I’ve been reading Beto Hernandez’s comics almost since the first issue of Love and Rockets received its first rave review. Beto has done a lot of brilliant comics in that time. Beto’s “Palomar” stories are legendary (and the recent hardcover omnibus collection of them is absolutely amazing), but Hernandez has also done a lot of interesting work outside his work on Love and Rockets. Hernandez produced a fascinating but underrated graphic novel, Sloth, for Vertigo comics in 2006, and he’s currently serializing Speak of the Devil at Dark Horse Comics.
Speak of the Devil is a dark look at the lives of a group of dysfunctional people, mostly teens, in an unnamed city. One character, Valentina, is the Peeping Tom, who happens to be the story’s main character and who also happens to be a gymnast who can’t compete in her chosen sport because she has a broken foot. The gymnast is having sex with Paul, who’s also having sex with Val’s stepmother and… well, it’s hard to describe this whole story without making it sound like some sort of perverse soap opera.
What keeps this from being a soap opera is the depth and complexity of the characters as depicted by Gilbert’s art. Paul explains in this issue why he’s so screwed up, telling Valentina about a horrific experience he had as a child. It’s an awful moment, the kind of moment that would haunt anyone if it happened to them. Gilbert emphasizes the scene by presenting a panel on page 10 that seems completely suffused in black, an almost impressionistic moment of pure horror depicted in the spookiest possible way. Of course, Paul’s messed up. The experience overwhelmed him. After two pages of raw emotion and angst, Paul ends his story. In the first panel on page 11, readers see Valentina with a cryptic look on her face as she gets out of the graveyard where the couple has had sex. It’s hard to read what Val is thinking – is she saddened by the story? Angry at Paul for making their relationship too emotional? In the next panel we see Val turn her back on Paul, whose face is in the extreme foreground. In the next panel, Val is standing, seeming to tower over a sitting Paul as she glowers at him. It feels like the moment is ending, and there’s great significance as we get close-ups of the two characters in the next two panels, each facing away from each other. “I – I have to get ready for the state championships,” Val mumbles, and it feels like things are drawing to a close.
It’s moments like this that show why Gilbert Hernandez is such a master artist. Each moment is chosen in a way to emphasize the depth of his characters and the complex internal worlds that the characters inhabit. So much of this issue takes place at night, with dark skies seeming to be eternally floating above the heads of the characters. Night is here, perversity has crept in, and the characters have been corrupted by their bizarre, dysfunctional lives and choices. When Hernandez takes a page to show cute, athletic gymnasts competing, the scene seems all the more unsettling because normalcy seems so out of place in this comic.
This issue ends with a cliffhanger that practically demands the reader come back for the next issue, a cliffhanger that flows directly from the characters and the crazy things they do. Like so much in this comic, the scene feels outlandish but real because it feels so human and passionate.
After all his years in the comics creation business, Gilbert Hernandez has reached the level of a real master. At a first pass through this comic, the story goes down easy. It’s well told, clear, and interesting. But on a second reading, Speak of the Devil shows an amazing quality of craft, a deep and abiding intelligence that causes Hernandez to make smart, thoughtful choices that make the story more dramatic and interesting than it might otherwise be. This is a dark and compelling trip into the human heart, and only Gilbert Hernandez could tell this story in quite this amazing way.