Gilbert Hernandez’s quasi-autobiographical Marble Season is a remarkable work of verisimilitude as well as a gift to his long-time fans. The snapshot he provides of his brothers and neighborhood friends growing up is filled with the kind of detail and emotional truths about how children relate to one another one would expect from the man behind Palomar. What’s interesting in this book about the rituals and social interactions of about fifty years ago is how Hernandez subtly brings up the ways in which pop culture became a pervasive force that was unifying in some ways but also homogenizing. In the early ’60s, every little kid was affected by the power of radio, TV, and comics. Even the cover suggests a Jack Kirby-esque clash between titans. The more widespread availability of TV, the dominance of rock music on the radio, and the new wellspring of popularity that comics enjoyed made negotiating one’s cultural environment a dizzying feat.
The ways in which Hernandez navigates this kingdom of summer by alternating between the impact of pop culture and the old rituals in which children have long engaged chokes off the poisonous effects of nostalgia and instead gives a clear-eyed reading of life as it was lived. For a child, every day holds the possibilities of experiencing the greatest thing they have ever seen. It also holds the possibilities of boredom, terror, disappointment, and humiliation. The new culture excited everyone but also encouraged greed, divisiveness, and competitiveness. It also provided an interesting framework for how Hispanic kids interacted with white kids in California during this period as they adopted mainstream culture as their own. Hernandez doesn’t beat the reader over the head with these observations, as they’re only mentioned a handful of times, like when a girl taunts his stand-in Huey that he can’t play Captain America and should be “Captain Mexican” instead.
Also of interest are the ways in which Hernandez shows multiple generations of children interacting with each other. That includes Huey’s toddler brother Chavo (presumably a stand-in for Gilbert’s real-life brother Jaime) and his teen brother Junior (presumably a stand-in for Mario). They join clubs devoted to things like the film It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. They become friends with weird, unlikable kids who move into the neighborhood. Fistfights and wrestling are a normal part of male bonding. Marbles is still a game practiced by kids (having one of the kids swallow them is both the sort of thing certain young kids would do and a symbol of old cultural touchstones being obliterated). Identities are fluid; one day, a kid is the local bully and the next he helps Chavo find his brothers, who have left him behind. The local tomboy starts wearing dresses in an effort to get Junior’s attention, causing a stir. The toughest guy in the neighborhood expresses his fear of girls. All of this happens with no adults appearing on panel, in a sort of ode to Charles Schulz’ eternal kingdom of kids, Peanuts.
Hernandez’s greatest skill as a creator is breathing life into the most minor of characters, giving them a real sense of self that defies stereotype; indeed, it often subverts stereotypes. That a bully can feel sorry for a little kid and be sweet to a girl he likes speaks to the fluidity of identity that marks childhood. Huey may be the hero of the story, but he steals bubblegum cards and even steals from his new best friend, a kid that Hernandez hints might be gay. That sense of betrayal to his friend literally gives Huey a stomachache, until he defends him later in the book. All of this is depicted with a sharp but sympathetic sense of humor, adding up to a rich series of episodes that are skillfully and seamlessly linked together. Hernandez also gets at the ways in which kids are sponges, absorbing information so as to create their own mythology for the world and each other. The moments he depicts are idle hours that accrue to become something powerful and foundational, because the children here are learning how the world works and how they are fitting into it. Fusing that with the youth-centered power of emerging popular culture, a culture that posed a sharp break from its predecessors, gives each moment of shared cultural exchange a sharp charge. Marble Season didn’t need an Event to hang its story around, because every moment depicted was an event for those who experienced it, just as they are for all children. Some of the events are positive, and some of the events are negative, but all of the events are indelibly formative. Hernandez’s understanding and recollection of the formative moments of childhood is surpassed only by his ability to depict it on the page with a style that is both naturalistic and cartoony.