The three teen leads of Sloth, Gilbert Hernandez's nimble Vertigo black and white graphic novel – Miguel, Lita and Romeo – are united when it comes to decrying the deadening nature of small-town life. "Young people can get so lonely and depressed living in small out-of-the-way towns like mine," Lita states at one point. "A coma is probably the least destructive way to deal, I think."
As the book opens, Miguel has recently revived from a year long coma that he may or may not have willed on himself, but by the end of the book more than one character'll have also "chosen" to escape into a comatose state. It's all part of a continuum, Miguel notes, of "existential low self-esteem" that can drive seemingly normal kids into despairing acts of self-destruction that make a self-induced coma look mild.
Pretty grim subject matter, on the face of it, but Beto has an empathetic eye and ear for teenaged histrionics that keep him from gothically sentimentalizing his characters' adolescent angst. He has a knack for visualizing all three of his teens as they emote their way through a series of self-inflicted crises – at one point, making a trip into a lonely lemon grove as ominous as a teen-centered horror flick; later, showing Lita screaming in impatient frustration for a pair of concert tickets (as in other Hernandez comics, rock music plays a vital part in the story) – and the ability to convey both the seriousness and absurdity of each moment simultaneously. Though his characters may at times appear to be inhabiting a 2-D world (most clearly repped by the lemon grove with its blackly flattened lemon trees), they remain some of the most vibrantly multi-layered, unpredictable characters in comics.
I'm talking around the plot in Sloth, in part because one of the pleasures of this book lies in not knowing where Hernandez is gonna take the recently awoken Miguel and his pals. To call the story "Lynch-ian" doesn't really do justice to either storyteller (I'd argue that Beto is consistently the more humane artist), though it does provide a convenient short hand. Suffice it to say that life for our three teens changes dramatically more than once throughout the book, that many of the book’s secondary characters show up in more than one role and that a mythical Goatman with the ability to convince his victims to switch places with him somehow figures into the proceedings. Part of what Sloth is about is the teenage need to "try on" different roles as they attempt to figure out what kind of adult they will become – or whether they even want to become an adult – and he tackles this theme with wit and compassion.
Of all the works produced by Hernandez outside the Love And Rockets imprimatur (Girl Crazy; Grip; Yeah!, his airy collaboration with Peter Bagge), Sloth is arguably the cartoonist's most self-realized work to date: at turns funny and creepy, imaginative yet packed with enough believable desperation to fill the town of Winesburg, Ohio. Clearly, the book's title does not apply to its creator, who happily and actively remains one of our great living graphic storytellers.