Review: ‘Speak of the Devil’ by Gilbert Hernandez
Speak of the Devil
By Gilbert Hernandez
Dark Horse, November 2008, $19.95
Most of Gilbert Hernandez’s comics have been set in the same world, featuring a huge cast of characters with many obvious and obscure links, reaching from the small Latin American town of Palomar to Southern California and covering the second half of the twentieth century right up to now. Even the few of his comics that aren’t obviously in that world often turn out to have links to the “[[[Palomar]]]” cast.
Last year, Hernandez put out the graphic novel [[[Chance in Hell]]]. That story didn’t itself take place in his usual world – but it was a comics version of a movie from that world, a movie that featured his character Fritz in a minor role. Hernandez is continuing that conceit; [[[Speak of the Devil]]] is another metafictional comic, the story of a movie that only exists within another world of fiction, and one that featured Fritz in a larger part. (Fritz had a short but eventful Hollywood career, so we might well get another half-dozen “movies” with her as an “actress.”)
Like Chance in Hell, Speak of the Devil is a noirish drama with a timeless feel – there are a few details like cellphones that place it in the modern day, but the atmosphere and touches like a beatnik tertiary character make it feel like a movie from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s – that is, if we take Hernandez’s bait and think of Speak of the Devil as a movie to begin with. Devil does have the feel of a movie sometimes; Hernandez often allows his panels to stretch all the way across the page for a widescreen effect before diving into an array of smaller panels to indicate quicker events.
[[[Devil]]] is the story of a peeping tom in a small town; one who spends time particularly watching Linda Castillo (the Fritz part) – the young, cocktail-waitress second wife of businessman Walter. We learn very quickly that the watcher – who always wears a devil match; hence the title – is actually Walter’s teenage daughter Valentina, a strong competition gymnast.
Val has a circle of friends – including a fellow gymnast, Patty, and the aforementioned beatnik Zed, who acts like something of an occasional Greek chorus with the goofball Mooch – that centers on Paul, a self-declared disaffected young man with a violently abusive father. Val is interested in Paul, but she’s not the only one.
Other characters who become more-or-less important include Paul’s parents and (much later) Val’s mother. But this is mostly a book about a small cast; only three of the above characters are of primary importance. And that’s because, as usual for a noir, Devil turns into a love triangle fairly quickly. Somewhat unusually, the triangle is stable for quite a while. I’m being vague, because this is the kind of story that relies on a series of incrementally shocking events to drive it forward, and I don’t want to give them away and waste their power. But Speak of the Devil is definitely noir; it starts gloomy and gets darker and darker as it goes; particularly in the second half.
Speak of the Devil is a more conventional story than Chance in Hell; it becomes the story of a rampage, and follows the logic of that to the inevitable end. To my tastes, it’s also a more successful story than [[[Chance]]], but that may be purely taste – Chance is evocative and difficult to pin down, while Devil is straightforward and driven. (Although I will also say that Devil reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s devastating novel The Speed Queen, which drives through some of the same territory.)
Hernandez’s art is as assured and potent as ever; he draws in black-and-white as if color had never been invented. And Speak of the Devil could be a great first Gilbert Hernandez book for a new reader; it’s an utterly standalone story that showcases many of his great strengths.
I have to end with a quote, from precisely the middle of the book: “Just one more thing. WHO WANTS IT FIRST?!”
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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