Rob Clough reviews The Troublemakers by Gilbert Hernandez

Posted by on December 30th, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Fantagraphics; 120 pp., $19.95; B&W, Hardcover; ISBN: 9781560979227

At this stage of his career, it feels like Gilbert Hernandez is filling in blanks and telling some stories he’s wanted to get to for a long time.  Now that he’s finally finished the story of Luba in America, one can sense how much he’s enjoying taking these side-roads of a character he clearly has a lot of affection for in Fritz.  Her career as a grindhouse-style, B-movie star brought up as a side note in LOVE & ROCKETS has blossomed into a series of standalone graphic novels, each one a love letter to 70s exploitation movies.  Beto being Beto, there’s a depth of visual symbolism and complexity of character that provides an emotional structure to the narrative not seen in the source material that inspired these stories.  Hernandez also infused these stories with a number of his trademark flourishes.

For example, CHANCE IN HELL was notable for the surreal elements that have been a part of Hernandez’s comics from the very beginning.  The recent short story HYPNOTWIST in the latest issue of LOVE AND ROCKETS had that surrealism as the dominant narrative element.  SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, labeled as a “companion series” that detailed the “real events” that inspired the film starring Fritz, focused on the ways in which families betray each other, voyeurism and unfulfilled desire.  THE TROUBLEMAKERS, in many ways, was the most straightforward of these projects, resulting in a story that was Elmore Leonard meets Roger Corman.

Hernandez plays up the pulp element with some ingenious story flourishes.  In a story about hustlers, cons, double-crosses and triple-crosses, it was only fitting that Hernandez made one of the characters a magician’s assistant who knew all sorts of disappearing tricks.  Another character stole her outfit and shtick (which was at least 75% showing off her legs in fishnet stockings) and was well-known for her ability as an escape artist of sorts.  The third major character was obsessed with a lucky totem whose shape Hernandez shifted to coincide with key story developments.

Fritz “plays” Nala, the magician’s assistant who took advantage of her natural sexiness in working a con with Wes, the man obsessed with luck.  Wes is in many ways the most pathetic character in the book, a guy who only wants a little cash to open up his own rock ‘n roll club, one that would let him sing whenever he wanted.  The more we learn about Wes, the more we learn how small-time he is: his “mob connection” turned out to be his grandma, for example, and he practiced pulling out a gun like a teenager playing cops and robbers.  The weakness of Wes’ character was revealed when Nala and Vincene (the other major character) kept trying to convince him that the other woman was hustling him and that they couldn’t be trusted. Vincene’s weakness was her affection for her “security guard” Carlos; she couldn’t bear to see him get hurt.  Nala, who appeared to be the most frail character in the book, wound up being the hardest-bitten, without the sort of emotional attachments that held back the other characters.

The McGuffin of the story was $200,000 in cash that another hustler had and that Wes & Nala were trying to get out of him.  It spoke to the small-time nature of the hustle here, where each character was desperate to get their hands on a chunk of cash that was significant but not the stuff of legends.  The money was mostly an excuse to create a series of setpieces involving interactions between each of the three principles along with their mark (a thug named Dewey.  There’s a wonderful luridness to the story that Hernandez revels in, such as the hair-pulling fights between Nala and Vincene (complete with them rolling around on the ground), the sleazy sex scenes between Nala and Dewey (including a panel where Nala puts what’s supposed to be a paralyzing agent on her nipple) and the over-the-top cover by Rick Altergott.  That latter bit is meant to be reminiscent of a grindhouse movie poster.

That luridness is contrasted by the essential sadness of Wes, a character obsessed with luck whose fortunes run out. The way his totem morphs into images of Nala, his own Masonic t-shirt image and a skull reflect what’s happening with the story and his eventual fate.  That Masonic t-shirt was emblematic of the way in which he tried to manipulate and conspire against fate.  The irony is that he’s obsessed with Nala’s fate (breaking the rule of getting emotionally involved with a scam partner), worrying that when he emptied his gun into the air that a bullet would hit her, when she was the one truly bulletproof character in the book.  When every other ancillary character in the book gets a bullet instead, it’s Beto’s amusing way of revealing how Nala is bad luck for everyone else.  THE TROUBLEMAKERS is a minor work in Gilbert Hernadez’s imposing catalog, yet it still shows the artist at the height of his powers, capable of crafting characters with surprising depth even in the basest of genre stories.

Images [©2009 Gilbert Herandez]

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