Sunday, May 22, 2011

FYC Replay: Chance in Hell by Gilbert Hernandez

Another of my columns from late 2007. This one was a big deal for me because I am such a fan of Love & Rockets. Though I came to the book late (not until the oversized omnibi of Jaime's & Beto's work were published by Fantagraphics), I quickly became a huge fan, especially of Beto's Palomar stories. The way he and his brother use the comic page to tell a story - it's really like no one else - and their cartooning is second to none. Pared down, beautiful drawings with poignant and moving narratives. Los Bros Hernandez are deservedly revered, and they exemplify the best of what is possible in the comics medium.

FRONT PAGE: Since 1982, Gilbert Hernandez – along with brothers Jaime and Mario – has been creating beautifully human stories with a wide cast of characters in the comic Love & Rockets. His latest book, Chance in Hell, is his second long-form graphic novel, and the first to be published by Fantagraphics, the publishing home of L & R. A challenging book replete with the distinctive characters and lush brushwork that are Hernandez’s trademarks, this book is an important step in the evolution of one of the seminal cartoonists working today.

The 411:

Chance in Hell

Art & Story by Gilbert Hernandez

120 pages, black and white

HC: $16.95

Fantagraphics Books

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Empress is a little girl living in the wastes outside of the city. A place where the refuse of society are left to make their way the best they can, most everyone inhabiting this cesspool were orphaned years ago, left by parents who didn’t care enough to keep them, and Empress is no exception. Scavenging for food in the mountains of trash that spot the barren landscape, the young girl is also a target as the older boys and men prey upon her innocence, raping her as payment for temporary shelter.

Eventually, Empress finds someone she can trust. Both Soldier, a roving vigilante with a semi-automatic weapon, as well as the leader of one of the many packs of boys running around take it upon themselves to watch over her. They do this not for their own selfish gains, but out of an inherent morality and sensitivity to her helplessness.

This is a unique attitude. For the most part, the people consigned to these wastes care little for anyone outside their own spheres. Meanwhile, those in the city complain of the stench emanating from this sad piece of geography. It is an unpleasant existence, full of pain and hunger and bloodshed. Despite all this, Empress still retains a sense of hope, proclaiming to any man within earshot the two words, “my daddy,” searching for that which she has been denied.

In a cruel twist of fate, when Empress walks off from the boy who pledged to protect her, he panics. Running back to their makeshift shelter, he crosses paths with Soldier, who joins him. Arriving upon a scene they misinterpret – believing the boy standing over Empress was forcing himself upon her – Soldier raises his gun and pulls the trigger, leading to a bloodbath that not only sees the death of this boy, but also of Soldier and three more including the one who was looking out for Empress.

Empress is the only one left unharmed, and she is snatched up by a man that had been wandering around and spoken to her earlier. A literature professor from the city, he grew up close to where the carnage ensued and is one of the few that actually survived the wastes and made something of himself. His reason for taking Empress is to offer her the opportunities he has been afforded. And so, the young girl takes up residence with the professor where she learns more than could have ever been expected out in the wastes. But some of the lessons acquired will lead to tragedy later in her life, something to which Empress has become readily accustomed.

Gilbert Hernandez is a master storyteller, and within the comics medium, his work – along with that of his brothers, Jaime and Mario – has paved the way for more adventurous writers and artists to bring their own visions to the printed page. Eschewing any accepted “rules” of writing, his work feels organic in a manner that very few artists’ do. Like life, his tales are sprinkled with random bits of kindness or pain punctuating generally quiet narratives. Hernandez’s stories wend their way through the pages of his comics with scenes ending in the middle of a page and transitions that are unexpected, but these detours from convention are always in service to the story, allowing it to progress naturally toward its end.

As with any good writer, Hernandez understands that the best drama comes from interesting characters. He does not try to force any tensions into his narratives, but instead exults in the very human moments that all of us experience on a daily basis. Eschewing the over-the-top plotting that hampers so many comics, his stories come alive with a vibrancy and honesty that is all too often lacking in much of today’s fiction – whether it be prose or comics.

Hernandez’s writing is matched equally by his artwork. With a pared-down style that is smooth and lush, he has perfected an ideal that allows him to convey his stories to a wide audience. His clean, unfettered artwork allows readers to project themselves onto the characters, affording them an opportunity to fall into his stories in a manner that a more rigid and photo-realistic style could not. In this way, he engages his audience early, and holds their attention with the subtle artistry of his writing. Hernandez’s fluid storytelling is aided greatly by his elegant art style, which evokes more emotion through a single sweep of his brush than a thousand cross-hatchings on the most rendered image.

Chance in Hell is a visually stunning book that challenges its readers with a story that does not fit neatly into any genre. A book that forces readers to think and ask questions, this is a disturbingly tragic story that is still able to engage its readers. It is a book that dares to walk over the edge of what is expected, and with an able guide such as Gilbert Hernandez, one can be sure of landing softly as the ground swiftly approaches.

An Interview with Gilbert Hernandez:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and has kept you motivated for the last twenty-five years?

Gilbert Hernandez: I was born with a comic book in my hand. My older brother Mario collected comics since I could remember. Our mother collected comics when she was a kid, so she thought it was ok for us to read them. I can't imagine life without comics. That's the first reason I do them myself, the other reason is the medium lends to self expression like no other for me.

Beckett: Where did the inspiration for Chance in Hell come from?

Hernandez: I'd been wanting to do graphic novels for years, but the intense workload of serializing stories in Love and Rockets didn't allow me much time for outside projects. I've ended the serials in L&R, giving me room to experiment more. Chance in Hell is the first long, self contained story I've been left alone to do. Being the first in a series of books, I wanted it to grab the readers and have them wanting more. The jury's still out on that one.

The story itself was something I wanted to do for years, but I never felt I was ready for it. A story where almost nothing good happens yet the reader is still engaged. An anti-feel good story, but where you can still care.

Beckett: The way in which you tell a story seems so effortless, sometimes flowing along in what feels like a random manner – just like life. When working on a story, particularly a longer work like Chance in Hell, what is your creative process like?

Hernandez: I work almost entirely intuitively, feeling the story out as I'm writing and sketching it at the same time. I rarely have an ending for any story I do, but one always comes by the time I need it. It's murder with proposals, though.

Beckett: The storytelling for Chance in Hell is decidedly different from the stories typically found within Love & Rockets. You allow the imagery to move the narrative along, and that final page seems to come out of nowhere, leaving it open for more than one interpretation. Were you conscious of this as you worked on the book, and what did you hope to accomplish with Chance in Hell?

Hernandez: My goal as an artist is always to entertain the adult reader, hopefully to stimulate and amuse and satisfy him with a work that is worth his time and money.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Hernandez: The 2nd book in the series is called The Troublemakers, a tale of low trash grifters that are their own worst enemies.

The new format of L&R will be a 100 page annual. This way the reader can enjoy a more satisfying read without having to remember what happened last issue.

Speak of the Devil is a 6 issue mini series from Dark Horse that is about a girl peeping tom and how her escapades evolve into some pretty serious violence. This will be my first real horror story and will test the readers' tolerance.

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