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Speak of the Devil #4

Posted: Saturday, January 26, 2008
By: Thom Young

Gilbert Hernandez
Gilbert Hernandez
Dark Horse Comics
Dramatis Personae

Val, the protagonist of our story: A high school gymnast who likes to put on a smiling devil mask and black clothing before prowling around her neighborhood to peer through people’s windows.

Paul: A college student and friend of Val's from the neighborhood.

Linda: Val's twenty-something stepmother who works as a waitress in a nightclub. Her uniform is that of a "Playboy Bunny" but with devil horns and devil tail instead of bunny ears and bunny tail. The age difference between Linda and Val appears to be ten years or less.

Walter: Val's thirty- or forty-something father who is rarely home due to his job. When he is home, he has a very active sex life with his young wife.

Patty: Val's best friend and fellow gymnast. She is a lesbian who may have a romantic crush on Val.

Zed: A high school friend of Val's who dresses in stereotypical beatnik fashions with a black beret, sunglasses, goatee, and black shirts.

Mooch: Another high school friend of Val's who hangs around with Zed.

Paul's parents: Paul's abusive father and abuse-enabling mother.

Coaches, Gymnasts, Parents, Students, and Other Attendants

After reviewing (and enjoying) the first two issues of Speak of the Devil, I didn't get around to reading the third issue until the fourth came out last Wednesday. My initial reaction upon reading issues #3 and #4 is, "Well, that’s not where I was expecting this story to go."

Normally, it's considered a good thing if a well-written story by a competent artist (such as Gilbert Hernandez) can surprise a reader whose job it is to read and analyze thousands of stories (such as myself). However, in this case I'm not so sure that this story's ability to confound my expectations is a good thing. It might be--but, at this point in the story, I'm not so sure.

After reading the third issue (which had been sitting on my desk since mid-November), I realized that I should re-read the first two since I couldn’t recall what had lead to Val and Paul having sex in the cemetery at the beginning of #3. This series is bi-monthly, and the first issue came out in mid-July of last year. Normally, I'm pretty good at remembering plot points over a span of several months, but I couldn’t recall a few of the finer details of this story.

So, after reading all four issues in one sitting (they are quick to read since there are a lot of wordless panels, no captions, and minimal dialog), I noticed two seemingly minor motifs that I wouldn’t have otherwise caught. The devil leitmotif is obvious since the reference in the title is supported by the devil mask that Val wears as a Peeping Tom and by the "Playboy Devil" costume that Val's stepmother, Linda, wears at her job as nightclub waitress.

The lesbian (and gay) motif is also obvious--with Val's infatuation in peeping at her stepmother (either naked or while having sex with Walter), Patty’s apparent lesbian crush on Val, Patty’s apparent lesbian hookup with a gymnast from a rival high school, and the initial question regarding Paul's sexual orientation.

The two seemingly minor motifs that I only noticed after re-reading the first two issues, though, are what I call "baby in a dresser drawer" and "fear of being caught having sex by someone suddenly coming home."

In the second issue, Paul pulled away from Val as she tried to make out with him on her bed. He claimed to be worried that her parents would come home, but he seemed to be a prude (later in the issue, Val erroneously decided that Paul is gay). As he pulled away from Val’s advances, Paul became distraught when he saw a battered baby in one of Val’s dresser drawers. She explained that it was an old doll from her childhood.

This "baby in a dresser" motif is repeated in the third issue in a flashback scene as Paul explains that he found an abandoned and disease-ridden baby in a dresser of a house that he and his father had been contracted to clean when Paul was a boy. The thought of people abandoning their infants so casually horrified Paul. Over the years, his "sensitivity" has lead to Paul's father calling him a "faggot."

The other motif ("fear of being caught having sex by someone suddenly coming home") was also repeated in the third issue, but I nearly missed it because it was used in negation. After Val leaves to cheer on her team at a gymnastics meet (she can't participate because she injured her ankle during one of her Peeping Tom escapades), Paul dons Val's devil mask and pays a visit to Val's stepmother. They immediately engage in sex (Val's father is away on business).

However, Paul initiates the sexual contact and is not afraid of being discovered by someone suddenly coming home. Additionally, Linda assures Paul that Val won't walk in on them because she said she would call when she was on her way home. Something is either different or has changed to make Paul no longer fear being discovered.

However, Val actually does come home without calling ahead--and she walks in on them just as Linda is pulling up her panties. After her initial non-reaction to the situation, the third issue ended with Val pulling out a knife and lunging toward Paul and Linda--with blood splattering across the final panel.

Okay, a sudden crime of passion by a sexually confused high school gymnast isn't necessarily a confounding of my expectations of the story being an exploration of sexual orientation and infidelity in a small and somewhat closed-minded American community.. However, it became more than that type of story in issue #4, and my problem is that I'm not entirely sold on the twist in the plot.

In my review of the first issue I noted that one of the problems I had was with what I considered to be "affected dialog." Some of the conversations sounded too mannered and disjointed. I continued to have that problem in the third issue when, after they finish having sex in the cemetery, Paul says to Val:
My psychology professor could never teach me anything as profound as what I've learned tonight [he points to the devil mask on a headstone]. You've taken that big step so many need to do but never will, Valentina. You've opened the door, but I'm too scared to walk through, I. . . .

Val interrupts to say, "Then let's walk through it together, Paul."

It turns out that this exchange was a foreshadowing of events in the fourth issue in which Paul and Val do (figuratively) enter together into a new psychology--a new life. Nevertheless, that dialog was still too affected to be believable--at least that's what I initially thought.

However, upon further consideration, I realized that my friends and I had similarly affected conversations when we were the age these characters are supposed to be. We, too, thought that we had suddenly arrived at a new way of seeing the world--an ideology that pulled back the veil of mystery from the universe and that allowed us to strike through the pasteboard mask of physical reality. Like Paul, our revelations also often came after orgasmic release.

Of course, like Paul, we also didn't realize how much we didn't know--and how clichéd our revelatory insights actually were. The problem I have (or might have) with the way Hernandez presents these types of scenes in his story isn't necessarily that the dialog is affected. It's that the affected dialog in these scenes is so minimal.

Hernandez resorts to shorthand dialog rather than bog the story down with the lengthy discourses that such people are likely to produce when discussing their revelatory views of reality. However, without such discourses, the reader isn't able to get a true sense of the characters and the ideas that motivate them.

Thus, it either falls upon the reader to fill in the gaps by projecting his or her own youthful philosophizing into the text, or the reader is likely to assume that Paul and the other characters don't actually have more to say about these topics beyond, "You're so profound, Val, you've opened the door but I'm too scared to walk through it."

In my review of the first issue, I also noted that "The hints at other possible motivations for Val's behavior are intriguing and indicate that Gilbert has thought his story through." Unfortunately, due to the gaps in the characters' motivations for their beliefs and actions, I'm no longer as certain that Gilbert Hernandez actually has thought this story through.

He may have, but I am no longer certain that he has--which is why I continue to give these issues four-bullet ratings rather than five.

As I read the fourth issue, I had a definite sense that the events in it (which I'm purposely not mentioning so as not to spoil the issue) were not pre-meditated. I just can't determine if it's Hernandez who's improvising as he writes the story, or if it's his characters who are improvising as they performed their actions (or both).

Are the gaps in the story (the ideas and actions that are not explored) a failing of Hernandez as the author or an example of verisimilitude in the depiction of an actual lack of profundity in contemporary young people? I can't tell.

When the series is over I expect to either raise my rating to five bullets or lower it below four bullets--that is, if I don't keep it where it is.



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