A new Gilbert Hernandez book is always a treat but the anticipation of reading is tinted with a slight anxiety: is this going to be another masterpiece, like Human Diastrophism or Julio’s Day? Hernadez’s potential is so huge that a book that might be the finest hour of a lesser graphic novelist, can be tinged with disappointment for a Gilbert fan.
Loverboys is published by Dark Horse rather than his usual publisher Fantagraphics, so sits outside his usual Love and Rockets stories. Despite this, the female lead, an ageing beauty called Mrs Paz, bears a striking resemblance to B-movie starlet Fritz, making it hard to disassociate this from Fantagraphics’ Fritz B-Movie Collection.
Set in a very small town, Mrs Paz is a school teacher, whose wet-dream proportions have had a profound and stirring impact on the boys who’ve passed through her classes. Rocky, now a young man, runs into Mrs Paz again when she starts teaching his younger sister, and they start an affair, despite the fact that he’s also romantically involved with his boss.
Meanwhile his sister thinks she can use her proximity to Mrs Paz to cheat in a test, but the plan backfires. Questions of motive, manipulation and personal responsibility tear through this book like a bush fire, burning our expectations to the ground every few turns of the page. The interactions between the characters have repercussions far beyond their face value, as a simple action or statement can seem like the lightest of touches, but end up being the final straw for a character that seems otherwise unrelated to the action.
It’s a subtle, yet catastrophic sort of story. It’s told in a sparse, choppy style, that almost feels like it’s been pared back a little too far, but perhaps this is the point. This tale isn’t really about the archetypical characters, they’re just pawns in a book where destiny lies not in your own hands, but in the hands of those around you, people who are themselves just grains of sand in a maelstrom.
Once again, Hernandez leaves us with a book that’s far bigger than the sum of its parts; a book that might leave you with questions about its own resolution and intentions, the answers to which will haunt your thoughts in the days and weeks to come.
So is it a Hernandez masterpiece? It’s not up there with the greats, no. But it will still stay with you longer than most of the other graphic novels you’re likely to read this year.