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Mood, Mystery, and Demystification in Gilbert Hernandez’s Twentieth-First-Century NeoNoir Stand-Alones

By Frederick Luis AldamaPaging through Gilbert Hernandez’s recent streak of stand-alone graphic novels—Chance in Hell (2007), Speak of the Devil (2008), Troublemakers (2009)—might have one scratching the cabeza, as I did. And this not because of his use of finite single-story arcs of few characters—so unlike his multi-plotted, temporally zigzagged, hugely abundant character-filled Palomar series. No, this is rather because of the seeming gratuitous profusion of violence (blood and gore), violation (physical and ethical), and vile character types—and this from a non-puritanical reader-viewer who happens to like all of the above (in fiction, of course, and not real life).

I don’t appear to be alone, at least in my first-glance reaction. The critics responded in a like-puzzled way. For instance, while Entertainment Weekly recognizes the “undeniable power” of Chance in Hell, the reviewer asks if “it is an incisive character study or just crafty cynicism?” and considers the surreal ending to be “a cop-out” (85). An equally unforgiving Gordon Flagg considers Chance in Hell as lacking the “scope or resonance of his epical Palomar stories”, identifying its “artificial setting [as] possibly less convincing than the similarly elliptically told Sloth” (68). Also taken aback with Speak of the Devil, Flagg ends up judging it “a relatively minor” work (26).

Nay the reader who gives up without a proper re-read—especially with a tried-and-true master of the graphic novel storytelling art such as Gilbert Hernandez. Indeed, after much re-reading, it became clear that Hernandez was skillfully reorienting his readers, building into these graphic narrative blueprints signposts of a different sort. In their total accretion, the signposts signal to the readers the need to use a set of guides for direction and signification that differ from his earlier, south-of-the-US/Mexico-border set, Palomar stories. Once in hand, the new set of keys unlocks in these twenty-first-century stand-alones all variety of pulp storytelling forms (B-movie inclusive), including especially that of the noir. And now, for less head scratching and more analysis and evaluation of Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers—on their terms.

In this essay I first take a few steps back to provide a more foundational understanding of how cognitive counterfactual mechanisms work generally and as used to realize storytelling in the graphic novel form. I then discuss how our emotion system (intense and short in duration) and mood (blanket-like and long in duration) function generally and as deployed by Hernandez in the creating of emotion blueprints; here I attend to his use of a variety of devices (such as panel size, layout, and angle of vision, line width and thickness, character figuration, and mise-en-scène), plot, and event to trigger a series of dominant peak emotions that accumulate over the course of the story to create an overall mood. Indeed, as I argue, it is the mood that functions to direct the reader-viewer toward identification of genre—the key to unlocking the significance of these stand-alone stories. As a counterpoint to those who misread this set of Hernandez’s graphic novels (myself included), I point to several arguably more attentive and astute critical readers who appear to have stepped more readily into the ideal reader-viewer shoes. With this key in hand I discuss the significance of these stand-alones as narrative acts that at once participate within and give new vitality to yesteryear’s and today’s so-called lowbrow aesthetic. I end by showing how Hernandez’s stand-alone graphic novels redeploy the noir genre in ways that demystify capitalist ideology and its straight-jacketing of social relations (family and coupling conventions, for instance) and that criticize a decrepit capitalist system that has ripped apart our social tissue, disallowing the healthy development and flourishing of youth today.

Cognitive Counterfactual Mechanisms

In Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers Gilbert Hernandez carefully creates visual-verbal narrative “counterfactuals” that depict the harsh and violent reality for the young and restless living today.

Let me further clarify. We are born with certain innate capacities that grow as we grow in our social environments. These include our capacity for language, reason, emotion, perception, taste, and all other mechanisms that inform who and how we are as unique entities living, transforming (and being transformed in turn) in the world. More and more of today’s cognitive development research and neurobiology confirms: a) that the social informs directly the manner in which the brain develops its capacity to fully explore the world as it is (causality) and the way(s) it might be (counterfactually); and b) that the social from birth through adulthood shapes the basic neurobiological and neuropsychological mechanisms required for further and deeper knowledge of the world as it is and as it could be. It is this could be that is interesting when it comes to Gilbert Hernandez’s recent visual/verbal-fiction making activities—and our consuming of these visual/verbal-fictional acts.

From the day we are born, we begin growing our capacity for causal, counterfactual, and probabilistic thinking, doing, and behaving in the world. In our constant interaction with the natural (organic and inorganic) and social (people and institutions) world we imagine and work through in our minds possible and probabilistic outcomes to actions, and actually do the work to modify our environments and/or our expectations. As we modify our natural, personal, and social environs, we also get to know our own abilities better.

All this results from the healthy growing of our causality mechanism (whereby we learn that A leads to B, then to C, and so on) and our counterfactual process (whereby we learn that if I do A, I will achieve B and not C or D). Namely, these capacities allow for the following: if A produces or is the cause of B, we can formulate a hypothesis that A might (as a possibility) cause C. Or, conversely, we can move from effect toward the cause: maybe the cause of C is A.

Because we grow this capacity to formulate or perceive relations of causality we therefore also automatically possess the capacity to perceive and formulate counterfactual hypotheses, arguments, and thoughts generally. We also develop and sharpen our capacity to create maps—of the human (social) and physical (natural) world—and by doing so, we learn to create new maps within the chain that allow us to consider new possibilities and formulate plans with probabilistic outcomes for what our situation will be in the world in the future. (This all of course assumes the growing of our innate capacities within a “healthy” social tissue, but more on this at the end of the essay.)

These cognitive mapping mechanisms (comprising causality, counterfactuality and probabilistic reasoning) feed all our storymaking activities, including the making of counterfactual characters and places in graphic novels. These innate mapping capacities grow in ways that express themselves in the making and consuming of graphic novels. When we read or create comic books, we exercise the same cognitive mechanisms (causal, counterfactual, natural, and social mappings) already at work in young children who playfully invent storyworlds populated with imaginary companions and characters. When we follow the logic that a comic book blueprint like Troublemakers sets out for us, we exercise these causal, counterfactual, and probabilistic processes—and to specific ends: to experience a rollercoaster ride of fear, shock, anger, and horror while reading.

Like all humans, then, Gilbert Hernandez has grown his innate counterfactual capacity within the social—but with a crucial difference. Unlike those of us who simply consume graphic novels, at a certain point in Hernandez’s life—and, according to an interview in Your Brain on Latino Comics, when he was a young teen living in Oxnard, California—he decided to direct this counterfactual (and causal and probabilistic) mechanism in the imagining, writing, and inking of visual-verbal stories. Hernandez’s graphic novels here and elsewhere are a deliberate and precise expression of our everyday causal and counterfactual mechanisms that we use to map our selves and others in our natural (physical) and social (people) world.

At this level of reduction, then, his three stand-alone graphic novels are highly willed and deftly controlled results of these processes. Hernandez imagines then puts into play a whole series of violent, seemingly blank-slate, non-readable (interiority) characters whose actions lead to specified outcomes. His counterfactual as expressed in the graphic novel form allows readers like myself to imagine what such a set of characters might be like as well as what might be the consequences of such characters’ actions. Put otherwise, random bashing of heads in, shooting eyes out, rooftop voyeuristic excursions, rompy-pompy bedroom action, to name but a few events threading through these three stand-alone graphic novels, are amped up, a carefully orchestrated reorganization of the building blocks of reality—we recognize the events, even if they might not be a part of our own lived everyday experience—to create something new: a counterfactual in the form of a visual-verbal story with an affective intent.

Emotion, Mood, and Genre

Unlike our counterfactual mechanism that arrives with us into the world less developed, we arrive with an emotion system at full throttle. We cry and scream when hungry or neglected; smile and coo when satiated and attended to. For those of us (fewer and fewer) who didn’t grow up in a dump like Hernandez’s Empress (Chance in Hell), there is a social network of caregivers (typically parents) who not only provide for us, but function as our surrogate reason systems (causal and counterfactual inclusive) until we develop our own. They soothe and inhibit so we can think instead of reflex emote. As we grow, our emotion and reason systems become more in-balance—we even begin to think about the emotions we experience. Working together, the emotion and reason systems allow us to ponder, assess, and modify our actions—and sometimes in ways that run counter to our basic reflex emotions. We learn to direct our emotion system—and not just in deciding not to run from a baseball-bat marauding Empress or knife-wielding Val—but as a storyteller like Hernandez, to use specific devices to channel the reader’s emotion system in carefully directed ways.

Put otherwise, carefully exercising his reason system (causal and counterfactual inclusive) Hernandez chooses a series of structures and devices (e.g., plot, panel layout, angle, character, dialogue) that together create emotion blueprints for the reader to follow, gap-fill, and feel. For instance in the following series of panels, Hernandez uses six stretched panels to describe one of many of Val’s peeping-tom expeditions (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Val as Peeping Tom in Speak of the Devil (20.1-6)

Moving back and forth from a close-up to a long shot, we are made privy (via Val’s voyeuristic eye) to a variety of interior domestic spaces (mundane and seemingly abusive). The silhouetted long shots of Val running along rooftops, dark clouds aswirl with a shifting moon, tree, and telephone pole to orientate the different perspectives, not only provide the eye with a change in perceptual rhythm, but generate emotions of excitement, fear, and foreboding. The choice of shots from close-up to long also provide a perceptual rhythm that at once allows the reader to gap-fill the location of the action as well as intensify the thrill of Val’s (single-eye gaze) voyeuristic expeditions.

Hernandez intuits well that his readers’ brains are not built to experience emotions for a long time; if we did, we’d simply short circuit. So, as we follow the emotion blueprint offered by Speak of the Devil we experience a series of peak emotions (intense and short in duration) that are held together by what we call mood—feelings generated as a residual after-burn, say, of the predominant emotions (negative or positive) that make up the emotion blueprint. Hernandez intuits that mood is derived from emotion; that it’s a sub-product of emotion. And peak emotions work in an accumulative sort of way to orientate our emotion system (limbic) toward a mood; reciprocally, the persistence of mood is only possible with the periodic presence of emotional jolts, otherwise the mood extinguishes itself. He intuits how moods create certain expectancies and thus create a favorable terrain for the eliciting of emotions. (Quite often, a jacket-cover description, if done well, will describe the key emotion-tagged events in the plot to reduce any given graphic novel to its emotion-blueprint essence.)

In Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers the mood generated is one of an ominous fear, anxiety—boding evil. So while there are to varying degrees moments of calm, comfort—even happiness, believe it or not—they are few and far between. In all three stand-alone graphic novels, these positive emotions are subordinate to the negative emotions that accumulate over the totality of each of the respective stories, creating a mood of tragedy and despair that blankets the atmosphere of each. Stated otherwise, the triggering of negative emotions overwhelms the positive and we begin to install ourselves in the mood of tragedy—or the tragic mood.

When we finish reading any of these three graphic novels, we might recall the panel or page details of those instances when we experienced, say, fear, but usually what we remember most after closing the final page is the mood. Indeed, we very often remember this for a long time after; years after reading Chance in Hell (before rereading for this essay) I remember feeling a general sensation of upset, anxiety—a sense that this story was deeply tragic.

Emotion blueprints create mood and mood directs us toward classification: comic, tragic, epic, for instance. Years after reading Chance in Hell I remember having read a tragedy—and not a comedy. This felt mood, if looked at critically, can be seen to take me one step further toward establishing the perimeters of my engagement with and evaluation (likes and dislikes) of Chance in Hell—or Speak of the Devil, or Troublemakers.

This is only part of the story. Of course Hernandez uses a series of devices, plot structures, mise-en-scène, and characterizations to orientate his readers toward the type of emotion filter he wants us to use in interpreting the events and characters in the respective stand-alone graphic novels. With this filter in place, there is a further refinement of our classification that happens. Hernandez’s character Nala in Troublemakers is a case in point (Figures 2-3).

Figur 2: Hernandez’s sketch of Nala in Troublemakers
Figure 3: Nala as femme fatale in Troublemakers (103.1-2)

In Hernandez’s portrayal of Nala he chooses to give her a shapely hour-glass figure, a gentle seductive facial expression (hair across one eye), and absurdly high heels, all while ready to pull the trigger of her gun. In shape, demeanor, and gun-readiness, Nala is a femme fatale.1 Nala brings to mind a tradition of femmes fatales in comic books like Will Eisner’s The Spirit such as Madam Minx (February 1942), Lorelei Rox (September 1948), P’Gell (October 1946), and Dulcet Tone (1973). And, we see much cross fertilization between film and comic book with the femme fatale figure itself: Eisner’s Sylvia “Silk” Satinin (The Spirit 1942) is inspired by Katherine Hepburn and Skinny Bones (The Spirit 1950) is inspired by Lauren Bacall. In the single panel represented above, Hernandez coordinates his mise-en-scène elements to situate Nala within a long tradition of the femme fatale characterization—all while eliciting an emotion of suspense, anxiety, and thrill. In content and form, he creates an instant in the larger emotion blueprint that directs the reader toward the dark, fatalistic mood that typifies the noir genre.

And Hernandez knows well that when we gap-fill from one panel (gutter) to the next, his strategic use of devices to cue emotion is ultimately directed to create the mood that will create the genre (tragedy) and sub-genre (noir) in our mind. In this sense, his emotion blueprint provides important information about the way he wants a graphic novel like Troublemakers to be experienced and evaluated: as per its participation within genre (tragedy) and sub-genre (noir). It tells us much about how he would like his ideal reader-viewer to receive and interpret this graphic novel. It also reminds us that genres and sub-genres are a more formal way of understanding the mood established in graphic novels like Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers.

NeoNoir Aesthetics

While several of us certainly missed the boat in our first reading and evaluating of Hernandez’s twenty-first-century stand-alones, others appear to have been on the money, astutely picking up Hernandez’s use of device to create stories (emotion blueprints) that lead to specific mood outcomes and that give compass-direction to its (sub)genre participation. The reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly considers how Chance in Hell takes us “on a harrowing journey that examines the damage done in childhood and how it affects the individual as she moves on through life” (45), concluding with an identification of its subgenre ingredients: it “fills B-movie situations with real drama” (45). Likewise, Gordon Flagg mentions of Troublemakers how the former magician’s assistant Nala, ex-rocker Wes, and scammer Vincene are all “wily” and “none-too-bright” grifter-types who pile on the double-crossings that culminate in an “over-the-top, apocalyptic” end. Moreover, Flagg identifies a congruence between this content and the formal techniques used, including the use of “uniformly sized panels [that match the] proportions of a wide-screen film” and that direct us toward its “B-movie” influences and “pulpy fun” (25). In response to Troublemakers, the reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly attends to the content of various mise-en-scènes as well as to the panels that vibrate with the “frenetic, desperate energy of the characters as they try to pull off their cons” (36). And in an evaluation of Speak of the Devil Flagg identifies its B-movie storytelling envelope that allows for many “expressive opportunities,” including “over-the-top violence” in a dark and cynical world; he concludes that Speak of the Devil suggests “a cannily knowing, slightly tongue-in-cheek slasher film” (26).

Attending variously to device, plot, and characterization, each of the above reviews ably identifies each graphic novel’s participation within “B” or pulp fictional genres, including most importantly that of the noir. Recall that noir fiction (along with its gumshoe or hardboiled generic sibling) was published by houses specializing in paperback originals known as “pulps.”2 That is, the attentive reviewers move from (emotion) blueprint to evaluative classification, pointing us more formally in the direction of the B-genre fictional mode. This makes absolute common sense, at both the level of form and content. Noir unsentimentally represents violence and sex—and even uses these elements as kernels to the advancement of the plot. Noir also typically follows a self-destructive protagonist (unlike the eleventh-hour redeemable hardboiled dick) at once victim then perpetrator of the crime. Noir casts a shadow of gloom-doom fatalism over its entire storyworld.3 Hernandez’s Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers fit the bill. So to evaluate them on their own terms we must necessarily inscribe within the tradition of the noir; and Hernandez makes sure that we do this along multimedia (novel, film, and comic book) registers.

Within the novelistic tradition, Hernandez wants us to put his three graphic novels alongside higher-brow noir authors such as seen in the fatalistic, hard-hitting, gritty realism of Jim Thompson (especially his genre-defining 1952 The Killer Inside Me) and David Goodis; other US authors might also include James Cain and Elmore Leonard. This means that we would do well to trace Hernandez’s twenty-first-century stand-alones within a tradition not just of Thompson and Goodis’s noir fictions, but also those fictions that gave initial shape to the worldview of noir: the fatalistic, behaviorist, social-Darwinian sensibility that informs the storytelling of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and their predecessor, Émile Zola—all arguably the abuelos of the noir genre. In each we see the creating of protagonists who are fatally flawed from the get-go—fated to become alcoholics or violent or moral reprobates (Dreiser, Norris, and Zola’s prostitutes) whose only motivation, behavior, and action in the world seems to spring from some sort of genetically driven social-Darwinian base.

Hernandez wants his readers to also situate his stand-alone graphic novels within the B-movie tradition. Indeed, in a Möbius-strip like fashion, the governing conceit of Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers is that they are graphic novel versions of movies that featured Fritz. This metafictional conceit—the graphic novels are different adaptations of movies that only exists within Hernandez’s world of fiction—is most clearly and cleverly identified within the respective inside jacket covers. For instance, Troublemakers includes a whole series of poster-art that feature Fritz in a number of B-movies: “King Vampire”; “For Sinners Only”; “Chance in Hell”; “Black Cat Moon”, “The Earthians” and so on (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Inside jacket-cover of Troublemakers

Hernandez’s ontologically interpenetrating B-movie conceit directs us to his attraction to a chop-shop storytelling aesthetic. While conveyed clearly on the graphic novel page, it is confirmed in his reflection on his practice. In an interview in Your Brain on Latino Comics he discusses his attraction to yesteryear’s Classics Illustrated Comics because they were “butchered versions of classic novels funneled into forty pages” (174). And he mentions the influence of “those comic-book adaptations of movies where the artists never saw the film, and worked only from stills. So they had to make up their own story that sometimes went other places than the original movies” (175). In this huge circular recycling in which Hernandez situates his stand-alones, we see how US noir novelistic tradition became an important repository for film adaptation by French directors like François Truffaut. Indeed, Hernandez embraces yesteryear’s B-genres that were adapted, chopped, and spliced to vital ends. Much like these directors (and also, of course, today’s Robert Rodriguez), Hernandez’s skilled crafting of the characteristics of the noir genre—fatalism, resistance to providing psychological depth to character, and so on—up the ante and bring new vitality to this “B-” genre.

It is worth mentioning briefly here that Hernandez is not just doing with graphic novels what the French did with film, but that he does so very much in the same spirit as Latino film director Robert Rodriguez—another of Hernandez’s self-acknowledged influences.4 We see in Rodriguez a like-creative will to style where he seeks in his final product to have fully absorbed the non-mimetic spirit of the comic book; of course, Hernandez is already working within a medium where conventions allow more of a suspension of everyday physical laws (gravity, say) and codes of behavior (ethics). But it is precisely Rodriguez’s attraction to this that makes his films so successfully of the comic book mode; and conversely it is Hernandez’s absorption of the B-movie that allows him to absorb so well the cinematic mode.

Gilbert Hernandez’s noir is rich in multi-media cross-pollination, influence, and allusion—and this includes the very visual-verbal B-genre storytelling tradition his graphic novels exist within. Not only do Damon Runyon’s B-genre detective comic strips of the 1930s, such as Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy (1931) and Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9 (1934), come to mind, but more centrally, the work of Will Eisner—a comic book author/artist inspired centrally by Fritz Lang’s hard-edged darkness, close ups of violence, and hard angle shots. We also see much influence from 1950s E.C. Comics, especially their non-horror line up that included, for instance, Bernard Kirstein’s classic noir, “Master Race” story (that appeared in Impact in 1955) and its masterful use of panel layout and sizes to create dramatic storytelling tension, as well as Johnny Craig’s early 1950s bimonthly Crime SuspenStories that adapted several Ray Bradbury stories and exerted a co-influence on the likes of James M. Cain.

Hernandez’s Counterfactual NeoNoir Iterations

The noir move is not new to Gilbert. At the beginning of his career, Gilbert (along with brothers Jaime and Mario) wrote and inked Mister X: Series 1 (issues 1-4 June 1984–August 1985)—a storyworld that was inspired by Fritz Lang’s Radiant City and that follows the mysterious doings of the noir-inspired architect protagonist, Mister X, and his long suffering ex-girlfriend, Mercedes. While a first incursion into the noir genre, Mister X didn’t have the same emphasis on violence—or the emphasis on how social conditions and specific kinds of environments create the psychological conditions for the unhealthy growing of mind/brains often expressed in an unmotivated kind of violence.

As I mentioned already, this is not a Quentin Tarantino emotion blueprint. Hernandez’s stand-alone storyworlds depict a violence that is not intended to be seen or read as humorous—and least of all as parody. In this sense, Hernandez is closer to the tongue-in-cheek grotesque that we see in Robert Rodriguez’s films. In Rodriguez’s films—and not those of Tarantino where his blueprints seek to establish a smart-alec effect—we see an aesthetic relation in which aesthetic pleasure is found in the transgression of norms and in the rehabituation of our perception of the content of the film. Hernandez too establishes a tongue-in-cheek grotesque blueprint, but within the conventions of the noir. Rehabituation occurs, but as contained within the predetermined—the fated sense of growing up and living in a shredded social tissue.

While Speak of the Devil gives the readers little background to the social circumstances that surround young Val and her pals, we do know at the outset that they live in a topsy-turvy world (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Val and friends in Speak of the Devil (14.1, 15.1-2)

In this world, Paul remarks on how a “guy gets twenty-five to thirty years for drug possession” and “Another guy goes in for rape and manslaughter, but gets out after doing just nine years.” And her friend Zed simply announces: “The world’s going to hell.” We don’t need Hernandez to give us any background filler that might allow us to understand better Val’s sudden murderous rages. It’s enough that she lives in a world where nothing makes sense and its youth have given up imagining a future—and doing what it takes to realize this future (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Val in Speak of the Devil (105)

The more the story unfolds, the more Hernandez escalates the frequency of Val’s violent, gruesome eruptions. In his careful choice of panel flow and description, Hernandez often conveys this violence without the presence of the verbal elements—in silence, so to speak, asking that the reader viscerally fill gaps in our response to scenes that lack any verbal cues; the telling here of the happening would straight-jacket our gap-filling experience and thus arguably dampen the affect experienced. Even when Hernandez chooses to include the verbal elements, he does so in a strategic placement of a panel that lacks the verbal, requiring the reader to gap fill in ways that intensify the violence of the event. In the following sequence, we see in the first panel Paul announcing that he knows Val killed his parents—an abusive father to boot. In the following, we have a silent panel, and in the third, Paul is stabbed and only the television is heard (Figure 7).

Figure 7: “Val” Valentine stabs Paul (close up, 107.2; medium shot, 107.4; medium-close shot, 107.6)

But let’s break this down even more. In the close up of Paul we read his extraordinary response to his discovery of Val’s killing spree, which includes many members of his family. Not so much upset that she’s a murderer, he remarks on how she’ll be able to go home to her “Daddy” and that he now has “no home to go to.” Hernandez uses a medium shot to silently portray a scene of Val with her back turned to Paul and a nonplussed facial expression. In a medium-close shot, the next panel shows Paul stabbed deep with a knife and blood running down his chest. Why did she suddenly stab Paul? No verbal ingredient here fills in any blanks; no words establish a motive. Hernandez knows well that if a motive were established, the coherence of genre would break down; his graphic fiction would no longer be recognized as noir.

Hernandez masterfully uses silence in the panels that follow Val’s stabbing of Paul—an event never seen, but powerfully imagined in our gap-filling activity. Hernandez shows Val walking away from the crime: a medium shot of her walking toward a bus; a close up shot of her on the bus; and a medium shot of her silhouetted in front of her house, we assume (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Val walks away after stabbing Paul in Speak of the Devil (108.1-3)

The panels drive home the sense of Val’s inability to control her action—there is a tear shed in the second panel, but only a slight one—and how her sweet-seeming comportment is laced with a scary, ominous presence (the last panel). The tear in the eye does not give us much for reading an interior state of mind. (Recall, too, this behaviorist technique in Camus’s L’Étranger [1942].) And, this is done within a cinematic tradition, not just of the noir, but also of a Michelangelo Antonioni film style. Just as Antonioni used landscapes to portray the deep feeling of his characters’ isolation in the world, so too do we see this with Hernandez’s deft control of the panel sequence and perspective. He too uses the backdrop to indicate the impossibility of communication between characters as well as the impossibility of the reader’s inferring an interior state of mind of a character like Val. He conveys Val’s deep sense of isolation in the world—as well as how being isolated results from this condition of being socially isolated. Here, the visuals are enough to guide the reader’s inference, at the same time that they hold this inference of internal state at bay.

The more we read, the more violent the story becomes. Several pages later, at the stepmother Linda’s inciting (“You took your father away from me”) Val once again violently explodes. A knife fight between Val and Linda ensues that ends with Linda smashing a ceramic vase over Val’s head. The scene ends with Val killing the stepmother. Spread over three pages, (113-16), Hernandez moves carefully between different shots, silent and sound panels, and layouts to depict a like eruptive violent behavior in the parent (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9: Two-page spread from Speak of the Devil (112-13)
Figure 10: From Speak of the Devil (114.3-6)

It is a fight to the death between stepmother and daughter—and seemingly out of nowhere. But it is also a fight to the death whereby Hernandez’s strategic use of panel layout, size, and shot as well as rhythmic move between sound and silence directs our gap filling process, intensifying our emotive engagement and response to the violence. This happens once again, but to a harsher effect in the following panels (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Two-page spread from Speak of the Devil (120-21)

While only a few onomatopoeic instances, such as “CRASH!” and “Weeeeeeeeooooo,” are present at the scene of Val’s crime, each of the silent panels (varied between close up, medium shot, and long shot) add significantly the progression of the narrative.

Hernandez embraces the noir conceit; action, especially violent action, has no motive. But there’s more to say on this score. In noir, the sociopath is usually the femme fatale figure. It is the presence of the femme fatale that alerts us to the genre—several such voluptuous bombshells I mention above—and also provides a ready-package for understanding motive when one is never given within the narrative itself. The noir genre justifies such sociopathic acts. In noir storytelling these sociopathic types are usually products of a capitalist, patriarchal society that has thrown them to the gutter; their violence is often directed against men—and if not, it is depicted as the consequence of having to live in a violent, sexist, patriarchal society. In this sense, we might consider the femme fatale figure as a precursor to today’s strong, liberated female character as seen in all variety of storytelling media.

Out of the three stand-alones, Chance in Hell is the graphic narrative that offers the clearest explanation of the violent acts. When the story begins we meet the young Empress living in a dump along with other children trying to survive. We don’t know why she lives there, who her parents are, or where they live. But we do know that she’s orphaned and calls any adult male that passes her way, “my daddy.” Except for the presence of a few random pedophilic and parasitic adults—some of whom are killed by the children—the first third of the graphic narrative focuses on the children’s interaction with one another and their protection of one another. We are also introduced to the first of a series of male figures that care for Empress and whom she latches onto. In this instance her guardian is a teen armed with an assault rifle who wants to protect her from being raped or kidnapped (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Protector in Chance in Hell (6.2-3)

In the panels that follow we learn of the affection between Empress and her guardian as well as his disappointment (“sigh”) that her affection is not exclusive; that he’s not special”—”Everybody’s your daddy, Empress” (Figure 13).

Figure 13: Empress with guardian in Chance in Hell (7-4)

In a powerful move, Hernandez then offers a panel with Empress in bed with another character she calls “my daddy.” He tells her: “I’ll take care of you, Empress. Nobody’ll rape you no more” (Figure 14).

Figure 14: Empress with random guy in Chance in Hell (14.4)

The gap filling leads us to imagine as one possibility, that she was just raped by this character, but that her innocent outlook prevents her from understanding this action as anything but a show of affection. How tragic is that?

A series of violent events unfold, including the murder of her guardian, and she’s taken away. Like in roman noire, one way or another Hernandez gives us a backdrop—and here it is Empress’s early days whereas in the other stand-alones it is society in general—to make sense of what will follow in the graphic narrative. She moves from the dump to be taken under the wing of a poet figure who lives in the nearby vice-ridden city and who frequents the brothel for a kind of S/M therapeutic play; a series of nuanced details allows us to infer that he’s struggling with being in love and sexually attracted to the now adolescent Empress; she befriends a pimp and his “hearts of gold” multiethnic prostitutes; then after she unknowingly smashes her poet guardian’s head to a pulp, she escapes to the care of a Catholic home for girls; she grows up to meet a goody-two-shoes justice-seeking lawyer. The events that turn the plot all revolve around her eruptions of violence that one way or another eliminate permanently any possibility of comfort and affection.

Hernandez once again carefully builds the story along the conventions of the noir plot. As mentioned already, it is this behaviorist framework that allows us to understand the accumulation of corpses and violence in the graphic novel itself. So, we see for instance a moment of calm when Empress’s poet guardian describes the act of creating poetry, then with a turn of the page, we’re at the brothel, the poet is awaiting his S/M sex play, and Empress suddenly—without knowing it is her guardian—swings the club wildly at his head: “Whok, Whok, Whok” (Figures 15 and 16).

Figure 15: From Chance in Hell (72.1-2)
Figure 16: From Chance in Hell (73.1-3)

She hits to kill—and does and kills him. And this is just the beginning of the train-wreck she becomes, killing willy-nilly all who come into her life. Hernandez ends the story with Empress returning to the dump, finding the doll she left behind, then gifting it to the next little girl, sealing the girl’s fate just as Empress’ was. (Figure 17)

Figure 17: Empress returns to the dump in two-page spread from Chance in Hell (118-19)

I end this essay with a brief mention once again of Hernandez’s effective use of the noir storytelling conventions. There are many author-artists of graphic novels that use the genre: Carlos Trillo and Eduardo Risso (Chicanos vols. 1 and 2, 2006 and 2007), Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets Book One, 2011), Rafael Navarro (Sonambulo: Sleep of the Just, 1996), author-artists of those EC comics mentioned above, and many, many more. And in each we see the use of the key ingredients to the genre: the strong female figure along with a behaviorist and/or social-Darwinian outlook, among others discussed above. However, not only is it difficult to pull off a good noir—it can easily slip into clichés of romance and melodrama—Hernandez does pull it off, and with a difference. We see with Hernandez’s stand-alones his very careful dosage of B-fiction elements coming from the romance and crime novel as well as the nuanced depiction of the sociological (environment/family) and biological (family) background that shapes the characters and that crucially demystify capitalist ideology and capitalism as a socioeconomic system.

In retrospect, then, it is no wonder that Gilbert Hernandez chooses to envelope his stories in the noir fictional mode. Hernandez is deeply attuned to our world that disallows any future and the noir mode with its social-Darwinian and behaviorist worldview is an apt way to package stories about characters like Empress or Wes or Vincene or Valentine—all of whom are fated to live a life in a futureless world; characters who live in places (urban or suburban) devoid of imagination and where life—even of one’s grandmother (as below) means nothing (Figure 18).

Figure 18: Two-page spread from The Troublemakers (96-97)

The careful redeployment of noir—and other related B-genre fictional modes—in Hernandez’s stand-alone graphic novels convey in a powerful, non-sentimental message the impossible struggle for the “healthy” growth of an ethics and emotion faculty in youth today living in a world governed by a rotten-to-the-core capitalism. He chooses to express his counterfactuals in the making of aesthetic blueprints that powerfully move readers to consider the consequences of capitalism; represent forcefully the historical involution of a decrepit and senile capitalism that sells itself as the road to success and happiness, but that in actuality divides and lays to waste the haves and have-nots; and portray well those environments destructive to the emotion and reason systems of all people.

Finally, what’s powerful about Hernandez’s twenty-first-century graphic novels is not that they tell ageless tales of love, violence, and sometime sacrifices made for the restoration of social harmony. Instead, what’s powerful and compelling about Chance in HellSpeak of the Devil, and Troublemakers is Hernandez’s deft use of verbal-visual devices to aesthetically reconfigure our world today—a world that increasingly only fosters the growing of a stunted counterfactual mechanism built on fear, anxiety, and anger.


[1] Hernandez appears to like Nala. Nala (aka Rosabella “Fritz” Martinez) functions as his intertextual bridge to other of his graphic novels like Chance in Hell and Birdland; she appears as Luba’s sister in Love & Rockets.)

[2] Notably, the Sunday newspaper supplement was not the only origin of comic books; pulp magazines (“pulps”) also played a central role. While popular literary magazines printed on cheap paper derived from wood pulp were already in circulation the second half of nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1930s that they became a venue for the publishing of popularized adventure dime novels that were cranked out by hacks paid by the word. It was the low cost of publishing pulps that suited well those moving into comic book production; there was also cross fertilization of pulp and comic book authors. By 1936 pulp publishers were publishing comic books: “Reprinting newspaper strips in cheaply manufactured magazines was essentially an easy means for syndicates to cash in on previously used material” (15), Jean-Paul Gabilliet informs. Comics Magazine Company published the first themed comic book, Detective Picture Stories in December 1936. It broke with reprinting of funnies, offering crime and detective narratives. And in February 1937 DC published the first issue of Detective Comics.

[3] For a discussion of how Latino novelists use the gumshoe genre to demystify myths of Latinos as well as how they allow for the complex reimagining of Latino subjects, see Ralph Rodriguez’s Brown Gumshoes (2005). Rodriguez considers how Latino authors such as Lucha Corpi, Michael Nava, Rudolfo Anaya, and Rolando Hinojosa (along with African Americans such as Easy Rawlins and Walter Mosley) are drawn to the hardboiled form and its alienated other—a subjectivity that “resonates especially well with Chicanas/os, who though subjects of the nation are often represented as alien to it” (6). For Rodriguez, “the project of self-evaluation and of understanding the discourses that shape identity remains at the heart of their novels” (8).

[4] Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) is an adaptation of the violent and lurid pulp vision of Frank Miller (whose comic book author influences include William Gaines of 1950s EC Comics, Wallace Wood, and Will Eisner), a comic book author who revitalized the crime genre in his unsentimental portrayal of a fractured world filled with good and evil. Rodriguez’s film is arguably the most successful comic book adaptation. Shot on high-definition video in front of a greenscreen, he takes his stock of comic book actors and, well, turns them into comic book characters: Detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), hulking Marv (a not so made-over Mickey Rourke), Bob (Michael Madsen), Nancy (Jessica Alba), Goldie (Jaime King) and her twin sister Wendy (Jaime King).

Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis. Your Brain on Latino Comics. Austin: U of Texas P, 2009. Print.

Anonymous. “Review of Chance in Hell.” Entertainment Weekly. 18 Jan. 2008: 85. Print.

Anonymous. “Review of Chance in Hell.” Publisher’s Weekly. 3 Sept. 2007: 45. Print.

Anonymous. “Review of Troublemakers.” Publisher’s Weekly. 4 Jan. 2010: 36. Print.

Azzarello, Brian. 100 Bullets Book One. New York: Vertigo, 2011. Print.

Flagg, Gordon. “Review of Chance in HellBooklist. 104.1 (2007): 68. Print.

—. “Review of Speak of the DevilBooklist. 105.6 (2008): 26. Print.

—. “Review of Troublemakers.” Booklist. 106.8 (2009): 25. Print.

Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Hernandez, Gilbert. Chance in Hell. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2007. Print.

—. Speak of the Devil. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008. Print.

—. Troublemakers. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2009. Print.

Navarro, Rafael. Sonambulo: Sleep of the Just. Los Angeles, Ninth Circle Studios, 1996. Print.

Rodriguez, Ralph. Brown Gumshoes: Detective Fiction and the Search for Chicana/o Identity. Austin: U of Texas P, 2005. Print.

Trillo, Carlos and Eduardo Risso. Chicanos vols. 1 and 2. San Diego: IDW Publishing, 2006 and 2007. Print.

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