Gilbert Hernandez talks to the Daily Telegraph about Marble Season

Gilbert Hernandez on Marble Season, his latest graphic novel

The Telegraph    |    Tim Martin    |    June 3, 2013

Gilbert Hernandez’s graphic novel Marble Season, a winsome and quietly comic story of three Mexican-American brothers growing up in the United States in the Sixties, may well be the most surprising thing its creator has done to date. Not because it’s good – although this gently observed portrait of an adult-free world, drawn in an expressive style that pays homage to the Archie comics and the Peanuts strip, certainly is – but because it’s about the last thing you would have seen coming from this cartoonist.

To lovers of alternative comics, Hernandez is something of a saint, the co-creator with his brother Jaime of the intermittent Love and Rockets magazine that, since 1981, has mixed Jaime’s stories of Latino life in contemporary California with Gilbert’s cross-generational tales of the sleepy central American town of Palomar. Astute, adult and fearsomely observant, Love and Rockets is routinely cited as one of the most intelligent and influential of contemporary comics. In recent years, however, Gilbert has cultivated a more Tarantinoesque mould, creating schlocky, grindhouse-influenced genre comics stuffed with stalkers, gangsters and bloody murders that all “star” a recurring character, the promiscuous Z-list actress Fritz. From there to the soft-focus charms of Jet Age America is quite a leap, I suggest to him over a Skype line to his home in Las Vegas. What happened?

“Yeah,” he says. “Dr Jekyll wants to talk now. Mr Hyde, you go take a rest.” He laughs. “I’d been doing too many zombies and too much horror and crime,” he continues, “and I wanted to back off and do something pleasant. But I thought, can I do a pleasant story? And the only pleasant story I have is good memories from childhood. I wanted to connect to readers in a more genial way.”

Family was another inspiration. “I thought: what kind of book can I do that’s authentic to what I do, but that my daughter can read?” Hernandez’s daughter is 12, a little young for the zombie splatter of his Fatima: The Blood Spinners or the sexually omnivorous pornography of Birdland. “I thought I’d put myself into Marble Season,” Hernandez says, “but it wasn’t going to have all those things that my daughter can’t look at, or I don’t want her to look at. I wanted to live up to a lot of the good response I’ve had in the past, but put that effort into something that’s, let’s say, clean. For want of a better word.”

The focus of Marble Season is Huey, the enthusiastic, observant, comics-obsessed middle child of three who acts as a proxy for Hernandez’s own memories. It’s not quite autobiography, he says, “but 75 per cent of the book is things that happened, not necessarily to me”. Much of the story’s charm comes from how astutely Hernandez catches the life-or-death importance of totally insignificant events in a child’s life, but there are moments of surprising, almost surreal profundity as well. One sequence, he explains, even represents “my first realisation of what death was. I was four or five years old and I saw a little dead bird; I guess the beak had broken off, and it looked like a miniature baby to me. I remember freaking out, and my older brother came and calmed me down. ‘I’m sorry he’s dead,’ he said. And I said, ‘What’s that? What are you talking about? That doesn't happen to babies!’ I remember obsessing about it.”

Although Marble Season seems a radical departure, Hernandez sees balance and change as essential to his creative process. “My personality is all in my comics, and my personality is all over the place,” he explains. “I’m not a trained technical artist. It’s all visceral and it just comes up – it’s where my brain is that morning when I get up.” It is this desire to experiment – he has complained in the past about being expected to be “a do-gooder cartoonist” – that led to his other ongoing project, the noirish, over-the-top Fritz books.

“In those, I’m thinking about how far the underground cartoonists had gone,” he says, “in particular S Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb. Wilson was criticised as a crazy person in his day, but now he’s one of the grand old artists of the underground. I haven’t even gone as far as Crumb, and yet he’s an American icon. I want to push myself, in a way, so my imagination goes crazy with inventive horror.”

Nor is Marble Season his only publication in what’s shaping up to be a busy year. “After this I’m going to have a collection called Children of Palomar,” he says, “which is going to put me back in the ‘Gilbert Hernandez is doing what he’s supposed to be doing’ thing. But what I’m working on now is the next Fritz book, where I get to push myself over the top with gangsters and all that stuff.” He laughs with relish. “I’m going to ruin my reputation as being a serious cartoonist again.”

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