LA Times Hero Complex features Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez on standalone tales ‘Julio’s Day,’ ‘Marble Season’

L.A. Times    |    Noel Murray    |    April 24, 2013

Over his 30-plus years as a comic book writer and artist, Gilbert Hernandez has churned out hundreds of stories in his sprawling “Palomar” saga, mostly originating in the groundbreaking alt-comics periodical "Love and Rockets." (Fantagraphics/Gilbert Hernandez)

Over his 30-plus years as a comic book writer and artist, Gilbert Hernandez has been phenomenally prolific, churning out hundreds of stories in his sprawling “Palomar” saga, mostly originating in the groundbreaking alt-comics periodical “Love and Rockets.”

Hernandez’s bibliography is so thick that it’s actually hard to tell newcomers where to start. This year, though, he’s making it easier for neophytes.

Hernandez has two new graphic novels on the shelves now: “Julio’s Day,” from Fantagraphics, which begins in 1900 and ends in 2000, telling the story of one man’s life in 100 pages; and “Marble Season,” from Drawn & Quarterly, which follows a young boy named Huey through a typical 1960s Southern California childhood of comic books, TV and getting into trouble with his friends.

Hernandez will appear at Skylight Books in Los Feliz on Wednesday to present a slide show, “From Funnybooks to Graphic Novels,” featuring the comics of his childhood, in addition to a Q&A and signing.

Both “Julio’s Day” and “Marble Season” are standalone stories, unrelated to Hernandez’s densely packed “Palomar” universe. And both are brisk and easy to read — while no less sophisticated than the “Love and Rockets” comics that Hernandez and his brothers Jaime and Mario have been putting out since 1981.

“ ‘Julio’s Day’ is very simple,” Hernandez said. “I mean, there’s a lot of heavy stuff going on, but I wanted it to read like a very simple, direct story. Even more so ‘Marble Season.’ You could open up any page of ‘Marble Season,’ any place in the book, and hopefully start getting the story right away.”

Over the last several years, Hernandez’s comics have tended toward stories with very little extraneous detail, but “Julio’s Day” is perhaps the strongest example of that approach: By condensing a century in the life of one Southwestern farmer into 100 pages, Hernandez hits only the high points, leaving just enough context to allow the reader to fill in the details of Julio’s family history, romantic feelings and aspirations.

“What I’m really trying to do is streamline my work, to make it an easier read,” he said. “I’ve always admired newspaper comic strips that are very simple and direct, don’t have a lot of dialogue, don’t have a lot of exposition. When I look back at a lot of the comics that are overwritten, like the beloved old Marvel comics, I edit them in my head, to see how modern readers might become more interested in following them. When I look at my old stuff, like ‘Poison River’ and the early ‘Palomar’ stuff, I sometimes think it’s too dense to enjoy. For me, anyway.”

It’s not just the storytelling that Hernandez has been striving to make more accessible, however. While “Julio’s Day” is decidedly adult, “Marble Season” is an all-ages book that Hernandez says he worked hard to keep clean.

“I kept all the extra-rude stuff out of it that kids experience, just because I didn’t want it to be about that,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of books for a general audience, and every time I’ve done one, they’ve not gotten a very good response. They’ve sort of been dismissed. I wanted one that would really grab the audience, whether it be adults or kids.”

Hernandez accomplishes this by holding close to the relatable side of being a child, whatever the era: the idle hours of play, the sense that everything’s more important than grown-ups understand and the gradual awareness that adulthood looms. It just so happens that Hernandez’s version of the story takes in his own childhood.

For decades, he’s been exploring the epic, intertwined lives of the ordinary people and outsized adventurers who’ve intersected in his fictional Central American village of Palomar. In “Marble Season,” he’s sticking much closer to home, drawing California kids obsessed with Captain America and “Mars Attacks” trading cards.

“Most of this stuff is in my head all the time,” Hernandez said. “I just needed to purge it. I kept promising myself over the years that I would do something with this material, but it just didn’t seem to fit with the ‘Palomar’ series or my other comics, because it was very specific to the times.”

Hernandez says he never really considered making “Marble Season” an actual memoir because he finds the fictionalized version of reality “more truthful.”

“I’m going to disguise a lot of stuff even if it’s autobiography, just because there are real people involved who didn’t know they were going to be in a story. That’s why I created the fictional character Huey, for ‘Marble Season.’ He’s only part of me. A lot of things that he experiences happened to my brothers, or our friends. Or is stuff I just made up.”

One part of the story that’s not made up — “I hate to say it,” Hernandez laughs — is a scene of Huey learning how to steal “Mars Attacks” cards from a vending machine. But karma caught up with Hernandez, when his own mother unwittingly threw out his near-complete collection, short only two cards.

“I like to rub it my mom’s face,” he jokes. “Do you know how much those cards are worth? My mom’s case was odd, because she collected comics when she was a kid, and had to hide them from her mom. So she should’ve known better.”

“Julio’s Day” and “Marble Season” aren’t the only books fans can expect to see from Hernandez this year. As has been traditional, a new volume of “Love and Rockets” should be debuting at Comic-Con International in July, and then out in stores in the fall, if the brothers can finish it in time. (“Jaime’s a little behind,” Hernandez teases.)

A collection of non-”L&R” “Palomar” stories, “The Children of Palomar,” will be out from Fantagraphics this summer. And in November, Fantagraphics will release “Maria M,” a pulpy gangster yarn that’s the latest addition to what Hernandez calls his “Fritz books,” telling surreal, twisted stories involving one of the “Palomar” series’ fringe characters.

Unlike “Julio’s Day” and “Marble Season,” “Maria M” will appeal more to longtime fans — specifically those who’ve read the graphic novel “Poison River,” of which “Maria M “is “an exploitation version,” according to Hernandez.

“That’s where my imagination goes,” he said. “I’m pretty much a Jekyll and Hyde artist. I don’t want to trash what I’ve done before, but I do like to look at things from a different angle. ‘Maria M’ is back to my super-over-the-top violence and sex. All the goodwill I’m getting for ‘Julio’s Day’ and ‘Marble Season’ is going to be destroyed. ”

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