely don't think Gilbert's either mocking the reader for caring or trying not to make the reader care abut the characters. I mean, character development is probably the major thing these guys have contributed to comics, and one of the ways it happens is through absence rather than presence. That is: the characters are often frustrating in their seeming lack of motivation for their actions, and the author/artist deliberately keeps the reader in the dark, refusing to represent crucial events but only alluding to them sidelong, but none of this makes the characters less realistic or round. I can see Speak of the Devil as being in this tradition, but it's also a much shorter work than the series the Hernandezes have been spinning out for years, so it may not be as effective.

GM: I need to read some Love & Rockets.Never done so, and I'm not holding my relatively disappointment in Speak of the Devil against either that or Hernandez. I really do like his art, and even if I think this plot is a bit disjointed he has a good sense for pacing. Your point about absence is really intriguing, and that's a great tactic to use in a medium that's both visual and literary, one where the creators can show and not just tell, and yet where the audience still has control over the rate and flow of information. That's sound comics theory, sure. Maybe it's deployed a bit too liberally in Speak of the Devil, though? There's really no motivation given for why these three people do what they do. Okay, little motivation. The guy has an unhappy homelife, the girl is mad about her dad's job and second marriage, the step-mother is an exhibitionist, etc. But there's no clear through line from any of that to the actions these characters eventually carry out, especially pertaining to certain family members. I just simply can't take any of this seriously, and would like somebody smarter than me (read: you) to explain why I should.

HB: Have you ever seen They Call Her One-Eye? There's something about Speak of the Devil that reminds me of that movie, which is a "rape and revenge" picture that is both extreme to the point of ridiculousness (it's not only violent but also includes hard-core pornography) and kind of bleak and touching and affecting at the same time. I wouldn't be surprised if it's kind of an influence on this book. I might also point out that the motivations are somewhat similar to those in Kill Your Boyfriend, in that the characters live in a stifling environment that causes them to rebel. The results are just represented in a darker way, stripped of joy to show them in a different, perhaps more realistic light. It's a more traditional take, I guess, and while it is depressing, there's just something about it that gets under my skin in a good way.

GM: Yeah, it's definitely not joyful, and if Hernandez's goal is to point out the ridiculousness of that whole teen-killers-on-the-run subgenre by not glamorizing or sugarcoating anything (okay I think we've officially blasted apart our tacit no-spoilers rule, sorry folks) then he did a great job. I really don't know how I feel about this book, overall, which is a sign that, if anything, at least Hernandez has made a really striking, distinctive piece of work. And perhaps if I knew about the book's eventual direction I would be more accepting of it. I still feel that it's too random, too unexpected, and not nearly foreshadowed or developed enough.

HB: Fair enough. Maybe you should check back in after spending Christmas with your family and see how you feel about seemingly unmotivated murders then?

GM: Oh, c'mon. Family is what the booze is for. Maybe these kids should've just gotten drunk instead.

HB: Happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kill Your Boyfriend

Kill Your Boyfriend
by Grant Morrison, Phillip Bond, and D'Israeli
DC Comics, 1995

Garrett Martin: See, Grant Morrison doesn't just write superheroes. I missed Kill Your Boyfriend when it came out in '95 (by then my comic money was redirected towards the daunting task of tracking down all of the Fall's albums), and that's for the best, as I probably would've hated it. Despite what Matt Fraction says in this review, it's good I first read this as a 30-year-old, as my actual 17-year-old self would've been offended, even if only as a kneejerk reaction.

I didn't enjoy being hectored about being a highly uptight suburbanite back then, and probably wouldn't have been able to look past the drugs and sex and violence to realize how fun the comic actually is. I would've associated more with the dead boyfriend than the guy that killed him, even though I never read fantasy or sci-fi and was obsessed with generally pro-drug rock 'n' roll. I mean, I lived in East Cobb, of course I was Republican. I voted for Newt Gingrich, dammit. I was a scared, uptight idiot, and still am about many things. Despite already strongly loving Morrison in '95, I would not have allowed myself to enjoy a comic that seemed to glorify drug-use, teen sex, and murder. Yeah, I was dumb. And now I am old, or older, and regularly feel highly nostalgic for youthful experiences that I personally avoided when I was young. Kill Your Boyfriend reminds us how awesome youth is, even if you don't take anywhere near full advantage of that youth. And no, I don't think murdering sprees and general mayhem constitute that full advantage, but that's also not what Morrison is saying. Would you have liked this when you were a girl? Do you like it now? Did meeting Mr. Brown turn you into a modern-day Bacchante?

Hillary Brown: Well, gosh, getting married and going to college at age 18 isn't really all that decadent. I think I'm pretty much a square too, despite my love of violent, profane art, so I don't know if that means I am or ain't the target market for this book. I do wish I'd read it when it came out, but not for the reasons Fraction mentions as much as because of what followed, something Morrison acknowledges in the afterword (sidebar: Is Badlands called Heartland in the UK? Or is that just some sort of massive error?). Once, there was Badlands and not much else in terms of gleeful murdering couples on the lam, and then all of a sudden they were everywhere, shortly after Morrison completed his comic, which tends in retrospect to mute the impact of his entry in the genre. That's not his fault, of course, but it's still a factor. You see that sort of set up and you kind of automatically sigh and think, "Oh, mid-to-late 1990s, what the heck what were you on about?"

I think I wavered, in the reading, between real enjoyment and annoyance, and my guess is that that's fair. There is a kind of joy in the lack of a moral, such as when our heroine loses her virginity and complains that that moment is always disappointing in books and movies but to her it's brilliant, but there's also a hiccupy kind of pacing that comes off as immature. Maybe that's intentional, but it doesn't read that way. It reads as though Morrison didn't feel like writing the in-between material, the "how we got here from there" stuff, and wanted to keep the pace frenetic the whole time. I appreciate hyperactive art, but this is maybe a little ADHD at times. On the other hand, as you point out, at least it's different from the superhero stuff. Do I like it? Yeah, I guess I like it, but I still feel bad for the dead boyfriend too...

GM: The lack of dot-connecting is a common complaint about Morrison. I don't even really notice that with his superhero comics, but Kill Your Boyfriend does feel a little rushed. Considering the subject matter, though, that rush works to the book's advantage. Should the comic deliberate over ridiculously impulsive acts? Were you bothered by the jump cuts in Breathless? I think if the book was less breezy it would lose much of its impact, while also letting the horribleness of their actions seap in more. It'd make the book less fun, and, along with its unsmug and surprisingly charming cynicism, that fun is its greatest strength.

HB: Well, that's true, and you may be right, but you can be quick and breezy and light without making the reader feel s/he's missed something, can't you? For example, when you get around to Joann Sfar's The Professor's Daughter, you'll see that that has almost perfect pacing, with a maximum of speed and a minimum of jump cut. And, yes, the jump cuts do bug me a little in Breathless, even as I recognize that they're an important innovation. They can make me feel jittery and as though I'm in the control of a person lacking both marbles and direction, which is a useful artistic experience but not one I want to have all that often. It's not necessarily that the book needs to be more deliberative. I think it's just that it doesn't really make me identify all that much with the characters because it feels as though the book espouses their philosophy of carefree violence, and there's something that really bugs me about that--more so in this case than in a lot of others. It may be going too far--it is, in fact--to say that Kill Your Boyfriend reminds me of Garth Ennis's less successful efforts, but it's very hard to do this kind of thing super well. Malick did, but maybe he set up better the bleakness against which rebellion is necessary.

GM: See, I'm normally very bothered by violence like this, but it doesn't bug me in Kill Your Boyfriend. The book is so light and joyful that it's hard to take the violence seriously. This is just about the frothiest piece of spree-murdering teen fiction around, and I disagree that it espouses a philosophy of violence. The violence is just a metaphor for that exciting moment on the edge of adulthood when you realize you're capable of living your life however you choose. They're not saying it's fun or cool to kill people, but that you don't need to be constricted by all the preconceptions that family and society have prepared for you. It's like all seven volumes of The Invisibles rolled into one slim graphic novel. Kill Your Boyfriend makes that point in a giddier and less cynical manner than something like Natural Born Killers. It's closer in spirit to Bonnie & Clyde, which does a great job of making you almost forgive them for their horrible crimes. Also, though, comics are a less visceral and immediate artform than film, so maybe that's why I can easier distance myself from the violence of KYB than similar movies.

I enjoy Kill Your Boyfriend less for the message and more for the execution. I like how the plot jumps from scene to scene, how Morrison doesn't waste time meticulously setting up every moment. And I've always loved Phillip Bond's art, which is wonderfully cartoonish without becoming too abstract or unrealistic. He doesn't have the often startling detail of Frank Quitely, but Bond might be my favorite frequent Morrison collaborator.

HB: Or, you know, it could just be that you love Grant Morrison. I think you've definitely got some good points, and, again, I can agree with an anarchic philosophy to some extent, but challenging authority doesn't have to go quite so far, does it? Ugh. I'm draining all the fun out of the book. I completely agree that it far surpasses Natural Born Killers in just about every way possible--it's
like The Buzzcocks to Natural Born Killers's Insane Clown Posse--and you're right about the art being a kind of candy-coated pleasure to look at. Sometimes I just Morrison weren't so explicitly concerned with bucking the status quo, and I do think it's something he's grown out of. You can continue to be revolutionary without always defining yourself against something. But this is grouchy and dumb. People should read the book.

GM: I'd say other high-profile writers are more guilty of pointless status quo bucking and hipster contrarianism. That's what I think about a lot of Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis comics. Whereas those two often coast about in hypercynical mode, Morrison's comics are usually pretty positive and hopeful. And maybe the end of Kill Your Boyfriend is supposed to be a downer, with the girl living the sort of life she had hoped to avoid, but I see it more as both acknowledgement that that "normal" life isn't quite so bad but also reinforcement of the idea that you need to embrace your youth while you can.

How do you feel about people calling this a "pop" comic?

HB: I totally agree that those guys are more guilty, but neither are they as canonized. I forgot about the end of the book though! I don't think it ends up a downer, although I'm not quite sure how to interpret it, other than thinking it's funny. Maybe it's an insight into your parents' lives? A hint that they, too, were once like you, and that a quiet suburban life doesn't preclude excitement in your earlier days?

What do people mean when they call it a pop comic? That it's not grim?

GM: Maybe not Ellis, but Ennis and Preacher get more love in non-superhero circles than Morrison or any of his comics.

The pop comic thing, which Fraction mentions in that review above, refers to how it's fast, short, and, y'know, teenagery, like it's the comics equivalent of that fucking Supergrass song about being young and having fun. Maybe Brit-pop comic would be a better tag?

HB: Because it implies cheekiness? Yeah, I think that's an accurate tag and not a dismissive one in my opinion. But I like things that are fast, short, and teenagery.

GM: Yeah, it's not supposed to dismissive at all. It's sad anybody feels the need to specifically point out a "pop" comic, though, since superhero comics pretty much always should be inherently short, fast, and youthful, but whatever.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

more stuff here soon and elsewhere now

HELLO. We'll have posts soon about Kill Your Boyfriend, Speak of the Devil, and more. In the meantime, go read this review I wrote of Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles for the Weekly Dig.