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Written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez
128 pages, $19.99
ISBN: 1401203663


Sequence from Sloth, ©2006 Gilbert Hernandez.


Taking one of the most thread-worn themes imaginable — suburbia and its complicity in the alienation of modern youth — Gilbert Hernandez fashions an elliptical, dreamlike reverie that manages to cohere into a satisfying whole despite the surreal nature of its parts. Sloth concerns the unspoken, barely articulated search for meaning of three teenage protagonists, one of whom has just awakened from a yearlong coma that he may or may not have willed himself into entering. Miguel Serra's life is stable and comfortable, yet makes little sense and provides nothing in the way of direction. Abandoned by his birthparents, Miguel lives with his odd-couple grandparents and plays bass guitar in a barely competent band called Sloth. His bandmates, guitarist Romeo and drummer/girlfriend Lita, share both his ennui and his relatively comfortable existence. They know there must be something else out there, but haven't the life experience necessary to define what it is they might be looking for.

Sloth works in part because Hernandez is too smart a storyteller to fall for the standard "Dark Heart of Suburbia" clichés. The flat, sprawling, semi-rural town in which the story takes place has been built for safety and comfort, and its inhabitants are everyday people, not zombie drones concocted to serve as some cheesy indictment of conformity. Instead, drama seeps around the edges in the form of half-imagined rumors of murder and intrigue in the lemon orchards surrounding the town, and in the rumored presence of a strange creature called the Goatman. Not that any of these MacGuffins actually drive the plot. Rather, it's the hint of danger and novelty that reinforces both the teenage search for meaning and the looming uncertainty of adult life and responsibilities. These hints of abnormality in an all-too-normal world, however, in turn serve as a diversion for the book's central plot device which, without spoiling things for potential readers, involves a series of from-out-of-nowhere transformations that render the very identities of our three protagonists fluid and malleable, the rug pulled out from under the reader again and again, with all the uncertainty and finality of puberty to an adolescent. Sloth is the best story Hernandez has created in several years, satisfying and emotionally fulfilling despite the question marks stuffed into every page.

It's always astounded me that Gilbert Hernandez doesn't enjoy the same sort of respect and acclamation that Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman take for granted. He's a more expressive cartoonist than Ware, a far better storyteller than Spiegelman, more productive than either and his command of the comics language is equal to the both of them. Despite being one of the most creatively fecund cartoonists currently working the English language, Hernandez nonetheless hasn't reached the high-profile publishing success that many other, lesser cartoonists have achieved in the current graphic-novel boom; if Pantheon or Little, Brown & Co. have spent any time banging on his door, it's the best-kept secret in comics.

Instead, Beto's publishers — aside from Fantagraphics, of course — have been companies like Vertigo and Dark Horse, publishing houses with one foot in standard genre-comics production and one uneasy foot in literary waters ("literary" being an something of a generous assessment where Vertigo's concerned), companies lacking the marketing reach and literary prestige necessary to put him over the top. It's a shame, too, because works like Sloth are still too few and far-between on the modern graphic-novel landscape. Where's Chip Kidd when you need him?


This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.


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