by Gilbert Hernandez
Vertigo/DC Comics 2006
Spoilers alert: About half way through. I'll let you know when we get there.
Parents moving from the city to quieter towns for the sake of giving their kids peace and relative safety may be trading off one set of evils for another. Gilbert Hernandez starts off his dark and gripping tale of teen angst by suggesting that nature abhors a vacuum, and for teens removed from a city, that vacuum leads to boredom, low existential self esteem and, perhaps inevitably, irrational suicide.
And that's just three pages in.
But Gilbert Hernandez uses this framework of teen ennui to build a story about another possibility, that a strong-willed teen named Miguel Serra has deliberately slipped into a coma for a year, and then wakes himself up, mostly unchanged. The loss of a year doesn't seemed to have changed much for Miguel of his fellow teens. Sure, his friends relationships may have been on hold -- in particular, his band which includes his girlfriend and his best friend -- but on the whole Miguel didn't seem to miss much. There's still some unanswered questions about why his mother abandoned him when he was for, whether or not his incarcerated drug-dealing father might have had something to do with her disappearance, but nothing that wasn't there when Miguel decided to drop into his dream-like coma state and chill for a bit.
Sloth is the name of Miguel's band. It's also the nickname he's been given by his homies in response to his slightly-slowed pace. To Miguel his pace isn't slow so much as it's deliberate. When the bands gets together to practice he finds he no longer has the taste for loud and fast and wants to rethink slower material. He hasn't lost emotion or feeling but adopted a more dream-like view of the world and it suits him fine.
His girlfriend Lita appears to have remained faithful to him the year he was gone, and has become something of an expert on urban legends. The one she's obsessing about the most concerns a local lemon grove where dead bodies are rumored to be buried, and where a mysterious creature called The Goatman lives. Lita gets Miguel and their bandmate Romeo to hit the orchard on a moonless night where they may or may not have spotted the mysterious creature that lives there. At one point the party is separated and when Miguel meets up he finds Romeo and Lita holding each other. He writes it off at first but the nagging suspicion that there's something between them grows. When he confront Romeo with it later he's unconvincingly evasive.
All the while Miguel dreams. He dreams of his mother, and the lemon orchard, and the peacefulness he found when he was in a coma. The coma was his escape from the banalities of the real world, from the drama and the trauma and it's beginning to look more and more attractive to him.
Here come some spoilers.
And that's when the transformation takes place, almost a transubstantiation really. A year's coma didn't change the world only his perception of the things within it, and so he drifts back into the comfort of that sleep...
And wakes up as Lita.
The second half of Sloth is actually divided into two parts, each shorter than the previous section, almost the inverse of the golden mean spiraling rapidly inward. In Lita's version of the self-induced coma she has yet to get the nerve to speak to Miguel, a silent crush that eventually finds its commonality in a love of a rock singer named Romeo X. It's a parallel universe with the same characters as before, only not. In Miguel's story there are bullies who become thugs but in Lita's coma-dream these bullies are wannabe rappers who dream of opening for Romeo X. And when Lita eventually meets her musical hero Romeo he turns out to be a compassionate nerd and she is torn in her love between him and Miguel. When Miguel confront Romeo the fight that results draws Lita into an accident that pushes her back into a coma. Romeo realizes that he's not good enough for Lita and drowns himself, slipping into a coma as Miguel rescues him. Romeo realizes there's a comfort in comaland and decides he may just stay there.
Draw what conclusions you may -- a coma as a stand-in for drugs, that escape is the universal dream of teens trapped that makes them feel helpless, that like caged animals we have created whole communities of souls driven to acts of desperation and self-destruction -- Hernandez manages to capture the contained world that is teen ennui. The sub-plot concerning the lemon grove, the urban legends and mysterious deaths only exist in Miguel's world, though Lita also dreams of the grove and the creature said to live there. It's like the Jungian idea that everyone caries their personal world into their dreams but that dream world caries commonalities that allow people to "connect" while there. In the brief chapter that is Romeo's coma the lemon grove -- which is the last panel of the book -- is his sanctuary. I may stay forever he says, and there's no reason to doubt him.
Apathy is not the answer, neither is checking out, running away, dropping out or just wishing it would all go away. None of these characters really wants to confront the issues they have before them despite all their attempts to grapple with them. At one point Miguel marvels that his grandparents argue opposite sides of the political spectrum but still love each other. He hasn't spent the time and years they have coming to terms with that idea that one can love and respect someone and still not agree with them; he hasn't the experience, the trials and errors that would give him the insight they have gained over time. Despite his deliberate, slowed pace he is still too impatient. The coma is the easy way out.
I've long known of Los Bros. Hernandez -- Gilbert and his brother Jaime created the seminal alternative comic book Love and Rockets back in the early 1980's -- so I was happy to see a new graphic novel making the recommended lists recently. In the past I preferred Jaime's stories because they felt more grounded to a landscape I understood, his approach to female characters seemed better rooted to me. Gilbert Hernandez doesn't do anything here to shake that feeling, but I was more engaged with this book of his than in any of his Palomar stories. Which is to say that I liked it, but I have reservations.
I'm getting to that point where I'm wondering about the appropriateness of certain materials for teens. I get torn because I'm all for the gore and gruesomeness being left in the Grimm tales but I go the other way when it comes to teens because I feel that there are larger issues involved. I look at the increase in violence in schools and I recognize that it's more of a societal problem than just the influences of culture, and yet that's a chicken-and-egg argument: does the society influence the violent cultural entertainments or does the entertaining violence alter the accepted culture? Part of me (the part that went to art school) likes to think of the arts as influential and transformative, but you can only live in that fantasy land for so long. The arts reflect, that's my stance, and that why I straddle the fence when it come to appropriateness.
Which is to ask the question: do I think this is appropriate for a teen aged audience? It isn't like I think they're going to go around inducing themselves into comas for escape. No, teens will do what they always have done, find whatever it takes to cope. I guess I'll take the same out that Vertigo Comics uses in the small print just below the bar code.
Suggested for Mature Readers.