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What is it about childhood that makes us forget about ours so easily? Whether consciously or not, we seem all too eager to not only put our younger years behind us, but obliterate them from our memories. Even as parents we frequently grow exasperated and angry with our own children, seemingly incapable of remembering what it was like to be little.
While many cartoonists are cited for their “childlike” abilities, precious few are able to accurately convey what it actually feels like to be a child – what makes up the significant joys and anxieties of your average 12- or 6- or 3-year-old and how they best express those complicated emotions.
There are a few, however. Lynda Barry is one, Kazuo Umezu is another. Add to that short list Gilbert Hernandez, as evidenced by his latest book, the excellent Marble Season.
It’s the episodic story of Huey, a the middle child of a moderately sized family living in California in the mid-1960s. His adventures, such as they are, consist of avoiding scary things, like neighborhood bullies or the crazy lady in the spooky house down the road; discovering cool stuff, like Mars Attacks cards; and inventing and playing games with the kids in the neighborhood. Taking a page from Peanuts, we never see Huey’s parents or any of his teachers (indeed we never see him in a classroom). The entire book is staged and presented from the viewpoint of Huey, his brothers and their friends.
References to Sea Quest, The Beatles and early Marvel comics abound, but this isn’t some baby-boomer nostalgia fest. While the time might be specific, the feelings are universal. There are so many instances in Marble Season that evoke my own memories. The club that the neighborhood kids form based on a popular movie. The playground fights that never quite seem to result in an actual victor. The way playing alone with your
dolls action figures could turn into one of your best days ever simply because you end up being surprised by your creativity.
Huey is surrounded by familiar types, the overly friendly, overly loud kid who probably doesn’t have a great home life. The seemingly super-smooth teen-age boy who’s afraid of girls. The awkward tomboy who isn’t used to being “girly” (i.e. wearing a dress to impress a boy). And yet, true to Hernandez’s considerable abilities as a storyteller, they never come across as simple stereotypes but sharply drawn, complex characters. As for Huey, he’s one of the most likable reader-identification figures (and there’s a winning phrase) I’ve read in comics in a long while, to the point where when he does something really awful three-fourths of the way through, I was surprised how upset I was at his betrayal.
This isn’t the first time Hernandez has done all-ages material. As the essay by Corey Creekmur in the back of the book notes, he has the recently collected Advenutres of Venus on his resume (originally serialized in Measles, an all-ages anthology he edited) and Yeah! a fun sci-fi riff on Josie and the Pussycats that he drew (with Peter Bagge scripting). Even so, this feels like a marked departure to some degree, although perhaps that’s simply because of the high quota of sex and violence his recent work (Speak of the Devil, Fatima: The Blood Spinners) has contained.
In Marble Season, Hernandez appears to be suggesting it’s the games we play in childhood that allow us to interact, empathize and learn from others and help ground us on the road to adulthood. Not an original notion to be sure but a compelling one to be sure, and all the more so when expressed in Hernandez’s capable hands. In the beginning of the book, the very notion of having to walk to church on his own causes Huey to panic. At the end, he heads over there to say a prayer without a care in the world.