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!