By Derek Royal
Gilbert Hernandez has been prolific of late, either creating new stories or collecting (and supplementing) previously published material into new formats. Since summer of last year he has come out with four books — one being volume 5 of Love & Rockets: New Stories, along with his brother Jaime — and three more will be coming out later this year: The Children of Palomar (previously published as the three-issue miniseries, New Tales from Old Palomar), Maria M: Book One (another one of his Fritzi/film books, but one that intriguingly alludes to Poison River), and the next volume of Love & Rockets: New Stories. It’s gotten to where Gilbert is the James Brown of his medium, the hardest working man in comics. And curiously enough, in one of his early Palomar stories, 1985’s “A Little Story,” the author jokingly refers to himself as “Gilbert ‘Godfather of Soul’ Hernandez.”
One of those recent publications is Marble Season, a semi-autobiographical narrative that’s notable for several reasons. First, it has been released by Drawn & Quarterly, a publisher new for Hernandez, at least in terms of a sustained story such as this. The book is also significant because it is being publicized as a semi-autobiographical work, the first time one of Beto’s narratives has been overtly branded in this way. I would guess that much of the tone found in his earlier Palomar stories, especially the ones that center around the childhood/adolescence of Pipo, Vicente, Satch, and the like, springs in part from his own experiences growing up in Oxnard, CA. But those tales are presented as straight fiction with no assumptions of autobiographical links. Marble Season is also notable in that it’s a marked departure from much of the previous work that has defined his output since 2007, when the brothers ended their second series of Love & Rockets. Many of the books and series he has written since that time — e.g., Speak of the Devil, Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers, and Fatima: The Bloodspinners — have been characterized by graphic sex and violence. (This isn’t a new style or tendency for Hernandez, but it seems to be more prominent in his later work.) Marble Season, on the other hand, is quite tame by comparison. It presents a more innocent world of adolescence, something akin to what you might find in Schulz’s Peanuts, where the darker or more troublesome aspects of growing up are either absent or kept just below the surface.
Marble Season is largely the story of Huey, the middle of three brothers — the oldest, Junior, and the younger Chavo, whose silent observations from the background make him a kind of touchstone — whose concerns are largely confined to deciding which comic books to read, how to put on a Captain America play he’s writing, keeping track of his Mars Attacks! trading cards, playing with his G. I. Joe, and joining a neighborhood boy’s only club. What’s more, Hernandez infuses his story with a variety of pop cultural references from the early and mid-1960s (e.g., The Beatles, Marvel Super Hero cards, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Creepy comics, and Mad magazine) that temporally anchors Huey’s actions (and which contributes to the book’s “semi-autobiographic” feel). The narrative is not linear, but meandering and fluid, drifting from one event to the next, much like Huey goes from one activity to another and wherever his curiosity takes him. In this way we get to see the aimless or decentered side of adolescence, with no set course or prefigured destination. Certain events pop up suddenly and briefly, such as buying a useless sweepstake ticket off of a neighbor for 50 cents, while other affairs are more ongoing, such as Lana (one of the girls on the block) trying to negotiate her tomboy persona with evolving gender expectations. Perhaps the most interesting of these continuing adventures begins about halfway through the text, when Huey discovers two hyperactive and erratic brothers who move into his neighborhood. Lucio and his older sibling, Barnabas, are violent, loud, opinionated, and border on being asocial misfits. But despite their unstable behavior — and the fact that Junior gets into a big fight with Barnabas at one point, as represented on the book’s cover — Hernandez refuses to relegate them to the realm of neighborhood bullies or outcasts. They have their problems, as do many of the other neighborhood kids, but in the end they’re accepted by Huey and the others, another spice thrown into the mix.
This is ultimately what makes Marble Season a notable work: Gilbert’s return to an ensemble cast, a close-knit community whose individual members take sustenance from the proximity and growth of others. It is the kind of narrative context found in the early Palomar stories set in that unnamed Latin American country, or the tales of Luba and her family once they moved north to the United States. Yet while this semi-autobiographic work may harken back to many of Hernandez’s earlier stories, it is nonetheless informed by a more seasoned, and a more mature, storytelling ability written from a vantage point of middle-age and with over thirty years of comics-writing experience. There is as much pleasure recognizing in Marble Season a link to past achievements, such as the Love & Rockets comics from the 1980s, as there is discovering new facets of Hernandez’s storytelling abilities.
Books discussed in this review: