Posted by Don MacPherson on November 1st, 2009
The Troublemakers original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Gilbert Hernandez
Cover artist: Rick Altergott
Editor: Gary Groth
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books
Price: $16.95 US
While I’m not as well versed in the works of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, notably their various Love and Rockets comics over the years, I do occasionally take note of their efforts. I usually prefer the storytelling of Jaime Hernandez over his brother’s, but something about this graphic novel caught my attention (perhaps the title). I’m pleased it did, because in these pages lies a challenging, meticulously crafted story of grifters in the middle of a con. Not surprisingly, Hernandez populates his story with some thoroughly grounded and intriguing figures, but what’s fascinating about the plot is how it criss-crossed over on itself so that not only do the characters remain unaware of who’s conning who but so does the reader. The plot is an intricately woven web of lies and truths, and it’s peppered, of course, with Hernandez’s trademark touch of raw sexuality. Fans of such crime comics as Criminal and 100 Bullets would be well advised to give this graphic novel a chance; they won’t be disappointed.
The lives of three con artists — Vincene, Wes and Nala — converge in a Californian resort town as they ply their trade both in conjunction with one another and perhaps against one another. Wes and Nala are trying to bilk a grifter named Dewey of 200 grand by befriending him, but Vincene warns Wes, a former partner that she left in the lurch long ago, that Nala and Dewey are more than likely conning him. Meanwhile, Nala wonders if Wes has turned against her, and Vincene’s overzealous would-be protector, a security guard named Carlos, proves to be the wild card that could upset the delicate balance of the seeming stalemate of the con artists.
I have read enough issues of Love and Rockets to recognize Gilbert Hernandez’s heroine Fritz in this new graphic novel, but while she is Fritz, she isn’t. A blurb on the back cover of the book (which was a godsend, since I never would have figured this out) notes that The Troublemakers is, in essence, a “film” that Fritz stars in, playing the role of the mysterious, sympathetic heroine named Nala. This graphic novel is, in reality, a story within the larger story of the world of Love and Rockets. Hernandez presents it as a story on its own, so knowledge of his past works isn’t necessary at all. It’s fitting that this story is described as a film in that world, as the pacing of the plot and intertwining nature of the storytelling reminds me a great deal of the crime-fiction movies of Quentin Tarantino, such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or the Brit-crime films of Guy Ritchie, such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
The soft, simple lines that Hernandez employs to assemble the figures in the artwork really accentuate the characters’ humanity and vulnerabilities. I find it interesting that the male players — Wes, Dewey and Carlos — are small in stature and really don’t exude any kind of power and little presence. It’s Nala and Vincene who seem to be the most powerful figures in the plot. Vincene’s forceful personality and confidence is apparent from the way Hernandez has her carry herself, and Nala’s quiet, seemingly timid facade proves to be just that by the end of the book.
Wes is definitely the most down-to-earth character in the story. All he really wants is a comfortable life in which he can live out his dream as a rock-n-roll singer. His dreams are actually small. He doesn’t long for fame, platinum records and world tours, just a small club with a stage he can call his own. He’s definitely a child who’s wandered into a dangerous, adult world. The fact that the kid rockers he approaches are a more dominant force than he is proves that Wes is just a kid. The simplicity of his dreams and his pseudo-innocence make him wholly likeable, even while he plots to steal and uses a woman he purports to love to seduce others.
The bizarre scenes in which we see what becomes of a series of stray bullets is a blunt bit of symbolism that demonstrates that greed and manipulation will destroy all that they touch. It’s an odd, surreal turn in the plot, but it’s also a strong message that reminds us that innocents always end up paying the price for the deeds of those who do wrong.
Nala’s determination is not only apparent in her eyes, through the artwork, but also obvious in the actions she takes and decisions she makes. In the opening scene, she pursues Vincene, determined to keep a thief from taking what’s hers. Nala quickly ends up playing the role of the victim, only to get the best of Vincene in the end, torturing her with a mystery that will haunt her. Nala’s also empowered by her sexuality and uses it as a tool. It makes for a tragic tone to the figure. She’s been used and has used others, but there’s still this sense that she cares. It may just be another mask, but the reader is left with the impression that mask is actually a reflection of a person she once was. 9/10
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