by Gilbert Hernandez
Hey hey. It's another guest post thing. You may remember Casey Westerman from our review of Box Brown's Love Is a Peculiar Type of Thing.
Casey Westerman: So - it's hard to start writing about Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth, I find. And hard to explain why it's hard to start writing about. Shall I contextualize my confusion? I've read most of the Palomar stuff -- at least, the three big digests and the three shorter New Tales of Palomar books -- plus Birdland and the two latest big Love and Rockets issues. I trust him, and I like him, and I want to follow him where he's going, but sometimes his stuff loses me, you know?
Sloth, I guess, is from 2006, and it's something Beto did for Vertigo instead of for Fantagraphics; it's stand-alone, with no connection to the Palomar cast. So it should be a good entry point for readers new to his stuff, but... it's beautiful, it's frustrating, and I don't feel like it really sticks the landing. It's more than pleasant reading but it doesn't seem whole; when the narrative shift happens, it's like Hernandez just wanted to start the book over, re-casting the roles, and it doesn't seem tremendously different or illuminating. (Not to mention that he did something similar in Birdland, fifteen years ago, now...)
What do you think? Did you follow it? Do you understand the ending? Did it remind you of certain films by David Lynch?
Hillary Brown: Yeah, do you mean is it basically the plot of Lost Highway or, I suppose, Mulholland Drive, in that we get the same story told twice, with the same basic group of characters but with each of them taking on a different role in the second version? That's the very first thing that came to my mind. I hadn't really thought about Lynch and Beto as being similar before, but now that it's on my brain, I almost can't think of anything but. I wouldn't say either is among my very favorite artists in his field, but they're also both fascinating. The other thing it made me think of--and this may be a much closer analogy--is Hal Hartley's Flirt, which, for our readers who may not be familiar, plays out the same script (basically) three times in a row, with different characters each time. It's not entirely successful either and for very similar reasons (i.e., it doesn't add up to much), but neither is without interest. There's something to be said for atmosphere, and that's perhaps what I take away from Gilbert's work most of all, even the Palomar stuff, which is far more narrative- and character-driven. What sticks with you and gets all up in your head is the feeling that you're left with, a grasp of late adolescent restlessness and pliability that takes place mostly in the dark. So, did I follow it? I'm not sure I did or that I understand anything about it, let alone the ending, but I did like reading it. It's an abstract experience, and while that tends not to be top of my list when I think about what I want in art, there's something good about being confused from time to time.
CW: Right. That brain-switching/world-switching/oh-no, now-everything's-the-same-except-different thing. It's creepy when Lynch does it; here it's actually a little comforting, since the second version of the story is a little less crazy than the first one. But it's not the kind of thing that can blow your mind more than once. And I like your comparison to Flirt, which was more interesting as an experiment than satisfying as a work of entertainment -- even when compared to other Hartley films, which were always pretty cerebral.
What makes the Palomar stuff more character-driven than this? I think the self-contained nature of Sloth works against it -- for whatever reason, I don't expect these characters to have a life outside of the covers of this book. And the lives they have inside the book are subject to revision, so why get attached to one version?
There are some creators who are able to flourish in long-form works -- Los Bros are two, to which I'd add Alex Robinson, Dash Shaw, Dave Sim... these guys all tap into what a mainstream superhero creator takes for granted: a history and future, a larger context that these stories can fit into and resonate with. Romeo X probably will never meet Luba; he's going to be in that coma forever.
Have you had a look at the latest L&R? Beto's gone heavily into abstraction this time around; it's like if you took Sloth and subtracted everything but the lemons.
HB: I think it's maybe just that the long-form stuff resembles a TV series and the short-form stuff is more like a movie or a novel. There's a lot more room for character growth in the more spread-out medium because there's a lot more room for everything. Sometimes this just ends up being repetition, but with the gifted (those you name, although I'm not really familiar with Sim and I've only read short things by Robinson) it allows for growth and change and variety, as well as perhaps greater realism. Not that realism is a great concern of mine, but I do like unpredictableness, and bigger spaces let it flourish. I have not, sadly, opened the newest L&R yet, despite your being so kind as to lend it to me (too much time spent on laundry, television, and the New Yorker lately), but I'll be interested to see how it goes. I've still only read these dudes in anthologies of their work. I don't know how it is just to read a small work that's part of a larger picture. All of the above sounds a bit like I'd always rather read their longer stuff, and I don't know if that's true. There are times when I would prefer a short, strange book like this. Or maybe it's just the end of October, and it has a vaguely horror movie feel.
CW: So maybe: long-form comics (300 pages or more) are like novels are like seasons of TV shows, stand-alone graphic novels are like short stories are like films, single issues are like poems are like YouTube video clips?
Sloth is elliptical, it doesn't take too long to read, it's a pleasant experience with an obscure-by-design conclusion; the abstraction in the book seems to paper over the gaps in the plot(s). I would have liked it better if it hadn't ended!
HB: And yet I don't know where there is for it go, either. It's compact to some extent necessity. I find myself wondering what Gilbert would do with the other six deadly sins, though.
CW: Maybe he's been working his way through them. Birdland is certainly a meditation on lust; Speak of the Devil might be about wrath. And I think he's dealt with gluttony and envy in some of the L&R material that hasn't been as frequently reprinted as the Palomar stories.