The Troublemakers
by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics, 2010)

With its brisk pacing, engaging narrative and rather copious levels of violence, The Troublemakers is lurid crime pulp done to perfection. The second installment in Gil Hernandez's pulp "movie novels" experiment, The Fritz B-movie Collection, is some pretty high-octane storytelling.

"Complex" and "hard-boiled" aren't quite hyperbolic enough to describe the plot. Four grifters of varying degrees of competence are circling like blood-hungry sharks over a pile of cash. Wes is a rock 'n' roll burnout whose only desire in life is to be the owner of a club he can play in, because as the owner he obviously can't be booted out the door. His best friend, Dewey Booth, is a drug dealer and the one who lucked into the $200,000 windfall that everyone wants. Nala is the woman for whom the word "bombshell" was invented. She uses her incredibly endowed body to seduce men, whom she then robs. Then there's Vincenze, another, much more violent drug dealer, and, of course, Fritz of Love & Rockets fame.

Hernandez loves damaged people, probably because they are more interesting as subjects. That must be why he's so comfortable in pulp-fiction territory, which is not known for its well-adjusted characters.

The way Hernandez effortlessly turns the principal components of pulp-fiction literature to his own end is truly a marvel. The basic premise of "Who is screwing whom" could very easily degenerate into sloppy writing. Not here. There are heavy doses of action, enough mystery to be truly intriguing, and nuanced characterization that never devolves into generic representation.

As is usually the case with Hernandez, the story is told in a series of seemingly unrelated pieces that then become a very intricately threaded tale that soon draws everyone into its tangled mess. Jumping from one character to another in small vignettes, with a new development occurring every three or four pages, there are double crosses, double double crosses, love affairs gone hideously awry and a magic amulet that seems to bestow good luck on whoever is wearing it at the time. The twists and turns are worthy of anything Lester Dent wrote. You really have no idea what is going to happen next.

His black-and-white art is sleek but loaded with meaning. I am in awe of Hernandez's ability to compress such an incredible amount of subtext into one panel. Each one is a "scene," something Hernandez was infamous for back the days of Love & Rockets. It's a perfect match for the highly condensed narrative. There's a bit of irony at work here: originally, pulp fiction was created as a form of simplistic escapism. Complex, intriguing and filled with memorable characters, The Troublemakers is anything but shallow.

There's an awful lot of story in this very fine installment of the B-movie series. It's a great introduction to Hernandez as a writer and artist, not to mention a perfect companion to the first installment, Chance in Hell.

review by
Mary Harvey

8 January 2011

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