Gilbert Hernandez delivers a melancholy tale of small town love, secrets, and sadness in his new graphic novel “Loverboys.” It’s a quiet story, weaving through a handful of characters and settings using Hernandez’s minimalistic cartooning style to focus on the beats needed to tell the story at hand. It provides a few high points but ultimately breezes by without giving the reader a chance to really connect with the denizens of the town or the plights in which they’ve placed themselves.
Lagrimas is the “town of tears,” a small community with its own legends and mysteries — there is a secret military bunker recently constructed near town, a tree in the middle of Lagrimas is believed to be the home of small people that steal the secrets of children at night so that adults never find them out. Within the community, Mrs. Paz, a 60 year old teacher who has lived in the area for decades, begins an affair with a former student, Rocky, whose younger sister Daniella also happens to currently be in Mrs. Paz’s class. When Rocky goes away for work with his boss, Mrs. Paz and Daniella form a friendship that has them sharing cigarettes and dares all over town. Rocky returns and the bliss that seemed destined to be quickly falls apart as sex and other people complicate the entire scene leaving figurative, and eventually, literal collateral damage all around.
Hernandez knows how to weave characters in and out of each others lives in interesting ways. He has plenty of experience writing about the fascinating environment of small towns and this is no different. Using very few panels and action he quickly establishes the who, what and where of the story. We learn enough about each of these characters through exposition to understand who they are, but never really get a chance to connect with them. The tale itself is sad, it does take place in Lagrimas, after all, but at the end feels like a head shaking cautionary tale than a heartbreaking work of tragedy. Hernandez jumps in and out of the characters’ lives, showing the moments important to the story, but never really hooking them in to the reader. It’s a shame because it’s all well done.
The art is classic Hernandez. Nothing is over rendered and the simplicity of the work is beautiful. Hernandez has been producing some of the most influential independent comic work for over 30 years and “Loverboys” is no different. He uses wide, sparse panels to convey the loneliness and isolation that many of these characters feel. One of the toughest scenes in the book, when a supporting character faces their own mortality at the edge of a cliff, uses the scale of the scene to highlight how the character feels in comparison to the world. Hernandez uses a heavier weight line to illustrate the world, really pushing the idea of how everything can feel like it’s too big to lift when one is all alone. All of the characters are expressive and fun, and the acting is all well done. This is a creator who is comfortable in his medium and understands how to maximize the page.
“Loverboys,” while a good concept, feels like a middling book in the catalogue of one of the greatest comic creators of the 20th century. It reaches for emotions that it never quite hits. Perhaps a bit more time spent with the characters would have yielded different results. Still, a middling Gilbert Hernandez book is still better than many creators’ best work.