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Gilbert Hernandez as a Rhetor

By F. Vance Neill

Gilbert Hernandez, as both one member of the Love and Rockets comic book creative team and personally, achieved more than compelling, realistic storytelling in the comics medium.1 His approach to comics includes his own version of magic realism that centers on supernaturalism as a commentary on everyday values. In Magic(al) Realism (2004), Maggie Bowers discusses that writers of magical realist stories typically come from postcolonial nations and tend to have a political agenda, overthrowing the cultural influence of their colonial rulers in regard to the definition of realism (and perhaps reality): Europeans defined realism in empirical, rationalistic terms that excluded the supernatural as normal, whereas many postcolonial nations did not perceive realism in terms of a binary between the rational and the supernatural. The Hernandez brothers come from a family whose culture stemmed from one of the largest postcolonial areas in the world, Latin America. Gilbert uses magical realism for rhetorical, aesthetic, and political purposes via an implied author, who seems to be Latino American and capable of critiquing both cultures. Through his comics narratives, Gilbert Hernandez, or at least, the implied author of his graphic novels, argues for the raw humanity of living, a perception of reality that acknowledges the mystery of life, and the value of difference. In short, he proffers a phenomenological approach to life while critiquing the European-American culture from the perspective of a postcolonial and cross-cultural ideology. As a rhetor, or storytelling rhetorician, Gilbert Hernandez presents his argument via the implied author of his narratives, the visual rhetoric of the image-text relationship, and the tacit ethic of living that circulate amongst the characters.

A rhetorical analysis of Gilbert Hernandez’s work provides an opportunity to perceive Hernandez as a rhetor, as a storyteller who is actually making an argument—a dramatistic argument. The idea that narratives can make arguments was established by Wayne C. Booth’s book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1983) and enlarged by Walter R. Fisher’s argument for “the narrative paradigm” in argumentation (375). Both Booth and Fisher based their ideas on classical rhetoric. James Phelan has extended Booth’s work in the rhetoric of narrative, arguing for the need for rhetorical readings of narrative (Phelan 45-7). He also links ethics with the rhetorical reading of narratives and treats ethics and ethos as synonymous. Effectively, Phelan connects ethos to the implied author. Hernandez makes his argument to his audience through the ethos—or, in terms of the rhetoric of narrative, the implied author—in his comics. Thus, the concepts of ethos and implied author are central to understanding Hernandez’s arguments about living, values, and the world.

The rhetorical concept of ethos has morphed over time from its classical roots to its modern revisions. As Aristotle articulated in his On Rhetoriclogospathos, and ethos are the types of evidence necessary for building a successful argument. Aristotle defined ethos as the traits of the speaker, or rhetor. Quintilian argued that the success of an orator depends partially on his character, which Quintilian prescribes as the vir bonus or, literally, “a good man” (6). Both of these classical authors conceived of ethos in terms of character. Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., has proposed a modern sense of ethos: “In short, a distinctly ‘modern’ ethos may well be grasped as an aesthetic manipulation of self-division” (28). Alcorn’s recognition of a divided self fits the cultural background, Latino American, of the implied author of Gilbert Hernandez’s graphic novels. The front flap of the jacket of Hernandez’s graphic novel The Troublemakers (2009) states, “Born in 1957, Gilbert Hernandez enjoyed a pleasant childhood in Oxnard, California with four brothers and one sister.” This piece of biographical information reveals that Hernandez was raised in a culture different from his genealogical heritage. Two cultures existed during his childhood: United States culture and Latino culture. Thus, he has an awareness of the two cultures that he can use to construct an implied author who has a bicultural self and, hence, a bifurcated self.

The question of the rhetor’s character was translated into narrative theory by Wayne Booth’s concept of the implied author. Booth describes the implied author as “the reader’s need to know where, in the world of values, he stands—that is, to know where the author wants him to stand” (73). He explains,

Our sense of the implied author includes not only the extractable meanings but also the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all of the characters. It includes, in short, the intuitive apprehension of a completed artistic whole; the chief value to which this implied author is committed, regardless of what party his creator belongs in real life, is that expressed by the total form. (Booth 73-74)

The audience’s impression of the author behind the work, the implied author, is derived from “the total form,” that is, both the holistic presentation of the work’s parts and every part in the work. For comics, the sum total of the parts includes the communicative modes of image and text in addition to its narratological parts. Those two modes subsume its discursive parts and its unique elements such as the panel, the strip, the speech balloon, the gutter, and lettering. Observing how a given comics creator—say, Gilbert Hernandez—uses those parts to construct a whole work informs the audience of the implied author’s traits.

Phelan extends Booth’s conception of the implied author in his definition of the implied author. He defines the concept of the implied author in these terms: “the implied author is a streamlined version of the real author, an actual or purported subset of the real author’s capacities, traits, attitudes, beliefs, values, and other properties that play an active role in the construction of the particular text” (45, italics in original). This definition does not deny a connection between the flesh-and-blood, or historical, author and the ethos, or persona, who creates the text, or in more general terms, the cultural artifact. He clarifies his position on the implied author as the creator of the text when he adds, “In my account, the implied author is not a product of the text but rather the agent responsible for bringing the text into existence” (45). This statement declares that the implied author cannot be contained as a textual phenomenon. It is an extratextual entity. His perspective on the concept also permits it to not be restricted to the mode of text because he conceives of it as an “agent,” or an intelligence, shaping the narrative in specific ways. Consequently, it could be applied to graphic narratives that may or may not include text.

The modern ethos and the implied author are part of the broader rhetorical concept of ethos, a concept applicable to Gilbert Hernandez’s work. The disjunctive plot structures and narration of Hernandez’s comics makes sense in the context of his ethos as a rhetor rather than as a mere storyteller—an invisible puppeteer manipulating the characters and the plots in which they find themselves. His purpose extends beyond telling an entertaining yarn: the implied author of his graphic novels grapples with his cultural hybridity as a Latino American, the hybridity of imagetext in comics, and the hybridity of magical realism. Through all of that hybridity, he argues for certain values and an ideological position, and it is that collection of values and ideology that informs the audience of Gilbert Hernandez’s ethos as a rhetor.

The implied author permeating Gilbert Hernandez’s narratives is the collection of the values of la familia (the Latino concept of family), integrity, acceptance of identity, the normalcy of the supernatural, and the sanctity of secrets, plus an ideological position stemming from post-colonialism and cross-culturalism. Although the implied author may change for each story, the core values and ideological position remain. This trans-narrative implied author is Hernandez’s ethos as a dramatistic rhetor. As a rhetor, Hernandez is dramatistic because he argues through narrative instead of the rationalistic essay. As Scott McCloud has demonstrated, it is possible to write essays in the medium of comics. McCloud has written books about the comics medium—Understanding Comics (1994), Reinventing Comics (2000), Making Comics (2006)—composed as graphic novels with little narrative and an online comics essay arguing for micropayments with no narrative (“Coins of the Realm: Part One”; “Coins of the Realm: Part Two”). Hernandez demonstrates that he is behaving as a rhetor in part because he generates an ethos that chooses to argue through a narrative instead of an essay. The choice indicates that his ethos has a dramatistic turn of mind, the mark of a storyteller and a dramaturg, and resists the linear rationality of the essay as conceived by Europeans, the source of the American educational system.

Thus, the implied author across his comics is informed by a bicultural background, Latino American, and a postcolonial ideology. Understandably then, la familia is one of the values of this implied author, and he uses it to critique European American culture. The value of la familia runs throughout the Palomar stories and the stand-alone graphic novels. Dissimilar from the English word “family,” la familia refers to the extended family rather than the nuclear family. The Palomar stories are filled with extended families. The town itself operates as an extended family. Chelo, as the town’s midwife, functions as a surrogate mother for every person she has delivered. Luba’s own children are an extended family because they have different fathers. In Speak of the Devil (2008), the female protagonist, Val, her boyfriend, and her stepmother form an ad hoc family after eliminating the boyfriend’s biological parents. In The Troublemakers (2009), the focal criminals act like a family despite not being blood-related. They collaborate with each other, care for one another, help each other, and squabble amongst themselves. Both ad hoc families represent the poison of distrust within families and the failing of families formed from necessity, not emotion. The families disintegrate when one member kills other members out of distrust. However, these failed families simultaneously reinforce the importance of genuine la familia. The negative seems to prove the positive.

These ad hoc families also point out the corrosive elements of European-American culture, a culture that largely privileges the individual. The sources of their disintegration are selfishness and greed—traits endemic to the capitalist European-American culture. In Speak of the Devil, the instigating motive for the plot’s events is the fulfillment of one’s desires, a type of selfishness. Val puts on the devil mask in order to give in to her desires, which include being a peeping tom and killing. Both activities serve her needs but in the process, harm other people. Paul, Val’s boyfriend, wears the devil mask to be a peeping tom of Linda and satiate his lust for her. Again, they are acts that satisfy a particular individual rather than showing concern for the impact of those acts on the community. The plot of The Troublemakers is driven by property—Wes’s charm—and money—the $200,000 the central characters want. The question of who possesses the charm and the money motivates the distrust between Wes, Nala, and Vincene. Through the destruction of these ad hoc families, Hernandez’s implied author shows the failings of European-American culture from the perspective of a Latino American.

As a corollary to la familia, the acceptance of identity is a persistent value in the Palomar stories and the independent narratives. Despite their idiosyncrasies, characters in Hernandez’s narratives are rarely despised or degraded for differing from others. Furthermore, characters in the independent graphic novels are punished for not accepting others’ identities. The Palomar stories contain perhaps two of Hernandez’s most controversial characters, Luba and Israel. Luba is promiscuous, resulting in evidence of such sexual unions—four children fathered by three different men. Luba could be ostracized for her sexual promiscuity, but she is not. Israel poses a different problem. Although he too has multiple sexual partners, his status as a man negates a possible charge of promiscuity; however, that same status exposes him to the risk of ostracism because some of his sex partners are men. Nevertheless, Israel’s childhood friends never criticize his choice in partners in Heartbreak Soup (2007), and Palomar’s matriarchal figures, Chelo, Luba, Carmen, and Ofelia, never chastise him for his behavior. Both characters present a radical reinterpretation of la familia, yet they are never shunned. If Heartbreak Soup provides the positive model of identity acceptance, then Speak of the Devil supplies the negative model. When its female protagonist has eliminated everyone who loved her, except her best friend, she confesses her killing spree to her best friend, who shoots her. Val must die because she was unable to cope with the differences of others and has become a significant threat to the community at large.

Part of identity formation is one’s construction of reality, and Hernandez’s implied author clearly views reality as being mysterious and magical, resulting in a valuation of the normalcy of the supernatural and a critique of European-American culture’s strictly rationalistic definition of reality. The normalcy of the supernatural is the main source of the magical aspects of Hernandez’s stories. The supernatural surfaces as the ghosts of past denizens of Palomar, the character of the bruja (or witch) in Heartbreak Soup, and the devil mask in the graphic novel Speak of the Devil. Supposedly, the bruja can cast spells, and the devil mask can transform a person into an imp or a demon. Simultaneously, Chelo dismisses the bruja as being “just an old woman” (254.8), and the devil mask repeatedly reveals itself as being a mere mask. Palomar’s ghosts appear under a specific tree and are treated as if they are really present, but often, only Heraclio can see them.

The questioning of the supernatural seems to undercut treating the supernatural as normal, yet the matter-of-fact acceptance of the supernatural bolsters its normalcy. Multiple characters believe in the supernatural. The old woman who arrives at Palomar is called a bruja by everyone but Chelo. Characters ask Heraclio if he sees the ghosts at particular moments in the Palomar stories. Throughout Speak of the Devil, characters refer to the devil, especially when discussing the mask’s wearer. Further, due to the visual art that accompanies the presence of the supernatural components, their supernatural quality is compellingly affirmed. In “Duck Feet” in Heartbreak Soup, when the bruja loses her “baby” (251.3), which is an infant’s skull, and becomes enraged over the loss, the entirety of Palomar becomes ill. The visual detail in the drawings of the sick denizens of Palomar implies that the bruja has hexed the town. The text resists the supernatural, suggested through the textual refrains during this episode, such as Chelo’s phrases “old hag” and “just an old woman” (254.8) Chelo’s comments function like a ward, downplaying the supernatural, yet there is phenomenal evidence to reinforce the validity of the supernatural in the form of the bruja‘s angry spell. The illness ceases when the “baby” returns to the bruja (264.8). In that scene, the episode’s images conquer its texts because Chelo’s ward is ineffective.

By admitting the supernatural into the narratives and treating it as normal, Hernandez’s implied author defies European-American culture’s conventional definition of realism. For European-American culture, reality must be empirically verifiable with the world outside of the human body. It is the world of the microscope and the telescope. Hernandez’s implied author includes ghosts under a tree and the witch in the Palomar stories and in the stand-alone graphic novels, the material appearance of urban legends, such as the goatman in Sloth (2006), and magical talismans, such as Wes’s charm in The Troublemakers and Empress’s doll in Chance in Hell (2007). This implied author is uninterested in a purely rationalistic definition of reality and finds that kind of realism false.

Along the lines of the mystery of life is the value of the sanctity of secrets. In the Palomar stories, people are sworn to secrecy. In Heartbreak Soup‘s “For the Love of Carmen,” Heraclio makes Luba promise to never mention their sexual dalliance to Carmen. In “Duck Feet,” Luba forbids her daughter Guadalupe from telling anyone that she is stuck in a hole. Israel hides his male partners from the rest of Palomar. Luba refuses to reveal the truth about their fathers to her children. Secrets lack any bad side effects in Hernandez’s stories. The threat of ill consequences only occurs when Luba is stuck in the hole. Guadalupe keeps her promise to her mother but worries. Fortunately, another Palomar resident is able to rescue Luba without Guadalupe breaking her promise to her mother. The incident is a near miss of the dark side of secrecy, but because secrecy does not ultimately harm Luba’s health, it remains a virtue instead of a vice.

The issue of ethos is not bound to Gilbert Hernandez’s text exclusively but emanates from the conjunction of image and text throughout his comics. He employs an imagetextual rhetoric, in which the modes of text and image collude with each other, even when they appear to fight one another. Charles Hatfield has theorized about a tension between image and text (32-67). He summarizes his theory as follows:

responding to comics often depends on recognizing word and image as two “different” types of sign, whose implications can be played against each other—to gloss, to illustrate, to contradict or complicate or ironize the other. While the word/image dichotomy may be false or oversimple, learned assumptions about these different codes—written and pictorial—still exert a strong centripetal pull on the reading experience. We continue to distinguish between the function of words and the function of images, despite the fact that comics continually work to destabilize this very distinction. This tension between codes is fundamental to the art form. (37)

His diction is quite telling, especially when he uses the terms “different,” “against,” “distinguish,” and “tension.” These terms imply a conflict between text and image in comics. Although he acknowledges that comics defies such a notion, he ends the epitomization of his theory of comics with the idea of tension, a word and a concept riddled with combative connotations and a somewhat divisive denotation. His theory gives the impression that image and text do not actually cooperate with each other in comics. Granted, he presents his theory in a book about what he calls “alternative comics,” so based on that context, it does not apply to all comics. However, his book does not provide a satisfying description of this tension. In order to understand it, one may need to take recourse to Scott McCloud’s concept of “parallel” image-text relationships (McCloud, Understanding Comics 154; McCloud, Making Comics 130, 138). Scott McCloud’s category of “parallel” image-text relationships relates to when the images enact one communicative action while the text expresses a different one: “words and pictures following seemingly different paths without intersecting” (Making Comics 130). By “intersecting,” McCloud means that the words and the pictures relate to each other. His concept somewhat belies Hatfield’s insistence that a tension exists between image and text in comics. It indicates that Hatfield’s tension may only be superficial, and that underneath that surface, there may be a deeper connection between the two modes. Hernandez and the implied author of his graphic novels exploit this apparent paradox for rhetorical effect.

This image-text relationship is evinced in Human Diastrophism‘s short narrative, “Pipo” (160-63), in which the text is restricted to the upper part of each panel as first-person narration and the images occur in the bottom part of each panel. In most panels, Hernandez explicitly demarcates the two modes with a horizontal line separating the textual narration from the action-oriented images (Figure 1). Thus, most panels have a wall between the two modes, reinforcing the discontinuity and gap and invoking a sense of inequality between the modes.

Figure 1: An example of a horizontal bar separating the narrator’s text from the images in a panel from “Pipo” (Human Diastrophism 160.11).

The horizontal line within the panels generates a visual hierarchy in which the images seem subordinate to the superior written words (both in spatial position and connotation), but the content of the two parts vitiates that conclusion. In accord with Western graphic design principles and reading protocols, the top is experienced before the bottom and connotes superiority or great importance (Kress and Van Leeuwen 194). Thus, the images seem like visual footnotes to the text because of their lower placement relative to the text: “If the upper part of a page is occupied by the text and the lower part by one or more pictures […], the text plays, ideologically, the lead role, the pictures a subservient role” (194). However, the text and the images actually present two different narratives: one (described by the text) is Pipo’s autobiography; the other (described by the images) is a day of Pipo’s life in California. Neither narrative is directly connected to the other but are tacitly attached through the commonality of their source, Pipo.

Figure 2: The floating text in a panel from “Pipo.” (Human Diastrophism 160.10).

Another threat to the validity of the visual hierarchy is that in a few of the panels, the demarcating line between the text and the images is absent. The text floats above the images in the same space as the images (Figure 2). This arrangement of image and text suggests that text and image are sliding into each other, blending together. These changes to the layout disrupt the easy flow of a story constructed solely with parallel image-text relationships presented exactly the same in each panel. Repetition facilitates absorption because it generates audience expectations. When expectations are violated, the audience must return to active thinking about the artifact. Spatially, the text and the images are in the same positions, but the absence of the line raises questions about how the relationship between image and text ought to be understood: are the modes equals; does the text occupy the images’ space, or do the images reside in the text’s space; is Pipo experiencing a moment in which the two narratives—autobiography and daily life—converge? The story “Pipo” never supplies answers to these questions but continually asks the audience to consider them just as it insists on the audience keeping in mind both narratives simultaneously.

“Pipo” shows Hernandez’s audience that his ethos prefers a questioning audience rather than a passive one. The imagetext in “Pipo” encourages its audience to seek answers, not to settle. It actively blows apart the “verbal-visual blending” that Robert C. Harvey describes (9). In avoiding “a blend of word and picture” (9), the story instantiates a cognitive gap between the two modes, and the gap forces the audience to consider the validity of textual rhetoric and narrative versus pictorial rhetoric and narrative. On the one hand, it demonstrates the individual strength of each mode. Neither image nor text necessarily needs each other. On the other hand, it suggests a phenomenology of living. The pictures can be empirically verified by inspecting the details, but the text cannot be empirically verified without perusing and scrutinizing the previous stories about Pipo’s life.

The audience is left wondering whether or not the textual narrative is true. Because the images are immediately verifiable, the audience is predisposed to trust them. This set-up indicates a favorable view of lived experience, deeds over words—a hallmark of phenomenology. This branch of philosophy concentrates on “a study of ‘phenomena,’ that is to say, of that which appears to consciousness, that which is ‘given'” (Lyotard 32). Jean-François Lyotard continues his definition of phenomenology, stating, “It seeks to explore this given—’the thing itself’ which one perceives, of which one thinks and speaks—without constructing hypotheses concerning either the relationship which binds this phenomena to the being of which it is phenomena, or the relationship which unites it with the I for which it is phenomena” (32-33). The definition rests on a subject-object or ego-world relationship. The subject or ego is always the person from whom the world is seen, and the object or world is the recipient of the person’s attention. Considered in these terms, the object or world does not need to be an inanimate, material target. Thus, the viewer’s target of attention can be other people. The images in the panels of “Pipo” are figural renderings of people including the story’s titular character. The story’s audience is forced to witness the minutiae of daily living, to notice the details of people’s actions instead of blithely accepting the intellectualized version—the discourse—of those actions. The set-up in “Pipo” also incites questioning, just as phenomenology questions the intellectualizing—the thinking, speaking, and hypothesizing that Lyotard mentions—of the reception of phenomena.

Beyond “parallel combinations” (McCloud, Making Comics 138), Hernandez engages in other types of image-text relationships that fuel the questioning of the dominance of rationality over the phenomena of living experience. The number of image-text combinations approaches infinity. W. J. T. Mitchell’s trilogy on the image-text relationship in art—Iconology (1987), Picture Theory (1995), and What Do Pictures Want? (2005)—confirms the scope of possibilities when Mitchell discusses everything from gallery installations to public sculptures to posters to film to William Blake’s illuminated books to architecture. Mitchell is primarily interested in moments when image and text fuse together in the same artwork, “imagetext” (Mitchell, Picture Theory 89). He defines the term as “composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text” (89). As his writing on the matter clarifies, the term’s semantics are more forceful than mere combination: fusion is a better description of this type of image-text relationship. McCloud calls this type “interdependent” (Understanding Comics 155; Making Comics 130, 137), which he defines as “where words and pictures go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone” (Understanding Comics 155). Gilbert Hernandez takes advantage of the abundance of possible combinations, sometimes aligning with the ideal of imagetext or the interdependent image-text relationship. He even allows images to stand on their own, making text a silent partner. The variety of image-text relationships in his comics undercuts mainstream comics’ conventions, invoking an implicit critique of European-American culture that favors phenomena over pure rationality.

One type of imagetext deployed in Hernandez’s comics, particularly the stand-alone graphic novels, is sound effect lettering. His graphic novel Chance in Hell provides the most startling example of how Hernandez constructs the implied author of his comics through imagetext. Early on, the audience meets Soldier, a character with a guardian personality and the muscles and weapons to support it. At one point, Soldier thinks that one of the other boys in the junkyard is trying to harm Empress, the fortunate main character who rises from her squalid beginnings to a secure, comfortable, middle-class life. When Soldier reacts with force, the panels become peppered with sound effect lettering for the bullets spewing from his guns, cries of agony, punches, and kicks.

Textually, the sound effects are instances of onomatopoeia, yet they are graphically rendered. In fact, they are instances of Mitchell’s insistence that writing is a form of imagetext: “Writing, in its physical, graphic form, is an inseparable suturing of the visual and the verbal, the ‘imagetext’ incarnate” (Picture Theory 95). The sound effects in Chance in Hell function as both images and texts because they have attributes of both modes, as exemplified by the sound effects for Soldier’s gun firing and the cry of agony from its victim.

Figure 3: Sound effects lettering in a panel from Chance in Hell (34.2).

The first sound effect is written as “BRAA-A-AAT!” (34.2) but is drawn as letter outlines formed with wavy lines, an indication of sonic vibration. The second sound effect crosses into the next panel, but in the same panel as the gun firing sound effect, it is written as “WOOEEA” (34.2). It is drawn with slender, bold lines, emphasizing anguish and pain (Figure 3). The contrast between the two sound effects dramatizes the event’s brutality: Soldier’s gun has a large effect, whereas its victim can only passively and ineffectually respond. The sound effects also reinforce the implied author’s desire to reveal the gritty side of life to his audience and to compel it to understand that cool knowledge alone cannot access the reality of the living experience. To appreciate others’ plights, one must confront the phenomena, the cognitively unprocessed details of the world. The sound effects convey this message.

As the discussion of sound effects indicates, the normal state of image-text relationships in the medium of comics is the visual rendering of sound, but the silent panel is also a possibility; and Hernandez’s implied author uses it to get the audience to pay attention to the minutiae of the world. His silent panels contradict not only mainstream comics but also the discursive intellectualizing that predominates European-American culture. In this sense, his practice as a comics creator shares traits with the creators of the wordless books of the 1920s and 1930s. In his introduction to David Beronä’s book Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (2008), Peter Kuper defines the characteristics of wordless books:

Wordless picture stories have a unique and especially intimate relationship to their reader. In order to follow the narrative, these works ask the viewer to decipher what has taken place, then connect the dots from one image to the next. […] The more you scrutinize each image, the more information unfolds. […] The effective use of symbols by these artists [of wordless books] is a reminder of the symbols’ power. (7)

Essentially, the wordless books lacked speech balloons, sound effects, and any other type of writing, based their narratives on images alone, and employed symbols to enhance their messages. Although Gilbert Hernandez does not use wordless panels for an entire narrative, he strategically deploys silent panels for sections of his narratives. One example is the opening strip or sequence of the plot of The Troublemakers (5-6. 1-6).

Like the artists of the wordless books, Hernandez appears to appreciate the strengths of the image. Art historian E. H. Gombrich articulated those strengths, first by positing that “the visual image is supreme in its capacity for arousal” (138). Second, he admits that “[t]here are cases where the context alone can make the visual message unambiguous even without the use of words” (142). Third, he asserts, “The real value of the image, however, is its capacity to convey information that cannot be coded in any other way” (143). Hernandez’s modus operandi in using wordless panels seems to invoke the visual image’s arousal property while “convey[ing] information that cannot be coded in any other way.” By “arousal,” Gombrich means to provoke emotion and, perhaps, thought. Gombrich’s mention of the context of images is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ concept of relay in his essay “Rhetoric of the Image.” Barthes defines relay with “cartoons and comic strips” (41):

Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words, in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis (which is ample confirmation that the diegesis must be treated as an autonomous system). (41)

Barthes expresses in semiotic terms the idea that each image in a comic strip is surrounded by the image(s) in the panel before and after it. The procession of panels, or sequence, is what provides the context for each image in the strip (or depending on the narrative’s length, the page, the comic book, or the graphic novel). In short, images can arouse, meaningfully stand on their own without words in a context, and supply information that text cannot.

In the case of the opening sequence of The Troublemakers, Hernandez’s implied author introduces the object of Wes’s charm, motivating part of the plot and connecting it to the emotionally charged scene of Vincene pursued by a car on a mountain highway. The intense focus that he gives to the charm imbues it with extreme emotion because to the audience, the charm feels like a symbol. Describing the power of visual symbols, Gombrich comments, “Moreover, if familiarity breeds contempt, unfamiliarity breeds awe. A strange symbol suggests a hidden mystery, and if it is known to be ancient, it is felt to embody some esoteric lore too sacred to be revealed to the multitudes” (153). The appearance of the charm in The Troublemakers‘s opening plot sequence is awe-inspiring because the close framing of it in the sequence’s first two panels suggests that it is important, yet the audience knows nothing about it (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Two silent panels from the opening sequence of The Troublemakers (5.1-2).

Also, the charm is not a known symbol in, at least, European-American culture, so it evokes the idea of “a hidden mystery.” The charm then becomes a mysterious, emotion-provoking symbol. Likewise, when the sequence’s focus shifts to Vincene alone on the highway, the audience feels compelled to pay attention to her, and the implied author is asking the audience to identify with her. The symbolism of the lonely Vincene is familiar: she is playing the role of a damsel in distress, particularly with the pained and frightened look on her face (The Troublemakers 6.1-2). Hernandez’s implied author subsequently destroys that impression of Vincene, but within the opening highway sequence, he depicts Vincene as a woman in trouble.

This wordless sequence circumvents rationality. By exclusively using images in the sequence’s panels, Hernandez and the implied author of The Troublemakers demonstrate the power of image, the optionality of text, and the European-American tendency to discursively annotate images. These wordless panels are the exact opposite of ekphrasis. Instead of substituting text for images, excluding the image (ekphrasis), text is excluded, and image becomes the source of information. For that reason, the sequence is a critique of European-American culture’s insistence on transforming everything, even objects in the world, into text, the preferred communicative mode of pure rationality. Moreover, it points to the phenomenological attitude rather than intellectualizing about the world, inserting distance between humans and everything outside of humans.

The implied author’s critique of European-American culture also arises in the tacit ethic of living that the implied author of Hernandez’s comics postulates. The ethic is strongly evinced in his graphic novels The TroublemakersSpeak of the Devil, and “Love and Rockets X” in Beyond Palomar (2007). It incorporates the values of trust, loyalty, honesty, and community. The three graphic novels demonstrate the consequences of failing to adhere to these values. Unethical behavior—as Hernandez’s implied author defines it—results in death and disintegration of the community, meaning that the system of support no longer exists for anybody as long as individuals indulge in unethical behavior.

Speak of the Devil represents Hernandez’s use of magical realism to construct an argument. The graphic novel’s central symbol is a devil mask. Based on the actions in the narrative, the power of the devil mask appears to transform its wearer into a devilish personality. This transformational power is the mask’s magic. Simultaneously, the mask is treated as a material object, invoking its realism. The magic serves selfish ends, intensifying the individual’s desires at the cost of endangering the community. The main character, Val, embodies the opposite of the implied author’s ethics of living. She uses the devil mask to act out her desires, and she is most affected by the mask’s magic. To the readers, Val has a split personality. She appears as the dutiful daughter and the harmlessly angst-ridden teenager. However, when she puts on the mask, she becomes devilish: at first, a peeping tom and eventually, a serial killer.

The turning point from peeping tom to a murderous character is when Val sees Linda, her stepmother, and Paul, her friend and lover, together (Speak of the Devil 62-64). Although she is not wearing the devil mask, it is in the room (66.2), and its taint has apparently infected her because she turns murderous, wielding a knife (64.4) and attacking Linda and Paul (66-67). Her reaction signals that she believes that Paul is hers, and that Linda and Paul have violated her trust. It also demonstrates that she is only concerned with her own happiness. Neither Paul nor Linda are permitted to choose their own path to happiness. With the mask, Val kills Paul’s parents. On the road with Paul and Linda, Val without wearing the mask kills a motorist, a mother, an old lady, an old man, Paul, and her mother. Returning home, she dons the mask to kill her father and to frame Linda for his murder. In framing Linda, Val incites another murder: when Linda hears the police arrive, she kills herself because she realizes that the circumstantial evidence is heavily against her and that she is complicit in Val’s murders. The implication is that the mask caused Val to kill. Through her killing spree, she destroys the supports of the community—parents and elders. Showing that she is not an honest person, she kills Paul despite having sex with him and loving him. That same act illustrates her lack of trust of Paul. Up to that point, Paul has not revealed Val’s killing spree to anyone, yet she murders him. Her fear is that he might talk, but there is no evidence in the story that he would have. For a similar reason, she frames Linda, forcing her stepmother to commit suicide.

Similar transformations occur with Paul and Linda. Paul starts off as Val’s friend, another typical angst-ridden teenager who manages to remain calm. When Paul dons the devil mask, he becomes a peeping tom of Linda and has sex with her. Linda begins as the dutiful wife, but when she sees the devil mask, she becomes an exhibitionist. Her husband remarks, “I do believe I unknowingly married an exhibitionist” (24.5). After that moment, Linda looks forward to the visits of the devil mask-wearing peeping tom: spotting the peeping tom outside of her bedroom window, she says, “Don’t go!” (43.1). Linda is infatuated with the peeping tom—at least in the incarnation of wearing the devil mask and associated black, skin-covering clothing. She also has sex with Paul because he wears the peeping tom’s outfit.

In contrast to Speak of the Devil, neither “Love and Rockets X” nor The Troublemakers relies on magical realism to make the implied author’s point about an ethics of living. Instead, Hernandez deploys a dramatistic rendition of magic realism in painting while his implied author argues negatively for his ethics of living. According to Brendan Prendeville, magic realism was “a new movement of the 1940s” that “manifested a broad humanism that was the common denominator for much figurative art of the period” (152). He also mentions that realism in painting during that period “tended to become vaguely identifiable with the figurative, the non-abstract” (152). It is not that Hernandez was personally familiar with magic realism in painting, but that his approach in these two graphic novels is similar to magic realism and the general attitude toward realism in painting during the 1940s. His focus is on the figures, the shapes and graphic details used to visually depict the characters in his graphic novels. The teeming humans generally eclipse inanimate objects such as buildings and furniture. The framing and composition of the panels in the graphic novels constantly re-centers on the people instead of the artifacts. The motivation for the action tends to be internal to the characters and is represented through figurative images.

One possible exception is the magic kit in The Troublemakers that points to magic yet is not magical (16). Like the devil mask in Speak of the Devil, it allows another character to assume a new identity. The difference is that the magic kit is a subplot rather than the driving force, as with the devil mask, in Speak of the Devil. Furthermore, the magic kit, lacking any magical properties, does not transform the personality of the character who uses it. It functions as an ordinary disguise. In that sense, it is a prop in a routine mistaken identity subplot in the vein of Viola’s boy disguise in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or any other identity-altering disguise in the literary canon. The characters who use it are Nala and Vincene, but whereas the magic kit is part of Nala’s normal identity, it functions as a disguise for Vincene. With it, she is able to begin a new job as a magician and hide from the authorities (47-48, 60-63).

At the same time, the magic kit is a standard plot device that places Vincene in contact with Wes, her old partner in crime, and Nala, the woman she tries to take hostage. It becomes the narrative means by which the plot of betrayal and deceit is set in motion. By the end of the graphic novel, Nala is the only one of the three left standing (literally, as Wes and Vincene are killed). The ending implies that betrayal and deceit are destructive: they erode a community. Wes, Nala, and Vincene form an ad hoc community until they allow distrust and selfishness to disintegrate their tenuous bonds. Vincene distrusts Nala, and Wes distrusts Vincene. This distrust centers around the possession of material objects—Wes’s charm and $200,000.

The critique of the disintegration of community is just as sharp in “Love and Rockets X” as it is in The Troublemakers. Every character in the originally serialized graphic novel is only interested in himself or herself. Douglas Wolk describes the situation in “Love and Rockets X”:

All of this story’s characters believe that they’re its hero; a lot of them soliloquize or even address the reader in idle moments, as if we’re supposed to be paying attention to them in particular and everyone else is just the supporting cast. Sometimes they stare admiringly into mirrors, checking out their makeup or their war wounds. (186)

The ending is the most critical of the characters as the graphic novel’s implied author shuts down narrative development and isolates each character to one panel apiece. Wolk sees the ending’s technique as Hernandez’s attempt to slow down his audience’s reading pace, commenting that “in any real-time meaning, the final sequence of L&RX would be a string of non sequiturs; absorb it even at the normal speed of comics reading and you’ll be lost” (191). Although Wolk’s interpretation of the sequence acknowledges what is happening from the perspective of panel transitions and narrative sequence, it does not address the sequence’s ethical dimension. At the graphic novel’s culmination, it indicates a shattering of the relationships between people. Moreover, within the context of the Love and Rockets comic book series in which “Love and Rockets X” was originally published, and in light of the stand-alone graphic novels, particularly Speak of the Devil and The Troublemakers, it is a poignant counterexample of what the collective implied author of Hernandez’s comics, the ethos of the Palomar stories and the stand-alone graphic novels, values. In other words, “Love and Rockets X” reiterates the importance of the values of la familia, acceptance of identity, integrity, the normalcy of the supernatural, and the sanctity of secrets.

In the absence of a rhetorical analysis of the comics of Gilbert Hernandez, one risks ignoring the overarching message of his stories. Whether he told the stories of Palomar or stories outside of and unrelated to Palomar, Hernandez via his implied author tirelessly argues for a different worldview. The nature of his argument is dramatistic rather than essayistic, but that condition does not obliterate the fact that he, or at least his ethos, argued. In this sense, he is a rhetor instead of being a storyteller. The substance of his argument and his means of argument reflects the bicultural perspective of his implied author. The argument of his ethos is the advocacy of a magical, phenomenological vision of reality and the values of la familia, integrity, acceptance of identity, the normalcy of the supernatural, and the sanctity of secrets. Ultimately, the collective implied author of Hernandez’s comics, or ethos, promotes the community over the individual. Through this argument, the ethos critiques the ideas of European-American culture from the perspective of a postcolonial and cross-cultural ideology. Hernandez’s ethos makes his argument through the use of magical realism, various types of image-text relationships, including the wordless panel, a visual style reminiscent of magic realism in painting, and the enunciation of a tacit ethic of living. Whether Hernandez is successful in convincing his audience is not as important as recognizing Gilbert Hernandez’s work as a rhetor and understanding his rhetorical techniques. He presents his argument through both positive and negative demonstrations throughout his oeuvre. In this study, the demonstrations have come from the collections Heartbreak SoupHuman Diastrophism, and Beyond Palomar and the stand-alone graphic novels Speak of the DevilChance in HellThe Troublemakers, and Sloth. These examples have illuminated Gilbert Hernandez’s status as a rhetor. This status has been illustrated through a description of his postcolonial, cross-cultural argument for a set of values that was executed via the visual rhetoric of the image-text relationship, the implied author of his narratives, and the tacit ethic of living that circulates amongst the characters.


[1] Gilbert Hernandez has already been acclaimed for the literary merits of his comics (see Douglas Wolk’s and Charles Hatfield’s chapters on him in Reading Comics [2007] and Alternative Comics [2005], respectively).

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