Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Poetry of Childhood: Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season

Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez
Drawn & Quarterly, 2013
The Year of Beto continues. Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez came out last week from Drawn & Quarterly, and it is another brilliant book from the Love and Rockets creator. Ostensibly an autobiographical work, the novel is not a comprehensive retelling of his life and career or even a specific short period from his life, but a plotless tone-poem about the little moments that represent the very experience of childhood.

Hernandez presents the novel as a roman a clef, with the central character Huey representing Gilbert (and his brothers Mario and Jaime represented by Junior and Chavo, respectively). His decision to give the proceedings a fictionalized veneer is more rooted in the work's grander purpose as a meditation about childhood rather than an autobiography about Gilbert's specific childhood (though it's that, too). Though rich in cultural and historical details from his childhood in Oxnard, California in the 1960s, fictionalizing the proceedings gives Hernandez free reign to tell the story without necessarily worrying about the specific factuality of the story (because how specific can anyone get about events from the time they were ten years old forty or fifty years after the fact?).

Hernandez's illustration style here is ever so slightly different from his previous work. Gilbert has drawn children many times before, notably throughout his Palomar-Luba cycle. But where the style there was reflective of the maturity of the work (even in the all-ages Venus comics), his style here seems to take cues from brother Jaime's almost whimsical flashback stories. To say that the work is "cute" seems to pigeonhole it into a category it doesn't belong, but there is definitely a quality of inspired charm to his cartooning.

There is no plot, no central conflict driving the story, though there are threads woven throughout that come along, drift away, and come back (or not). The story (such as it is) ambles and wanders among the moments and feelings of Hernandez's childhood, and by extension every childhood. There are comic books and games of marbles and neighbors on the stoop; big brothers helping make a Captain America shield, and little brothers never really talking but chilling out and meandering around; stickball and girls and secret clubs and more comics and fights in the alley; there are bullies and the "Beatos" on the radio and making muscles like the ads in the comics and dunking G.I. Joe in the sink; and more comics and plays about comics and teevee shows about comics; trading baseball cards for Mars Attacks cards and elaborate games of pretend and new neighbors fleeting in and out; and discussions about Captain Marvel and Godzilla and what it would be like to be grown up. So unlike Gilbert Hernandez, the work doesn't have a pervasive sense of dread or the weird, but a sense of wonder and the awesome power of the possible and the lack of responsibility where the toughest decision is what comic to read today.

This is an enchanting, absorbing work, a window into the childhood experience. Build into this handsomely designed hardcover is a space-time machine, a portal to Gilbert's past and to all of our pasts and to the present of every kid who is, ever was, and ever will be.

For my definitive guide to Love and Rockets and all things Los Bros Hernandez, click here.

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