Chance in Hell
by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics, 2007)

Gilbert Hernandez is a brilliant artist whose three decades of work with his brother, Jaime, on the cult classic Love & Rockets has earned him well-deserved critical praise and multiple Harvey Awards. Chance in Hell is connected to Palomar, the fictional Central American town in the L&R series. In L&R, Luba's younger half-sister Fritz appeared in many low budget "art" films. Hernandez is planning to write graphic novels based on all of the movies Fritz was in, making this story the first in an intended series of "movies."

CiH, Hernandez's second stand-alone story after Sloth, is story of a little girl named Empress, an orphaned denizen of the worst of city slums. The three-act story that follows is as disturbingly beautiful as it is nightmarish. Empress is adopted from the slums by a well-to-do man and marries another well-to-do man, only to discover that she isn't necessarily happy in safe, comfortable surroundings.

The surrealistic episodes fragment time in very interesting ways. The story is concerned with the pressure to conform and the loneliness this creates in terms of identity as we search high and low to find out who we really are. This is a morality tale about the human dilemma of dealing with societal restrictions with a young female protagonist as its moral center. It artistically represents women's roles by passing Empress through every trope of female identity and exposing, as it does so, the insidious, infinitely powerful cultural forces that overwhelm a woman's identity.

It touches on the same subject in each of the vignettes. The absurdist expressionism is only a minor exaggeration of the terrible reality that we are all, men and women alike, defined by nightmarish absurdities. The art is a visually stunning slide show of the pernicious pressure little girls are under nearly every moment of their waking lives. It's a visceral, emotional exploration of societal restrictions and how they rob us of identity and eventually even memory. Never once self-indulgent, you can't help admiring the near superhuman amount of strength a woman needs just to survive in this world.

The insight that CiH provides, however, is less than earthshaking; the story is not a perfect vehicle. It's more to be admired as much for the way it's done than for what it exposes. It deconstructs the role of women in society but it's not a particularly "revealing" revelation. True enough, gender restriction in society is so obvious that the abuse of women is a metaphor for nearly all of human suffering, and Hollywood, as the grindhouse generator of that abuse, is a veritable black hole of exploitation, much like a quicksand pit, in one of the book's many hit-you-over-the-head metaphors. The complexes that are instilled in women by society are very real but the influence on female identity is not examined so much as represented.

Hernandez's heart and head are very much in the right place. A woman is not her own person but is always somehow the property or possession of a man, a "daddy," who is at the end of the day completely and totally ineffectual as provider and protector. Women are defined by their relationships with men and their stories play out within the confines of male narrative. Violence is inherent, and chaos cannot be kept out; in fact it has an entry point into reality that cannot be bridged or dammed no matter the cost. And handsome princes will not save you.

While thematically sound, there is no real exploration of the story beyond the fact that a woman suffers in this world. Like Elk's Run and Notes for a War Story, Chance in Hell feels a little like building a watch to tell the time; this is not a story so much as a series of vignettes that are more expository writing than insightful narrative. It's wide, but not very deep. Those not familiar with Hernandez's work might find this nontraditional, nonlinear story a tad bit frustrating and perhaps a bit too surreal and episodic to follow.

On the whole, CiH is still a pretty brilliant piece of imagining, if only for the beautifully sparse artwork alone. It may be more for Love & Rockets fans but it's definitely worthwhile reading.

review by
Mary Harvey

25 October 2008

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