In Marble Season, Gilbert Hernandez creates a world that is as detailed as it is vague. The setting is suburban America, in a neighborhood similar to the one the famed cartoonist knew as a child in Oxnard. The exact year is intentionally unspecified, but it's sometime during the 1960s.
"I fudged a lot of the details," says Hernandez by phone, in advance of his appearance at Skylight Books on Wednesday, April 24. "I'm putting it right in the middle of the '60s in a way. The Beatles are introduced, that would have been 1964. The comics that they're looking at would have been earlier."
Hernandez calls the micro-universe in his latest book "a dreamworld of the '60s." References float in and out of the consciousness of the children who play with actions figures and argue about television shows. "I wanted to be specific with certain comic books and TV shows and music of the day, but also didn't want to be restricted," he says.
At the center of Marble Season is Huey, a young boy embarking on the simple, but still wondrous, adventures of childhood. He dodges bullies and gets into shenanigans with his brothers and neighborhood pals. The book is fiction, but there are pieces that closely resemble Hernandez's own life. "Some of the things happened to me as a kid, literally. A lot of the stuff happened to other kids, my brothers," he explains. "I used one character to express those stories."
Peppering the anecdotal scenes are comics books. That the Silver Age of the comic book industry -- the era that saw the birth of characters like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man -- played such a huge part in the characters' lives shouldn't be a surprise. Hernandez and his brothers, Jaime and Mario, are renowned for their own work on the now-legendary comic Love & Rockets. Marble Season isn't just a story about childhood and nostalgia, it's a glimpse into the creative development of one of the most intriguing storytellers to emerge from the independent comics world of the 1980s.
It was Hernandez's mother who sparked his interest in comics. "My mother liked comic books when she was a kid," he explains. Hernandez's older brother, Mario, bought a lot of the comics that were eventually passed along to him. He read everything from westerns to children's stories, from horror to superhero works. He was interested in characters like Spider-Man, Charlie Brown and Dennis the Menace. "We pretty much looked at all of them, except for romance comics," he recalls. "I simply think it was because we were all boys. There were no girls in the house until my little sister later on."
Comics, and pop culture in general, shape the way the kids in Marble Season play and the stories they swap on the sidewalks. There are neighborhood legends and entertainment myths that make their way into the innocent conversations. One exchange involves the mysteries and rumors surrounding the death of Adventures of Superman star George Reeves. "That was definitely something that was discussed with kids all the time," says Hernandez, who watched the show in reruns in the early 1960s. "I was profoundly depressed by it. I liked the show so much."
He adds, "In the kids' world, you develop your own conclusions. However true or not, you tend to believe them."
Meanwhile the bullies lurk behind fences as an ever-present danger. "Kids don't really challenge those types of things," says Hernandez. "You just tolerated it, lived through it."
The story unfolds in a way that evokes distant memories. Time becomes a fuzzy mish-mash of details. Environments are expansive. Hernandez chose to avoid zooming in on buildings in his panels. That's a reflection of the cartoonist's recollections of his old neighborhood. " When I was a kid, it was huge, sprawling. Now that I look at it, it is tiny."
The process of making Marble Season was, Hernandez says, "a learning experience."
"My work is a lot more dense," Hernandez explains of his previous projects. This time around, he wanted to try something a little different.
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"I just wanted to spread out and tell the story panel by panel, step by step in the simplest way possible, like a Peanuts comic."
The stylistic changes worked. Marble Season is an endearing tale filled with childhood wonder and humor.
Gilbert Hernandez will be giving a slideshow presentation on some of his favorite comic books at Skylight Books on April 24 at 7:30 p.m. The talk, called "From Funny Books to Graphic Novels," will feature a Q/A session and a book signing.