Chance in Hell (Fantagraphics)

chance-header.jpgMultiple Harvey Awards have proven Love & Rockets co-creator Gilbert Hernandez’ artistic chops, but does the writing in this series of vignettes ever truly gel?

 

 

120 pgs. B&W; $16.95 hardcover

(W / A: Gilbert Hernandez)

 

Gilbert Hernandez has an established pedigree as one of the finest artists working in comics today. His years of work with his brother Jaime on Love and Rockets, literally spanning three decades, have led him to great critical acclaim for his talents in storytelling, including receiving multiple Harvey awards.

 

Thus it came as a bit of a surprise to me how poorly I regarded his new book Chance in Hell. While some aspects of the story were quite engaging and the art itself was at times beautiful, I found the book as a whole to be lacking in some indefinable quality that tied it all together into a package that I could recommend.

 

Perhaps it’s my fault, in a way, for thinking the book would appeal to me in the first place. Hernandez’s previous graphic novel from DC’s Vertigo imprint, Sloth, had failed to grab me as a reader despite the fact that I could recognize his artistic skill in making it. Yet I still approached this book hopefully, with an open mind, only to end up disappointed a second time, in no small part due to some characteristics of that book that I find as faults in this one as well.

 

The cover to Chance in Hell. Click for a larger image.With Sloth, many of the surreal quirks of the plot and its fragmented narrative at least fit with the underlying concept of the book. In Chance in Hell, these elements only serve to make the book feel disjointed. The book is really more a series of vignettes rather than a graphic novel, each one centering on a girl named Empress at various times in her life. We first see her as a child, living abandoned in a barren landscape that seems to serve as society’s human garbage heap, and from there the book leaps forward in her life to follow her as a teenager and as a young adult.

 

But each section of the narrative is drastically different from the last in terms of setting and subject matter. The surreal wasteland (and it is surrealism at work here, not magic realism as the book’s dust jacket claims; there is no magic to be found there, only desolation) of the first section gives way to urban sprawl in the second and suburban comfort in the third. With each change in locale, there is a drastic tonal shift in Empress’ attitude, so much so that it feels like each time we are meeting a different person.

 

Thematically and symbolically, each section touches upon the same subjects. We frequently see fences being built in the story, ostensibly to protect the characters from some harm. And sure enough, whenever these fences are breached, danger does seem to rear its ugly head. The sheer hopelessness of each part of the story leaves you feeling there is no "chance in hell" of anyone surviving this life, not Empress and not us.

 

None of the vignettes then seems to stand on its own very well because they all depend on each other to fully explore the theme. But the book never really comes together as a whole either, since each vignette’s role in the overall narrative is unclear and the character arc Empress passes through is spotty at best and without a clear resolution.

 

At the very least, you cannot fault the book’s art, for in that regard Hernandez is very clearly a genius. His composition in many scenes is quite eloquent, managing to be both moving and nerve-wracking at the same time. The scenes of Empress’ departure from the bleak environment of her childhood, her violent final confrontation as a teen with the man who rescued her, and a tragedy she witnesses as an adult are all very tense scenes as executed by Hernandez. Each scenario haunts Empress in a way, and Hernandez ensures that they all haunt the reader as well.

 

In the end, these symbolic and thematic elements are well-executed and the incredible technical gift of Hernandez in drawing these scenes is obvious. Unfortunately, these qualities are packaged in a plot that never really gels featuring characters that are portrayed as mere sketches and are thus never given opportunity to show real dimension.

 

Perhaps in the end it does boil down to a matter of taste, since as I stated above, I can find no fault with the art itself. If you know yourself to be a fan of the style of work Hernandez has done in the past, Chance in Hell will doubtlessly appeal to your tastes. But if you are like me and have never quite grasped the allure of this approach to storytelling, the best you can hope to feel after reading this book is cold indifference towards its characters and the world they live in. | Steve Higgins

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