GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Chance in Hell
Chance in Hell is Gilbert Hernandez’s second stand-alone graphic novel, after Sloth. Like Sloth, it’s unconnected to his Love & Rockets work, but – unlike Sloth – it’s deeply metaphorical and difficult to follow. It’s set among unnamed people, living in unnamed places in an unspecified time, worrying about criminals with monikers but not names and slaughtering each other at whim. I’m afraid it’s all supposed to be an allegory for something, most likely the Iraq war, but I couldn’t quite bring that into focus.
The story takes place in three time periods in the life of one woman, but they’re not separated or otherwise marked as chapters; there are no captions at all. Our protagonist is called “the Empress,” and she’s the only person with a name – besides “the Babykiller,” whom is talked about but never shown – out of dozens in this graphic novel.
We meet the Empress as a young girl, living among people prone to extreme violence in a Mad Max-ian trash heap. Eight or ten unnamed male characters, mostly teenagers, fight over her, while two technicians try to maintain a fence around a large, dangerous piece of unspecified machinery. Empress is perhaps four or five, playing with a doll and not talking much. At the end of this scene, after much bloodshed, a man in a suit takes Empress away, with a promise to become her new “daddy.”
On the next page it’s about five years later. Empress lives in some city, somewhere, with “daddy,” a poetry editor who keeps her out of school out of fear that “the authorities” will make her mediocre. He otherwise seems a decent parent, or at least not physically abusive. Empress spends her days with a pimp barely older than she is, who keeps his business going through the use of two hoses: one rubber (for his three prostitutes), one iron (for other pimps or unruly customers). Before long, there’s more bloodshed, with that iron pipe brought into play, and Empress has to flee. She stops at the dumpsite from the first section, which has been cleared and will soon be the site of “the Sakova Estates,” and then ends up in some sort of convent school, run by nuns.
In the third section – still without any chapter breaks or anything similar – Empress is married to an unnamed prosecutor, living with him and her mother-in-law, and working at the convent school. Her husband is trying to convict “the Babykiller,” who I suspect we’re supposed to believe is one of the characters from earlier in the book.
There’s also a quicksand pit in this section, and I’m sorry to say that Hernandez has made it a very Hollywood quicksand pit – treacherous, sucking, eternal. As one character says, “They’ll never find any bodies in that quicksand pit. Never have and never will. Not even the bones. It’s been estimated that forty-seven people have been pulled down into the pit since it was discovered sixty-two years ago.” That’s not a quicksand pit, or any physical object. It’s a big honking metaphor plopped down in the middle of the page, begging to be taken seriously. And you can guess that a big metaphor like that will have to be fed, and so it is. There’s less violence, and sense, at the end of this section, but another jump in time to the very last page, where apparently Empress has finally found happiness. The End.
The drawing is up to Hernandez’s usual standard, and the dialogue is also good, conversational rather than the kind of faux-portentousness that a story like this could so easily fall into. Chance in Hell displays all of his strengths except the most important one: the ability to tell a clear story about people the audience will care about. I haven’t a clue what kind of person Empress is, or what she thinks and feels about the things that happen to her. I couldn’t identify with her, and none of the other characters were real enough to believe in, either. In the end, Chance in Hell is an interesting failure, a graphic novel that’s clearly trying to do something, but isn’t ready to explain what that thing is.
Chance in Hell
Fantagraphics, 2007, $16.95