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Soft Outside, Hard Center: High Soft Lisp [Review]

The back cover of the new Gilbert Hernandez collection from Fantagraphics proudly trumpets: “HIGH SOFT LISP is one of Hernandez’s sexiest, funniest, and most freewheeling story collections.” Frankly, after reading the book, I think the marketing team at Fanta needs to calm down, maybe go outside and get a breath of fresh air, or get hosed down with cold water. “High Soft Lisp” isn’t exactly a romp. “Freewheeling” and “funniest” could easily be replaced with “fractured” and “depressing”, though none of those adjectives precisely describes the work, which only points out further how facile the original description is in the first place.

And “sexiest”? The book is sexual, sure. There are two enormous breasts on the cover, and they aren’t false advertising: the book is saturated in sex. But sexy? Almost all the sex in the book is sad, degrading, or upsetting. I just can’t bring myself to get “sexy” with a tag-team rape scene, or a scene of a husband screaming at his naked wife for having sex with two strangers that he brought home and asked her to have sex with, or a woman trying desperately to get her flaccid, uninterested partner hard. The book is a difficult look at sex and love, and while it’s captured with a dry, harsh wit, it isn’t a goofball sex comedy, and it shouldn’t be sold as one. To do so is a bait-and-switch that distracts from a bunch of really vibrant comics by one of the medium’s most organic and compelling cartoonists.
“High Soft Lisp” is primarily the story of Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez, half-sister to Hernandez’s iconic Luba character (from the Palomar stories) and blessed with the same comically-ample bosom. The bulk of the book is taken up with Fritz’s sexual and romantic misadventures, taking us from her earliest sexual experiences in high school and college through three marriages, one bonus engagement, and two careers (one as a psychiatrist and one as the star of trash “B”-movies, many of which Hernandez has “adapted” into such comics as “Chance in Hell” and “Speak of the Devil.”) For all the time and geography covered, though, we never really get a handle on Fritz.

In part it seems she’s built to be confounding.

One of the best jokes in the book involves a nerdy fanboy approaching Fritz at a high society party, and proceeding to tell her all about his sexual fixation on her image, only to finish by saying that her voice (the titular high-pitched lisping whisper) was so incongruous in his mind to her body that it caused him irrevocable psychological harm, and he is filing a lawsuit for damages. Throughout her life Fritz is mistaken for a bimbo, as if because her design so frankly screams sex, she is capable of nothing else. Conversely, despite her Ph.D. and genius-level I.Q., Fritz is a terrible judge of character, remorselessly vain, and sexually hyperactive. It’s almost as if Hernandez is daring the reader to perceive a contradiction, only to mock said reader for thinking such attributes to be contradictory at all. Fritz is, in some ways, ultimately inscrutable.

Fritz is so inscrutable, actually, that I couldn’t even promise you that she’s the main character of the book, which at this point ought to have you looking at me like I’m stupid. After all, she’s on the front cover once and the back cover six times, and the back cover copy is all about her. “Five six. Hundred twenty-eight pounds. Forty-three twenty-two thirty-six. High soft lisp. Genius level I.Q.” There should be no doubt: this is a book about Fritz, right?

Well, but here’s the thing: that description above comes from her first ex-husband, narcissistic once-successful motivational speaker Mark Herrera, and he brings a lot more than just that line to the proceedings. The book literally opens and closes with big panels of his face, which is an active presentational choice — the stories in this book aren’t being presented chronologically, but rather edited, ordered, expanded and revised to form a single book. Therefore Gilbert wants us to start and finish on Mark Herrera. He also gets several solo-focus stories where Fritz is a background or supporting character (and one of which doesn’t even feature Fritz at all) and his highly unreliable narration dominates the latter half of the book. In contrast, Fritz only gets one story in which Herrera doesn’t feature at all.

Further, Herrera is present at every stage of Fritz’s life, first as an acquaintance, then a lover, a husband, and then an ex-husband. He is always there, either watching, participating, or narrating, and as he takes over more and more of the telling of the story as the book goes on, we are unable to tell what is real, what’s exaggerated through the filter of Herrera’s brain, and what’s plain made up. The story changes from a third-person view of Fritz with Mark as a supporting character to a first-person view of Fritz as a character in Mark’s unraveling tragedy, and everything we are told about Fritz from that point on is suspect.

We get some hint of truth in the one Herrera-less story, “Blackouting,” which follows Fritz through a drunken confrontation of a dark chapter in her past. It’s a tonal shift for the book, a slower and deeper probing of Fritz’s inner life, and one in which we’re again granted (after being denied for several chapters) a third-person omniscient view of Fritz, free from Mark. Still, as hard a look at Fritz as this episode is (and I’m bending over backwards not to reveal too much), at the end she remains a mystery. At a key moment, on page 123, Hernandez draws her with a deep, lined smile that simultaneously speaks of warmth, wisdom and pain. It’s a heartbreaking image, and it shows us a kind of contemplative moment that the rest of the book’s fast-paced tone eschews.

In that revealing moment, though, questions leap to mind: just who is she smiling at, and why? The memory of someone? Herself? It couldn’t possibly be the person in the room — could it? Fritz remains ultimately inaccessible, and by the end of the story we’re thrown right back into the deep end, with the patented Hernandez jump cuts taking us through the latest in Frtiz’s sexual escapades by showing us slivers of action, snippets of dialogue, the rest to be filled in on our own.

One of the great pleasures of any of the major Hernandez Bros. work is what they don’t show, the action they leave for between panels, between scenes, and between stories. The frisson of cognitive dissonance in their transitions is exhilarating. It excites the neurons, and keeps you constantly engaged in a give and take where other works would leave you a passive observer.

The quality of Hernandez’s cartooning is unassailable. Part of the reason the book is so hard to quantify is his uncanny ability to shift focus on a moment’s notice, effortlessly jumping from one character to another, suggesting whole thought processes and histories with just a handful of images. It’s not for nothing that Gilbert Hernandez is considered one of the greatest cartoonists alive, and I’m not someone with a chip on my shoulder and a need to knock that label down. I would pick up any Hernandez work (by either Hernandez) solely to watch the stories unfold.

That said, some of Gilbert’s choices in this book deserve scrutiny, chief among them the simply wearying amount of sex in the book. Hernandez is clearly intent on using sex as the primary avenue for exploring his characters and their relations to one another, but it becomes tedious well before the end. Everything in Fritz’s life ends up expressed through her sex life. Even her twin hobbies of science fiction and target shooting end up as fetishes: elaborate futuristic bondage machines and a penchant for masturbating with the barrel of a pistol. You start wishing that Fritz could just like something without having to put it in her vagina.

I also have to admit to being disappointed at Fritz ultimately ending up being depicted as an incredibly damaged person whose constant need for stimulation is a struggle to fill an emotional void that lurks below the surface of her flashy smile and high, soft, lisping voice. It’s often a mistake to conflate an individual character with a universal statement on that character’s gender or race, but just within the text, it’s further bothersome that her full sister, Petra, is depicted as being both judgmental of Fritz’s life choices, and as a much more sedate and stable person. During the years Fritz spends hopping from one unsatisfying sexual experience to another, Petra pines over a childhood infatuation, and while she has a child in the interim she remains chaste as far as the art is concerned, never even baring a breast.

It’s hard not to read the sisterly contrast as an indictment of Fritz’s horniness, as saying it stems more from her damage than from anything else. And while the darkness and complexity of such an outwardly lightweight character is part of the intrigue of the book, it would also have been nice if Fritz was ever allowed to be the confident, competent, and happily sexually ravenous and powerful woman she sells herself as, if only because hardly ever does one come across a female character in any realm of fiction that would fit that description. I would have found that to be freewheeling, fun, and awfully sexy.

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