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Sunday, July 23, 2006

SLOTH by Gilbert Hernandez.Sloth -- Gilbert Hernandez's new graphic novel (published by Vertigo) paints a rich portrait of identity, gender and relationships, combining the graphic confidence of Hernandez's Palomar with the challenging narrative complexity of one of the better David Lynch movies -- Lost Highway, say, or maybe Mulholland Drive.

Miguel is a teenage boy who grows up in a small town, is raised by his doting grandparents, and one day wills himself into a year-long coma. A year later, he wills himself out of it and despite being a little shaky on his feet, more or less resumes his previous life, including his relationships with his best friend Romeo and his girlfriend Lita. And no, it wouldn't be entirely out of order to wonder what they're been up to over the past year, especially given the best friend's name, but I'm not telling you, you'll have to read the book and find out for yourself.

Miguel emerges into his new post-coma world a changed young man. More thoughtful, slower -- slothful, one might say. Sloth is also the name of the rock band made up of Miguel, Lita and Romeo, and Miguel's new approach to life extends into his music-making, a fact sorely at odds with the direction Romeo wants Sloth to take. Of such conflicts can be born great musical partnerships, like Lennon and McCartney, or Mick and Keith. Perhaps Sloth will rise to such heights, if they can overcome the other central conflict in their midst.

While Miguel's year-long coma and reintroduction into his own life is interesting plot material, the character that interested me the most was the girlfriend, Lita. Anyone familiar with Hernandez's work knows that he excels in creating unique, individual characters and that his women are always sharply realized, fascinating creations. Lita is pretty, but not overwhelmingly so, and her relationship with Miguel (and another guy in the story, not necessarily who you're thinking) seems drawn on reality. If the resumption of their romance (more like a friendship with sex than a fully-realized relationship, which perhaps provides a clue to the heart of the full story's ultimate resolution) is dealt with a little quickly, Lita's fascination with urban legends can be said to have filled the gap in her life while Miguel was comatose. Miguel, certainly, is drawn into the mysteries that so occupy Lita's imagination, and before long Miguel, Lita and Romeo are involved in more than one mystery, and the revelations that follow cause us to reevaluate every single thing we have seen and been told from the first moment of the story.

After the decades Gilbert Hernandez has spent as one of North America's most gifted cartoonists and premier storytellers, it's no surprise at all that Sloth is a beautiful book, told with the skill of a master. What may surprise you is how complete Sloth feels, of a piece with Hernandez's Love and Rockets work but independent of it in all but spirit. It's a single story with a definite beginning, middle and end, but with worlds created (quite literally) in its telling, Sloth will reward a second reading, and perhaps a third. It is, after all, the tale of three young people filled with hopes, desires and dreams.

Especially dreams.



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