There are certain things art-comics creators are generally expected to do: Find a tone and stick to it, concentrate their efforts on one major work every few years, stay away from the trappings of genre fiction unless they're putting them in ironic quotation marks.
Gilbert Hernandez, blessedly, has no interest in those sorts of expectations. In the early '80s, when he and his brothers were Southern California punks, they launched the long-running comic book "Love and Rockets" — a series that initially seemed extraordinary for not being genre fiction at least as much as it did for the startling originality of Los Bros Hernandez's visual and narrative styles.
These days, Hernandez is more prolific than ever: In 2013 alone, he's published four stand-alone graphic novels, and like a lot of his work in the last few years, they seem designed to smash the walls of his reputation.
Hernandez made that reputation with his Palomar stories, the first of which appeared in the third "Love and Rockets" in 1983. Set in a tiny, fictional Central American town, they were elegant and relaxed in their pacing; they focused on the psychological entanglements of ordinary life, with occasional, subtle fantasy elements. (In other words, they shared a lot of values with contemporary literary prose fiction.) But Hernandez has also always had a taste for the raw, experimental and ultra-lowbrow, which made the popularity of Palomar something of a trap. By the time "Love and Rockets" concluded its initial run in 1996, Hernandez had more or less washed his hands of the setting.
Still, he continued to spin out stories about some of Palomar's residents and their families, especially the tormented hell-raiser Luba and her actress-psychiatrist half-sister, Fritz. In 2006 and '07, Hernandez wrote and drew a gorgeous but incredibly odd miniseries called New Tales of Old Palomar, collected this year as The Children of Palomar. It presents itself at first as a lighthearted flashback in the mode of the earliest Palomar tales, in which we get to see all of the old characters as their happy young selves again. Then things get weird, in distinctly un-Palomar-ish ways. Spacesuit-wearing alien scientists kidnap a couple of cast members and tear out one of Sheriff Chelo's eyes; Tonantzin the slug vendor is haunted by a spectral "blooter baby"; there are fistfights and explosions. It's as if Hernandez is trying to crack the tone of the series he created to break Palomar's hold over him.
In the last few years, Hernandez has been unleashing the neon-bright, vulgar side of his work more often (see, for instance, last year's zombie splatterfest Fatima: The Blood Spinners). This spring, though, saw one of his sweetest and gentlest books, Marble Season. Billed as "semiautobiographical" — the particulars of Hernandez's stand-in, "Huey," don't quite match his own — it's a nearly plotless but vivid evocation of being a kid in the mid-1960s, trying to figure out how to play, how to pretend, how to deal with other kids. It takes a few stylistic cues from another comic occupied solely by children, Peanuts: identically sized panels, a particular range of distance from its characters, evoking the "outdoors" where most of the story happens with little scratches of clouds at the tops of panels.