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Speak of the Devil

Review

Speak of the Devil

Gilbert Hernandez’s Speak of the Devil is the kind of book that challenges its readers to understand it; it may even challenge its readers to actually enjoy it. I’ve never read anything by Hernandez (or his brother Jaime, with whom he produces Love and Rockets), so part of me wonders if my own lack of enjoyment may somehow relate to my lack of previous exposure to the creator. In the end, I found much to appreciate and interpret from this disturbing graphic novel, though it’s difficult to recommend based on reading pleasure alone.

A brief summary without giving much away: There’s a devil-masked peeping tom in town, who first appears by terrorizing gymnast-protagonist Val Castillo’s busty stepmother. The twist (offered on the back cover): Val herself is the peeper. The ensuing story delves deeply and unabashedly into dark places of the human psyche; characters give in to lusts of eroticism and of violence, and more than a little blood spills in the process. By story’s end, readers are left feeling vulnerable and a little unsatisfied. Personally, I tried finding a plot-motivated rationale for the story itself, but this may be missing the point. The book doesn’t look to answer questions; rather, it revels in the simple raising of questions, forcing readers to examine their own feelings regarding social and societal taboos.
 
A literary theorist might see expressions of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque concept at work; essentially, during carnival time in medieval Europe, repressed and oppressed peasants wore masks and costumes and were able to subvert the usual hierarchy of their society, and images of the grotesque (signifiers of the human body and its protrusions and biological quirks) were emphasized and glorified. In Speak of the Devil, characters unlock otherwise repressed urges of sex and violence only after donning masks, shedding mundane identities that they’re forced to assume within the confines of suburbia. Masks liberate them and allow them to revel in their subversion of societal norms and expectations. Whether or not this is a good thing is not made clear, and the moral ambiguity that the book maintains makes it both intriguing and disturbing.
 
The book’s art is black and white and is drawn in a somewhat “cartoony” style. This reduces the impact the more shocking scenes might have on a reader, may they depict violence or sex. Perhaps this reduced reliance on realism is itself a statement on our culture’s desensitization toward such graphic or intense scenes. In some scenes, I felt the style worked against the subject matter; two instances where characters “lose it” are almost silly in their depictions, and as such, it seemed as though their effect was deadened and dulled. Then again, perhaps the book on the whole is a commentary on culture’s fascination with sex and violence and how absurd it all is.
 

Whatever the motivation, Speak of the Devil is not for the faint of heart. If you are a Hernandez fan, take a look. If not, tread carefully…

Reviewed by Brian P. Rubin on July 17, 2012

Speak of the Devil
by Gilbert Hernandez

  • Publication Date: November 11, 2008
  • Genres: Graphic Novel, Horror, Science Fiction
  • Hardcover: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Dark Horse
  • ISBN-10: 1595821937
  • ISBN-13: 9781595821935