REVIEWED HERE: Julio's Day, by Gilbert Hernandez, Fantagraphics, 104 pages, $24.99; Marble Season, by Gilbert Hernandez, Drawn & Quarterly, 120 pages, $21.95
Official American culture is a monochromatic façade behind which hides a much more colourful reality. The school-sanctioned story of America is defined by the familiar national myth of westward travel: the Pilgrim fathers braving the Atlantic, the slow growth of settlements from New England into the interior, the epic migration across the Great Plains to the Pacific.
Like many satisfying tales, this account has a kernel of truth but leaves out more than it says. It's a story with no room for those who came to America from other routes, such as the native Americans, whose ancestors most likely came across the Bering Strait in a colder epoch, the African Americans, whose link to the Old World is through the Middle Passage rather than Plymouth Rock or Ellis Island, and the Latinos, whose gateway to America has taken them northward rather than westward.
Gilbert Hernandez, who this spring publishes two new books, is one of the great artists of the other America, the country that is only fitfully and incompletely acknowledged by cultural custodians. For more than three decades, he has been writing and drawing an epic cycle of comic-book stories that give us a new geography of American culture by showing us the waves of migration that tie states like California and Texas to their Spanish-speaking southern neighbours.
At the heart of Hernandez's life's work are stories of the small fictional town of Palomar, located "somewhere south of the U.S. border." At first, Palomar seems like a magic realist Latino shtetl, an organic community of midwives and witches where people are poor but vital. But through the course of the Palomar cycle, Hernandez overturned the clichés of magical realism by showing that Palomar is as much a part of the modern world as anywhere else. The grandchildren of the original Palomarians live in Los Angeles and elsewhere. They struggle with racism and sexual identity, problems that bedevil their ancestral town as well.
Without being agitprop, the Palomar stories are among the most naturally multicultural works ever created in any medium. Hernandez's characters come in all different shades from many backgrounds. The constant fusion of cultural identities in Hernandez's many graphic novels is one of the best depictions we have of the new America that is being born under the shadow of the official national narrative.
While the richness of Hernandez's narratives has often been compared to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his visual storytelling calls to mind the frothy pleasures of such iconic comics as Archie and Peanuts. He has covered the migratory patterns of the Palomarians in a string of stories first serialized in periodical form in the comic book Love and Rockets (which also contained the work of his brothers Jaime and Mario Hernandez) and subsequently gathered in graphic novels such as Poison River and Human Diastrophism.
Gilbert Hernandez is a very great artist, but he can also be an intimidating one for new readers. The Palomar cycle extends over many graphic novels, featuring scores of characters whose stories unfold in thousands of pages. While Hernandez has done non-Palomar work, it tends to be more experimental or genre-inflected than his core achievement.
Which is what makes his two new books such welcome arrivals. They are stand-alone volumes that offer interested readers an inviting entry point into this crucial cartoonist's work. Neither book deals with Palomar, but both distill Hernandez's key concerns.
Julio's Day is a portrait of Julio Reyes, a Mexican American born in a rural town in 1900 whose life spans the century. A cautious homebody who carefully conceals his sexual identity, Julio experiences the changes of the world largely through news heard from his extended family and his friends. While it's easy to dismiss Julio as a stick-in-the-mud, his rootedness in his family and village provides a vantage point for gauging the ethnic, political and sexual upheavals of the past century. The specificity of Julio's own covert sexuality serves as springboard for a wide-ranging exploration of the burdens and pleasure of family life.
While Julio's Day traces the journey from cradle to grave, Hernandez's other new book, Marble Season, is about one crucial stage in that trip: the aimless cusp of time right before adolescence kicks in. Set in a lower-middle-class multiracial Southwestern suburb in the early 1960s, Marble Season is a wonderfully evocative account of a group of kids for whom popular culture (comic books, Wacky Packages trading cards, horror movies) serve as both a lingua franca and a not wholly reliable guide to the mysteries of social life.
As with many of Hernandez's books, Marble Season is richly populated, but the star is a boy named Huey, whose imagination is a troublesome gift, offering a salve in awkward situations and allowing him to make friends, but it also serves him as a cocoon he can retreat into to avoid having to fully engage with others (especially girls). Wistful and wise, deft in its portrait of the psychology of childhood, Marble Season can be compared to Charles Schulz's Peanuts, with one crucial difference. Straitjacketed by the daily strip format, Schulz could never allow his cartoon children to grow up. But in Marble Season, the slow encroachment of adolescence, both a threat and a promise, gives the work emotional heft.
They are both excellent gateway books to the work of Gilbert Hernandez, which in turn opens up a cultural landscape most of us have only a glimmer of.
Jeet Heer's new book, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, will be published later this year by Coach House Books.