Gilbert Hernandez talks Marble Season with the Montreal Gazette

“Gilbert Hernandez, a child of the comics generation” / Montreal Gazette / Ian McGillis / April 12, 2013

For many people, comics were a private childhood passion, shared with a small circle of friends at most, a faintly seedy and disreputable interest best pursued away from adult eyes. For Gilbert Hernandez and his two brothers growing up in the working-class suburb of Oxnard, California, in the 1960s, it wasn’t like that at all.

“My brother Mario was in a supermarket with our mom when he saw a rack of comics,” recalls the 56-year-old cartoonist, speaking by Skype from his home in Las Vegas. “Mom said, ‘Do you want one of those?’ It was as simple as that. And Dad basically said, ‘Hey, keep buying him those, because he keeps quiet while he’s reading them.’ ”

Thus began a shared fraternal Hernandez childhood revolving around reading comic books, watching wrestling and monster movies on TV, collecting trading cards, and playing in the neighbourhood streets — a culture predating instant-gratification modern technology and parental micro-managing of kids. It’s a world evoked with great charm and immaculate period detail in Gilbert’s new book, the lightly fictionalized graphic novel Marble Season (Drawn & Quarterly, 127 pages, $21.95). Its view of its time and place, essentially gentle and affectionate even if darker currents are implied, has been garnering rave reviews, something that especially pleases its author given that, in his view, “reviewers and critics can be overly cynical. If something the least bit sentimental comes up, they’ll often start flying off the handle. But I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve had those times in your life. Everybody has.’ ”

Gilbert and his brothers Jaime and Mario (the latter’s role was less central and gradually diminished) are, of course, best known for Love and Rockets. Not to be confused with the Bauhaus-offshoot band who stole the name wholesale, the comic serial was launched in 1981 and continues to this day in annual book-length instalments. “Just a little part of life that we knew about, but that we felt wasn’t being represented,” is Hernandez’s way of summarizing the work’s essence, but don’t be fooled by his modesty. Love and Rockets was revolutionary, and still stands alone. Los Bros Hernandez, as they sometimes billed themselves, combined classic draftsmanship with artful, edgy and allusive storytelling instincts, in the process giving groups previously shortchanged in comics and pop culture generally — women and Hispanics particularly — a new voice.

“When you’re young you don’t know anything, but you have lot of energy to express yourself,” Hernandez says of those early days. “So you make a lot of mistakes and you stumble, but you also get a lot of truth from within. (Your work) is truthful because you don’t know any other way to be.”

For the brothers, unfettered youthful expression was inseparable from the late-’70s punk explosion that hit when they were in their late teens and early 20s; they were active participants in the hothouse SoCal scene that produced bands like Black Flag, X and the Germs. Punk represented a zone of freedom that they were able to apply to their own medium. “We gravitated to that, definitely. We realized, ‘Hey, we can do whatever we want here. We have our own little punk army.’ We didn’t have to deal with our contemporaries and classmates who thought we were just some weird little cult. We knew they were wrong.”

Any questions of career, let alone the long and distinguished ones they’ve had, weren’t even on the radar, Gilbert says. “At the time, we just didn’t think about the future, at least not in that way. We thought about it one step at a time, one issue after the next. There was no point where we got bored and thought, ‘What else can we do?’ It was more like, ‘It’s time to do another Love and Rockets, and it’s got to be better than the last one.’ We felt a kind of duty to our readers, and it’s interesting to think that 30 years later it’s still the same. Jaime and I will talk on the phone and say, ‘We’ve got to get the next issue out. I hope they like this one.’ I’m sure age and physical frailty will take over some day, but for now, we’ll keep doing it as long as somebody keeps publishing it.”

Gilbert has always maintained a parallel career outside Love and Rockets, most notably with the long-running Palomar, set in an invented Latin American village and featuring the exploits of Luba, a retired wrestler who’s firmly in the Hernandez tradition of strong woman characters. It was partly in reaction to some of the more extreme elements in that series, and in recent instalments of Love and Rockets, that Marble Season was conceived.

“I hadn’t done just a G-rated book, something that was for kids but that anybody across the board could enjoy,” he says.

“I had always shown childhood as something difficult, something you want to get the hell out of, but now I wanted to do a story that was the opposite, about that moment in time when you’re in that world of discovery, doing what you want to do. That fleeting moment when you’re in your zone.”

The chance to go against the expected female-centric narrative was attractive, too.

“I wanted to do pretty much a purely boy story, yes. The girls are kind of the bad guys in Marble Season, although that wasn’t my intention. It’s also a world without adults. The oldest person in there is a teenage girl with a transistor radio. While writing it I was thinking, ‘This is a lot like Peanuts,’ but I was also thinking, ‘Well, that is how it was for us as kids.’ At that age, especially in Southern California where you can play outside all year, you were literally in your own world until the sun started going down and you heard the voice: ‘Come in and take a bath.’ ”

The tour that brings Hernandez to Montreal this week is an opportunity to pay homage to some of the under-appreciated artists who had a such an impact on him back in those Oxnard street-running days.

“For 30 years, I’ve been answering questions about who influenced me, but I’ve often had the feeling people had no idea who I was talking about or how the influence worked,” he says.

“So here’s a chance to pull up a few panels of, say, Little Archie and point out how direct the influence was, or do a panel-by-panel analysis of a nine-page Dennis the Menace story and show everyone exactly how good it is.”

Gilbert Hernandez launches Marble Season Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, 211 Bernard St. W. Admission is free.

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