Gifts from Beto

Julio's Day. By Gilbert Hernandez. Fantagraphics, April 2013. $19.99. 128 pages.

Marble Season. By Gilbert Hernandez. Drawn and Quarterly, April 2013. $21.95. 128 pages.

What a day.

This morning, over breakfast, I read Gilbert Hernandez’s new book Julio’s Day, which I had just gotten the day before.

This evening, before dinner, I read Gilbert Hernandez’s new book Marble Season, which I had found waiting for me on the dining room table when I got home.

Crossing the synapse between these two lit my head up, like fireworks. In the stretch between the two of them, in the distance but also consistency between 2001 and 2013, is fresh proof of Beto Hernandez’s fidgety talent, his rare mix of raw provocation and affirming humanism, toughness and tenderness of heart. When it comes to Beto, the lightning keeps striking, and if it doesn’t strike exactly the same place twice, it does testify to the same divided genius. To read two new books by Hernandez in a day—and both of them self-contained and freestanding, unlinked to the elaborate continuities that shape his signature projects, Love and Rockets and the “Fritz B-Movie” series—this, to me, is a gift.

Julio’s Day gathers up Hernandez’s serial of the same title from Love and Rockets, Volume 2 (2001-2007). An episodic and elliptical patchwork novel, it flickers through a century in the life of one family, at the core of which is the stoic, self-denying, often near unreadable Julio: a gentle, much-battered soul whom we follow from birth to death.

The story’s setting, which is bucolic and vaguely pastoral but shot through with odd fabulist touches, evokes the beloved Palomar of Hernandez’s earlier work: a village not quite removed from time, or change, but still at arm’s length from the modern. The story’s form—a series of charged moments, or montage of scenes, across a wide span of time—testifies to its roots in the sporadic Love & Rockets magazine, and the fact that it was but one of many projects Hernandez pursued in the same period. Yet, for a project that took some six years to do and another six to collect, it’s remarkably compact. In serial form, Julio’s Day covered almost the whole lifespan of L&R, Vol. 2, but its episodes were always short, often just single pages, at times little more than reflective pauses; it seemed orphaned and under-done within the larger framework of L&R, where Gilbert and his brothers Jaime and Mario were up to so many other things. But, gathered in here, its story pops into focus and stakes fresh claims.

To me the story crystallizes around the question of home, more precisely the rootedness of Julio and the rootlessness of other characters who are more inclined to wander, and who crave the life of freedom and incident that Julio so carefully denies himself. Home is blessing and curse; Julio has desires that cut against the grain of his community and his family, but he cannot act them out. Over the book’s course quite a few children, not just Julio, are born and raised up and eventually die, but from first to last Julio stays cradled in his mother’s arms, unable or unwilling to leave behind the obligations and assurances that that bond represents. An uncle who murders children while speaking of them in sentimental terms (recalling Tomaso, the murderer from Hernandez’s Human Diastrophism) provides a menacing underside to hearth and home, but this isn’t a crime or a horror story. From quietness to quietness, Julio lives a life that seems mostly dull, pulseless, and narratively unpromising—but for the occasional quick, sharp shock—and yet a little world unfolds around him.

This sense of storyworld is nourished not least by gorgeous drawings: looming skies, dark, cross-studded hills, inky avalanches of mud, and trees that spread like black clouds. Silent vistas echo Julio’s lifelong silences, and the arc from birth to deathbed is simply, but powerfully, a span from darkness to darkness. What I most remember about Julio’s Day is the feeling of being young and small, against a backcloth of unexplained and irresistible forces.

Julio’s Day improves from being collected. How odd it is to recall that some of its pages appeared as isolated one-pagers in a larger magazine that seemed almost to ignore them. It is the great lost Beto comic, belatedly given new form and new life. Julio’s losses—most particularly that of his deepest yet most inadmissible love, another boy-turned-man—ring louder in this context, gathered into themselves as a single striking volume.


But, oh, Marble Season! An entirely new, done-in-one story billed as the author’s “first ever semi-autobiographical novel,” Marble Season feels like both a cousin to Julio’s Day and a Rosetta Stone for Hernandez’s entire body of work. Childhood is the key. The feeling for childhood evoked in Julio carries across so many of Beto’s comics: from the boys of Heartbreak Soup to the Guadalupe of “Duck Feet” and Human Diastrophism; from the Casimira of “A Trick of the Unconscious” to the Venus of Letters from (duh) Venus. What Marble Season does is set forth that feeling for childhood—perhaps the very season that the title refers to—in undiluted form, unhurried, minutely observed, formally conservative perhaps, but emotionally freighted. It’s a joy.

Where Julio’s Day telescopes a whole century, seen in lightning flashes, Marble Season takes its own sweet time telling us about, presumably, a short time: a fuzzily defined but important interval in the life of Huey, a young boy in a 1960s suburb implicitly modeled on Hernandez’s hometown, Oxnard. In this postwar landscape of ranch houses and fences, sidewalks and curbs, telephone poles and rabbit ears, Huey grows up, a bit, while learning from an older brother, ironically called Junior, and trying to teach a thing or two to a younger one, the speechless Chavo. Quite a few other kids weave in and out of the story, too: Axel and Suzy, Lana and Patty, Toody, Lucio, and Chauncy, and several more. Some of them matter a great deal to Huey and to the story. Friendships, crushes, and fights matter a lot. Relations form, and then fade, or come back, or just start to happen. Small but important moral questions are worked over: Huey is cheated, and he cheats others; he is bullied, but also defended; he steals, and steals again, and loses. He misses certain nuances, especially when it comes to what older boys and girls go through socially and romantically. In fact he shuttles between sensitivity and cluelessness, and is surprised when the world resists what he has dreamed up. His likes and dislikes are plain, and his enthusiasms grand, overwhelming.

By book’s end, as Huey has a long and thoughtful talk with Patty—a subtle measure of his growth—he wonders “what it will be like in the future,” and whether he will “like being a grown up” (120). Yet there’s no big finale, no too-obvious signaling of development or sudden lurching into a new phase. Just a conversation between two kids, in the midst of a beautiful suburban day whose stillness brings questions to mind, perhaps even a momentary spookiness too, but a day filled with hope and promise as well as doubts and cares. There is a suggestion of love as well, feather-light and unpushy, like a slight breath of wind, along with a recognition that, at Huey’s age, these things may register differently on girls than on boys. The deftness of the characterization is a miracle: Huey, Patty, and many of the others come through as definable persons, though we know them for such a very short time. So little happens to them, but so much.

All this is threaded through a loving evocation of the pop culture of the day, the common currency of so many 1960s kids: comic books and TV, monster movies and radio, Mars Attacks trading cards and G.I. Joe dolls. The DNA of Love and Rockets is in all this, but Marble Season is not some autobiographical cryptogram or mere catalog of influences, nostalgically indulged. If the relationship between Huey and Chavo inevitably brings to mind that of Gilbert to Jaime Hernandez—people will imagine it that way whether Gilbert meant it that way or not—what matters more is that Marble Season is a complete story about a childhood and a neighborhood evoked with terrific vividness.

Some version of Gilbert’s own comic book fandom plays a major part in this; references to specific comic books from the 60s are sprinkled throughout. One charming scene shows Huey and Chauncy bonding over the latter’s impeccable comic geek cred. But Marble Season is not a story that belongs to fandom in the way that the bulk of today’s monthly comic books do; it’s a story about relationships defined or formed, with comic books simply as pretext and backdrop. There’s a tensile strength to this book, a tug-of-war between nostalgic investments and honest characterization, between idealized childhood and rough insight, which lends the story depth beneath its mostly unruffled surface.

Visually, all this is drawn with a lovely economy and openness. The cartooning in Marble Season is spartan and unafraid: a game of small gestures with big stakes. But for the opening splash, all of the book’s 120 pages are democratic six-panel grids, 2x3, regular and unwavering. Light and air have the upper hand: it always appears to be daytime, and much of the action happens out of doors. The panels are almost always habitats for the characters, and the characters are favored above the physical settings. Emotions are privileged above all. The surroundings do not suffer for that: the open skies are sketched in with clouds in the form of stipples and dashes; houses, fences and trees are reliable backdrops. Sometimes, not often, the houses and trees are silhouetted (spot blacks, used sparingly, become eye magnets). Simplicity of effect is the byword, though the visual thinking behind it is anything but simplistic.

Hernandez seems to lean hard toward childhood favorites like Schulz, Owen Fitzgerald, and Bob Bolling, with allusions scattered here and there. For instance, Patty’s Frieda-like hair and all those walls and fences sure remind me of Peanuts; I can easily imagine Charlie Brown and Linus stopping to ruminate along one of those walls, just as Chavo, who can barely clear them, peeks over their tops. (Like Peanuts, Marble Season is adult-free, a kidcosm.) The calmly observed ordinariness of Frank King seems to hover nearby. John Stanley and Kirby get their nods too, though the latter’s hyperbolic zeal is notably absent. Superhero excess is mentioned but not visually sought for (though one hilarious scene finds the brothers pulling bodybuilder poses in order to “get muscles” à la Charles Atlas). If, tonally, the take on childhood here recalls Scout, Jem, and Dill from To Kill a Mockingbird, graphically it distills Hernandez’s cartooning style to a fine essence, fragile up top, robust as all get-out underneath. Marble Season, in short, is beautiful.

Years ago I asked Gilbert what comic he would talk about if he were asked to talk about an unfairly neglected comic that had a big influence on him. He told me, without a blink, Bolling's Little Archie. Read it, he said—read it and see that a classic Love and Rockets story is a Bob Bolling type of story. I get that: Love and Rockets is full of tales, both Gilbert’s and Jaime’s, about young people wandering suburban neighborhoods, tales that evoke Bolling’s version of Riverdale as well as the archetypal neighborhood of Peanuts and the postwar neighborhoods of Oxnard (a background documented by Todd Hignite in The Art of Jaime Hernandez). But darkness bordered Bolling’s Riverdale, and mysteries too, even horrors, reminding me of Palomar’s odd, troubling eruptions and dreamlike outskirts. What’s more, Bolling often sent Archie somewhere else geographically (or even into deep space, or time), spiking the series’ default suburban feel with sorties into the exotic. Ditto Love and Rockets (particularly Jaime’s early work, which toggles back and forth between suburbia and faraway, exotic locales that license all sorts of hand-me-down comic book riffs). Also, Bolling tucked crime stories, SF, historical adventure, and more into his comfortable suburban premise—a genre-splicing, protean spirit that again shows up in Love and Rockets. Huey and the other kids of Marble Season, though they never actually leave their town, play at these kinds of adventures, pretending, making up stuff. Perhaps most relevant here, Bolling gave his cartoon kids sadness and thoughtfulness as well as pep and optimism, a quality revived in Gilbert’s Venus, and of course in the many kids of Palomar, and that most certainly lives on in the suburban airiness of Marble Season, where rowdiness and quiet contemplation go hand in hand and the kids have plenty to think about.

Some readers, I’m guessing, will say that Marble Season, though about childhood, is not “for” children. I know this line of argument, which, as a professor of children’s literature, I encounter often, especially when texts about children get too complex or troublesome to be absorbed easily into prevailing notions of childish taste or age-appropriateness (a developmental catch-all phrase that frankly gives me fits). It is true that Marble Season, like most of the children’s comics published by Drawn and Quarterly, will probably reach wistful adults more readily than children of the ages depicted in the book. It is true that the book’s simple graphic approach does not subscribe to the usual notions about kids’ appetite for color, fizz, and dynamism. And it is also true that, despite that simplicity, Marble Season is not for early readers: though its steady grid, sparse, open artwork, and focus on children urge me to think of it as, yes, a children’s comic, its languid rhythms, uncued shifts in time and space, and subtlety of observation would seem to keep very young readers out. In any case, the book, for all its softness, is too honest to be an unquestioned read for children raised within the cosseting confines of children’s literary culture, narrowly defined (by which I mean the kind very obviously sanctioned and cordoned off by adult solicitude). Bullying, racist taunting, fighting, eager “pretend” violence, casual meanness, and theft are all depicted here without moralistic tsk-tsking. Thwarted or hostile relationships are sometimes let be. Huey’s and other kids’ mistakes are shown in an understated and forgiving light; no narrator’s superego is allowed to impose. As calm and gentle as Marble Season may be—as unlike the deadpan horrors and ice-chill satire of Beto’s recent work as it may be—it offers plenty of potential incitements for those anxious to string a fluorescent caution tape between stories “about” kids but not “for” kids.

But—but—give it a rest, I say! This is the best graphic book about childhood I’ve read in a dog’s age (maybe since Lat’s Kampung Boy trilogy?). As Corey Creekmur points out in the book's afterword, Marble Season isabout childhood in the profoundest sense—it doesn't just depict children; it seeks to inhabit that life-space. However we end up labeling the book, it's a quiet masterwork, and one that plenty of readers, young as well as old, will learn to dig on their own, if they’re not blockaded—if they’re not discouraged from having an honest encounter with a life fondly but fully remembered.