Gilbert Hernandez is one of our most prolific cartoonists, but more than that, Hernandez is one of our most diversely prolific cartoonists. He's created graphic novels that are about all kinds of subject matters, from bizarre sexual acts, to surreal magical realism, to the children's story presented in Marble Season.
Marble Season is an all-ages graphic novel that readers of any age can relate to. In fact, with its references to Mars Attacks trading cards, the Birdman cartoon and a terrible mid-1960s Captain Marvel comic, it would be easy to make an argument that this book is as much seeped in nostalgia as it is in childhood adventure.
This book chronicles one summer in the lives of a group of kids in a small neighborhood. Like Hernandez's beloved Little Archie comics, the children in this book actually do act like children. They're reactive and silly, always changing, always impulsive and open minded, with those sorts of complex emotions and childlike insights that can only come from living a life without complication.
The book often appears plotless – characters come and go and stories meander and wander, wrapping around each other in ways that truly reflect the ways that we all lived our lives when we were young. Fights happen and are forgotten just as quickly, brothers teach brothers how to do important thing such as reading comics. A tomboy loves her baseball but is just as happy in a dress. Kids put on masks and play around in the neighborhood, uninhibited and happy in the way that only youthful people can.
Hernandez creates a world where the parents are abstract ideas. Like in Peanuts comics, the parents are continually present but out of sight. They're disembodied forces that do things such as throwing way trading cards, make dinner and move families to another town. Meanwhile, Hernandez – not surprisingly – does an adroit job of juggling his massive cast in this book. Each character is distinct and specific from each other character. It's a sign of his artfulness that we feel we know these characters – heck, we might have been these kids at one point in our lives – just from a few simple gestures and their word balloons.
Hernandez deliberately chooses a stripped-down and simpler style for this book. He uses a strict six-panel grid for his storytelling, which gives the book a metronomic feel that makes it easy to consume. He also takes a more straightforward approach to drawing his characters, using a consistently thin line without shading. Characters are drawn in straightforward black and white, in much the way that Bob Bolling approached his work on Little Archie. In fact, there's a real resemblance to Little Archie in the way that Hernandez draws quite a few of the characters here. They're cute and sweet looking, with clear and resonant faces that are drawn with a surprising simplicity and beauty.
Marble Season is suffused in nostalgia for the 1960s, and readers may find it jarring that there are no screens in this book – no computers, no cell phone, no internet. Instead, we see boys and girls playing outside, creating their own fun together rather than depending on others to create their world. When these children dress up in masks to play, they create their own heroes and villains rather than copy existing characters. The subtext that Hernandez is presenting is that kids simply had more imagination in those days when they had limited choices, and in many ways it made that era more open and childlike than our era.
In that way, this book seems an elegy for lost childhood – not just Gilbert Hernandez's childhood, but also the childhood of his 13-year-old daughter, who inevitably is growing up in a world without the mystery and strangeness of her father's era. In our time of pervasive internet and cell phones, powerful pop culture and media penetration, it’s impossible to have a youth as open and unencumbered by time as the world that he presents in Marble Season. Will nostalgic looks at the 2010s have the timeless charm that this nostalgic look at the 1960s has?