Writer/Artist: Gilbert Hernandez
Gilbert Hernandez is one of the legends of the comics world. Along with his brothers Jaime and Mario, he created Love and Rockets, perhaps the pinnacle of alternative comics in the ’80s and ’90s and still going strong today. However, Hernandez did not have a single standalone graphic novel to his name until 2006’s Sloth, published by the indefatigable Karen Berger at Vertigo.
Love and Rockets is talked about in the same breath as magical realists like Marquez and masters of the surreal like Bunuel. This is not without reason: as a serialised title that featured several stories progressing simultaneously, it was an experiment so far ahead of its time that we did not even have a name for it back then. The artwork was a measured mixture of realism and Crumb-like grotesquerie. The writing was of a quality that mainstream comics would simply not allow. Gilbert and Jamie had very different writing styles, even if their artwork showed some overlap. Gilbert’s dreamy prose is not likely to be concerned with tradition or character development a whole lot: he is more interested in capturing the intricacies of a particular frame of mind, the nuances of a very precise kind of fever-dream.
Sloth, therefore, is right up his alley. At the outset, we are introduced to Miguel, a teen who has just woken up from a year-long coma. It is implied that Miguel “willed himself” into the coma. And he had his reasons, it has to be said. His father is a drug dealer, serving a long sentence. In all probability, he has murdered Miguel’s mother and buried her body in a lemon orchard, the vessel for the town’s many urban legends. Over and above all of this, there is the town itself: a suburban purgatory that Daniel Clowes would surely have been proud of. Adults sleepwalk through life, lulled to a state of cosy somnolence. Teenagers amuse themselves with vapid conspiracy theories and bad music. As Hernandez writes, “Adults who burn out from living in the city pick up their families and move to towns like this for the slower pace, the quiet. They feel they can raise their younger kids in relative peace and safety. What they fail to recognize is that it’s their teenagers who suffer boredom and existential low self-esteem in extreme ways.”
Miguel wakes up from the “hard and fast” life he had to literally being unable to run. Halfway through the book, there is a major twist: the beginning of Miguel’s second coma seems to flow right into a coma for his girlfriend Lita. In Lita’s post-coma life, every relevant detail in her and Miguel’s lives seems to have been inverted. Miguel and Lita’s best friend and bandmate Romeo is the reigning rock star around, affairs that happened in one reality never did in the other and everything Lita ever wanted seems to be presented to her on a platter.
There are no easy answers in Hernandez’s world. Re-readings are rewarded and as a reader, you are always kept on your toes. Sloth is a fast read, but by no means a shallow one, boasting of the depth and the challenges of great literature.