Coming of Age in a Teenage Wasteland and the Big Easy
SLOTH by Gilbert Hernandez
Continuing a semi-theme initiated by Gina with her great live remote report on the San Diego Comic Con, here's a review of the latest from one of the best in the world of the illustrated novel, Gilbert Hernandez.
Miguel Serra has some issues. The teenager, described by his girlfriend as a nerd, willed himself into a year-long coma, then willed himself awake, and now that he is back with the living his general speed is slow, very slow. So slow, in fact, that the local tough guys call him Sloth, which also happens to be the name of his three-person band.
Life in suburbia apparently is not all that it is cracked up to be, especially for kids such as Serra who ostensibly have some Latino roots but who really have no anchors at all. Miguel was raised by angry grandparents who carry a huge cross of guilt because their daughter abandoned Miguel. Also in the mix, just barely, is Miguel’s father, who expounds from prison on the weak character of Miguel’s mother. Miguel’s tutor, the person expected to get Miguel back on track with his education agenda, struts in tight leather pants and too small tube tops, excoriates a vague "them" who are out to get teachers and students, and appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. Cholos harass Miguel, then appear to accept a detente in their relationship, then turn on him again. Meanwhile, Miguel’s girlfriend vacillates in her attraction to Miguel. And his best friend, Romeo, is giving off some weird vibrations. It’s just all so crappy.
Hernandez’s story has plenty of what fans of Love And Rockets, Palomar, and Luba have come to expect: angst-ridden characters adrift in a mundane, acutely boring world where everyday incidents, which in any other universe simply would be normal encounters with life, explode into serial crises. The artwork, as always, is a highlight - stark black and white illustrations capture Miguel’s stilted and claustrophobic existence as well as the dreary and repetitive suburban scenery.
The story also has some twists that are unique, like a jarring switch of characters and storylines half-way through the book. But I guess such a development should not be that surprising in a book where a teenager can lapse into a comatose state at will, or a camera can take a photograph of the invisible Goatman, or alienated and disaffected youth choose to spend time in a lemon tree orchard.
Sloth is Hernandez’s first original graphic novel. He says that it took him two and a half years to write and draw, and at only 120 pages or so a reader might initially wonder what the time was spent on. But, as in any good book, the word and page count do not, uh, count. Hernandez takes on several themes and his characters deal with concepts as benign as recognizing what is essential and important between friends but they also grapple with much more serious questions such as suicide and suicidal tendencies.
The teens are growing up, learning their differences and similarities, accepting some changes, fighting others, and not always adjusting well to the challenges of their young lives. I think it is a book that will speak to the undefined and uneasy restlessness of a generation about which, I admit, I have only a minimal understanding.
There is a reference in the story to La Llorona, and the theme of abandonment of children by adults, if not the outright killing of children by adults, sits immediately beneath the surface of the plot. However, that reference is exchanged quickly for a cloistered neighborhood legend - the haunted lemon tree orchard where women are supposedly killed and buried, and where the mysterious Goatman scampers among the rows of fruit trees. A key part of the Goatman legend is the switching of identities - the Goatman trades his existence with that of his unlucky prey. Miguel and his friends are looking for exactly that kind of trade, even if it has to come from a half-man, half-goat creature. The characters are trying to escape - through comas, loud music, and dreams, or by encountering the Goatman, a singular symbol of fear of the unknown future and its inevitable changes. They just don’t know exactly where to go after the escape is accomplished.
Unfortunately, at least in Hernandez’s book, the answer often appears in the guise of turning inward, sleeping it off in other words. Is that what is going on with this generation?
Two quibbles - how come all the Latinos are so güero ? And, are there absolutely no adults who can be turned to for at least a bit of guidance?
This book, excuse the pun, is a sleeper. It should resonate with readers on many levels. I appreciate Hernandez’s finely-tuned talent and I especially like the fact that he uses his art to probe and expose some of the complex dynamics swirling around those groups of kids all of us see in the malls, lethargic and seemingly without ambition or motivation, almost as though they were sleep-walking. Maybe they just woke up from a coma?
A NOTE FROM NEW ORLEANS
Mary Helen Lagasse (The Fifth Sun) reports that an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Navel of the Moon/Ombligo de la Luna, appears as an essay in the anthology My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters & Lovers, edited by Rosemary James (Simon & Schuster). The essay is a coming-of-age story about a girl of Mexican heritage growing up in New Orleans' Irish Channel. Although not a memoir, Mary Helen says that it is based "like all fiction ... on the author's observations, experiences and imagination." On July 27 from 6 to 8 PM, Mary Helen joins author Jed Horne and newspaper columnist Lolis Eric Elie in a presentation sponsored by the Faulkner Society for the ongoing series My New Orleans Is Her Precious Neighborhoods at The Cabildo at Jackson Square.
10TH ANNUAL CHICANO MUSIC FESTIVAL & AUCTION
Three days of roots music under the Colorado summer sky. Silent and live auctions nightly featuring some of the best raza artists. Past auctions have featured several donated pieces from Self-Help Graphics & Art. Noche Tradicional - August 4; Summer Pachanga - August 5; Mariachi Tardeada - August 6. El Centro Su Teatro's North Playground. Announced bands include Orgullo, Next In Line, Southwest Musicians, El Trio Los Gallos, Grupo Aztlan, Sangre Chicana, Mariachi El Rey, Mariachi San Juan de Colorado, and Mariachi Vasquez. More detail at El Centro Su Teatro.