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Sloth
Gilbert Hernandez
Titan / Vertigo graphic novel £15.99 / $19.95

review by J.C. Hartley

In the 1980s and 1990s, Gilbert Hernandez and his brother Jaime created Love And Rockets, and the whole inter-related universe of the Central American town of Palomar, and the Heartbreak Soup and Luba stories. These narratives, in a blend of SF, superhero camp, soap opera, soft porn, and magic-realism, managed to be both escapist and tellingly honest, and in a culture noted for machismo provided convincingly drawn and characterful depictions of contemporary women.

Sloth is a solo effort from Gilbert Hernandez, with lettering from Jared K. Fletcher, and concerns the lives of a small group of friends in a suburban town in America. Hernandez establishes from the beginning that when adults move away from the big city, to improve the quality of life for themselves and their young families, it is their teenage children who suffer the effects of boredom and low self-esteem.

Miguel Serra has recently emerged from a self-induced coma, brought on by teenage angst; he is unharmed but finds himself reduced to the pace of a sloth. Miguel lives with his grandparents; his mother abandoned him when he was young, but Miguel comes to suspect she is buried in the mysterious local lemon orchard, a homicide victim of his drug-dealer father who is serving time in the penitentiary. Miguel is in a band with best friend Romeo, and girlfriend Lita, the latter is exploring urban myths, particularly that of the Goatman who lives in the lemon orchard and will switch identities with anyone unfortunate enough to see him. After the trio see the Goatman, Miguel begins to suspect that Lita and Romeo's relationship is more than just friendship, he seems to be about to re-enter his coma state but just then the story switches.

The final third of the book follows the story from Lita's perspective, and her love-triangle with Miguel and local-boy turned pop star Romeo X; a story of jealousy and eventual self-sacrifice. Having finished the book, I immediately turned back to the final pages of Miguel's story to try and rationalise the plot switch but was unable to do so, far from being a failure of exposition the mysterious and unexplained elements of the story reinforced its strength.

There are echoes here of the film Donnie Darko, but only in terms of teenage protagonists engaging with an urban mystery, and the fact that any explanation if required is pretty much left up to you. There is a tendency for embattled fans of comic books and graphic novels to defend them in terms of another medium, to say that if this was a modern novel or a piece of cinema it would be taken so much more seriously, and to point out that the themes being dealt with in contemporary graphic fiction are no less serious or challenging than those appearing elsewhere in other forms. The great strength of the comic is that it is a unique medium, and when writing and art come together successfully to tell a story nothing can compete with that form of presentation; no example of cinema montage for example could hope to match the multi-layered presentation of the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.

Having read Sloth in one sitting, I immediately went back and re-read part of it, I lingered over some of the images, and admired some of the artwork; only this form of storytelling allows me to do this. The very best writers in the field of comics are producing work that compares with the work of the best writers in the movies and in modern literature, the comparison is one of quality not one of form. Sloth is a great introduction for readers new to the work of Hernandez, and if they are entranced, and alerted to the possibilities of the medium, perhaps they will seek out the other titles he has graced with his honesty and insight.
Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez

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