|Chance in Hell
By Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics – hardcover, $16.99
FOR SOMEONE SO TALENTED, Gilbert Hernandez is scary-prolific. In addition to Love and Rockets vol. II (and soon vol. III) with his brother, Jaime, and the beautiful Ignatz series, New Tales of Old Palomar, he’s found time to release a series of graphic novels based on the B-movies his Luba character, Fritz, appears in (though no familiarity with Luba or Palomar is required to enjoy them). Speak of the Devil is currently being serialized through Dark Horse (a combination of title and publisher that makes mistaking it for a Grendel series forgivable), but last year’s Chance in Hell went directly to the hardcover format, and it’s a good fit for Hernandez’s bleak, deceptively simple story.
Chance in Hell is divided into thirds, taking its main character, Empress, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, each presenting her with a protector who fails her in some way. As the story opens, she is one of a number of children living in a junkyard on the outskirts of a city, abandoned by parents that didn’t want them. Empress seems happy here, oblivious to the deprivation and danger they all live under, and the sexual exploitation some of the older children subject her to. After a scene of horrific violence, she is taken in by an inhabitant of the city that she refers to simply as “The Man” (only Empress has a name). As a teenager, she still lives with him, but spends most of her time with a young pimp and the three women he manages, his “Hearts of Gold” (one of whom is “played by” Fritz, sans lisp). Finally, as an adult she lives with a successful prosecutor in a housing complex built near the junkyard of her childhood.
While Empress’s circumstances would seem to improve across each of these thirds, she becomes more emotionally closed off as time goes on. After all, once she leaves the junkyard, she is entering the kind of society that would abandon its children there. The children are frequently violent, but behave that way largely to survive, while the city people prove to be just as malevolent despite having more options. In the second section, The Man makes himself out to be a sensitive soul above the goings-on of the streets, but he ultimately proves to be hiding things. In the final third, Empress’s husband is prosecuting a “babykiller,” and people’s reactions to the news reveals the society’s bloodthirstiness. One of the nuns who raised Empress after she left The Man exclaims upon hearing that Empress’s husband is going for the death penalty, “ I’d love to be there, just to smell that babykiller’s flesh fry,” before going on the bemoan that he is a “skinny male runt,” as the extra layer of fat on women sometimes causes them to catch fire. There are hints that Empress’s husband also mistreats her.
Through all this, the character most honest about his circumstances and intentions is the pimp, who Empress thinks is “the smartest person [she’s] ever known.” He alone understands how to get what he wants and is direct in pursuing it, and shows the most emotion, as when he beats his girls in a frenzy because one gave a free blow job to a cop. That he wears his dark side in the open and is the only character not walking through life in a daze makes him one of the most empathetic––if not exactly likable––characters, which says something about the world Hernandez has created.
Like much of Hernandez’s other work, Chance in Hell has a dreamlike quality. Scene transitions are often abrupt, leaving the reader to fill in details at the beginnings and ends of scenes. Other scenes move slower, focusing on details like an electric chair survivor who must mask the lingering odor the experience has left him with, and a quicksand pit right outside Empress and her husband’s home. These more abstract additions are chilling and contribute to the themes of the city’s sense of death and justice, and its bloodlust.
Hernandez’s artwork continues his recent trend toward simplification. Like many other artists working as long as he has, Hernandez has over time distilled his style down to its most essential components. Here that means minimal backgrounds and iconic characters. The overall feel is surprisingly moody, aided by expressionistic skies and a liberal use of silhouettes. The art isn’t as slick as 2006’s Sloth, and the rougher look mostly suits the material (and Hernandez’s hand lettering fits the art better than Sloth‘s computer lettering), though some stray lines and visible spots of whiteout are distracting, creating a bit of a rushed look.
The only other problem I found was with the book itself, printed on stiff paper and an overly tight spine. For such a small book, it fights very hard to stay closed and didn’t fit comfortably in either my hands or lap.
Chance in Hell is a book I’ve already read twice and will likely read again. It looks simple on the surface, and Hernandez has referred to it as “light,” but its mix of basic themes and abstract concepts, combined with an ambiguous ending, reward close reading. Similarly, the art and page layouts are straightforward, but Hernandez’s unique pacing and juxtaposition of contrasting images add great depth. This is one you’ll be thinking about for awhile after you put it down.