That floating feeling: Gilbert Hernandez’s Sloth

Early in Gilbert “Beto” Hernandez’s Sloth, there’s a four-panel page that should enchant any intelligent comics lover. The next few paragraphs constitute a close reading; bear with me. First, let’s set the stage.

A teenager, Miguel Serra, has just come out of a coma that may have been self-induced. “I can’t give you any medical explanation for it,” he tells us in voiceover panels. “I just didn’t wake up that morning, is all. Then one day, exactly a year later, I woke up. Can’t give you an explanation for that either.” Miguel’s grandparents, who take care of him, re-introduce him to his bedroom.

As they do so, Miguel thinks about them. Four horizontal panels, identically sized, are stacked on top of each other. The top frame shows Armando, Miguel’s kindly grandfather in close-up. His hair is jet-black, and the background around him is also solid black. The lettered panels reveal that Grandpa self-deludes himself into thinking that this melancholy, punk-rock-obsessed kid is on the high school football team. The entire panel suggests solidity, strength, and its lines are bold and thick.

The descending frame, however, is more ethereal. It shows Miguel’s grandma Bea, once again in close-up, but the lines are thinner (Her hair is gray and less full-bodied than her husband’s.), and she holds an altogether more pensive expression. Her white eyes, with a tiny black pupil in each, her fingers—raised gently in worried concern—give the frame a more ethereal, frayed feel. In the voiceover, we’ve got the first note of concern: “Grandma’s sweet and overprotective. This might come from the fact that her daughter, my mom, abandoned me when I was four.”

Indeed, the next panel shows Bea’s face in more extreme close-up. The linework is even more ethereal, lacking definition, as if we’re looking at a face through the white noise of an old black-and-white TV. The face has less wrinkles and softer curves, and Miguel’s voiceover— “They got rid of all the pictures of Mom. Maybe it’s better I don’t remember what she looked like.”—reveals that we’re actually looking at a younger version of Bea, i.e. Miguel’s mom.

The bottom panel shows Miguel in close-up, prone, as sharply defined as Armando is in the top panel. Above the boy’s face, however, are the striated lines—bolder, bigger, but more abstract, a bit like black clouds rather than anything definite—that we see in the third panel. The voiceover reveals that Miguel is thinking about his dad, who “was never around in the first place.”

In a single page, Beto condenses visually a boy’s entire, complicated psychological relationship with his family. The structure and art also reveals a major, counterintuitive theme of Sloth—that the closer and deeper we look at someone or something, the less we know of it. Instead of life getting clearer with age, with sharper eyesight, we instead see its greater depths and the potentials for obfuscation.

Indeed, Sloth is full of close-ups that muddle as much as they reveal. The main characters—Miguel, his girlfriend Lita, and their mutual friend Romeo; they all play in a garage band called “Sloth”—are forever trying to read each others’ faces. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. We try to read them, too, lingering on Beto’s beautiful close-ups and huge frames. Still, by the book’s end, we’ve been knocked for one or two loops as well.

Miguel, Lita, and Romeo live in a small town filled with blank walls, white and empty skies, and buildings so wispily drawn that they veer towards abstract design. The comic begins with Miguel narrating a litany of recent teenage suicides, people so consumed by boredom and that certain floating feeling that they can’t bear it anymore. It’s suburban wasteland—or, at least, they think it is.

The only locale in town that’s embodied with individual identity, with a backstory, with a sense of mystery, are the huge lemon orchards. As Miguel tells us, “Like corn fields in other towns, the lemon orchards are often rumored to be haunted, places where it’s easy to hide a body, where kids get lost, never to return.” There’s a strange myth—not entirely unfounded, as we’ll see by book’s end—about a goatman who lives there, and who will trade places with you if you’re not careful. Miguel’s overheard rumors that his dad killed his mom, and buried her out there.

Naturally, the kids are drawn to the place. In a lesser comic, this would be the sort of gravitational pull that’s led hundreds of kids in slasher flicks to their doom. In Beto’s hands, however, those orchards are the town’s saving grace. It’s the one place that’s drawn with care for minute detail, where there are billowing clouds, a true black sky, and the glint of a crescent moon. The orchards, and the possibility of videotaping the Goatman, shake them out of their existential comas, as the sour taste of undiluted lemon juice sometimes surprises us.

Sloth’s protagonists float through life, trying to score tickets to rock concerts, trying to get laid, trying to survive high school without getting beat up. The characters aren’t blanks themselves—their personalities are well-defined, the gestures intimate and sometimes erotic, and the dialogue is crisp and often funny. Like all teens, though, their identities aren’t fully formed and fluctuate by day.

Beto hones in on this point in a bravura passage midway through Sloth. It’s unfair to give it away, but suffice it to say that our understanding of who’s been in a coma changes drastically—after all, he seems to say, maybe it was us. The narrative shift, like that first bite of a lemon wedge, is a sharp wake-up call.

So is the comic’s art. It’s astonishing how cinematic Sloth feels. Most of the panels are big panels and, like the sequence I analyzed in detail above, they’re often horizontal and overwhelming, like a 70mm movie screen. Within these frames are extreme, poignant closeups, but just as often they show wide, empty expanses undercut by a central character or a pattern of perfectly trimmed trees. For all of the ennui observed, Beto’s compositions are electrifying. He shows how Sloth’s world looks blank and withdrawn to those living in it, but also how beautiful—if distant—it can be through another set of eyes.

Sloth is a graceful, mesmerizing comic, a waking dream that’s nevertheless full of realist touches and a true understanding of adolescence. It doesn’t bother me that it doesn’t entirely make sense, or that some of its issues are left unresolved. That’s part of the point. These kids are getting a close-up look at adulthood, learning that it’s often abstract, rarely tidy, but also rarely less than interesting.

**********************
In a recent interview, the interviewer notes to Beto that “the idea of going in and out of a coma is a great metaphor for adolescence.” I’ve written a love letter to Beto before.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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