Friday, February 9, 2007

Comics Chat: Sloth

In his review of this book, Dirk Deppey writes:
It's always astounded me that Gilbert Hernandez doesn't enjoy the same sort of respect and acclamation that, say, Chris Ware or Art Spiegelman take for granted. He's a more expressive cartoonist than Ware, a far better storyteller than Spiegelman, and both his productivity and command of the comics language equal that of either 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...

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.

Well, Dirk probably knows this (and may even have written it elsewhere), but there are a couple factors at work here above and beyond Beto's publishers.

If you take almost any issue of Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library and show it to a non-comics person who is reasonably into other kinds of arts and culture stuff, they will probably be wowed just by skimming through it. Looking at Ware's intricate, diagram-like pages, you can tell right away that something exciting, interesting, different is going on. Even if you end up not reading the story, it leaves an impression.

Beto's work in Sloth, Grip, and Love & Rockets, doesn't jump off the page and grab you in the same way. His visual style is much more traditional - Dan De Carlo and Steve Ditko by way of Robert Crumb - and while his narrative style is unique and challenging, you have to read (at least) a few pages for that to really sink in.

Anyway, I liked Sloth quite a bit. (Not as much as his Palomar stories and not as much as the, IMHO, criminally underrated Grip, but that's a pretty high bar for me - they make my all-time favorite list.) It shares a lot with Charles Burns's Black Hole, although its horror elements are much more in the background and its version of mundane suburbia is a lot less menacing.

Compared to Beto's other stuff, the character design is pretty tame - he doesn't get as, um, creative with his female characters' anatomies and I kind of missed that Crumb-like aspect of his drawing.

The story has some neat twists-and-turns that require a little Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive-style figuring out. I haven't got a 100% handle on what we're meant to think is actually happening on every page, but I'm intrigued by the mystery elements and Beto's handling of them is assured enough that I trust re-reading the book will make everything clear.

My one real, semi-major reservation is that Beto's use of the "teenagers living in soul-stifling suburbia" theme feels a little too generic, almost as if he's just paying lip service to it. It shows up so often in lit-fic comics (but not usually in Beto's) that I can't help but feel that his including it here is a way of pandering to the lit-fic comics audience.

Maybe I'm being unfair: I probably would have lapped this up when I was an alienated teenager (though I've never lived in suburbia). Still, though Beto doesn't serve up any cliches, I think in Sloth this theme isn't as well supported by specific, true-to-life details as it is in Black Hole or Ghost World.

Regardless, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wanted to get a taste of what Beto can do. It's a lot less daunting than that huge Palomar book and it's a more straightforward story than Grip.

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