Pulp Fictions: John Mejias's Paping: The Teachers Edition and Gilbert Hernandez's Sloth and Speak of the Devil
Paping: The Teachers Edition
Sloth and Speak of the Devil
John Mejias teaches art at a public school in the Bronx. He also self-publishes a downbeat triannual comic titled Paping, after his Puerto Rican father's nickname (pronounced "pah-PING"). Paping's most recent issue, The Teachers Edition, is devoted to comics about teaching Mejias drew over the book's first eight issues.
The book is exactly as messy, charming, predictable, inspiring, horrifying, infuriating as the students' and teachers' lives depicted within it. As Mejias bluntly summarizes Paping's 16th issue for the copyright page's keywords section: "Teacher discovers poor people get ripped off at school." He later writes, "I wish I made these stories up." Thinking about teaching as neo-Depression Plan B? I'd strongly suggest reading The Teachers Edition before dusting off your CV.
Mejias's collection contains familiar variations on the theme of idealistic teachers versus a heartless entrenched bureaucracy. The book's longest tale, "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished," recounts the trials and tribulations involved in painting a mural on a handball court. Another ends with its writer (Jody Buckles) walking away from the crowded, bug-infested, and generally Dickensian home of one of her students and realizing "why Rafael never did his homework." And don't even ask about standardized testing.
One of Mejias's drawing styles resembles woodblock or potato prints. Another is a kind of scratchy, haphazard reflection (I'm guessing) of the kids' art he sees at work. His faces resemble African masks, and a slightly queasy cubism haunts his architecture, making this banality of neglect, to which he bears witness, all the more surreal.
Kids do the darndest things in two of Gilbert Hernandez's more recent graphic novels, too. In both 2006's haunting Sloth (newly published in paperback by Vertigo) and this year's problematic Speak of the Devil (Dark Horse), Hernandez imagines a world where sexual tension turns families and suburban neighborhoods topsy-turvy.
Both Sloth and Speak of the Devil read closer to Gilbert's hot 1992 Eros graphic novel Birdland than to the epic Palomar family drama he unfurled over the course of a couple of decades in Love and Rockets, the comic Hernandez has been drawing with his brother, Jaime, since 1981. And there's a lot more David Lynch than Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Gilbert's latest work. This is especially true of Sloth, about a teenager who wills himself in and out of a yearlong coma, and who makes an inspired 180-degree Mulholland Drive change of identity about halfway through.
However, Speak of the Devil, foregrounding as it does the sort of peeping Tom that Beto's trademark buxom, negligee-clad women invite into their bedrooms, seems more creepy than erotic. "He'll come back," sighs an excited suburban wife. "They always do." That the prowler is actually her daughter does not add to the allure. As iconic as Batman's mask, the creeper's devilishly horned silhouette is the graphic glue that holds the book together. Too bad it was squandered on this softcore teen drama about sex and high-school gymnastics.