Gilbert Hernandez is best known by discerning comics enthusiasts for his Palomar stories, which appeared in Love and Rockets. Chance in Hell takes some of the same themes – perhaps most noticeably poverty and intense female characters – and puts a darker spin on things. Where the Palomar stories are a roller-coaster ride of good and bad times, this is a uniformly bleak tale of life on the very edge of humanity.
Empress starts the story as a young girl, barely more than a toddler, orphaned and scratching out an existence on a rubbish dump. Life is hard there – mortality rates are high, the people are lawless and today’s friends are tomorrow’s enemies. Hernandez holds little back in his depiction of the horror.
Somehow Empress survives her early childhood and fate deals her some better cards, but there’s something that life on the rubbish dump has taken away from her. She finds it hard to form close attachments, even with those who want to help her, and her emotions have been locked so deep inside that she can barely even understand what it means to feel.
The illustration is classic Hernandez. His characters have depth to their faces and figures, giving the impression that they’ve been well lived in. Empress has a distance to her stare that captures her lost inner-child perfectly.
Chance in Hell is a moving but bleak book, with little of the redemptive charm of Hernandez’s Love and Rockets work. This makes it a denser, more difficult read, and its ambiguous ending won’t help you come to terms with its content. It remains distinctly Gilbert Hernandez though, and fans of his work will definitely enjoy it. However, if you’re a newcomer to his comics we’d recommend you take a look at his Palomar stories first.