Friday, 13 December 2013

'Sloth' by Gilbert Hernandez.

Miguel Serra lives in a small American town, where nothing ever happens. Other teenagers end up committing suicide, or in jail, but Miguel, one day falls into a coma, and then, after a year, wakes up again.

Miguel is a changed person now. He can't run without pain, he is better in bed as he is slower and takes more time, and he stops playing fast music with his band, preferring a 'slow, sensual, rhythmic flow'. His band is called Sloth, but people now use this term to mock him.

Miguel's girlfriend, Lita, is in the band, with another member, Romeo. The three friends decide to go to the local Lemon Groves, to investigate an urban legend of the 'Goatman' - a creature that, if it catches you, will try to swap places with you. That's about as much as I want to give away about the plot. There is plenty of action, but as usual, with the Hernandez Brothers, the story is in the complex characters, their relationships, dialogue and thoughts. Gilbert Hernandez grew up wanting to illustrate superheroes, but his work transcends this genre. The dialogue is believable, and genuinely funny. The characters are inconsistent and fallible, in the way real people are, and actions always have real consequences, unlike the superhero genre.

I also love the idea behind the book - that someone could will themself into a coma, through boredom, and then will themself out of the coma again, when they feel ready to face the world. Despite the realism of his work, it is interesting that a completely impossible event is at the heart of this story. As the doctors tell Miguel, this has never been known before in medical history (a nice way to shoehorn a superpower into such a realistic book!). The event provides a springboard for interesting possibilities  - how would it change you, would you be aware that you were in a coma, what kind of person would do this, how would people react to you? There is also, in the storytelling, a blurring of the lines between dreams and reality, and the reader is not always sure what they are seeing.

The Hernandez Brothers' series 'Love and Rockets' mostly takes place in a small, Mexican village, without consumerism or even telephones. This, and the small town in 'Sloth' seem to create a blank canvas for anything to happen on - crime, bandits, bogeymen and madness.

The Hernandez Brothers are all skillful draftsmen, and seem to be able to depict convincing characters at ease. The figures are beautifully drawn, the settings well researched - yet the drawing is often invisible as you are swept away by the story, which is the way it should be with good cartooning. It is not a space for an artists to 'exhibit' their work - the artwork takes a backseat, like the cameraman in movies, whilst the story is on the front seat, driving the book along.

I have often seen books by the Hernandez Brothers in book shops and libraries, but did not pick them up as they all seemed to be about large breasted women and violence, which is not my usual choice of comic book. However, after reading Alan Moore's comments about them and the worlds they create, in his book 'Writing for Comics', I thought it was worth a try. In my opinion they are up there with Alan Moore in the originality of writing, the complexity of ideas and scope of the books, the strength of the characters and the quality of the dialogue.

Sloth was published in 2006 by DC Comics.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

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